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

  'My bliss is gone, my joy is lost for evermore,' he cries, 'and there exists no happiness.'Without revealing what tragedy has overtaken him, he tells the stranger how he had won the love of his lady, despite being rebuffed several times. He says he had fallen in love at a tender age, and that that love is with him still. He describes, in minute detail, his lady's beauty and virtues. 'I seem to see her evermore,' he declares. 'She was my hap, my heal and all my bliss ... While I live, I'll evermore remember her.' Eventually, the narrator asks, 'Where is she now?' 'She is dead!' comes the bitter reply.

  There is no more to be said; 'all was done', and the hunters can be heard approaching. A bell strikes, and the narrator awakens to find it was all a dream. But the outpouring of memories of the cherished one who had gone and the love she shared with the man in black would have been cathartic in itself for John of Gaunt, and hopefully helped him come to terms with his grief, which was surely Chaucer's intention.

  The voice in which Chaucer narrates the poem is unusually emotional; clearly the death of the young Duchess had hit him hard too, occasioning genuine sympathy for the bereft widower. The social gulf between the griever, the King's son, and the comforter, the King's esquire, is apparent in the formal, deferential and tentative manner in which the narrator approaches the man in black, but their easy discourse suggests an established rapport between two men who already knew, liked and respected each other. Some commentators have claimed that The Boke of the Duchesse is purely a poem in the French poetic tradition, and does not bear much relation to real events, but that is perhaps too narrow a view, for why should Chaucer have used all those allusions and puns to make it very clear to his readers that 'the man in black' was in fact the grief-stricken Duke of Lancaster?'6 Furthermore, in the prologue to a later work of Chaucer's, The Legend of Good Women, reference is made to his having written a poem originally entitled The Death of Blanche the Duchess. What could be clearer than that?

  There may have been another reason for the emotional tone of the poem. In it, Chaucer intriguingly - and very obliquely - reveals that for eight years he has suffered a secret and unrequited desire for an unnamed lady. Only she can cure him of his 'malady', but 'that hope is gone'. Therefore he knows, from personal experience, what loss is. 'It must be endured,' he says.

  Historians have endlessly speculated who this lady was, some even claiming it was Blanche herself, which was certainly possible in those days when the conventions of courtly love permitted esquires to conceive passions for high-born ladies far above them and beyond their reach; and the reference to his hope being gone might refer to the death of his revered lady. If so, Chaucer had first fallen for her charms around 1360, soon after her marriage to John of Gaunt. Such a theory would account for Chaucer's obscure wording of this passage, since he could never have dared publicly to confess such a love. And it would explain the emotional tone and empathy of the poem. Never again would Chaucer refer to himself in the guise of a lover.

  Grief-stricken he might be, but political advantage dictated that John of Gaunt could not be allowed to remain a widower for long. He was too great a prize in the matrimonial market, and Blanche had not been in her grave two months before Edward III and Queen Philippa opened negotiations for a second marriage for their son. In November, John was proposed as a husband for Margaret, heiress to Louis III, Count of Flanders, a match that would have brought him a principality and provided England with a buffer state against the hostility of France. It was an irresistible prospect, and one on which John, however tragic his grief, could not have turned his back. But the Count rejected the offer, preferring to court the French, and in 1369 Margaret was married to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, brother of the French King Charles V.

  It has been credibly suggested that Chaucer probably wrote the 1,334 lines of The Boke of the Duchesse before these negotiations were opened, rapidly polishing off his masterpiece in the short weeks between his return from France and an approach being made to Flanders.' The intense immediacy and poignancy of the poem, and its consolatory aspects, suggest that it was indeed composed in the desolate aftermath of Blanche's death. John Stow claims - perhaps basing his information on sources that are now lost to us — that it was written at John of Gaunt's request, which is possible; however, there is no contemporary evidence for this, or any record of the poem being dedicated or presented to the Duke. Claims that it was written for recital at one of the annual memorial services for Blanche may be a little far-fetched, considering its length and the fact that no one ever remarked upon this unusual addition to the ceremonies.

