Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess by Alison Weir


  There was just possibly a second daughter of the marriage, and improbably a third. An Agnes Chaucer, who may have been a daughter or granddaughter of Geoffrey and Philippa, and was perhaps named for Chaucer's mother, is listed as one of the damoiselles of the Queen at the coronation of Henry IV in 1399; however, Henry IV was a widower at the time of his coronation, and his second wife, Joan of Navarre, was not crowned until February 1403, so there is something amiss here. And it was not until the seventeenth century that it was asserted that Chaucer had a daughter called Katherine - there is no contemporary record of her, so it is unlikely that she existed.

  Living with a genius cannot always have been easy for Philippa. Geoffrey owned sixty books — an amazing number for a man in his position — and he spent much of his leisure time reading them or foraging about in the many libraries in London. It has been suggested that he drew on his own experience when he depicted the frustrated Wife of Bath ripping up and burning her husband's books so that he would have more time for sexual dalliance. Yet although Geoffrey claimed to be primarily a bookish man, he was also a career civil servant, and perhaps came to have less and less time to spare for his wife. He could be devastatingly cynical, and a passage in The Boke of the Duchesse suggests he was also a compulsive worrier who would lie awake at night fretting. Thus the married life of Geoffrey and Philippa may not have been particularly harmonious. Late in life, after Philippa had died, Chaucer composed a humorous poem, 'L'Envoy a Bukton' (c.1396), for a bachelor friend of his, warning him of'the sorrow and woe that is in marriage'. It was, he claimed, a deadly peril for all men, and he expressed the wish that his warning would prevent Bukton from rushing madly into the dire captivity of wedlock:

  God grant you your life freely to lead

  In freedom — for full hard it is to be bond.

  From his tone, we might conclude that he had many regrets about his own marriage upon which he did not like to dwell. He ends by saying he is resolved not to fall into 'the trap of wedding' again.

  We might infer from this, and other circumstances yet to be revealed, that his marriage had not been happy, a theory that may be supported by internal evidence from Chaucer's own verse. He is not known to have dedicated a single poem to Philippa, and most of his allusions to married life are cynical, ironical and disrespectful, hardly what one would expect from a man who enjoyed a loving relationship with his wife. Furthermore, Chaucer tells us in The Boke of the Duchesse, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls and Troilus and Criseyde (to name a few) that he has no experience of love apart from what he has learned from books — 'I know not love in deed' — and his image of himself is that of an unprepossessing failure as a lover, one who is devout and chaste because he has been banished from love's courts. This self-deprecating portrayal may not be entirely truthful — how many men would wish to portray themselves as hopeless in bed? - and it could be merely the product of Chaucer's ironic humour, while his literary take on marriage might just reflect prevailing trends in popular humour. For in 'The Man of Law's Tale', he reveals that, despite his protestations elsewhere, he knows just how spiritually transcendental love between a man and a woman can be:

  And such a bliss is there betwixt them two

  That, save the joy that lasteth evermore,

  There is none like that any creature

  Hath seen or shall, while that the world may endure.

  These read like the words of a man who has experienced such joy, yet although they refer to marital love, it is unlikely that Geoffrey and Philippa themselves enjoyed that kind of relationship, especially since Chaucer makes it clear he thought marriage a burden to be borne. No, his experience of love was of another kind entirely. In The Boke of the Duchesse, written probably in 1368, he reveals that he has been possessed with a great passion for an unnamed lady for no fewer than eight years. If this is true — and one theory will be discussed in the next chapter — then this passion must have pre-dated his marriage, and may well have contributed to its failure.

  All we know of Philippa herself is that, according to her countryman Froissart, she had a fine sense of protocol, which she must have learned in the course of her upbringing in the Queen's household, and which would have served her well at court. Given the differences in their status, she may have looked down on her husband and inwardly despised his humbler birth; after all, he was just the son of a vintner, while she was the daughter of a knight, and in her veins there probably ran the blood of ancient royalty. Her sister Katherine had married a knight, and Philippa perhaps felt she had not done as well. The fact that she married beneath her is another argument in favour of her being the younger sister.

