Monday, October 5, 2015

The Ill-Fated House of Lancaster

by Anne O'Brien

The House of Lancaster has become of interest to me since writing about Elizabeth of Lancaster in The King's Sister and then more recently about the marriage of King Henry IV and Joanna of Navarre in my new novel The Queen's Choice to be published in January 2016. 

What a short-lived dynasty the House of Lancaster turned out to be in spite of the promising beginnings.

In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, son and heir of John of Gaunt and grandson of Edward III,  usurped the Crown of England from his cousin Richard II and was himself crowned King Henry IV after acclamation by the Lords and clerics.  Thus the first King of the House of Lancaster took the throne of England.  With four healthy sons and two daughters, all grown to adulthood, all married, Henry might have expected that England was set fair for a time of regal stability with a healthy and increasing number of Lancaster children and grandchildren to occupy the throne.  Even though Henry's wife, Mary de Bohun, was dead by 1399, and Henry had no more children with his second wife Joanna of Navarre, probably due to his own ill-health, Henry had no need of more heirs.

In 1399, with a new and potent king, who would have believed that the House of Lancaster would have been so short lived, that by 1471 it should have come to an end with no more possible claimants?  Although its demise was indisputably influenced by death in battle, disease and mental frailty - all prevalent in many medieval families at this time-  it was also due to the Lancaster inability to reproduce themselves, or at least legitimately. 

Without legitimate descendents, the House of Lancaster was doomed.

Henry's four sons laid down the pattern for lack of heirs.

Henry, Prince of Wales, later Henry V:  his marriage to Katherine de Valois, of short duration, produced only one son who would become Henry VI.  Henry V died at Vincennes in France, probably from a severe form of dysentery in 1422 at the age of 35.

Thomas, Duke of Clarence: married to Margaret Holland but killed in 1421 at the Battle of Bauge in France at the age of 34 without legitimate issue.  He had one illegitimate son, Sir John Clarence, who was granted lands in Ireland and is buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

John, Duke of Bedford: married twice, first with Anne of Burgundy and then with Jacquetta of Luxemberg.  There were no children from either marriage.  In addition, out of wedlock he had a daughter named Mary, who married Pierre de Montferrand with whom she had a son, Richard.  John died in 1435 at the age of 46.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester: also married twice, first to Jacqueline of Hainault, a marriage that was annulled, and then to Eleanor Cobham.  There were no children from either marriage.  Humphrey had two illegitimate children:  Arthur of Gloucester who died in 1447 and Antigone of Gloucester who married Henry Grey, Earl of Tankerville, Lord of Powys.  Humphrey was the longest lived of the four sons of Henry IV.  He died in 1447 at the age of 57.

So of the four sons of Henry IV, there was only one legitimate descendent to carry on the royal claim to the throne. 

Henry IV's two daughters fared no better:

Blanche married Louis, the Elector Palatine.  She died in childbirth in 1409 at the age of 17 after the birth of a son Rupert.  This young man died in 1429 at the age of 19 years, unmarried and without issue.  Blanche's dowry included the oldest surviving royal crown known to have been in England.  It probably belonged originally to Anne of Bohemia, Queen of Richard II.

Philippa married Eric, King of Denmark, Sweden and Norway.  She gave birth to a stillborn boy in 1429, and herself died in 1430.  Philippa was the first documented princess in history to wear a white wedding dress during a royal wedding ceremony: she wore a tunic with a cloak in white silk bordered with grey squirrel and ermine.

Henry IV had an illegitimate son Edmund Lebourde who was born in 1401.  He was educated in London.  It is thought that he entered the church since in 1412 a Papal dispensation was granted to allow this, but Edmund thereafter disappeared from history as so many illegitimate children did.

The legitimate line of Lancaster after Henry V fared no better with Henry VI.  Mentally unstable, he married Margaret of Anjou with whom he had only one child, a son Edward of Lancaster.  Edward, married to Anne Neville, had no children and died in 1471 at the Battle of Tewkesbury.  Henry VI died, murdered, in the same year. 

Thus ended of the House of Lancaster.  What a sad tale of inability to produce legitimate heirs to the crown.  Battle and disease took its toll, far more than with most medieval families, yet we might have expected a much higher degree of fertility, being descended from Edward III who, with Philippa of Hainault, had thirteen children. Henry IV's family had promised so much but lasted less than a century.


My novel of Joanna of Navarre, The Queen's Choice, will be published in hardback in the UK on 15th January 2016.  To keep up to date with all events and promotions, visit my website.


  1. i enjoyed this easy to digest summary of the Lancasters.They sound like a prelude to the Tudors, who for all the color and intrique also produced by two legitimate sons who live long enough to inherit--Henry VIII and Edward VI, unless you trace the female descendants of Henry VII to the Stuarts via Marie Stuart, Queenof Scots.

  2. Really enjoyed this succinct synopsis of the family of my favorite King, Henry IV. Looking forward to reading your new book!


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