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

  Understandably, John did not show disrespect to his wife by placing her daughter with her two half-sisters under the governance of his mistress. However, he was now effectively living apart from Constance; on 12 May, at the Savoy, he ordered his receiver in Norfolk to pay 500 marks (£65,002) annually for her wardrobe and chamber expenses at Tutbury. In March 1381, he would augment this sum by a further 200 marks (£25,420), and then increase Constance's original settlement of 1,000 marks per annum (worth £125,221 in 1381) to £1,000 (£375,662). These increases may well reflect the increasing political importance of 'his dear wife the Queen', as his hopes for the Castilian throne grew more realistic; it may also have been in part the result of the pricking of the Duke's conscience over his adultery with Katherine Swynford.

  Meanwhile, on 15 April, at Kenilworth, he had handed over £100 'to Dame Katherine Swynford, governess of our daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster, for the expenses of their wardrobe and chamber for the past Easter term'. As is becoming clear, references to Katherine in records dating from the late 1370s and early 1380s, although sparse, suggest that she was now a permanent fixture in the Duke's life and that of his daughters, and that he seized every opportunity to have her with him.


  John was based at the Savoy from May to July 1380. In May, the young Richard II, now thirteen, bound himself by treaty to marry Anne of Bohemia. With talk of a royal marriage in the air, John now turned his attention to finding suitable spouses for his older children. On 24 June 1380, Elizabeth of Lancaster, now a spirited young woman of seventeen, was wed to John Hastings, third Earl of Pembroke, at Kenilworth; from Elizabeth's point of view, this union was not entirely satisfactory, for her new husband was just eight years old. It is likely that Katherine Swynford, who had played an important role in Elizabeth's life, was involved in the preparations for her wedding, and was present. Afterwards, Elizabeth had her own household as Countess of Pembroke, and no longer needed Katherine's care.

  Elizabeth had grown into a headstrong and extrovert girl, very different from her serious older sister. Her tomb effigy in Burford Church, Shropshire, shows a tall, slender woman with long fair hair and markedly Plantagenet features; evidently she favoured her father in looks. While she was intelligent and literate, dancing and singing were her great talents, and she so excelled at the former that she would one day be awarded a prize for being the best dancer at Richard II's court. Richard thought well of her, and in 1383 pardoned a murderer at her instigation. But although Katherine instilled in Elizabeth her own love of learning and literature, and a sense of piety that would become more evident as she grew older, time was to prove that she had not been entirely successful in her role as governess, because the example she had set in her own conduct with Elizabeth's father proved the most unsuitable role model for an impressionable girl who was driven by her own youthful passions, which marriage to a child nine years her junior could not satisfy.

  It seems odd that the Duke should marry off his second daughter before his first, Philippa, who at twenty was quite old to remain unwed, but John possibly hoped to use her as a diplomatic pawn in his bid for the Castilian throne. Marrying her to one of his allies could secure invaluable political support.

  With Philippa, Katherine seems to have been more successful as a mentor. John's eldest daughter had grown into an amiable, literate and pious young woman who liked to read psalms and edifying devotional texts, yet she also had the skills that befitted her to grace any European court, and was an avid participator in courtly games of love. Before 1386, the poet Eustace Deschamps composed a ballade entided Des Deux Ordres de la Feuille at de la Fleur (Of the Two Orders of the Leaf and the Flower), in which he describes a popular May Day intellectual pastime in which courtiers declared themselves partisans of one or the other, the two symbols being regarded as either male or female. The finer details of this play have been lost in time, but Philippa, Deschamps tells us, was the chief patroness of the Order of the Flower. Unlike her sister, though, her life would never be tainted with scandal.

  Philippa's tomb effigy depicts a lady with small, delicate features — did she take after her mother? - and a long, graceful neck. The sixteenth-century Portuguese genealogy in the British Library, in which Queen Constance's image (already discussed) appears, shows Philippa with reddish hair and a fuller face, although this may be a fanciful representation.

