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


  By now, Katherine had perhaps taken up her duties as governess. In the fourteenth century, a 'mistress's' role was to supervise the upbringing of the girls committed to her charge until the day they married, and to set a good and virtuous example for them to follow.'8 The emphasis was more on character training than the acquisition of skills, although learning the conduct expected of high-born females was important too. Formal education was not normally part of the governess's remit: the teaching of the Scriptures and devotional works, reading, writing, English, French and perhaps a little Latin would have been undertaken by household chaplains. Katherine, however, was unusual in that she had grown up in one of the most cultivated courts in Christendom, and was part of an aristocratic circle in which learning in women was encouraged, so she herself may have imparted some of her own knowledge to the two princesses.

  Above all, noble girls were to be protected from the snares of the flesh and the wiles of men, which was why so many were brought up in convents. In this respect, Katherine was perhaps not the wisest choice as governess, and her appointment may have led to a few knowledgeable eyebrows being lifted, but in all others she was eminently fitted for the office, otherwise John of Gaunt would surely not have appointed her; in thrall as he was to Katherine's charms, he could never have compromised the education of his daughters, nor their moral welfare, for both were princesses of the blood and expected to make good political marriages. This argues that Katherine was discreet and did not flaunt her position in any way, and also that her intimate connection with John of Gaunt was not widely known at this time, nor her reputation compromised. Had it been, her appointment would have been cause for open scandal, which it was not. Chaucer may be referring obliquely to Katherine in 'The Physician's Tale' where he wryly observes that governesses with a past were well suited to be poachers turned gamekeepers, but this was written years later, and does not reflect contemporary opinion in the early 1370s. Above all, with the crown of Castile beckoning, John would not have wished to offend his wife by his indiscriminate promotion of his mistress.

  Katherine would have been responsible for teaching Philippa and Elizabeth the accomplishments that would befit them to adorn courts and rule their own establishments: courtesy, conversation, good carriage, dancing, singing, embroidery, courtly games and household management. These were probably all skills in which Katherine herself was more than proficient. Although she was only about twenty-three, she was already the mother of at least four children, and experienced not only in the ways of courts, but also in running her own establishment at Kettlethorpe. Lady Wake, who was the same age, had been even younger when she looked after the Lancastrian siblings. Katherine was pious too, and this would have had some bearing on her influence over her charges. She was also responsible for their diet, their clothing and the accoutrements of their chamber.

  Although Katherine was indeed in many ways qualified for her post, it seems to have been something of a sinecure, for clearly she was not always resident with her charges, and it would appear that the demands of the Duke and her own family came first. Thus we must conclude that being appointed governess was in part a ploy to lend Katherine respectability while ensuring that she could remain within the Duke's orbit and be available when he needed her, not only in bed but also at board, because she probably acted as hostess and graced his table in the absence of the Duchess. Yet there is evidence to show that she did spend a lot of time with Philippa and Elizabeth, that she indeed fulfilled her official role as their governess, and that even if she did so only on a part-time basis, she certainly had overall control of her charges. During her absences, she seems to have delegated their care to others such as Amy de Melbourne, while John of Gaunt's Register also records occasional payments to ladies with whom the two princesses were sometimes sent to stay.

  Occupying an official position gave Katherine a legitimate reason for residing in one or other of the ducal households. Such evidence as we have indicates that her duties and commitments, official or otherwise, sometimes necessitated her lodging with the Duchess Constance's household, something that could not have happened unless Katherine was the soul of discretion and tact, given that John desired not to offend his wife, in whom he had invested all his political ambitions. Yet it appears that the Duchess's Castilian ladies were already aware in 1373 that Katherine was John's mistress. Their gossiping so annoyed the Duke that he packed them all off to Nuneaton Abbey, hoping that the Abbess would teach them discretion. By the end of 1374, they were chafing at the conventual regime at Nuneaton, and begging to be allowed to leave, but it was not until 1375 that John relented and sent them to five in Leicester with some of his trusted retainers; later, he arranged marriages for a number of them.

  If her ladies knew what was going on between the Duke and Katherine, the chances are that Constance did too. It has been suggested that her Spanish pride was affronted by Katherine, but it may be that the young Duchess took a more realistic view of such matters. She herself, after all, was the daughter of a royal mistress, and she came from a royal house famed for its high rate of bastardy. Preoccupied as she was with regaining her throne, and preferring to remain secluded with her Castilian entourage, she was perhaps relieved to know that her husband's sexual needs were being met by another woman. Her later acknowledgement that she herself was at fault with regard to the failure of their marriage suggests she was aware that she had made little effort to be a loving wife, or had defaulted in some other way. If she never loved her husband, she could hardly blame him for seeking love elsewhere, and perhaps she was not unduly troubled by the fact that it was John's passion for Katherine that was preventing him from making a success of their marriage. Furthermore, in the years to come, Katherine's baseborn children by John would pose no threat to Constance's own legitimate issue. Nor, it appears, did Katherine ever seek to interfere with John's plans to conquer Castile, which was the most important thing in view in Constance's life, and which, during the first two years of her marriage, seemed a realistically attainable goal. Hence Constance would have regarded her sojourn in England as purely temporary, and might well have reasoned that, once Castile was regained, she and John would live there, King and Queen in their own realm, and that her position would be unassailable. Thus Katherine could hardly have posed any real threat to Constance.

