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

  Percy now made matters worse by usurping the powers of a magistrate and imprisoning a London man in his official residence as Marshal, which was seen as an even more outrageous attack on the City's liberties. The next day, a rioting mob of Londoners rescued the prisoner and sacked Percy's house. Then they made for the Savoy in a murderous mood, bent on assassination. On the way, they lynched a man who spoke up for John of Gaunt, and in Cheapside, some insultingly hung the Duke's coat of arms upside down, as if he were a traitor. And they would have fired the palace itself, had not Bishop Courtenay arrived and ordered them to desist Fortunately, the Duke and Percy were not there, but dining on oysters in Thames Street at the house of Sir John d'Ypres, a wealthy Flemish merchant who was an old friend of John of Gaunt's and stood high in the favour of the King. Warned by one of his knights that 'infinite numbers of armed men' were out for his blood, and that 'unless he took great heed, that day would be his last', John leapt up so hastily from the table that he painfully crashed the backs of his legs against the wooden bench. His host offered him wine, 'but he could not drink for haste'. He and Percy fled through a back gate, commandeered a boat across the Thames and 'never stayed rowing' until they reached Kennington, where the Princess Joan was persuaded to act as mediator in the hope of calming the situation. She sent three of her knights to check the citizens, and because of the affection in which she was held, the mob gradually dispersed.

  The next day, when tempers had cooled, a deputation of Londoners went to Sheen to beg the King's forgiveness for the rioting, but insisted that John of Gaunt was to blame for all their troubles. Edward III promised he would uphold the City's liberties, and to mark his golden jubilee, he would later issue a general pardon. The only person exempted from it was Wykeham — in which the hand of John of Gaunt may clearly be perceived. In the end, the Mayor and his brethren had to get to their knees, beg the Duke's forgiveness, and agree to his demand that they set up a marble pillar bearing the arms of Lancaster in Cheapside. Parliament was dissolved the next day, and the political life of the nation began to recover its equilibrium.

  That Edward III approved of the Duke's recent actions is suggested by the lifetime grant he made him on 28 February of palatinate powers in the Duchy of Lancaster. This meant that John would enjoy virtually regal authority within those lands, and that the officers of the Crown could not trespass upon them. Lancaster was one of only three palatinates in England,4' and had first been elevated to that status in 1351 for Duke Henry. The grant underlined John's pre-eminence among the nobility of England. On 5 and 6 March, royal commands were issued on the basis of information supplied by him, and that same month, John had Wykeham's temporalities granted to Richard of Bordeaux, thus cleverly affirming his loyalty to the Prince and pre-empting any protests by his enemies. Edward III would have appreciated that, through the efforts of John of Gaunt, and at much cost to the latter, the royal authority had been largely restored, and that Richard would be the main beneficiary.

  It is unlikely that Katherine Swynford had been in London to support her lover during these difficult weeks. She had probably just emerged from childbed, and the capital would have been a dangerous place for her, given her connection with the most hated man in England. Probably she had remained at Kettlethorpe, and would not rejoin John until the crisis had well and truly passed.

  John spent Easter at Hertford, probably with Constance. He was gathering a fleet in the Port of London, in readiness for a new naval offensive against the French. On 20 April, he was back at the Savoy. Three days later, to mark the Feast of St George, Edward III dubbed Richard of Bordeaux and Henry of Bolingbroke Knights of the Garter.44 By the following month, ten-year-old Henry, who was shortly to assume his father's tide of Earl of Derby, was in the Prince's retinue.

  Preparations for the offensive against the French had escalated by the end of May, but it was soon to be cancelled. On 18 June, Edward III pardoned William of Wykeham, and restored his temporalities; Wykeham is said to have achieved this through bribing Alice Perrers. Three days later, the old King suffered a stroke; its ravages may be seen in the dragging down of the mouth of the wooden effigy made for his funeral, which was taken from a death mask, and is the earliest of its kind to survive. He died at Sheen on 21 June. Left alone with his corpse, Alice snatched the rings from its fingers and fled.

