Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Fate of John Holland, First Duke of Exeter

by Anne O'Brien

It is easy for history to condemn an act of betrayal as that of a self-serving traitor, and to consider the due punishment well deserved, however brutal it might be. It is equally a simply matter to laud the loyalty of a true supporter. I would suggest that sometimes it is not quite so simplistic. Within family disputes, when the family was royal, the pressures were sometimes just too strong. It became a fine line to tread between friend and traitor.

Such was the case for John Holland, Duke of Exeter.  This matter became of interest to me because of my new novel The King's Sister, about Elizabeth of Lancaster.

Holland was a man with a reputation.  Possessing admirable military skills, he was a notable figure at the tournament and was considered a good leader of men.  On the other hand he had a violent temper with more than one death attached to his name.  At the same time he had a lethal charm.  His name was connected with that of Isabelle, Duchess of York, in an illicit relationship before his marriage to Elizabeth.  But Elizabeth touched his heart.  He wooed her constantly, day and night, the chroniclers say, until she succumbed.  Altogether a complex character, glamorous but also dangerous.

Here, from Froissart, is Holland riding with his brother, magnificent in a patterned blue houppelande and pleated hood.

Holland's situation was a difficult one because of family connection. Half brother to King Richard II through their mother Joan of Kent, he became brother in law to Henry Bolingbroke through his marriage to Henry's sister Elizabeth of Lancaster.  When Henry usurped the throne and consigned Richard to Pontefract Castle where he later died, to which of the two would John Holland give his loyalty?  Half brother or brother-in-law?  Usurped king de jure or king de facto?  When England was torn apart by the Epiphany Rising in 1399, family loyalties were clouded.  It was without doubt a family at war.  Furthermore the clouds had been building for some time.

It must have been difficult enough to preserve family goodwill and unity in the years building up to King Richard's removal, when Richard banished  Henry Bolingbroke from England for six years on a dubious charge of treason.  And then on the death of John of Gaunt, Richard extended the banishment for life at the same time as he snatched the Lancaster inheritance for himself.   When Henry returned from banishment, collected an army of sympathetic nobility to challenge Richard, matters obviously went from bad to worse.  The result was that Henry seized the crown from Richard, imprisoning him in Pontefract Castle.

Here Froissart shows Richard surrendering to Henry Bolingbroke.

Where would John Holland stand in all of this?  In past years Holland had been in receipt of grants from John of Gaunt for his military support in the ill-fated expedition to St Malo.  He was also part of Gaunt's expedition to Castile, so there were strong connections between Holland and the House of Lancaster.  But since then Holland had been ennobled by Richard to become Earl of Huntingdon and then Duke of Exeter.  In the troubled months of the uprising, Holland rode between the two parties to act as mediator with Henry on Richard's behalf.  With no success and Richard imprisoned, would Holland continue to wear Richard's white hart and oppose Henry, at the cost of being in opposition to the new King of England or would he revert to support Elizabeth's brother?

Holland negotiating with Henry on Richard's behalf, but to no avail.

It appeared at first that all could be smoothed over, at least on the surface.  With Richard overpowered, Holland gave his allegiance to Henry, taking his part in the celebrations at the coronation of the new king in October 1399.  But what would he have thought about the ultimate fate of Richard?  Holland must have known how impossible it would be for Henry to allow Richard to live.  A living anointed king usurped of his power was a dangerous entity.  Once again, Richard or Henry?  Would blood prove to be thicker than water?  As punishment for his past support of Richard, Henry had stripped Holland of his Dukedom, presumably a bitter blow.

The Crowning of Henry Bolingbroke as King Henry IV in October 1399.

In December of 1399 the Epiphany Rising (the Rising of the Earls) was plotted.  On the seventeenth of the month a group of men, nobles who had likewise been demoted for their past allegiance, met secretly  in the chamber of the abbot's lodging at Westminster Abbey, probably the Jerusalem Chamber.  The plan was to assassinate the new King Henry,  the Archbishop of Canterbury and all four of Henry's sons on the feast of the Epiphany - 6th January - when Henry planned a great celebratory tournament at Windsor.  Richard would be released from Pontefract and restored to the throne.  Richard Maudeleyn, a young squire with some superficial resemblance, would be dressed in armour and would impersonate royal Richard and win over the armed support of the people of London until Richard himself could be restored to their midst.

Which way would John Holland jump here?  Henry or Richard?

Disastrously, Holland joined the plotters in the Rising of the Earls.  He was one of the group of discontented nobles who met at Westminster to plan Henry's assassination.

Henry was warned of the plot in time, and left Windsor for London, taking a circuitous route to evade the plotters, and the capital rose in his support.  The end was very much a foregone conclusion.  Some of the plotters fled to Cirencester where the Earls of Kent and Salisbury were taken  prisoner and executed.  Holland waited in London, hoping for support, but eventually, when the writing was on the wall, he fled by ship.  Winds and storms drove his vessel ashore in Essex where he was taken prisoner and kept under the authority of the Duchess of Hereford, King Henry's mother-in-law, in Pleshey Castle where she summoned the local populace.  They demanded Holland's death and thus he was executed, his head being sent to London where it was displayed on London Bridge.  Holland's lands, titles and inheritance were confiscated by Henry, although his head was ultimately united with his body and buried in the collegiate church in Pleshey.

All that remains of the Castle at Pleshey.  Nor is there any remaining evidence of Holland's tomb (sadly a consequence of the Reformation).

Thus the death of John Holland.  A vicious outcome in a vicious period of history when treason was an easy crime to commit for those who were closely involved with both sides.  Without doubt a family pulled apart by ambition and power.

And Elizabeth, newly widowed?  What was her role in all of this?

For those who would wish to know Elizabeth's part in these catastrophic family events ...  Read The King's Sister.


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  1. Loved the book and I now have a new insight into that period of history which I was hazy about before.

  2. Loving the book. Treason is such a damning word without going into the circumstances fully. John Holland in a terrible position and to be commended in part for his loyalty. So much sadness for his family and an interesting love story


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