  We may, however, be almost certain that the poem was intended for private circulation within the Lancastrian household and even in the court itself, for three copies have survived, which suggests there were more made; furthermore, the reference to the poem in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women indicates that it had attained some fame. It would certainly have been known to the members of Chaucer's own family, and it was possibly thanks to Chaucer's kinship to Katherine Swynford, as much as to his links to the court, that he learned of the magnitude of John's grief. Who else but Katherine would have been so well placed to tell him about it? Unless, of course, it was the Duke himself and the poem is based on a real-life conversation that Chaucer set within a dream sequence to comply with contemporary literary conventions. Chaucer, as Pearsall points out, was a mere esquire at this time; he would surely not have presumed to write this intimate poem dealing with such private matters without some indication that it would be well received by the mighty Duke of Lancaster. The interaction between the two characters in the poem suggests that, whether the Duke commissioned it or not, there was a rapport between him and Chaucer, and an element of patronage involved on his part. Yet whatever the circumstances in which the poem was composed, it does convincingly convey the deep and anguished grief that John of Gaunt undoubtedly suffered for Blanche of Lancaster.

  In 1369, there was a third outbreak of the Black Death. It began in March, the same month that Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile, was ambushed and murdered by Enrique of Trastamara at Montiel. Instead of being decently chested and buried, the body was decapitated and left unburied, which outraged Castilian sensibilities; it was several days before the head was sent to Seville for public exhibition and the body interred. Immediately afterwards, Enrique II usurped the throne, ignoring the legitimate rights of Pedro's two surviving daughters — Beatrice had taken the veil and died in 1368. Constance, the eldest, now succeeded her father as de jure Queen of Castile, but she and her sister Isabella were still in exile at Bayonne in Gascony as hostages of the Black Prince, and there seemed little prospect of her ever enforcing her claim to the Castilian throne and the crown Pedro had bequeathed to her.

  Only a week after Pedro's murder, Charles V of France, having rejected the Treaty of Bretigny, declared war on England. Late in May, the French clawed back all the land held by the English in Ponthieu, and began amassing a great invasion force. In retaliation, in Parliament, an incensed Edward III again assumed the tide King of France. This fresh outbreak of hostilities was to impact hugely on the lives of Katherine, Hugh and John of Gaunt. On 12 June - at a time when the plague had hit London and the court had taken refuge at Windsor — the Duke was appointed King's Captain and Lieutenant in Calais, Guisnes and the surrounding country. This was his first independent command, and on 26 July, he arrived in Calais with an army in which Geoffrey Chaucer and probably Hugh Swynford were serving, and spent August and September campaigning in France.

  When John sailed from England, he left his mother, Queen Philippa, 'dangerously sick' with what was described as a dropsy; she seems to have been seriously ill for some time before then, since her tomb effigy had been ordered prior to January I368. Among those in attendance on her at Windsor was Philippa Chaucer. On 10 March 1369, along with fifteen other damoiselles, Philippa had received furs and cloth for a new gown, but there was little chance to appear in public richly clad, for by July the Queen was bedridden and needing
the constant ministrations of her women. She died on 14 August, 'to the infinite misfortune of King Edward, his children and the whole kingdom'. 'I wring my hands, I clap my palms!' wrote an anguished Froissart, recalling also the death of Blanche of Lancaster a year earlier. 'I have lost too many in these two ladies.'

  On 1 September, Edward III commanded Henry de Snaith, guardian of ‘our Great Wardrobe', to provide mourning garments for his family and the late Queen's servants. Among these were twelve ells of black cloth and some furs for little Blanche Swynford, who is described as a damoiselle of the daughters of the Duke of Lancaster; she received the same cloth and furs as were allocated to her young mistresses and other high-ranking ladies, which suggests that Queen Philippa had retained an affection for the family of Katherine de Roët, her young compatriot, whom she had brought up and seen well placed and honourably married, and that the King too was fond of Katherine, for Philippa Chaucer, who had been in the Queen's service for some years, received only six ells of cloth, while Chaucer got just three.25 As for Katherine, still perhaps sorrowing over the death of the Duchess Blanche, the loss of her kindly and inspirational guardian, who had acted as a mother to her, must have left her feeling bereft.