  Richard of Bordeaux was now King of England, and was proclaimed Richard II on 22 June. But before that, the ten-year-old King had responded to a petition from the Londoners asking if he would intervene to end the unhappy quarrel between them and the Duke of Lancaster. Later that day, a civic deputation, fearful of reprisals on the part of the Duke, went to Sheen to lay their case in full before Richard and his uncle. This led to a second formal reconciliation between the Duke and the City of London, on 27 June, with John graciously accepting the citizens' public apology for their behaviour towards him.

  The accession of Richard II was greeted with rapturous acclaim. People believed that the boy King would usher in a golden age in which England, with a new champion at the helm, would recover her fortunes in the war with France, and her international prestige. Richard was an attractive child, with golden hair, blue eyes and pink cheeks, intelligent and well educated, and hopes were expressed that, as he grew to manhood, he would emulate his famous father. For the time being, he was to be left under the care and guidance of his mother and his tutor, Sir Simon Burley.

  As the King's senior uncle, and the greatest nobleman in the realm, John of Gaunt was now the most important public figure in England, being powerfully influential with the young monarch. In fact, he was to be the dominant political player throughout Richard's reign, and the real ruler of the kingdom for several years of it. As such, he would prove a loyal subject of the King and the chief supporter and mainstay of the Crown. At the same time, he was actively pursuing his plans for an English invasion of Castile, with a view to breaking the Franco-Castilian alliance and setting himself up as de facto King of Castile. But Parliament proved reluctant to vote the necessary financial support; there were those who remained suspicious as to where the Duke's ambitions would lead him, and others who still believed that it was naked self-interest that was the real motive for his proposed enterprise.

  It is possible that Katherine came up to London for Edward Ill's funeral, but she cannot have seen much of the Duke at this time, for he was very busy. Early in July, he claimed the right, as High Steward of England, to perform various ceremonial roles at the coming coronation. In this capacity, he presided over the Court of Claims that was set up at Westminster, which adjudicated on the allocation of ceremonial duties, and he also organised the late King's funeral, which took place on 5 July. 'To witness and hear the grief of the people, their sobs and lamentations on that day, would have rent anyone's heart.' As governess to the late monarch's granddaughters, and a respected former member of the late Queen's household, Katherine was perhaps a witness to the funeral procession; she would not have been present in Westminster Abbey, as etiquette demanded that only male mourners attend the obsequies of a king. Edward III was buried near Queen Philippa, and a fine tomb bearing an effigy of him (perhaps sculpted by Henry Yevele) was later raised to his memory.

  Setting aside his grief for his father, John now proceeded to make plans for the new King's coronation, the first for fifty years. On 15 July, with a smiling John of Gaunt and Henry Percy riding before him, and the crowds unexpectedly cheering them, Richard II, clad in white to symbolise his youth and innocence, made his state entry into London, riding in procession through a packed city made festive with hangings of cloth of gold and silver, colourful pageants and free wine running through the conduits. The next day, he was crowned at Westminster in a magnificent ceremony organised by John of Gaunt; it was, enthused an optimistic Walsingham,'a day of joy and gladness, the long-awaited day of the renewal of peace and of the laws of the land'. As Earl of Leicester, the Duke carried Curtana, the blunted sword of mercy, in the procession, and afterwards, as Earl of Lin
coln, acted as the King's carver during the coronation banquet. By then, the nine-hour ceremony had proved too much for the boy, who had had to be carried from the Abbey afterwards; superstitious folk, seeing one of his slippers fall off, took it for a bad omen.

  Was Katherine a witness to some of these ceremonies? Hordes of people had descended upon London from all parts of the kingdom to watch the spectacle or take part, and John of Gaunt had summoned all his retainers. As governess to his daughters, Katherine had an official reason for being there. However, it is unlikely that she would have had a place in the Abbey itself. Only the wives of peers were admitted to watch the coronation ceremony, and that was a privilege that had been first extended only as recently as 1308, in honour of Edward II's wife, Isabella of France. If Katherine saw anything of the coronation, it was probably the procession, perhaps from a privileged position.

