Beaufort, Joan (c. 1379–1440)

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Beaufort, Joan (c. 1379–1440)

Countess of Westmoreland who was instrumental in the creation of the Beaufort political faction in 15th-century England. Name variations: Joanna Neville. Pronunciation: BOE-fort. Born illegitimate at Beau-fort Castle, Anjou, France, around 1379; died at Howden, Humberside, England, on November 13, 1440, and buried in Lincoln Cathedral; daughter of John of Gaunt (1340–1399), duke of Lancaster, and Catherine Swynford (c. 1350–1403); half-sister of Henry IV, king of England (r. 1399–1413); grandmother of kings Edward IV and Richard III; married Sir Robert Ferrers, 2nd baron Ferrers of Wemme, in 1392 (died); married Sir Ralph Neville of Raby (created 1st earl of Westmoreland by Richard II, 1397), in 1396 (died 1425); children: (first marriage)Elizabeth Ferrers (1392–1434);Mary Ferrers (d. 1457); (second marriage)Catherine Neville (c. 1397–1483); Richard (1400–1460), earl of Salisbury; William (d. 1463), lord of Fauconberg and earl of Kent; George (d. 1469), lord of Latimer (who marriedElizabeth Beauchamp ); Edward (d. 1476), lord of Abergavenny; Robert (d. 1457), bishop of Durham; Cuthbert; Henry; Thomas;Eleanor Neville (c. 1413–1472), countess of Northumberland;Anne Neville (d. 1480), duchess of Buckingham; Jane also known as Joan Neville (who became a nun); Cecily Neville (1415–1495), duchess of York.

Ferrers, Elizabeth (1392–1434)

Lady Greystoke. Name variations: Lady of Wem or Wemme. Born in 1392 (some sources cite 1394); died in 1434; interred at Black Friars', York; daughter of Robert Ferrers, 2nd baron Ferrers of Wemme, andJoan Beaufort (c. 1379–1440); married John Greystoke, 6th Lord Greystoke, around October 28, 1407; children: Ralph Greystoke, Lord Greystoke.

Ferrers, Mary (d. 1457)

English noblewoman. Name variations: Lady of Oversley. Born before 1394; died on January 25, 1457; daughter of Robert Ferrers, 2nd baron Ferrers of Wemme, andJoan Beaufort (c. 1379–1440); married Ralph Neville (son of the 1st earl of Westmoreland); children: John Neville of Oversley.

Beauchamp, Elizabeth (d. c. 1480)

Died around 1480; daughter of Richard Beauchamp, 5th earl of Warwick, andElizabeth Berkeley (daughter of Thomas, Viscount L'Isle); married George Neville (d. 1469), 1st baron Latimer; children: Henry Neville.

Neville, Eleanor (c. 1413–1472)

Countess of Northumberland. Name variations: Eleanor Neville. Born around 1413; died in 1472; daughter ofJoan Beaufort (1379–1440) and Sir Ralph Neville of Raby; married Richard Despenser, Lord Despenser; married Henry Percy, 2nd earl of Northumberland, in 1414; children: Henry Percy (b. 1421), earl of Northumberland; Thomas Percy (b. 1422), 1st lord Egremont; Katherine Percy (who married Edmund Grey, 1st earl of Kent).

Neville, Anne (d. 1480)

Duchess of Buckingham. Died in 1480; daughter ofJoan Beaufort (1379–1440) and Sir Ralph Neville of Raby, 1st earl of Westmoreland; married Humphrey Stafford (1402–1460), 1st duke of Buckingham, 1st earl of Stafford; married Walter Blount, 1st baron Mountjoy; children: (first marriage) Humphrey Stafford (d. 1455), 7th earl of Stafford; Henry Stafford (d. 1471), who marriedMargaret Beaufort (1443–1509); twins William and George Stafford; Edward Stafford; John Stafford, 9th earl of Wiltshire (r. 1469–1473);Anne Stafford (d. 1472);Joan Stafford (who married Sir William Knyvet);Catherine Stafford (d. 1476).

Joan betrothed to Sir Robert Ferrers (1386); legitimation of the Beaufort children by Papal Bull (1396), and by royal writ and act of parliament (1397); Henry Bolingbroke banished by Richard II (1398); death of John of Gaunt (1399); Lancastrian inheritance forfeited (1399); abdication of Richard II (1399); Henry Bolingbroke crowned Henry IV (1399); legitimacy of Beauforts confirmed again by Henry IV (1407); death of Henry IV (1413); Joan patron of poet Thomas Hoccleve(1421); death of Henry V (1422); Joan awarded custody of Richard, duke of York (1423); death of Ralph Neville, earl of Westmoreland (1425); Ralph, 2nd earl of Westmoreland contested inheritance (1429); Cecily married Richard, duke of York (1429); Joan founded Chantry in the name of her mother, Catherine Swynford, at Lincoln Cathedral (1437).