  By 1380, John's hopes of winning Castile were improving. In 1379, Enrique of Trastamara had died, and been succeeded by his son, the melancholic and irresolute Juan I, another Francophile. In July 1380, John achieved notable diplomatic success when Ferdinand I, King of Portugal agreed to renew an alliance he had made with the Duke in 1372. With Ferdinand's friendship secured, John's ambitions appeared more realistic.

  The Duke now sought for a bride for his heir, Henry of Derby, who was thirteen, the same age as the King. Following Edward Ill's policy of marrying his sons to English heiresses and thus extending their land-holdings, affinities and influence, John set his sights on Mary de Bohun, younger daughter and co-heiress of his late friend, Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton. Her mother, Joan FitzAlan, was the Duke's cousin, and much liked by him. Mary was thus very well connected, being related to the House of Lancaster through her mother, but she was also very young, only eleven or thereabouts. Eleanor, her elder sister and co-heiress, was married to Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham, John's youngest brother, and Mary was living with them at Pleshy in Essex.

  Not being content with his share of the Bohun inheritance, Thomas was determined to lay his hands on the rest, which comprised the earldoms of Hereford and Northampton, and he put relentless pressure on young Mary to give it all up and take the habit of a Poor Clare nun. But in July 1380, with the connivance of her mother and John of Gaunt, Mary's aunt, Elizabeth de Bohun, Countess of Arundel, kidnapped her from Pleshey while Thomas was away campaigning in France, and took her to Arundel Castle in Sussex. On 28 July, on payment of 5,000 marks GC475.947). John of Gaunt secured from Richard II a grant of Mary's marriage to himself, thwarting his brother's ambitions, for the grant was in part payment of large sums owing to the Duke for military expenses. A furious Thomas, says Froissart, 'never after loved the Duke as he had hitherto done', although his wrath eventually abated and the two remained outwardly friendly."3 Soon afterwards — certainly before March 1381 -Mary was married with great ceremony and rejoicings to Henry of Derby at twelfth-century Rochford Hall in Essex, her mother's home. As Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster were present, it is probable that Katherine Swynford was too; there is later evidence to suggest that Mary de Bohun was fond of her, and Katherine would one day become a member of her household. After the wedding ceremony, Mary remained with her mother, with the Duke paying for her maintenance; because of her youth, he and the Countess had agreed that the consummation of the marriage should be delayed until Mary was fourteen.

  On 2 December 1380, whilst attending Parliament at Northampton, John of Gaunt ordered the payment of £50 (£19,384) to Katherine for Philippa of Lancaster's wardrobe and chamber expenses, and commanded that in future she be assigned £100 (£38,768) per annum for the same in equal portions at Easter and Michaelmas. Given that Philippa was now twenty, it is likely that Katherine was expected to be more of a companion and chaperone to her, rather than a governess.

  Kettlethorpe was not far from Northampton; with Katherine perhaps heavily pregnant at this time, John may well have ridden over to visit her. In her condition, it is hardly likely that she was present at Leicester at Christmas, when the King, the Princess Joan and the rest of the royal family were John's honoured guests. However, Philippa Chaucer was of the company, probably in attendance on the Duchess Constance, and at New Year, the Duke presented her with yet another silver-gilt hanap, worth £s.2s.id (£1,979)

  On 20 January 1381, at Leicester Castle, John granted Katherine the wardship of the lands and heir of the late Elys de Thoresby, a member of his retinue who lived about twelve
miles west of Kettlethorpe; in return, she was to perform all the services 'due and accustomed'. But the next day, a second grant of this wardship was issued, with the clause about the services omitted. Might we assume that Katherine herself had persuaded the Duke to leave it out, or that he amended it himself? The latter is more likely, for Katherine was probably not at Leicester at this time, and John probably had very good reasons for not wishing her to be burdened with feudal services. For this grant may well mark the birth of their third son and fourth child, Thomas Beaufort, who had perhaps been conceived at Kenilworth the previous April and been born probably at Kettlethorpe in January 1381. It has often been asserted that Thomas was born in 1377, since he was described as a 'young gentle-man' in February 13 97, but this probably refers purely to his rank and distinguishes him from his eldest brother, who was a knight. Like his Beaufort brothers, Thomas was given a favoured Lancastrian name, probably in honour of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, John's great-uncle, who had been executed in 1322 for opposing the inept Edward II, and was now popularly - but quite unjustifiably - reputed a saint. Thomas could also have been named for John's brother, Thomas of Woodstock, perhaps to mollify him for the loss of Mary de Bohun's inheritance.