  Philippa Chaucer may have been discontented with her marital lot to begin with, or she might gradually have become disillusioned.The demands of their official duties dictated that she and Geoffrey were frequently apart, and both possibly came to welcome this. Philippa was perhaps shrewish and sharp-tongued, for in The House of Fame, Chaucer has himself worshipping at the shrine of St Leonard, patron saint of hen-pecked husbands. And he speaks of a dream in which he is seized by an eagle's talons and awoken by the eagle's insistent cry, 'Awake!', which it speaks

  Right in the same voice and pitch

  That useth one I could name;

  And with that voice, sooth for to say,

  My mind came to me again,

  For it was goodly said to me,

  So has it never wont to be.

  We might infer that the voice that awoke the poet was that of his wife. For once, though, she has spoken kindly to him, unlike her usual tone. In 'The Franklin's Tale', Chaucer may have been thinking of the deterioration of his marriage, and perhaps of a continual battle for conjugal supremacy, when he expresses the opinion that

  Love is a thing as any spirit free. Women, of kind, desire liberty, And not to be constrained as a thrall; And so do men, if I sooth say shall. Look who that is most patient in love, He is at his advantage all above.

  Of course, Chaucer, like many writers, may not have based his works on his own life and experiences, but on his observations of others, the books he had read or his own imagination. In assessing the nature of his marriage, we are entirely in the realms of speculation and educated guesses, and can conclude nothing concrete.

  Marriage to Philippa de Roët must inevitably have brought Chaucer into contact with his sister-in-law, Katherine Swynford, and also, no doubt, with the Lancastrian household. He was, of course, already known to the Duke and Duchess, and we might infer from The Boke of the Duchesse that he was on friendly if formal speaking terms with both of them. There is also some evidence to suggest that for much of his life, Chaucer enjoyed John of Gaunt's patronage. Although there is no evidence to show that he was ever employed by the Duke, he later received a pension from him, in addition to the one he received from the Crown, and he may well have owed some, if not most, of the preferments that came his way to John's influence. His connection by marriage to Katherine Swynford, as well as his own talents and character, must in time have accounted to some degree for the Duke's favour.

  The marriage of her sister to a valued member of the King's household would inevitably have strengthened Katherine's ties with the court. And she would certainly have benefited personally from a close kinship with Chaucer, whose wisdom, humanity and erudition cannot but have made an impact on her young and impressionable consciousness. Her mind would have been broadened by his verses and tales, her imagination aroused, and her understanding of life challenged by his thoughtful insights.

  In 1366, an event took place in Castile, a kingdom that spread across much of what is now Spain, which was to have far-reaching consequences for

  John of Gaunt, and for Katherine Swynford too. That event was the deposition of King Pedro I, known as 'the Cruel'. His nickname was not undeserved, for he was a hard and sinister man of uncontrollable passions. Since his accession in 1350, he had ruled as an autocratic and bloody tyrant, determined to crush the power of his volatile and anarchic
feudal nobles. He caused much scandal by protecting Jews and keeping a Jewish mistress, and by employing Infidels as his personal guard, predictably making many enemies in the process.

  In 1353, Pedro had married Blanche of Bourbon, sister-in-law of the future French King, Charles V. Immediately after the wedding, though, Pedro repudiated their marriage, immured Blanche in a dungeon, and continued his long-standing liaison with his mistress, Maria de Padilla, whom he now claimed to have secredy married before he went through the ceremony with Blanche; so persuasive was he that the Castilian Cortes did in fact recognise Maria's children as his heirs, but sadly their only son, Alfonso, died aged eleven in 1362, his mother passing away the same year. Blanche had died in suspicious circumstances in 1361, and the evidence strongly suggests that the King had her poisoned. That was certainly what people were saying at the time, and if true, it was an ill-judged deed, for her death alienated the French and prompted the Pope to excommunicate Pedro for the murders of his wife and his many political opponents. These factors drove him to seek the friendship of the English.

