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

  In February, in bitter cold and heavy snow, the two armies made the hazardous crossing of the Pyrenees into Castile, where on 3 April 1367, they won a spectacular victory over Enrique of Trastamara at the Battle of Najera, near Burgos, during which John of Gaunt, in command of the vanguard, acquitted himself very courageously; according to Chandos Herald, 'the noble Duke of Lancaster, full of virtue, fought so nobly that everyone marvelled at beholding his great powers and at how, in his high daring, he exposed his person to danger'. Earlier, he had earned stout praise for his alacrity in repelling a surprise attack by the French in the Pyrenees. After Najera, when sixteen thousand men lay dead in the field, the Black Prince wrote to his wife: 'Be assured, dearest companion, that we, our brother of Lancaster, and all the great men of our army are, thank God, in good form.'

  Doubtless the Duchess Blanche also would have been relieved to receive this news. On the very same day as the victory, she bore John of Gaunt a healthy son at Bolingbroke, who was named Henry in honour of her illustrious father. The choice of name suggests that his elder brother John was still alive. It is unlikely, given that her own baby was less than two months old, that Katherine Swynford attended the Duchess in her confinement, and she was probably then at Kettlethorpe or still in Lincoln. The house in Lincoln in which she gave birth has not been identified; given that she later occupied two properties in the cathedral close, and that her son was baptised in the church in the close, it was probably in that area, and she was perhaps staying there as the guest of one of the cathedral canons.

  On 2 May, the Black Prince and the Duke of Lancaster entered Burgos, the chief city of Castile, in triumph. Pedro was formally restored to his throne, and the English princes and their troops settled down to wait for payment of the money he had sworn to pay them. They waited in vain, for Pedro repeatedly refused to keep his promise, much to the Black Prince's fury; all that was handed over in reimbursement was a large, uncut ruby.87 The delay was ultimately to prove disastrous, for in the burning heat of that summer, there was a fearful outbreak of amoebic dysentery in the English encampment, with the Prince himself being fatefully struck down, and four fifths of his men perishing. By the autumn he was no better, and also suffering from dropsy, while his surviving soldiers were thoroughly demoralised. To add to his troubles, Enrique was busily laying waste to Gascony, so the Prince and John of Gaunt had no choice but to return there. John arrived back in England at the beginning of October, and with him, we may presume, was Hugh Swynford. Both men must have been pleased to be reunited with their wives and delighted to make the acquaintance of the sons that had been born in their absence.

  Around 1367-8, Philippa Chaucer also bore a son, another Thomas, whose paternity has been the subject of much debate. In the late sixteenth century, Thomas Speght reported that 'some hold opinion (but I know not upon what grounds) that Thomas Chaucer was not the son of Geoffrey Chaucer, but rather some kinsman of his whom he brought up’. This is unfortunately too vague to constitute convincing evidence of Philippa's infidelity, but in recent years, it has been suggested that she, as well as her sister Katherine, was John of Gaunt's mistress, and that he was the father not only of Thomas Chaucer, but also of Elizabeth Chaucer.

  The grounds for this are threefold. First, only the arms of Philippa de Roët feature in the twenty shields that adorn Thomas Chaucer's tomb at Ewelme in Oxfordshire; those of Geoffrey Chaucer are nowhere to be seen, and the Roët arms are quartered with those of Thomas Chaucer's wife, Maud Burghersh.

  Second, in 1381, John of Gaunt paid a very handsome dowry to the prestigious Barking Abbey to cover the expenses of admitting Elizabeth Chaucer. As with Blanche Swynford, some writers have concluded that the Duke was making generous provision for the future of his bastard child.9' Barking Abbey was a most exclusive house; its abbess was foremost among all the abbesses in the realm, and enjoyed the status of a baron — but for her sex, she could have sat in the House of Lords. Places in the novitiate at Barking were therefore much sought after for the daughters of noble families, but admittance usually depended on large sums changing hands and a royal recommendation. For the daughter of a mere civil servant, who could hardly have afforded the required dowry, to be accepted was a rare achievement, hence the interest it has attracted among historians.