  Historians have long speculated that there were perhaps other Beaufort children who did not survive infancy. The Duchess Blanche had borne seven children in nine years of marriage, and Katherine's record in the same time-span, when she was deeply involved with John and still mostly in her twenties, is only four. Possibly she suffered one or more miscarriages, stillbirths or neonatal deaths in the four years that probably lay between the births of Joan and Thomas. Such occurrences were common at all levels of mediaeval society — four of Blanche's children had died young — and it was rare for all one's offspring to survive infancy in that age of high infant mortality.

  In March 1381, John again increased Constance's chamber allowance, another gesture that might have been prompted by his conscience. Gifts given by him to Katherine around this time may mark a joyful reunion and his gratitude for the birth of their son: there were two tablets of silver and enamel costing seven marks (£877), a belt of silver costing 40s.od (£765), and a silver chaufour, or chafing pan, bought for 33s.4d (£626). The latter, which had three legs and a handle, and could be stood over a candle flame, was used to keep food warm at table. John had purchased, and perhaps commissioned, it from 'Herman, goldsmith of London', whom he often patronised. John of Gaunt's Register also lists other gifts 'to be delivered into my own hands and paid for the same day', which by their very nature must have been purchased for Katherine Swynford. These included 'a gold brooch in the form of a heart set with a diamond', again supplied by Herman the goldsmith, and 'a gold brooch set with a ruby and fashioned in the form of two hands'.

  It was probably while he was at Leicester - and certainly before 31 March — that the Duke gave Blanche, his bastard daughter by Marie de St Hilaire, in marriage to Sir Thomas Morieux of Thorpe Morieux, Suffolk, who had been a knight in his retinue since 1372, and had previously served as Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk. In 1381, Sir Thomas, who was renowned for his military exploits, was appointed Constable of the Tower of London, and in 1383 he would become Master of the Horse to Richard II. Froissart says he was popular in the ducal household because of his sardonic wit. John had done well by Blanche in marrying her to such a distinguished man, and in time he would make even more impressive provision for his Beaufort bastards.

  After the nuptials, John rode south to London and the Savoy, where on 3 April he hosted a magnificent feast for Cardinal Pileo de Prata and the envoys from Bohemia, who were in England to conclude the King's marriage treaty.

  This was the last time that the Savoy would serve as a setting for a state occasion, for trouble was brewing in the political cauldron, which would soon boil over and engulf the lives of John and Katherine. Back in 1379, in order to meet the heavy costs of the war with France, the government, under the Duke's auspices, had imposed a poll tax, a tax on the head of every subject. At first, payment was assessed on a graduated scale, according to the means of the taxpayer — and as John of Gaunt was richer by far than anybody else, he had to have a category all of his own. But the Commons disliked this system, and in the winter of 1380-1, a new poll tax was levied, this time at a flat rate of one shilling (£19) Per head, which was unjust and unfair, for while the rich could easily afford it, many of the poor faced ruin. Already there was widespread discontent at the dismal way the war was going. The people wanted victories, but instead they were being required to shoulder the burden of reverse after reverse. There was much anger against the government, most of it directed at John of Gaunt, who was held responsible for England's poor prowess in the war and the crippling poll tax. Tax collectors were attacked and even beheaded, there was widespread evasion and the protests became ever more vociferous. Yet on 13 March 1381, to the outrage of many, the council ruled that the poll tax must be enforced.