  It availed him little to begin with, because in 1366 he was overthrown by his bastard half-brother, Enrique of Trastamara, backed by Charles V of France, who saw in Enrique a future ally against England. The newly crowned Enrique II, a vigorous, able but unscrupulous man, was one of ten children born to Pedro's father, Alfonso XI of Castile, by his powerful mistress, Leonor de Guzman, whom Pedro had executed as soon as his father succumbed to the Black Death in 1350. Thus Enrique had good cause to seek vengeance, and of course he was not the only man who had a score to settle with this 'vile evil-doer', as Walsingham called him.

  Pedro fled to Corunna, whence he sent a desperate appeal to the Black Prince for aid. The Prince responded, determined not so much to uphold Pedro's legitimate claim to his throne and restore him by force, as to crush the alliance between France and Castile, which placed Aquitaine under threat from both north and south, and England at risk of invasion by the powerful Castilian navy. Edward III readily sanctioned such an enterprise, and John of Gaunt offered military support. The two princes — mindful of the prophecy that the leopards of England would one day flutter over the battlefields of Spain — now prepared to make war on- the usurper, raising armies in Aquitaine and England.

  Meanwhile, Pedro and his three daughters by Maria de Padilla —

  Beatrice, thirteen, Constance, twelve, and Isabella, ten — had taken refuge at Bordeaux in Aquitaine, where they were accorded every courtesy by the Black Prince, and accommodated in the Abbey of St Andrew. Pedro showed himself exceedingly grateful, and solemnly promised the Prince, on oath, that once he was restored to his throne, he would reimburse him for the entire costs of the venture; he would leave his daughters at Bordeaux as surety for this.

  In November 1366, Sir Hugh Swynford received letters of protection commanding him to join the Duke of Lancaster in Guienne. In September, John of Gaunt had arrived at Bayonne in Gascony with a thousand archers and men-at-arms, and in November he travelled through Aquitaine to rendezvous with his brother the Black Prince. Soon afterwards, Hugh must have taken ship from England to Gascony and caught up with the Duke's army.

  Both the Duchess Blanche and Katherine Swynford were pregnant when their husbands rode off to war. They would not see their lords again for more than a year. By Christmas 1366, Blanche had established herself at Bolingbroke Castle, four miles west of Spilsby and twenty-six miles east of Lincoln, where the King joined her for the Yuletide festivities. The twelfth-century castle lay in the hilly Lincolnshire wolds, in what is now the village of Old Bolingbroke, and Katherine would almost certainly have visited it at some time as part of the Lancastrian entourage. At seven months pregnant, with her lord overseas and her home not far away, she may well have been in attendance on the Duchess at Bolingbroke on this occasion. The castle had become part of the Lancastrian patrimony in 1311; it was a strong square fortress, with round towers at each corner, a moat fed by springs, a 'very stately' entrance 'over a fair drawbridge', and an imposing Norman church nearby, the south aisle of which had been built by John of Gaunt in 1363. The Duchess and her retinue would have been accommodated in the comfortable timber-framed domestic range of buildings in the courtyard.

  Katherine had moved to Lincoln by the middle of February 1367. It was in a house there that she bore Hugh a son and heir, who arrived on 24 February 1367, the feast of St Matthias the Apostle, and was baptised Thomas after his grandfather and one of his sponsors, Thomas de Sutton, a cathedral canon, who was doubtless a relative of the powerful John de Sutton; the other male sponsor was John de Worksop, also a canon of Lincoln. Hugh's Inquisition Post Mortem of June 1372 states that his son Thomas was then four, so it is often claimed that his birth took place in February 1368, but Hugh probably did not return to England until October 1367, so that is hardly possible. As has been demonstrated, dates of birth recorded in Inquisitions Post Mortem are often inaccurate.