  The news of the Queen's death hit John of Gaunt hard too, for he loved and honoured both his parents, and would still have been grieving for his late wife. Froissart tells us that 'information of this heavy loss was carried to the English army at Tournehem, which greatly afflicted everyone, more especially her son, John of Gaunt'. Until his death, John cherished 'a gold brooch in the old fashion, with the name of God inscribed on each part of it, which my most honourable lady mother, whom God preserve, gave to me, commanding me to guard it with her blessing'.

  On 12 September, the first obit (a service marking the anniversary of a death) for the Duchess Blanche was solemnly observed at St Paul's, in the Duke's absence. Her anniversary would be celebrated every year for the rest of John's lifetime and beyond, further evidence of his love for her and his grief at her loss. Whenever he was unable to attend, the great officers of his household stood proxy for him. By September 1371, a chantry chapel had been established above Blanche's burial place in St Paul's, and soon afterwards an altar was built and two salaried chaplains appointed to celebrate daily masses for the repose of her soul.

  In October, thanks to dwindling supplies, plague and the arrival of wintry weather, John of Gaunt was forced to abandon his French offensive. By the end of November, he was back at the Savoy, and Sir Hugh Swynford was probably riding north to Lincolnshire to attend to his estates and be reunited with his family.

  John of Gaunt kept the Christmas of 1369 at Langley in Hertfordshire with his father the King; it must have been a sad time for the bereft royal family, with the late Queen still unburied. Philippa of Hainault's magnificent state funeral took place on 29 January 1370, six months after her death - such things took time to arrange. Philippa and Geoffrey Chaucer would certainly have been there, and it may not be too fanciful to wonder if Katherine Swynford herself was among the mourners, for she had been brought up by the Queen, and was her countrywoman. After being drawn in procession through streets that had been specially cleared of mud and filth, Philippa's body was interred near the shrine of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, in earth brought to England from the Holy Land; a fine tomb was later built to her memory, with her lifelike effigy by a Netherlandish sculptor, Hennequin of Liege, resting upon it.

  After the obsequies were completed, Katherine perhaps returned to Kettlethorpe. As Chaucer remained in service at court, her sister may have gone to live in his family house in London, with their growing family, for there was no place for her in the royal household now that the Queen was dead.

  The political events of 1370 were to have a profound effect on Katherine's future, so it is worth leaving her at Kettlethorpe for the time being, and looking at what was happening in the wider world.

  After Queen Philippa's death, things went badly for the ageing Edward III. In 1370, Aquitaine came under threat from Charles V, who had allied himself with Enrique II of Castile. The harsh rule of the Black Prince had driven his Gascon subjects to appeal to the French King for aid, and as the Prince's overlord, CharlesV had summoned him to Paris to account for his cruelties, but he was too ill to comply. In retaliation, the French closed in on the Duchy.

  Again John of Gaunt raised an army, this time to assist his brother in repelling the invader, and once more Sir Hugh Swynford was summoned to attend his lord. Did Katherine have a presentiment, as she saw him off on his way to join the Duke at Plymouth, that she would never see her husband again? She had perhaps often entertained fears of this kind, for war was a dangerous business, and those who escaped death at the hands of the enemy often perished as a result of the dysentery and disease that could decimate armies.

  John of Gaunt's fleet sailed at the end of June, and once again, Geoffrey Chaucer was with it, in company with his brother-in-law, Hugh Swynford.

  John would have been shocked at the change in his once-magnificent brother, who was waiting for him at Cognac. The Black Prince was virtually bedridden, suffering from what Froissart calls 'an incurable illness', the malady that had laid him low for three years now, since he had contracted amoebic dysentery in Castile. He could no longer ride a horse, and it was reported to Charles V that he had a dropsy from which he could never recover. Modern medical opinion holds that this was symptomatic of nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys that causes swollen legs, ankles, eyes and genitals, due to a build-up of fluid. The Prince's condition, and the humiliation and frustration engendered by weakness and helplessness, had turned him into an embittered man.

