The Duchesses of Lancaster: An Examination of English Noblewomen's Exercise of Power and Influence During the Fourteenth Century

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Date of Award

Spring 2015


The new trend among historians has been to explore how women of the lower and middling classes exercised different types of power and agency daily. Until recently noblewomen of the Middle Ages have been overlooked in this discussion of female agency because historians tend to exclude the privileged class. This project will rectify the situation by analyzing the exercise of power and influence in the nobility by comparing the wives of John of Gaunt. Additionally, the project will examine these women against the context of the hierarchal-organized nobility in late-medieval England. Instead of subsuming all nobility into an undifferentiated category of elite, this analysis will consider what effect membership in the aristocracy, in royalty, and in the gentry respectively, had on the use of power and influence by medieval women. This thesis argued, these three women specifically, Lady Blanche of Lancaster, Infanta Constance of Castile, and Lady Katherine Swynford, acted not only as representatives of their social status, but also possessed individuality, a sphere of influence, and autonomy unique to the Middle Ages. Therefore, by examining these women and the levels in the nobility of England to which they belonged through the lens of their power and influence this project will provide a better understanding of women of the English nobility and illustrate how the changes occurring throughout the late Middle Ages affected them as individuals, as women, and contributed to their effect on history. In examining this gender-specific study certain conclusions will arise. Primary, women of the nobility did exert certain types of influence at the least and power at the most. Secondly, these women can stand as representations of these classes because of their unique position of marriage with Gaunt and, more importantly, because noblewomen were expected to weld an amount of power and influence at times, regardless of legal status. However, for the vast majority of time, since the fourteenth century, scholars have overlooked Blanche, Constance, and Katherine and noblewomen in general. To formulate this project, a range of evidence is taken from primary literature, other relevant primary sources, historical monographs, and published articles.


Judy A. Ford

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History