  John of Gaunt had other preoccupations. A truce with the Scots was about to expire, and on 1 May he received a new commission to treat with them. Three days later, in the midst of his preparations for his journey north, he sent Godfrey, his barber, to Katherine with a receipt for £50 (£18,783) for some pearls he had sold to her and his daughter Phllippa, which had been delivered to them by William Oke, the clerk of his great Wardrobe. He also purchased some devotional books, and on 12 May, paid the handsome sum of £5i.8s.2d (£19,312) for various gifts and expenses attendant upon the recent admission of 'Elizabeth Chaucy' to the prestigious Barking Abbey. This nun was probably the 'Elizabeth Chausier' who had entered St Helen's Priory in 1377, and thus almost certainly the daughter of Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer; there was no uniformity in spelling in the fourteenth century, and the involvement of the Duke further supports this identification. John's generous gesture — he had probably used his influence with the King to secure the necessary royal nomination, for without it, the daughter of a mere civil servant would never have gained entry to the aristocratic community at Barking — was perhaps made at the instigation of Katherine Swynford or Philippa Chaucer, or both, so that Elizabeth could join her cousin Margaret

  Swynford. The large sum involved suggests that the Duke paid Elizabeth's dowry too, which was perhaps included with the gifts.

  On 12 May, John left the Savoy; he could have had no idea that he would never see his beautiful palace again. Katherine probably rode northwards with him via Hertford, Bedford and Northampton, and when she said farewell to him, either at Northampton or possibly at Leicester around 20 May, she cannot have suspected that this was to be the end of nine illicit but happy years together, years during which she must have come to believe that she was an accepted and permanent part of his life, the love of his heart and the sole focus of his desire.


  'Turning Away the Wrath of God'

  At the beginning of June 1381, as John of Gaunt lay at Knaresborough, an army of yeomen and peasants was amassing in Kent and Essex, bent on the overthrow of a government that had imposed the cruelly oppressive poll tax and forced restrictive wage and price controls on labouring men whose services were in high demand after the depredations of the Black Death. The rebels had chosen for their leader — their 'idol', it was said — a man called Wat Tyler, and for their spokesmen one Jack Straw and an excommunicate priest, John Ball, who was going about the country preaching inflammatory and subversive sermons calling for the abolition of serfdom1 and posing the question:

  When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?

  On 10 June, the insurgents occupied Canterbury, then began their march on London, new recruits swelling their forces along the way, until they were at least fifty thousand strong. It was as well that the chief object of their venom, the Duke of Lancaster, was by then nearing Berwick, because it was he, above all, whom they were determined to destroy -for was he not the most powerful man in the realm, and therefore the man responsible for all the woes that had befallen it? Therefore, as soo
n as they reached the eastern approaches of the City of London, and set up their camp at Blackheath on 12 June, the rebel leaders sent a petition to Richard II demanding the heads of men they deemed traitors. John of Gaunt's name was at the top of the list.

  We do not know where Katherine was at this time. If she had indeed travelled north with John, parted from him at Leicester around 20 May and then ridden home to Kettlethorpe, she would surely have heard by now of the march of the people, because there were associated risings in other parts of the country, including East Anglia. Katherine was no fool: she realised that her notorious relationship with the Duke made her especially vulnerable, and that her very life might be in danger - a fear that was to be proved justified in the coming days. So, the author of the Anonimalle Chronicle tells us, she 'went into hiding where no one knew where to find her for a long time', no doubt taking her children with her; given that she had with her a new baby, she probably felt especially vulnerable. Philippa of Lancaster may have gone with them, for there is no record of Philippa's wherabouts during the coming crisis, and Katherine was responsible for her.4

  It is unlikely that Katherine went to Kettlethorpe or Lincoln, for she was too well-known in those places and could easily be found. Nor would it have been wise to go to any of the Duke's properties in the threatened areas, and she was almost certainly not at the Savoy. It is possible, but not probable, that she sought refuge at Wesenham Place, a house in King's Lynn that the Duke gave her at some unspecified date, for John Spanye, a cobbler of King's Lynn, was ranting round the area, inciting the people to slaughter the unpopular Flemish weavers who had for decades been settled in East Anglia. Of course, Katherine was a Hainaulter, not a Fleming, but an ignorant mob would not have made such a fine distinction; to them, she was a foreigner, the mistress of the most detested man in the land, and thus an object of hatred. It is feasible, of course, that Katherine sought refuge in a convent, the traditional place of safety for women, but — as will be seen - there is some reason to believe that she hid herself away in Pontefract Castle, that great Lancastrian stronghold in Yorkshire, and sent word to the Duke of her whereabouts.

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