In February 1396, the cathedral town of Lincoln stood fast against the icy winds of winter. Occasionally, a heavily clad figure moved quickly through the narrow streets. The stones of the great cathedral stood silent and grey, and the water in Lincoln's main well, cold and frozen. This bleak winter scene was relieved when an army of horsesoldiers descended upon the town, colorfully clad in the livery of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster. In his 56th year, the wealthiest and most powerful magnate in England had come to Lincoln to marry his third wife Catherine Swynford .

The daughter of a Hainault knight, Catherine Swynford had long been a familiar figure at the English court. For the last 20 years, she had also been John of Gaunt's mistress, and in 1381 was publicly attacked for their relationship in Parliament. Upon the death of John of Gaunt's first wife Blanche of Lancaster in 1369, Catherine Swynford had become foster mother to his three children. Throughout his second marriage to Constance of Castile , Catherine lived in the duke's household and gave birth to four children, among them the youngest, Joan. The offspring of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford took the surname of Beaufort, from the French estate of John of Gaunt.

The Beaufort children enjoyed equal status with the children of John of Gaunt's first marriage. When, a few days before the marriage of their parents in 1396, John of Gaunt's eldest son Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) was admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral, so were Joan and her brother John. Among those also present were Geoffrey Chaucer and his wife.

Swynford, Catherine (c. 1350–1403)

Duchess of Lancaster. Name variations: Katherine Rouet; Catherine de Ruet or Catherine de Roet; Katherine Swynford. Born around 1350; died on May 10, 1403; interred at Lincoln Cathedral; daughter of Sir Payne Roelt (a knight from Hainault, France, who arrived in England with the train of Edward III's queenPhilippa of Hainault ); married Sir Hugh Swynford of Lincolnshire (d. 1372), around 1367; was mistress, as of 1388, before becoming third wife of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, on January 13, 1396; children: (first marriage) Thomas (c. 1368–1433, a friend and companion of Henry IV and supposed murderer of Richard II); Blanche Swynford (b. around 1370); (second marriage) four, all of whom were born before the marriage but were declared legitimate in 1396 and 1397: John Beaufort (c. 1373–1410), earl of Somerset; Henry (1375–1447); Cardinal Beaufort (b. around 1375); Thomas (c. 1377–1426), earl of Dorset and chancellor of England;Joan Beaufort (c. 1379–1440). Catherine Swynford's children took the name Beaufort from one of her husband's castles in Anjou.

Blanche of Lancaster (1341–1369)

Duchess of Lancaster. Born in 1341; died on September 12, 1369, at Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, England; daughter of Henry of Lancaster (c. 1299–1361), 1st duke of Lancaster, andIsabel Beaumont (d. 1368); married John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (1340–1399), in 1359; children:Philippa of Lancaster (c. 1359–1415, who married John I, king of Portugal); John (1362–1365);Elizabeth of Lancaster (1364–1425, who married John Holland, duke of Exeter); Edward (1365–1368); John (1366, died young); Henry Bolingbroke (1367–1413), later Henry IV, king of England (r. 1399–1413); Isabel (c. 1368, died young).

Constance of Castile (1354–1394)

Spanish noblewoman and duchess of Lancaster. Name variations: Constanza. Born in Castrojeriz, Castile, in 1354; died at Leicester Castle, Leicestershire, England, on March 24, 1394; daughter of Peter the Cruel, king of Castile and Leon (r. 1350–1369), andMarie de Padilla (1335–1365); became second wife of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, on September 21, 1371; children:Catherine of Lancaster (1372–1418, who married Henry III, king of Castile); John (1374–1375).

The marriage of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford immediately transformed the social position of the Beaufort children. A papal bull, dated 1396, legitimized the offspring of the union, and King Richard II and Parliament soon followed suit in 1397. The marriage was not, however, universally popular. As the French chronicler Froissart noted:

Out of love for his children the Duke of Lancaster married their mother Madame Catherine [Swynford], which caused much astonishment in France and England, for she was of humble birth. … When news of this mar riage reached the great ladies of England … and other ladies with royal blood in their veins, they … said "The Duke of Lancaster has quite disgraced himself by marrying his concubine."

