Catherine of Lancaster

Catherine of Lancaster. also known as Catherine of Spain, was the only child of John of Gaunt and his second wife Constance of Castile to survive infancy. Through her mother she held a claim to the crown of Castile, a throne which her father had unsuccessfully attempted to claim as his own by right of his wife’s claim. As the eldest grandchild of Pedro the Cruel, Catherine’s claim was strong, but one that would require military victory or diplomacy to attain the crown.

Catherine of Lancaster and the Castilian Throne

Catherine’s maternal grandfather Pedro the Cruel had been killed in 1369 by his half brother during the Castilian Civil War. His daughter Constance inherited his claim to the throne but the reality was that Pedro’s half-brother had seized the crown. Constance’s claim led to her becoming the second wife of John of Gaunt. Constance had the hereditary claim, John had the wealth and army to take up the cause and attempt to wrestle back the crown. John’s efforts failed, leaving his wife and their daughter with a nominal claim, an ongoing dispute between different branches of the Castilian royal house, and the risk of ongoing conflict.

John of Gaunt’s Castile Campaigns

John of Gaunt led an army to Castile to try and seize the crown. His men suffered in the Spanish heat and many succumbed to illness. It hindered his attempts and the campaigning bore no decisive results. By 1388 it was clear that continuing a war in Castile would be expensive, take time, and have little guarantee of success. Instead, John of Gaunt and Constance agreed to diplomatic overtures being made by King Juan I of Castile.

Coat of arms of Catherine of Lancaster, Queen consort of Castile, daughter of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, by his second wife, Constance of Castile. She was Queen of Castile as the wife of King Henry III of Castile.
Coat of arms of Catherine of Lancaster, Queen consort of Castile. Daughter of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, by his second wife, Constance of Castile. She was Queen of Castile as the wife of King Henry III of Castile.

Treaty of Bayonne

In 1388 Constance of Castile acted to bring the Castilian conflict to an agreeable end. In the Treaty of Bayonne Constance renounced her own claim to the throne but at the same time agreed a marriage contract for her only surviving daughter, Catherine of Lancaster, to the heir to Juan I, the sitting King of Castile. Through a marriage between Catherine and Enrique (Henry) the two sides of the family would be reunited, the conflict would come to an end, and the dynastic ambitions of John of Gaunt would be settled in favour of his daughter rather than himself and Constance.

Catherine of Lancaster’s marriage to Enrique of Castile

On 17th September 1388 Catherine of Lancaster, a 15 year old girl, married her cousin Enrique (Henry) of Castile, who was aged 9 at the time, in a marriage ceremony held in Palencia. At the wedding the young prince and Catherine were given the title Prince and Princess of  Asturias, titles that have been allocated to the heir designate of Castile and then Spain ever since.

Queen Consort

Just two years later King Juan I of Castile died. It meant that Catherine of Lancaster became Queen Consort of Castile aged 17 with her young husband the King aged just eleven. Due his youth a Regency was established to rule in Enrique’s name. Catherine of Lancaster then watched different factions at court argue and fight for control. It was a turbulent time in the Castilian court and one which was to have a lasting impact on Catherine’s views about management of court affairs. One of the consequences of the infighting within the court was a series of pogroms that targeted the Jewry of Andalusia. The Regency came to an unusually early end as Enrique was declared of age in 1393. Still only 14, Enrique was acting as king in his own right.

Catherine of Lancaster: Patronage and Diplomacy

For Catherine this meant that she could now fulfil duties that were typical of the period for Queen Consorts. She acted as a patron of religious and charitable institutions, mediated on matters, went on progresses around Castile to strengthen links between nobles and the crown, an important role given the bickering that had cast a shadow over the Regency period. Though none of these roles have an official governmental title and are fluid in nature, they have a great deal of diplomatic significance. the Castilian Civil War had led to the imprisonment of members of the extended royal family by the opposing branches. The release of some of these prisoners had still not been settled upon Enrique’s assumption of personal rule: it was to be Catherine of Lancaster who negotiated these releases.

Catherine, Enrique, and the Western Schism

Religion was to be a matter of great importance to Catherine, Enrique, and the State. The Royal Couple married at a time when the church was divided. And the two royal houses that were being united in marriage supported the rival Popes. Catherine’s allegiance was to the church in Rome, Enrique and the Castilian State’s was to Pope Clement VII in Avignon. This posed problems but correspondence between Catherine, Enrique, John of Gaunt, and the rival popes went some way toward easing tensions between the rival pontiffs.