  On 19 July, a council of twelve lords was appointed, which would serve under the nominal rule of the King. John of Gaunt and his brothers were not among them, nor was Henry Percy, although John's interests were well represented by five of his adherents.54 John's unpopularity precluded him from ruling as regent, and there was clearly a feeling among the lords that power should be shared, although the Duke's ultimate authority was tacitly acknowledged, for the nobles went in constant fear of him on account of his 'great power, his admirable judgement and his brilliant mind’. His influence was quickly made plain, for on 20 July, the young King ratified the grants of Gringley and Wheatley to Katherine Swynford. This was the first manifestation of Richard's lasting affection and esteem for Katherine, and it attests to his desire to please his powerful uncle. On 24 July, John made Katherine a further gift of oaks for the repair of her houses at Kettlethorpe. This, as well as subsequent evidence, suggests that Katherine was in London, probably staying at the Savoy, at the time of the coronation.

  The King's desire to please his uncle and Katherine Swynford may be perceived in another generous gesture. On 27 July 1377, exercising royal privilege, Richard nominated Elizabeth Chaucer, Philippa's eldest daughter, to the thirteenth-century Benedictine priory of St Helen's in Bishopsgate, London. Around the same time, he nominated Elizabeth's cousin, Margaret Swynford, Katherine's daughter, to Barking Abbey, another Benedictine house.

  Barking, originally founded in the seventh century, was one of the oldest, richest and most prestigious abbeys in the land; two twelfth-century queens, Matilda of Scotland and Matilda of Boulogne, had been educated there, and the natural daughters of Henry II and King John had ruled as abbesses. As has been noted, the Abbess of Barking had the status of a baron, and ranked foremost among the abbesses of England. Only the daughters of the rich and influential were accepted as nuns of Barking, and all had to be nominated by the King. So the admission of Katherine's daughter and her niece was an exceptional and signal favour that further demonstrates the young Richard's regard for Katherine, and almost certainly reflects the influence of John of Gaunt.59 Yet despite the honour conferred, the surrender of her daughter to the cloistered existence of a Benedictine nun, at such a tender age, must have been hard for Katherine; at the same time, in dedicating a daughter to God, she was perhaps following a Roët family tradition and no doubt believed it would earn her, and her firstborn Margaret, grace in Heaven.

  The King's patronage of the Chaucers did not stop there. On 26 March 1378, he was to confirm Edward Ill's 1366 grant of an annuity to Philippa Chaucer. That year, both she and Geoffrey were in receipt of substantial annuities totalling £63 (£24,464).

  His state duties completed, John, realising that the euphoria surrounding the new reign would soon evaporate and that he would probably be blamed for any failure on the part of the new council to tackle the endemic problems and a fresh wave of French and Castilian attacks on the south coast, obtained leave of the King to retire to Kenilworth, and then spent the summer and early autumn of 1377 hunting in Leicestershire and assessing the defences of his castles. Katherine was probably with him. The Duke seems to have been in high good spirits, for it was supposedly at this time that, riding along the road between Bosworth and Leicester one evening, with only one servant in attendance, he saw labouring folk enjoying merry sports and dancing in a meadow at Rathby. John dismounted and enquired why they were celebrating. When told they were celebrating Meadow Mowing Day, an annual custom in those parts, he asked to join in and was made very welcome.

  John was back at Westminster in time for the opening of Parliament in October, and there, on his knees before the young King, he made a dramatic plea in defence of his role in the recent political conflicts. None of his ancestors had been traitors, he declared, but good and loyal men, so it would be strange indeed if he himself were a traitor, for he had more to lose than any other subject in the realm. Therefore, if ‘any man were so bold as to charge him with treason or any dishonesty, he was ready to defend himself with his body'. At this, the Lords rose to their feet in unison, and begged him to desist from those words, since no one would wish to say such things of him, while the Commons insisted that he was free from all blame or dishonour, and that they took him for their 'principal aid, comforter and councillor'. Thus they defined the role he would fulfil in the years of the King's minority.