By the time of her parents' marriage, Joan Beaufort was already a young widow of 18 and engaged to become the second wife of Sir Ralph Neville of Raby. Though not a great beauty by contemporary standards, Joan Beaufort has often been described as a handsome woman. Few details of her early life survive, save the fact that her parents saw to it that she was well educated. Her intellectual gifts were clearly evident from an early age, and, unlike most women of her class and generation, Joan Beaufort was fully literate. It must also have been during this period that Joan acquired her political acumen, which assisted that of her famous father.

As with most marriages of noblewomen, the marriage of Joan Beaufort had important political overtones. Sir Ralph Neville, although a politically marginal figure, was nevertheless a magnate of considerable wealth. The location of the Neville estates in the north magnified his significance in the eyes of Joan's father, for John of Gaunt saw the match as a means of checking the growing influence of the Percy family in the north. Thus, the marriage of Joan and Ralph secured an alliance with a family of growing importance, who could be relied upon to support Lancastrian interests in the politically sensitive counties of northern England. The factional intricacies of Joan's marriage were not lost on the young bride. Throughout her life, she demonstrated an unfailing instinct for the medieval game of strategic matchmaking.

In 1397, the so-called Merciless Parliament was held in London. The Parliament, which had charged five of Richard II's closest advisors with treason, presented an overt challenge to royal authority. Joan and her husband supported the king against the Lords Appellant, who had been chosen to try the case. Among them were Joan's half-brother, Henry Bolingbroke, the heir of John of Gaunt. When the Lords Appellant upheld the charge of treason, four of Richard II's councillors were executed, while the fifth, Michael de la Pole, Richard II's infamous chancellor, escaped to France. Joan and her husband were rewarded by Richard for their timely support; Sir Ralph Neville was elevated as the first earl of Westmoreland.

Henry Bolingbroke, however, was banished from England. A year later, in 1399, the death of his father John of Gaunt provoked a crisis of national proportions. Upon John's death, Richard II seized the vast Lancastrian domain. The seizure deprived Henry Bolingbroke of his inheritance and proved to be a turning point in Joan's support for Richard II. While Richard II was away on expedition in Ireland, Bolingbroke returned to England to reclaim his inheritance as Henry IV. Most of the English nobility rallied to his side, and what had begun as a bid to restore the Lancastrian patrimony soon snowballed into a movement to depose the unpopular Richard.

The dethronement of Richard II in 1399 would not have occurred had it not been for the support of the Beaufort family. As a result, the grateful Henry IV made significant grants of offices and lands to Joan and her husband. But it was in the last years of Henry IV's reign that the substantial successes of the Beauforts took on the spectacular proportions that made the family such a pivotal factor during the 15th century.

Between 1412 and 1436, Joan engineered the most successful series of child marriages in English history. Her daughters systematically married the heirs of Mowbray (1412), Percy (1414), Stafford (1422), and York (1429). Richard, the eldest of Joan's sons, was betrothed to Alice Montacute , daughter and heir of the duke of Salisbury, while her youngest son William wed Joan, heir to Lord Fauconberg. In 1424, Joan arranged the union of her third son George with Elizabeth Beauchamp , the earl of Warwick's stepdaughter.

Beauchamp, Elizabeth

Baroness Abergavenny. Daughter ofIsabel Despenser (1400–1439) and Richard Beauchamp, earl of Worcester; stepdaughter of Richard Beauchamp, the 5th earl of Warwick; married Edward Neville, 1st baron Abergavenny (r. 1438–1476); children: Richard Neville; George Neville (d. 1492), 4th lord Abergavenny. Edward Neville's second wife wasCatherine Howard (d. after 1478).

By 1429, most of the leading families of England were related to the Beauforts by marriage. These included all the families who had opposed the deposition of Richard II. The marriages engineered by Joan thus served to bind the leading families of the realm to the Lancastrian crown, while simultaneously keeping the connection separate from the royal line of succession. This masterful network of alliances also underlined the Beauforts' position as the most powerful family in England, excluding the royal family.

The leading role of the Beauforts in the life of the nation was naturally reflected in the honors accorded them. In 1423, for instance, Henry VI granted Joan and her husband custody of young Richard of York, heir to the vast Yorkist legacy. After the death of Joan's husband Ralph Neville in 1425, Henry VI again confirmed the "grant to Joan, Countess of Westmoreland, by advice of the council, and on her petition … (that she have) the custody of Richard, Duke of York, as executrix of Ralph, Earl of Westmoreland, her late husband." Joan and Richard of York were thereafter familiar figures at the court of Henry IV, where they lived for several years. In another act of the Privy council, provision for their support by the crown was made.

