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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 the Good Parliament how little influence he had actually had over the courtiers
surrounding the aged Edward III. Given-Wilson has shown in detail that while Gaunt
certainly had links to the court, the courtiers had their own base of power and were not
beholden to Gaunt, who was anyway out of the country for much of the time prior to
the Good Parliament. Gaunt's royalist instincts came out most strikingly in the
aftermath of the parliament, when he took control of the government and ensured a
smooth succession for Richard.
Goodman's reassessment of Gaunt's role in Iberia offers another good example of
Gaunt's motivations. Gaunt became involved in Castile first through his brother the
Black Prince, who wanted his military and financial assistance, and then through his
father who supported Gaunt's marriage to Constance and his assumption of the title
of king of Castile in 1372. Historians have looked at Gaunt's involvement in Castile as
self-aggrandizement, part of the psychology of the over-mighty subject. Goodman
offers a different view, showing how the Iberian adventure can be seen as one element
in the constellation of foreign relations that were essential to the success of English
policy toward France. Because of his subordination of Iberian to Anglo-French
interests, Goodman suggests, Gaunt failed in the long run to secure the Castilian crown
for himself.
Gaunt's simultaneous loyalty to, and dependence on, the Crown were severely tested
in Richard 11's reign. It is that period of his life that raises the most questions about his
character: why did he not restrain Richard, why did he not protest his brother's
murder, and why was he so ineffectual at the time of Bolingbroke's exile? There is a
sense of tragedy in the way that Goodman recounts Gaunt's final years. After having
devoted himself so much to the Crown and received so much in return, Gaunt saw his
influence ebb as his nephew took affairs into his own hands and preferred to base his
power on alliances forged with gentry landholders rather than with magnates such as
Gaunt who had for so long formed the backbone of monarchical authority. Gaunt was
in an especially delicate position precisely because, early in Richard's reign, the king
had provided him and his family with great rewards in return for his loyalty. Yet
service and constancy meant little to Richard, who came to mistrust the magnates and
the power they wielded, cutting Gaunt adrift from the political moorings which had
been such an essential feature of his career.
Because Gaunt's public life spanned so many different functions, Goodman's
biography ends up being as much a history of the era as a biography of the individual.
The only area not fully covered is Gaunt's retinue, because of the appearance, as
Goodman explains, of Walker's excellent monograph on the subject. That topic aside,
the book is extremely thorough, though its density makes it difficult to read. In the
end, if Goodman's Gaunt is not as melodramatic a figure as that painted in the past,
it is fascinating none the less and far more congruent with the time.
University of California,
Los Angeles.
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