The House descended from Edward III's 3rd surviving son, John of Gaunt. Gaunt did not receive a large inheritance, so he made his fortune through marriage to the heiress Blanche of Lancaster, who brought with her the considerable lands of the Earls of Leicester and Lancaster, making him the wealthiest landowner in England after the King. Created "Duke of Lancaster" by his nephew Richard II, Gaunt enjoyed great political influence during his lifetime. Upon his death in 1399, however, his lands were confiscated.
Gaunt's exiled son and heir Henry of Bolingbroke returned home the same year with an army to reclaim the Lancaster estates, but ended riding a tide of popular opposition to Richard II that saw him take control of the Kingdom. Richard II was deposed and died in captivity, and Bolingbroke was declared King Henry IV of England. In doing so he bypassed the descendants of Edward III's second surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, who eventually became the rival House of York.
Henry IV was succeeded by his son Henry V, and eventually by his grandson Henry VI. Henry VI was an unpopular monarch who suffered from periods of mental illness. In 1461, he was usurped and imprisoned by his cousin Edward of York, who proclaimed himself Edward IV of England.
Henry VI was able to fight back and re-established his rule in 1470, but 1 year later was forced from the throne once again by Edward IV. He died in captivity in 1471, 14 days after his son and heir, Edward of Westminster, died at the Battle of Tewkesbury, leaving no legitimate heir of John of Gaunt.
Both houses used a Rose emblem, a Red Rose for Lancaster and White Rose for York, so the conflict between the two houses was dubbed the "Wars of the Roses" by later historians.
Amongst the most ardent supporters of the House of Lancaster were the Beaufort family, descended from John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford. When Gaunt and Swynford married in 1396 (some 25 years after the birth of their first child), the church rewarded them by legitimising their offspring through a papal bull. This was enshrined in an act of parliament the following year, but opinions were divided on whether the Beauforts could have any claim on the English throne.
With the House of Lancaster extinct, the relatively unknown Henry Tudor proclaimed himself the Lancastrian heir from his exile in Brittany, claiming descent through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort, to John of Gaunt. In 1485, Tudor was able to use the unpopularity of the final Yorkist Richard III to take the crown as Henry VII of England. This was not to be a revival of the House of Lancaster, though, as Henry married the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth of York and founded a dynasty of dual Lancastrian and Yorkist descent, the House of Tudor.
The Lancaster inheritance, known as the Duchy of Lancaster, has remained in Engish and then British Royal ownership, with monarchs bearing the title Duke of Lancaster. In 2007, the Duchy was valued at £397 million pounds, and the profits are the primary source of the Monarch's income.
The rivalry between Lancaster and York, in the form of the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, has continued into the present day, on a friendlier basis. For example, the annual sporting competition between Lancaster University and the University of York is called the Roses Tournament.
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