Friday, October 4, 2013

John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke 1372-1389: the fragility of life in the Middle Ages

by Anne O'Brien

John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, born in October 1372, crossed my path when I was investigating Elizabeth of Lancaster, youngest daughter of John, Duke of Lancaster, known to history as John of Gaunt.

What a brief and tragic life it was for this young man, in spite of such promising beginnings. John inherited the title Earl of Pembroke at the tender age of 3 years on the death of his father, another John Hastings and a reputable soldier, who died in France in 1375 on his way back from imprisonment after the Battle of La Rochelle in 1372.

The Lancaster association with the Hastings family was a close one. The 2nd Earl had fought under Gaunt's leadership at the siege of Montpon in 1371 and on the birth of his baby son Gaunt had recognised John's birth with a valuable gift of an enamelled silver cup and matching ewer.

This relationship was to become even closer. The care of the young fatherless earl was given to his mother, Anne, and his grandmother the Countess of Norfolk, but the future marriage of the child was given into the hand of Gaunt. What an opportunity here to marry the infant John into the House of Lancaster and so cement an alliance with the important Pembroke inheritance. We don't know when Gaunt began to plan this move but he must have seen it as a chance not to be missed.

The result was that a marriage was promoted by Gaunt between Elizabeth of Lancaster, Gaunt's younger daughter - the elder one, Philippa, was destined for a more pre-eminent Castilian marriage - and the young Earl. This marriage was celebrated at Kenilworth in 1380. It would seem to be a most satisfactory match all round, both families doubtless seeing the value of it.

This is the Great Hall, built by Gaunt for feasting and dancing, as it is at Kenilworth today, showing the extent of the great room.  Certainly John and Elizabeth would have known it in its heyday.

But the marriage was beset with problems. John Hastings was a mere 8 years old and Elizabeth was 17 and, history suggests, a lively girl driven by intense passions. Gaunt gave his daughter a ring with a ruby inset and the couple £100 p.a. for the maintenance of their household, although the ill-matched couple lived apart during John's childhood while he was educated as a knight in the ducal household.

Although it was by no means unusual for such a disparity of age between bride and groom, it is on record that the marriage was not to Elizabeth's liking. For so lively a girl, this was perhaps understandable. John's opinion is not on record. The marriage was, of course, not consummated during these early years.

And then the marriage was annulled in 1386 when John was 13 years old. And why? Because Elizabeth was successfully wooed by John Holland, half brother to King Richard II. When it was discovered that she was carrying Holland's child, Gaunt was forced to take immediate action to save face all round. The marriage between Elizabeth and John was rapidly annulled and Elizabeth married her lover. We know so little about the young John - certainly not his thoughts on this scandal and his lost bride - but, since his mother too was dead by now, he was returned to the custody of his grandmother, the Countess of Norfolk.

All was not lost for the young man. The Pembroke inheritance was far too important for John Hastings to be allowed to remain unwed. It seemed that marital happiness would still be possible for him, for he acquired another important bride in Philippa Mortimer, daughter of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March and Ulster, and Philippa Plantagenet, only child of Lionel, the second son of Edward III. What a prestigious marriage that would have been in its day - and how important the possible offspring of this marriage because of the Plantagenet descent through Philippa. Such children would certainly have been drawn into the future conflict in the Wars of the Roses. But this is one of those 'what if ...' situations.

Tragically, horribly, at the age of 17, John Hastings died in a jousting accident at Richard's Court at Woodstock at Christmas 1389. Running a course against his opponent, John was hit in the groin by the lance of Sir John Des. Recovery after such a terrible injury was impossible, and John died shortly afterwards.

There was no issue from the marriage. The Pembroke lands were divided between John's co-heirs. What an unfortunate life for this young man, of whom we know so little, and that only courtesy of his marriage with Elizabeth of Lancaster. We know nothing of his thoughts, his likes and dislikes, his reactions to the demands of inheritance and a suitable marriage.  Did he find a brief happiness with Philippa Mortimer?   I like to think so.

What a transient shadow of a life, like so many other lost voices from history.

I am delighted to be able to announce that my novel The Forbidden Queen, the story of Katherine de Valois, will be published in the USA on 14th February, 2014.


  1. Poor kid! It would be nice to think the second, brief marriage was happy, but happy or not, aristocratic marriages were about combining land and money. If they were happy, that was a bonus. What a way to go! Not even in battle, but in the equivalent of a car race.

  2. So tragic and so sad. Thanks for bringing us this bit of history.

  3. Yay! Anne, I'll buy your book as soon as it is available in the USA.

  4. Beautifully considered, Anne. Thank you for keeping the focus on the emotional risks and costs of those early marriages. Your forthcoming about Katherine de Valois will be a treat!


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