In widowhood, Joan Beaufort proved herself to be as astute as in marriage. Not only did she collect the royal allowance allocated for the support of York, she also took a further 300 marks a year from Richard's estates in Dorset and Suffolk. But the marriage of her daughter Cecily Neville to Richard of York in 1429 was perhaps her greatest accomplishment. For it united the royal families of York and Lancaster through marital bonds with the Beauforts. The match was to result in the birth of two kings, Edward IV and Richard III.

With the death of Ralph Neville of Westmoreland, leadership of the Beaufort family passed more overtly into the hands of Joan. But her husband's death also created several problems. Chief among these was a new, potentially dangerous split within the family, resulting from Joan's determination to endow her own children at the expense of the children of her husband's first marriage. When her stepson Ralph, 2nd earl of Westmoreland, came of age in 1429, he quickly asserted his right to challenge Joan and her son Richard, earl of Salisbury, for the bulk of the Westmoreland inheritance. By 1430, the quarrel had developed into a private civil war, and a royal council was forced to intervene. In August, Westmoreland and Joan were both forced to pay a bond of £2,000 each, in order to guarantee the peace. The private feud between Joan and Westmoreland, however, erupted again four years later. Westmoreland again complained bitterly that he had been deprived of his rights, and again the two parties were placed under bond.

In that same year, a will of Joan's husband, dated 1400, came to light in the monastery of Durham. This will pre-dated that of 1404, which had deprived the elder branch of the inheritance. Pressed by Westmoreland to open the will and read it publicly, the prior of Durham sent his attorney to report its discovery to Joan in London. After the prior delivered the will to her, it disappeared without a trace.

While the ins-and-outs of noble politics took up much of Joan's life, she still found time for less robust activities. Her love of letters was evident in later life, and she sponsored several writers. The poet Thomas Hoccleve, for instance, dedicated his collection of poems entitled Complaint to "my lady of Westmoreland" by her "humble servant … T. Hoccleve." As well, Joan endowed several religious houses and founded a chantry in the name of her mother, Catherine Swynford, at Lincoln Cathedral. Such patronage followed a pattern set by Blanche of Lancaster, John of Gaunt's first wife, who had patronized the chronicler Froissart, as well as John himself, who had endowed Corpus Christi College at Cambridge.

Joan Beaufort died on November 13, 1440, and was buried in Lincoln Cathedral. Her death helped to hasten a settlement between Westmoreland and Joan's eldest son, Richard, earl of Salisbury. In 1443, Westmoreland formally acknowledged Salisbury's right to the Westmoreland estates in Yorkshire, Cumberland, Essex, Westmoreland, and York. In return, Salisbury abandoned his claims to all remaining property.

In many ways Joan Beaufort proved an exemplar model of the noble medieval wife. She was adept at estate management and the running of a large household, and she gave birth to 15 children, fulfilling perhaps the greatest contemporary criteria of the successful aristocratic spouse. She also demonstrated an ability to exploit profitable wardships and to defend herself, both on the battlefield and in the councils of state.

In the management of her children on the medieval marriage market, Joan proved herself to be nothing short of brilliant. The marriages of the Beaufort children have no parallel in English history, and it was through Joan that the Beau-fort family found itself at the center of a political and economic web that dominated the history of England during the 15th century. But the matchmaking skills of Joan Beaufort did more than simply aggrandize the Beaufort family. The alliances which she forged, in the wake of the dethronement of Richard II, stabilized the crown and the country, at a time when the external pressure of the Hundred Years' War was having a telling effect on the economic and political life of the realm.


Froissart, Jean. The Chronicles of England, France and Spain. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1961.

Jacob, Ernest Fraser. The Fifteenth Century, 1399–1485. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Johnson, P.A. Duke Richard of York, 1411–1460. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

McFarlane, K.G. England in the Fifteenth Century. London: Hambleton Press, 1981.

Rosenthal, Joel T. Nobles and the Noble Life, 1295–1500. London: George Allen, Unwin, 1976.

suggested reading:

Armitage-Smith, Sydney. John of Gaunt. London: Archibald Constable, 1904.

H. A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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Beaufort, Joan (c. 1379–1440)

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Beaufort, Joan (c. 1379–1440)