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Welsh History Review


Vol. 17, nos. 1-4 1994-95

John of Gaunt. The exercise of princely power in fourteenth-century Europe. Book review.

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in his other work-a strong topographical sense. It is not every historian who would
consider the relevance of the countryside around the Conwy estuary to the
circumstances of Richard's downfall.
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College,
EUROPE. By Anthony Goodman. Longman, 1992. Pp. xiii, 421. £ 39.99 hardback;
£ 14.99 paperback.
As Anthony Goodman notes at the beginning of his biography, John of Gaunt has
not been held in high esteem by historians, whether playwrights or professionals. 'The
man is not a hero', pronounced the last modern biographer, who tempered the
judgement somewhat by declaring that the age was not heroic, so that we could not
expect anyone 'great and good'. Goodman sets out on the different, and much more
direct, tack of placing Gaunt in his times without prejudging the character of the age.
If Gaunt as a personality can be seen only dimly, as a public figure in an age of intense
international politics he stands forth quite clearly.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Goodman chronicles Gaunt's career
from his early upbringing through his military and diplomatic exploits, to the
tumultuous politics of Richard II's reign which caused such agony for the political
nation. The second part is a series of essays examining Gaunt's career from the
perspectives of his role in European diplomacy, politics, and warfare; the Church; the
English aristocracy; and finance, government, and administration. This arrangement
is particularly satisfying for an appraisal of one whose career was so multi-faceted and
whose interests were so broadly based. Goodman's Gaunt is still an imposing figure,
yet one more in tune with the realities and norms of the time than has been the case in
the past.
In assessing Gaunt's long life, Goodman concentrates on two themes. The first is
Gaunt's familial dedication. Referring to himself as the 'son of the king of England',
Gaunt clearly revered his relationship to his illustrious father and siblings. Indeed, to
a degree unprecedented since the Conquest, Edward's immediate family acted in
concert to attain the patriarch's goals and enhance the prestige of the English Crown.
At the same time, of course, they were well rewarded for their devotion, none more so
than Gaunt, who built up a massive estate with the help of his father's dynastic
manipulations. Gaunt became the prototype of the 'over-mighty' subject, whose
power, wealth, and connections potentially overawed the monarchy.
Goodman in his second theme shows how mistaken this label has been for Gaunt. It
is true that he had the material underpinnings of the over-mighty subject but not the
vices. In Goodman's account, Gaunt was a supreme royalist, placing himself at the
disposal of the king and acting to preserve rather than undermine royal authority.
Thus, Goodman speculates that many may have been surprised when Gaunt revealed
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