  This is manifest in the Inquisition taken to establish Thomas Swynford's age between 22 June 1394 and 22 June 1395. No fewer than twelve witnesses came forward to declare that he had been born in 1373, fifteen months after his father's death and a year after he had been described as four years old in Sir Hugh's Inquisition Post Mortem. All had apparently been present at young Thomas's baptism, which took place on 25 February 1367, the day after his birth, at the Church of St Margaret in the cathedral close. This is the first record of an association between Katherine Swynford and Lincoln Cathedral and its close, with which she was often to be linked in the future, and the choice of two members of the Cathedral Chapter as sponsors suggests that she was already well known to, and highly regarded by, that body.

  The eleventh-century church of St Margaret no longer survives, having been pulled down around 1780. It stood on a green in the precinct of the Bishop's Palace, between Pottergate and the cathedral, opposite the house in the close in which Katherine would one day reside. The church was surmounted by a squat Norman tower and had an Early English window at its east end.

  The witnesses at the baptism included John Liminour of Lincoln, who may have been a limner (a painter of miniatures in illuminated manuscripts) for he recalled bringing a missal and another book to the church and selling them there to John de Worksop; John Plaint and John Balden, servants to Thomas de Sutton; Roger Fynden, chamberlain to John de Worksop; John Sumnour, Nicholas Bolton and Richard Colville, all of Lincoln, the last of whom had been charged by Katherine's steward to bring home twenty-four bows for distribution to members of her household, doubtless for archery practice, skilful strategic use of the longbow being one of England's great strengths in the war with France; Henry Taverner, who recalled the occasion well because his first son was baptised on the same day; and Gilbert de Beseby, Katherine's chamberlain. The testimony of these people provides interesting details about a mediaeval baptism: we see Thomas Boterwyk, the parish clerk, reverently conveying the holy oil, or chrism, from the altar to the stone font; John Plaint carrying a flame to light the candle; two men holding basins of water and towels so that the godfathers and godmother (her identity remains unknown) could wash their hands after the ceremony; William Hammond, a servant of John de Sereby of Lincoln (who would sell land to Katherine in 1387), falling and breaking one of the two jars of red wine he was carrying into the church, and being beaten for it by his master; and Katherine's chamberlain bearing cloths of silk and cloth of gold in which to wrap the baby after his christening. Such fabrics were extremely costly, and their appearance at this ceremony perhaps suggests that they had been generously provided by the Duchess Blanche; certainly an impecunious knight such as Hugh Swynford could not have afforded them.

  There may be another explanation, though. This information was all provided in 1394-5, about twenty-eight years after Thomas's birth, and the witnesses were to a man inaccurate in one important detail, for it has been demonstrated that Thomas could not have been born in 1373. We should consider, however, that in 1394-5 most of these witness
es were in their fifties, sixties and even seventies - old by mediaeval standards — and some may have been forgetful, or followed the testimony of the rest, or — which may be significant — even confused Thomas's baptism with another that did take place in 1373, in the same church. And that later baptism may have been of John Beaufort, the eldest of Katherine Swynford's children by John of Gaunt, for which rich cloths would undoubtedly have been provided. Certainly, as Cole points out, none of these witnesses intended that their testimony should in any way impugn Thomas Swynford's legitimacy. Their main purpose was to demonstrate that he was now over twenty-one and able to take up his inheritance as his father's heir. There were plenty of Swynford relatives to challenge his tide, should any question of bastardy have arisen, but there is no evidence that any ever did.

  The birth of a Swynford heir must have been a great triumph for Katherine, especially after bearing two or perhaps three daughters; it meant that if the baby survived, Hugh's family name would be carried on and his lands inherited by his son.

  Meanwhile, John of Gaunt had joined the Black Prince and his army at Dax on 13 January, having paused briefly in Bordeaux to pay his affectionate respects to his sister-in-law, the Princess Joan, and to greet her new son, Richard, to whom she had given birth there on 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany.8’ Richard of Bordeaux was the second son of the Prince and Princess, the elder, Edward of Angouleme, having been born on 27 January 1365; Edward, of course, was the next heir to England after his illustrious father.

 
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