THE LAST KNIGHT by John F. Cantor

2 01 2013

Last Knight coverJohn of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, has been one of my favourite historical characters ever since I read (too many years ago!) Anya Seton’s 
Katherine, which tells the story of John and the mistress who in the end became his third wife and ancestor of the Tudors among others. It (Katherine) also paints an unforgettable picture of the second half of the fourteenth century from the Black Death to the deposition of Richard II, the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (who was married to Katherine’s sister), the wars in France (the Black Prince, who was John’s bother, and the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers) and the Peasants’ Revolt (during which John’s great house in London was burnt to the ground and Katherine narrowly escaped with her life); and I have noticed that most people who read it are, like me, hooked on that period for ever after.

It was a world [writes Norman F. Cantor] in which the Middle Ages were passing away and the Renaissance struggled to be born […] a world in transition, and Gaunt was its central figure.
The Last Knight can be thought of as the non-fiction version of Katherine, the background which was not easily available then. For example, John, who was he?
John of Gaunt was the second surviving son of King Edward III [but] he inherited the Lancaster title and fabulous properties not from his father but from his father-in-law, the first Duke of Lancaster, who died in 1663.

Dukes then, any Duke, were important people, as important as kings in their own lands, and Cantor explains all this in the best outline of the development of Dukes, Counts, Kings in France and England that I have ever read. It begins:The origins of the aristocracy of which John of Gaunt was a prime exemplar go back to the period between AD 800 and 1000 […] when the short-lived empire of Charlemagne, the Carolingian empire […] was disintegrating …

And John’s family, who were they? A masterly and often very funny outline of John’s ancestors which includes lines like “John of Gaunt was a direct descendant of a heathen Scandinavian chieftain named Rollo …” “Among Rollo’s successors, who were converted to Christianity and civilized by the Church, the most politically skillful was William the Bastard (later the Conqueror) ...” “King John was all business and showed himself to be an unusually skillful administrator, especially in financial matters. Unfortunately he was also paranoid and manic-depressive.” “Edward II was a bisexual, married to a fierce French princess. He spent his time losing Scotland, cultivating his male French lovers, and getting overthrown in a palace coup organized by the Queen and her aristocratic lover …” And so to Edward III, John of Gaunt’s father, who was, we are told, “a good-humored man ever trying to give his many sons and daughters a helping hand. He arranged John of Gaunt’s marriage with the Duchess of Lancaster.”
There is something about this book which is reminiscent of Barbara Tuchman’s
A Distant Mirror, a history of the same period but based on the life of  Enguerrand de Coucy VII, “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France” who lived from 1340 to 1397. He married the eldest daughter of Edward III of England, thus becoming John’s brother-in-law, and was Duke of Bedford for several years until he and the princess separated and he renounced his allegiance to the English Crown. The Last Knight is, however, nowhere near so ambitious, and, unless you have a lot of time on your hands, a far easier read. This may be partly because of Cantor’s style which is often so laconic we seem to be reading the preliminary notes not the finished work.
He is extremely good, though, on many aspects of John’s life, for instance Wyclif (whom John supported) and the Church, and on The Cloud of Unknowing and the Carmelites, whom John espoused when he stopped supporting Wyclif (and thereby delayed the Reformation, which could easily have happened then, for nearly 200 years).
I like too his comments on Scotland (“a nation of cattle rustlers and horse thieves“), on Cathedral Canons (“They lived a cloistered, segregated and selfish life, much like Ivy League professors today“) and medieval sex (“It is necessary to stress Gaunt’s free sexual behavior not only to round out our picture of the man, but to countervail recent views of the later Middle Ages as a dark time of sexual repression […] The moral regimen priests were urged to impose upon the laity was no more significant in Gaunt’s time than today“).
Entertaining and educational. Anyone interested in the Middle Ages (and that must include you) will enjoy reading it and then want to keep it handy as a reference book.





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