  With the Duke publicly exonerated and vindicated, at least superficially, Parliament instituted proceedings against Alice Perrers. Charges were laid that she had unlawfully interfered in the government of the kingdom, and that she had controlled all channels of communication with the late King, even to the extent of eavesdropping through his bedcurtains on his conversations. John of Gaunt was one of the chief witnesses against her, and in his testimony revealed that he had been powerless in his attempts to curtail her activities. She was sentenced to forfeiture of her property — some of which was given to the Duke — and banishment. Her trial caused a sensation, and left the public with the impression that royal mistresses were greedy and corrupt creatures bent only on the acquisition of power and wealth, a perception that would soon rebound on Katherine Swynford.

  The Duke was in Scotland for talks with the Scots in January 1378, but had returned to the Savoy by 7 February. On 4 March, he received letters of protection for himself and his retinue, in advance of a new naval campaign to crush the French and Castilian fleets.

  Late in 1377, the Pope had been moved to condemn the teachings of John Wycliffe, but thanks to the protection of John of Gaunt and Joan of Kent, the reformer was allowed to stay on at Oxford and pursue his work unmolested. Undeterred by papal censure, WyclifFe now wrote a series of works challenging the Church and its teachings, and in the spring of 1378, he published a controversial treatise on the Bible, which provoked Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, to summon him before his court at Lambeth to answer for his heresy. Again, thanks to the intervention of Joan of Kent and John of Gaunt, the reformer escaped with a mild rebuke and was once more left in peace for a time. John's loyalty to Wycliffe in the face of mounting censure was staunch: regardless of his own unpopularity and any consequences that might ensue, he kept the controversial doctor under his protection, declaring that he believed Wycliffe and his followers - who were disparagingly nicknamed Lollards, or 'mumblers' - to be 'God's saints', and 'was an invincible guardian in all their needs, for otherwise they would have fallen into the pit of destruction'.

  When the invasion fleet sailed on 7 April 1378, the Duke was not with it. In his 'Scandalous Chronicle', Walsingham asserts that there was growing condemnation 'for his wicked and disgraceful behaviour because he himself put aside respect for God's dread', and alleges that John delayed his arrival at the port for months for fear of the enemy's fleet — the implication being that the Duke was guilty of cowardice. It was at that point that John first appeared in public with Katherine, this being the occasion that made their affair so notorious, and one that Walsingham did not hesitate to exploit in his prolonged and determined campaign to discredit John of Gaunt. Outraged, he claimed that, having 'deserted his military duties' and 'put aside all sham
e of man and fear of God, [John] let himself be seen riding around the Duchy with his unspeakable concubine, a certain Katherine Swynford, holding her bridle in public, not only in the presence of his own wife, but even with his people watching on in all the principal towns of the country’. By this, Walsingham meant 'the county', and he was probably referring to Leicestershire, where the Duke was staying in March 1378. By so brazenly flaunting his mistress, John 'made himself abominable in the eyes of God'.

  Walsingham says the people were indignant and despairing at this scandalous conduct, and feared that the Almighty would soon vent His displeasure by punishing the whole kingdom for the Duke's sinfulness, and he accuses the latter of betraying the King's youthful innocence and putting him and his realm in jeopardy. Monkish chroniclers invariably wrote their accounts with a view to illustrating moral precepts and demonstrating that human failings had divine consequences; the objective study of current events and history, as we know it, was rare in mediaeval times. But Walsingham may truly be reflecting the opinions of a majority of the common people, who already blamed the Duke for so many ills, and whose views on his private life might consequently not have been as accepting or forgiving as those of the aristocracy or the court. Walsingham says that it was as a result of his blatant and unashamed appearances with Katherine, whom he refers to as 'a witch and a whore', that 'the worst curses and infamous invectives started circulating against [the Duke]'. However, it may not have been the sexual relationship between the lovers that caused the greatest offence, for such affairs were common among kings and nobles, but the way he was unabashedly flaunting it publicly, to the injury of his virtuous wife, and - even more pertinently to the class-conscious and xenophobic English - the fact that Katherine was of comparatively lowly birth, and a foreigner. Above all, Katherine was tainted simply through being associated with the most hated man in the kingdom.

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