Producing an heir

The aspect of Royal duty that raised contemporary concern was the lack of an heir. Once a royal marriage was consummated there was a general expectation that heirs would soon follow. Catherine and Enrique did not have a child until 1401. It saw Catherine criticised in some contemporary documents, the King avoiding any such critique despite being quite sickly at times. That first child, Maria, was then followed by a second daughter, Catalina (Catherine) in 1403 and a third child, a boy and heir, Juan in March 1405.

Death of Enrique III of Castile

On Christmas Day 1406 King Enrique III died. His heir, Juan, became king. Juan was just 21 months old. It meant that a Regency would be needed and it would be one that would need to be in place for more than a decade. This meant that Juan’s rule and the position of his sisters and the Dowager Queen Catherine were at risk. Whilst Catherine of Lancaster had done much good in terms of settling disputes within the extended Royal family, an infant on the throne required total unity in court and it also increased the risk of external forces attempting to capitalise on the situation.

Regency of Castile shared by Catherine of Lancaster and Ferdinand of Aragon

Enrique III had made provisions for the eventuality of his early demise. An arrangement had been made that would see Catherine and Ferdinand of Aragon act as co-regents. Ferdinand was the infant king’s uncle, and had prior to the birth of Maria been heir to the throne of Castile. The joint rule was fraught with problems. Catherine was accused of taking too much advice from her ladies-in-waiting, many of whom were then removed from the court by the Regency Council. At the same time, Ferdinand used his co-regency to enable a Christian campaign against the Moors. Politically the court of Castile became divided, and the expense of war became a burden. The different aims and policies of Catherine and Ferdinand led to the Regency council dividing the country into two. Catherine was to act as Regent of the north, Ferdinand of the south.

Catherine of Lancaster becomes sole Regent of Castile

In 1412 Ferdinand acceded to the Aragonese throne. Many in Castile believed that at this point he would, or should, resign his regency of Castile. He didn’t. From 1412 until his death in 1416 Ferdinand retained the co-regency whilst also ruling over Aragon. Upon his death, Catherine of Lancaster became the sole regent of Castile.

Successes as a Regent

Despite the differences of opinion that Catherine and Ferdinand had over policy, the Dowager Queen was able to make a positive contribution to Castilian government. The marriage unions that had been negotiated by her father proved to be of value. Not only was Catherine able to improve Anglo-Castilian relations through regular correspondence with her half brother, King Henry IV, but as he half sister, Philippa, was Queen Consort of Portugal she was able to improve relations across much of the Iberian peninsula.

Catherine of Lancaster’s Death

Her assumption of the role of being sole regent did not result in Catherine having a more significant impact on Castile. The disputes over the custody of her son, King John, had not been forgotten and many nobles who had been reined in by Ferdinand no longer felt obliged to cooperate fully. Ill following a stroke, Catherine of Lancaster gave custody of her son to the regency council. A second stroke in June of 1418 proved to be fatal.

Legacy of Catherine of Lancaster

King John II went on to take Isabella of Portugal, granddaughter of Catherine of Lancaster’s half-sister, as his second wife. It was a marriage that produced Isabella of Castile, Queen in her own right. She and her husband were the parents of Catherine of Aragon, named after Catherine of Lancaster, who became the first wife of King Henry VIII of England.

Further Reading about Catherine of Lancaster

English Monarchs – Catherine of Lancaster, Queen of Castile – Catherine of Lancaster 1372 – 1418

Unofficial Royalty – Catherine of Lancaster, Queen of Castile

Monstrous Regiment of Women – Catherine of Lancaster, Queen and Regent of Castile and Leon


Image Credits

Featured Image: Depiction of Catherine in the 15th century “Geneaology of the Kings of Spain”. Wikimedia Commons.

Coat of arms of Catherine of Lancaster, Queen consort of Castile, daughter of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, by his second wife, Constance of Castile. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dan Moorhouse

Dan Moorhouse graduated in History and Politics and has since undertaken postgraduate studies in Medieval History and Education. Dan is a member of the Royal Historical Society and has previously been a member of the Historical Association’s Secondary Education Committee. Dan’s early publishing was in the Secondary School History Education field. This included co-authoring the Becta Award shortlisted Dynamic Learning: Medicine Through Time series for Hodder Murray and contributing to the Bafta Award winning Smallpox Through Time documentary series by A former teacher, Dan now concentrates on research and writing, predominantly in Medieval English history. Books by Dan Moorhouse On this day in the Wars of the Roses On this day in the Hundred Years War

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