  In May 1373, the Duke's ships began assembling at Dover and Sandwich. John was very busy with his preparations, but on the 12th, at the Savoy, he gave orders to John de Stafford, his receiver in Lincoln, that Katherine's allowance be paid promptly during his absence: 'We want and we command that you pay immediately to our very dear and well-beloved Dame Katherine de Swynford her annuity given by us to her, taken from the issues you will receive and in the manner that our letters of guarantee had specified; and see to it that there is no delay at the term of the payment, and no default. These my letters are a guarantee.'

  Katherine seems to have either visited, or stayed briefly with John at his headquarters at the manor of Northbourne, a grange of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, that he had commandeered, which lay four miles west of Deal in Kent. Here he sojourned from 27 June to 16 July. Katherine's presence at Northbourne underlines how important a person she now was in John's life, and shows that he wanted to spend as much time as possible with her before the long parting that lay ahead. Presumably he hoped she would join him in Castile once he was established as its ruler: given the irregular domestic arrangements of previous Castilian kings, one mistress discreetly kept could hardly have offended public opinion.

  It would appear that while Katherine was at Northbourne with John, she complained that his orders for the prompt payment of her allowance had not been obeyed, for on 27 June, clearly angered, he wrote to John de Stafford commanding him to pay 'our very dear and beloved Dame Katherine de Swynford the annuity that we have granted her; this must be paid to her in the manner ordered in the letter of guarantee. See to it that this is done without delay, and without any kind of excuse.' Either John de Staff
ord had just been dilatory in carrying out his orders, or — as Silva-Vigier suggests — he was being deliberately obstructive towards a woman of whom he did not approve.

  Katherine must have said her farewells and departed on or soon after 27 June, as it was before then that John promised to send gifts of venison and wood to her at Kettlethorpe. On that day, he informed the warden of his park at Gringley, Nottinghamshire: 'We have granted to our dear and well-beloved Dame Katherine de Swynford, as our gift, two deer from one of our parks, and a third from another of our parks, as you will judge to be the best.'

  John de Stafford, perhaps still simmering with disapproval, was also commanded to dispatch to Katherine 'six chariots of wood for fuel and three oaks suitable for building, which we have given to the said Dame Katherine; these are to be taken from one of our parks, which you will judge to be most suitable'.

  Preoccupied as he was with military matters, John had yet found time to send some comforts to cheer his love during his absence. The oaks, of course, were to be used for the improvements she was making at Kettlethorpe, which suggests she did not immediately go to her charges at Tutbury. On 6 July, John gave orders for the supply of coal and wood to Tutbury Castle for 'the Queen of Castile' and his four legitimate children.25 The Duke's womenfolk were to remain at Tutbury for a year; as governess, Katherine must have spent some time there during that period with Philippa and Elizabeth, while Philippa Chaucer seems to have been a constant presence in the household.

  The Duke, who had been appointed Captain-General in France and Aquitaine on 12 June, sailed to France late in July with an army of perhaps six thousand men, and there undertook one of the most astonishing and controversial actions of the Hundred Years War. On 4 August, he began his famous - or notorious — grande chevauchie (great cavalry ravage) through France, marching his army unopposed from Calais to Bordeaux, his aim to relieve Aquitaine then cross the Pyrenees and force Enrique of Trastamara to surrender his ill-gotten crown. This was a daring show of strength designed to intimidate the French, divert them from mounting a naval offensive against England, and bait them into giving battle, but they held aloof, and during five months of terrible but futile marching, plundering and looting, the Duke took not a single fortress or town. Unwilling to compromise his honour by turning back, he and his army pressed on further and further south, only to find themselves increasingly short of funds, food and morale. As winter encroached, the way became hard, and led them through the barren mountains of the Massif Central, where they encountered ambushes and bitter weather, and the flood-ravaged lands of Aquitaine. Many men and nearly all the horses fell sick and died, armour and booty had to be abandoned, and even the knights were reduced to begging for bread.

  At Christmas, having long since abandoned all thoughts of pressing on into Castile, and suffering from 'great bodily fatigue' and the loss of his customary good spirits, John limped into Bordeaux with an army tragically halved by death or desertion. All that now remained of the once-mighty Plantagenet empire in France was Calais and the coastal strip between Bordeaux and Bayonne. Nevertheless, John had held off the enemy and probably saved Bordeaux; far from his military reputation being in the dust, as historians used to conclude, his great march was regarded by the French as 'most honourable to the English'. In England, however, it came in for scathing criticism, and he was compared very unfavourably with his brother, the Black Prince.31 In January 1374, John concluded a truce with the French, then immediately began planning another campaign, but in March, when the Pope intervened and demanded a new truce, hostilities were suspended.