  Third, there is the matter of John of Gaunt's generous gifts to Philippa Chaucer. On three recorded occasions, each at New Year - when gifts were customarily exchanged — in 1380, 1381 and 1382, he presented her with beautiful silver cups.

  Advocates of the theory that John of Gaunt was the father of Philippa Chaucer's children would have us believe that he took first one of the Roët sisters, Philippa, as his mistress, presumably around the period 1364-7 or thereabouts, and later the other, Katherine. If so, Philippa would have been very young at the time the liaison began, probably no more than twelve or thirteen, hardly old enough to be of much interest to the twenty-four-year-old Duke. It has also been suggested that she was married off to a complacent Geoffrey Chaucer to give her a veneer of respectability and that Chaucer was willing to play the father to the Duke's bastards; this would explain why his marriage to Philippa was not overtly happy. It would also mean that John was persistently unfaithful to Blanche over a period of perhaps four years, which is at variance with what we know of their marriage, for not a breath of scandal touched it at the time, and there is no evidence of any infidelity on his part. Nor did he ever acknowledge any of Philippa's children as his own, although he did recognise Katherine's bastards and Marie de St Hilaire's daughter. And he was not in the habit of marrying off his mistresses so that he could conceal his paternity of their children.

  Most pertinently, any sexual relationship with Philippa Chaucer would have placed John even more firmly within the forbidden degrees of affinity to Katherine Swynford, rendering his relationship with her scandalously incestuous, in an age in which incest was a criminal act for which some offenders were burned at the stake. If such a relationship had existed, it is astonishing that no disapproving chronicler made political capital out of it, or even mentioned it, for there were those who were continually to castigate the Duke for his immorality, and who would have pounced gleefully on any scandal involving him. Furthermore, the only canonical impediment that John asked the Pope to dispense with in 1396 was the compaternity created by his being godfather to Katherine's child. Again, it is unlikely that he would have imperilled his immortal soul, and Katherine's, by courting automatic excommunication. He also risked nullifying the dispensation he was seeking by not declaring to the Pope such a serious impediment as incest; John, a man of the world, would have known that divine law prohibited him from marrying his mistress's sister. No dispensation had ever been granted in a case like this, so there was no question that such a marriage would have been incestuous and invalid. Hence we must conclude that John was not the father of Philippa Chaucer's children, that he had never had sexual intercourse with her, and that Thomas Chaucer and his sister Elizabeth were Geoffrey's children.

  Interestingly, of those twenty shields on Thomas Chaucer's tomb, the only male ones are those of the Beauforts, the sons of John of Gaunt by Katherine Swynford. The other seventeen are those of female relatives from some of the greatest families in the land. We can conclude, therefore, that Thomas Chaucer, and no doubt his daughter Alice (the wife of William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk), who was responsible for the building of his tomb, preferred to stress their royal and noble connections rather than the mercantile ones, and since Thomas's mother had been the sister of the Duchess of Lancaster, it was natural that he should place the Duchess's arms on the tomb, and omit those of his father, who, for all his literary reputation, had no claim to nobility.

  The dowering of Elizabeth Chaucer should be seen as an act of generosity on the part of John of Gaunt to his mistress's niece, who was also the daughter of two people who had given excellent service to his family. Such liberality was a mark of the Duke's character. Clearly he thought highly of Philippa Chaucer, who ha
d served his mother so devotedly and would later render the same good service to his wife, and his philanthropic gesture to Philippa's daughter should therefore be viewed with no more suspicion than the Countess Margaret's dowering of Elizabeth de Roët.

  With regard to John's gifts to Philippa, these were probably innocent tokens of. appreciation of the good service rendered to his mother and his duchess by a lady who was not only the wife of a man he liked and admired, but also the sister of his beloved mistress, whose other relatives also enjoyed his favour. Katherine seems to have been fond of her sister - Philippa was to live in her house in later years - and John's favour to Philippa may have been prompted by her. Other ladies of his wife's household, and members of his own, received similar gifts from the Duke, so there is nothing particularly special or significant about his gifts to Philippa. And while John of Gaunt was extremely generous to his acknowledged bastards, he was far less munificent to Thomas Chaucer, which would have been strange had Thomas really been his son.