  On 24 August, the city of Limoges voluntarily - and treasonably — surrendered to the French. The Black Prince's fury was lethal, his retribution savage. He laid siege to the city, and when the walls were breached on 18 September, ordered it to be sacked, directing that neither man, woman nor child be spared. The carnage went on relentlessly for two days, as the invalid Prince watched from a horse-litter, urging his men to ever-worse atrocities. Soon the ruined streets were piled high with hundreds of corpses and running with blood. Never again would Edward of Woodstock's glorious reputation shine as fair.

  John of Gaunt was present at the fall of Limoges, in command of the English forces during the siege, and it was as a result of his brave efforts that the city capitulated. Froissart implies that John supported his brother in inflicting the atrocities that were committed after the siege: 'I do not understand how they [author's italics] could have failed to take pity on people who were too unimportant to have committed treason,' he opined, 'yet they paid for it, and paid more dearly than the leaders who had committed it.' But Froissart may not be correct — he certainly exaggerated by tenfold the number slaughtered — for afterwards, it was thanks to John's intervention that the bishop who had surrendered Limoges to the French was able to escape the Black Prince's vengeance.

  After Limoges, the Prince realised he no longer had the strength to govern his principality, and reluctantly decided to relinquish his command to his brother. On 8 October, referring to 'the very great affection and. love' he cherished for John, he created him Lord of Bergerac and Roche-sur-Yon,3' and three days later, surrendered to him the lieutenancy of Aquitaine. His burden laid down, he retired to Bordeaux.

  In January 1371, the Prince's physicians urged him to return to his native air of England without delay, if he wished to preserve his life. His misery was compounded, that same month, by the death of his five-year-old heir, Edward of Angouleme, at Bordeaux. Yet so ill was the Prince that the bereaved parents dared not let even their terrible grief delay their departure. Leaving John of Gaunt to arrange their child's burial, the Prince and Princess returned to England with their surviving son Richard at the end of January. When they made land in Devon, they were obliged to rest for five weeks before the Prince could face the journey to Berkhamsted Castle, and when they arrived there, he took to his bed. From that tim
e, he was a broken man.

  For the next six months, John of Gaunt ruled Aquitaine, holding it successfully against the French. Then, in July, in accordance with the terms of his office, he relinquished his command and handed over his authority to Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch. The Duke now had his sights on a richer prize than Aquitaine. The daughters of Pedro the Cruel, Queen Constance and her sister Isabella, had remained in exile under the protection of first the Black Prince and then John of Gaunt, consigned to a humble existence in a village near Bayonne. Their position was an invidious one, for although royal, they were outcasts from their homeland, dependent on the charity of the English, whom their father had betrayed, and surrounded only by a few of their own people. 'The girls had suffered considerably, on account of which they were the objects of great pity.' Now all that was to change.

  On 10 August, John of Gaunt took up residence at Bordeaux, the capital of the Duchy. English princes sojourning in Bordeaux resided in the ancient Ombriere Palace, in which the royal apartments were located beyond the Porte Cailhau in a tall keep known as 'the Crossbowman', which was surrounded by courtyards with tiled fountains and beautiful semi-tropical gardens. Once settled in this beautiful place, John gave some thought as to what should become of Constance and Isabella, with whom he must have had a passing acquaintance over the years. He was well aware that Constance had been willed the throne of Castile by her father, King Pedro, and was regarded as its legitimate queen by his followers. All she lacked was someone to take up her cause, and John knew that for the man who could successfully do so, there would be rich prizes indeed.

  Some time during that sun-drenched summer of 1371, Guichard d'Angle, Marshal of Aquitaine and a trusted friend, diplomat and member of the Duke's council, who had been held prisoner by Enrique of Trastamara for two years, made the suggestion that John of Gaunt himself marry Constance and claim the crown of Castile in her right, a suggestion he would surely not have made without knowing that the idea was already in John's mind, and perhaps in Edward III's too. The Gascon barons backed the proposal. Such a union made good political sense: not only would it bring John a throne and a kingdom, which he had perhaps long desired, but it would also break the alliance between Castile and France, an alliance that was posing a very real threat to England and her chances of winning the war. The proposal 'pleased [the Duke] so well that he sent without delay four of his knights for the young ladies'.37

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