  After an absence of nine months, John surrendered his lieutenancy of Aquitaine, and returned to England on 26 April 1374; he was back at the Savoy on 1 May, and stayed there until the middle of July." Chastened and humiliated by the failure of his great chevauchie, and castigated for it by both his father the King" and the public at large, he would spend the next year in the political wilderness, taking little part in public affairs, and doubtless making up for lost time with Katherine Swynford: it says much for the strength of their feelings for each other that their love had survived the long months of separation.

  In private, however, John was preparing to take part in the new peace negotiations called for by the Pope. Increasingly, he was becoming convinced that there was no point in continuing with this ruinous war, and that peace was essential for the future prosperity of England. The following year, he would emerge as the major advocate of a peace policy, and would remain so for the rest of his life, but his views were to be at variance with those of the majority of his countrymen, who wanted victories and military glory, and regarded any overtures for peace as craven and shameful. Hence John's unpopular stance would be yet another score to be notched up against him.

  Geoffrey Chaucer had returned to England from Italy on 23 May 1373. On 23 April 1374, the King rewarded him for his good service with an annual gift of a pitcher of wine for life. But it was after John of Gaunt's return to the Savoy in May that Chaucer's fortunes were markedly advanced, lending support to the theory that, although John was never his overt patron, he used his influence behind the scenes to bring Geoffrey advancement and wealth. We might credibly conjecture also that Katherine Swynford had hastened - or been summoned — to be reunited with her lover at the Savoy, and that in the heady flush of those lengthening summer days, John heeded her when she pointed out to him that, despite years of loyal and dedicated service to the Crown, during which he had performed important diplomatic missions, her brother-in-law had received little in the way of reward. Katherine might well have heard this complaint repeated many times by her sister Philippa.

  John acted immediately. On 10 May, Chaucer was given a lifetime rent-free lease on a desirable property that straddled Aldgate in London, with rooms above the gate and a cellar below. Then, on 8 June, he was appointed to the lucrative and prestigious post of Controller of Customs and Subsidies on Wool in the nearby Port of London, an extremely responsible position, given that taxes on wool exports provided England's highest peacetime revenue. Four days later, he was also appointed Controller of Petty Customs on Wines. On 13 June, John granted 'our well-loved Geoffrey Chaucer' a standard esquire's life pension of £10 (£3,414) a year, partly in recognition of the good service that his wife had rendered both to 'our very honoured lady and mother the Queen, whom God pardon, and for our very beloved companion the Queen of Castile'. And on 6 July, both Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer received overdue back payments of their annuities. It would be incredible if these grants owed nothing to the influence of Katherine Swynford. In fact, the links she and her sister forged between the illustrious House of Lancaster and the relatively humble Chaucer family were to ensure lasting benefits for the latter and rapidly propel its members up the social ladder.

  Thus began what were, for Chaucer, the years of prosperity, years in which he would be busily occupied with his duties, yet would find time to write more of the great works that would bring him lasting fame, notably the dream poems, The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls.

  Another man who was rewarded for his services by John of Gaunt at this time was John Wycliffe, who received the living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire. Wycliffe was a brilliant Oxford doctor, theologian and philosopher, who had served as a chaplain to Edward III; he was a highly intelligent and sophisticated man whose radical and controversial views on the abuses and corruption within the Church would make him notorious. He disapproved of career bishops, ecclesiastics who grew wealthy on the spoils of their office and exerted too much power, and he opposed the high taxes levied on behalf of an increasingly secularised Papacy. He believed passionately that Christians should live by the rules of Christ as set down in the Gospels, and not by regulations laid down by the Church. He denied that the Pope was the true head of the Church and regarded the priesthood as superfluous. Power, he argued, should lie with the King and the chief nobles, a view John of Gaunt enthusiastically endorsed.

  John likewise wished to curb the pow
er wielded by high-ranking churchmen, and by 1371 had become Wycliffe's patron. That year, John had backed Parliament's calls to restrict public offices to laymen only. Wycliffe also believed that peace with France was essential, and may have influenced John's own views on this issue. The Duke's admiration of Wycliffe's political stance led some people to believe that he also supported the doctor's increasingly provocative opinions on the Church and its doctrines, but this would have been surprising in a man with such ultra-conservative religious views, whose actions show him to have been essentially opposed to most of Wycliffe's theological teachings.

  John's willingness to champion and protect Wycliffe, and his enduring loyalty towards him, which was to provoke a backlash on his own probity and reputation, strongly suggest that he liked and respected his protege, enjoyed discussing and debating political and religious issues with him, and believed him to be sincere and much misunderstood. But according to Knighton, it was he himself who was 'deceived', and in the end, after years of defending the ever-more-controversial Wycliffe, even John would abandon him.

  The Princess of Wales supported Wycliffe too; he was a familiar figure in court circles and Katherine Swynford must have known him. It is easy to imagine this intelligent woman joining in his stimulating conversations with her lover, and although of course there is no evidence that she ever did so, it is more than possible. We do not know enough about her to surmise that she was in sympathy with Wycliffe's teachings, for in every known respect she was religiously orthodox. But maybe she was swayed by her lover on the doctor's political opinions.

 
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