  Thus there are no credible grounds to substantiate the theory that John of Gaunt committed the sin of incest: that when he took Katherine Swynford as his mistress, he had already enjoyed a sexual relationship with her sister.


  'Mistress of the Duke'

  Death stalked Katherine's world in the years 1368—71. Firstly, around 24 July 1368, her older sister, Elizabeth de Roët, died in her convent at Mons. Unless Katherine was in touch with unrecorded relatives in Hainault, she might not for some time have learned of, or been too greatly affected by, the passing of this sister with whom she can barely — if at all — have been acquainted. But the death of Blanche of Lancaster on 12 September 1368 at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire would have had far more impact, and would surely have brought her much grief and distress, for Blanche had held her in 'great affection', and Katherine in return had given her 'good and agreeable service', for which she would in time to come be handsomely rewarded. It also seems to have brought to an end her service in the Lancastrian household.

  It was possibly around August 1368 when Blanche bore her last child, a third daughter, baptised Isabella, who shortly afterwards was 'swiftly summoned out of this world to the seat of the angels'.4 Blanche was then twenty-six, and had borne seven children in nine years of marriage. The fact that she died the month after this latest birth suggests that she had suffered complications in labour, or contracted puerperal fever, a major cause of maternal deaths and a common occurrence in an era when the transmission of infection from a midwife's dirty hands, or other unhygienic practices, was not understood. John of Gaunt was with his wife at the end, and that same day he wrote from Tutbury to his 'faithful friend' and neighbour Thomas Appleby, Bishop of Carlisle, bidding him order masses for the salvation of the soul of Blanche, 'who has died'.

  'Put a tomb over my heart, for when I remember, I am so melancholy,' mourned Froissart. 'She died young and lovely.' He wrote this the following year, and because of this historians believed until recently that Blanche perished of the plague on 12 September 1369 at Bolingbroke Castle. But the date that is clearly stated on the Duke's letter in Bishop Appleby's register makes it clear that Blanche died in 1368.

  John of Gaunt was apparently devastated by the loss of his wife. Their love had been enduring, and throughout their nine-year marriage there had been no hint of discord or infidelity, while the frequency of Blanche's pregnancies argues a healthy sex life. Blanche's memory was clearly cherished by John, for he was solemnly to observe the anniversary of her death for the rest of his life, and more than thirty years later would direct in his will that he be buried beside her — the wife who brought him his great inheritance, the mother of his heir, and his first love.

  We do not know if Katherine was in attendance at Tutbury when Blanche died, but with the rest of the Duchess's household, she would have been issued with black mourning garments and been summoned to accompany the funeral cortege, which was escorted south by a thousand horsemen. Beside the coffin was carried a seated effigy of the deceased in her robes of state, probably made of wood, and apparently looking very lifelike. Katherine perhaps witnessed the unseemly row between the Abbot of St Albans and the Bishop of Lincoln over who should take precedence in St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, where the Duchess was to lie in state for a requiem mass, just as she would witness a similar row on another tragic occasion just over twenty years later. She may also have been present when her late mistress's body was interred 'on the north side of the quire',9 near the high altar, in St Paul's Cathedral in London.

  Old St Paul's, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, was the largest building in mediaeval England. It had been completed in 1220, on the site of an earlier church founded around 607 by King Ethelbert of Kent, which was burned down in 1087. The new stone cathedral in the Romanesque style was truly awe-inspring: 'the height of the steeple was 520 foot, and the spire was 260 foot. The length of the whole church is 720 foot. The breadth thereof is 130 foot, and the height of the body of that church is 150 foot.' Thus the building was longer than the present St Paul's Cathedral, and its spire higher than that of Salisbury Cathedral, the highest in England today.

  Blanche's was the first royal burial in St Paul's since that of the Saxon King Ethelred II in 1016; in Katherine's day, his massive stone sarcophagus could still be seen in the north quire aisle. The cathedral also housed the magnificent shrine of St Erkenwald, a seventh-century Bishop of London, which stood behind the high altar.

  When a royal lady died, her household was usually disbanded, for it was not considered fitting for her female attendants to remain in a widower's establishment. Yet there was a pressing need for someone to take care of the three young children left motherless by Blanche's death, and it has been suggested by several writers that Katherine, who was clearly good with children and highly regarded in the Lancastrian household, stayed on in the nursery. If so, she cannot have been there in any exalted capacity, for it is clear that other ladies were looking after the ducal offspring. In 1369, the Duke appointed his and Blanche's cousin, Alice FitzAlan, Lady Wake to look after Henry, Philippa and Elizabeth; Lady Wake, who was paid £66.13s.4d

  (£18,795) in 1369 just for looking after Henry and his household, was still in charge of them, and acting as their governess, in November 1371. Furthermore, in 1370, John of Gaunt rewarded Alyne, the wife of his squire, Edward Gerberge, with a handsome pension of ,£100 (24,779) Per annum for 'the painful diligence and good service she has rendered to our very dear daughter Philippa during the death of our beloved companion'. We can infer from this that eight-year-old Philippa was perhaps with Blanche at the end, that her mother's death affected her very badly, and that Alyne Gerberge played a far more important role in comforting her than Katherine Swynford did, which suggests that Katherine was not at Tutbury when Blanche died. The size of the annuity paid to Alyne is commensurate with her having been appointed to look after Philippa after Blanche's death. Clearly she was a trusted servant, for 'our well-loved damoiselle' Alyne was later appointed by John of Gaunt to serve his second Duchess.

  We do know, however, that Katherine's daughter Blanche remained in the ducal household as a damoiselle to Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster until at least September 1369 which seems appropriate in regard to a girl who was the probable godchild of the Duke and Duchess. But as none of John of Gaunt's registers survives for the period 1369-72, we have no way of knowing how long Blanche Swynford remained with the ducal princesses after 1369.

  It might be more realistic to suppose that, rather than remaining with the Duke's children, Katherine, who had a growing family of her own, returned to Kettlethorpe to bring them up and attend to her duties as chatelaine and custodian. Her long-term reputation as the Lady of Kettlethorpe would surely not have been so well established had she spent long periods absent from the manor.

  Geoffrey Chaucer had been sent to France and Italy on diplomatic business on 17 July 1368, so was not in England when the Duchess died. On his return, before 31 O
ctober, he evidently found John of Gaunt paralysed by grief, which spurred him to write his celebrated elegiac memorial for Blanche, The Boke of the Duchesse, as much to comfort her widower and bring him to an acceptance of her death as to commemorate her beauty and virtue — and perhaps to console himself.

  In this, his first major poem, Chaucer conjures up a dream sequence of an allegorical royal 'hunting of the hart’ — the pun was intentional — in which he, the narrator, becomes separated from the hunting party and wanders into a forest, where he espies a tragic sight:

  I suddenly saw a man in black

  Reclining, seated with his back

  Against an oak, a giant tree.

  'Oh Lord,' I thought, 'who can that be?'...

  It was - and Chaucer's readers would have recognised him at once — the grieving Duke of Lancaster; we have already seen how, scattered through the poem, are punning allusions to 'John', 'Lancaster', 'Richmond' and 'Lady White' (for Blanche). Chaucer borrowed his theme from Guillaume de Machaut, but his subject was poignantly close to home.

  The young knight, who 'was wholly clad in black' and displayed 'a complexion green and pale', was hanging his head and sighing, 'and with a deathly mourning cried a rhyme of verse in lamentation to himself, more pitiful and charged with woe than I had ever heard. It seemed remarkable that Nature could suffer any living creature to bear such grief and not be dead.' Seeing him 'in state so grim', the narrator greets him, which prompts an outpouring of woe.The knight wonders why 'his misery had not made him die'; his sorrows were so manifold and sharp, he says, they 'lay upon his heart ice-cold ... He'd almost lost his sanity.' Then, realising he is talking to a total stranger, he pulls himself together and greets him courteously.

  Encouraged by the curious narrator, and thanking his 'gentle friend' for his 'kind intent', the knight opens his heart. Speaking kindly and frankly, 'without false style or sense of rank', and seeming approachable, wise and reasonable, he says he wishes he had not been born, that he weeps when he is alone, and that his days and nights are detestable, 'for I am sorrow, and sorrow is I'.

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