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

  Meanwhile, as the 'savage hordes approached the City like waves of sea', the young King's councillors had panicked and taken refuge with him in the Tower. When, on Thursday 13 June, Richard II failed to respond to their demands, the rebels lost patience and 'with cruel eagerness for the slaughter' surged across London Bridge into the City, where, reinforced by hundreds of sympathetic Londoners and hot-headed apprentices, they embarked on a frenzy of destruction and bloodletting. 'Burn! Kill!' was their chilling cry.8

  They opened the prisons, torched houses and brothels, and broke into Lambeth Palace, which they fired, and the Temple, where they destroyed valuable documents. Flooding into the Strand in the afternoon, they saw before them the great edifice of the Savoy, white and beautiful against the summer sky. In that moment, the wondrous palace was doomed, for to the insurgents it represented all that was hateful to them: the power of the despised Duke of Lancaster, the authority of feudal lordship, and the wealth of the landed classes.

  Into the Savoy surged the mob, thirty thousand strong, their righteous purpose to destroy rather than loot. 'They made proclamation that none, on pain to lose his head, should convert to his own use anything that there was, but that they should break such as was found.' They killed the guards at the gates, then poured into the cellars, where they smashed the great casks of fine wines, and watched in glee as the gold and ruby liquid spilled over the flagstones. 'We are not thieves and robbers, we are true commons, zealots for truth and justice!' the people cried. Then they raced upstairs to the Duke's treasury, whence they dragged a wealth of gold and silver plate. This they battered with axes, before hauling the lot out to the terrace and hurling it into the Thames. The jewels and precious stones they ground in mortars or underfoot, and their residue also went into the river.

  Some were raiding the ducal wardrobe, pulling out elegant garments of cloth of gold, and armour; an expensive quilted jack (a protective garment worn under a breastplate) belonging to John of Gaunt was set up as a target for arrows, in the absence of its owner, and then hacked to pieces. 'We will have no king named John!' trumpeted 'the yokel band'. Others were ripping tapestries, cushions, napery, rich silk hangings and illuminated manuscripts, or chopping up fine furniture. All were carried to the great hall and heaped in a pile, which was then set alight. Soon the blaze had taken hold, and the palace was engulfed in flames. The conflagration was complete when three barrels of gunpowder stored in the cellars — and thought by the rebels to contain gold and silver — were hurled into the fire and exploded. One fool was cast alive into the inferno by his furious companions 'because he minded to have reserved one piece of plate for himself', and in the cellars below, thirty-two of his fellows, drunk and carousing on the Duke's wine, were trapped when the roof caved in, and slowly perished: their 'cries and lamentations' could be heard by curious citizens 'for seven days afterwards'.0 In the end, all that was left of the great Savoy was a pile of charred masonry, lead and ashes: all had been utterly destroyed.

  Meanwhile, north of London, a yeoman band was ransacking Hertford Castle; elsewhere in the Lancastrian domains there were attacks on John of Gaunt's servants and property," and in Essex, one of his unfortunate squires was beheaded. At Leicester, the terrified keeper of the wardrobe loaded the Duke's clothes and treasures onto five carts and demanded that the Abbot of Leicester take them into safekeeping, but the Abbot, also 'in great fear', flatly refused, so the keeper was obliged to store his hoard in the churchyard of St Mary's Church in the Newarke. Men who wore

  Lancastrian livery badges prudently tore them off and made themselves scarce. There can be no doubt that had the Duke himself fallen into the hands of the insurgents, he would have met with a violent end.

  In the midst of the chaos, and with the sky red with the glow from the burning Savoy, the fourteen-year-old King's courage shone clear. He would meet with the rebels, he said, and parley with them. On 14 June, he rode forth to Mile End and fearlessly faced Wat Tyler, who petitioned the King for the abolition of serfdom and the right to deal with traitors — there was no mistaking whom he meant. Richard agreed to all his demands, but as this meeting was taking place, the mob was still running riot in London. This time, their target was the Flemish merchant community, resented as aliens, and for the commercial privileges they enjoyed and the wealth they had amassed. The rebels brutally dragged thirty-five of these unfortunate wretches out of St Martin's Church in Vintry and systematically beheaded them in the street;'3 over a hundred more were hunted down and lynched, and that, surely, would have been the fate of Katherine Swynford, had the malcontents found her in London; she also was a foreigner hailing from the Low Countries, and the rebels had far more cause to butcher her: if the head of John of Gaunt was among the foremost of their demands, that of his mistress would have been forfeit too.

  Chaucer clearly perceived the danger that threatened his wife and her sister. Not only were they aliens, but they both were also closely connected with the Duke. Chaucer does not make many political references in his poems, but in 'The Nun's Priest's Tale', written perhaps a decade later, he reveals how personally affected he was by the Peasants' Revolt:

  So hideous was the noise, a benedicite [bless us]! Certes he, Jack Straw, and all his meinie [retinue], Ne made never shouts half so shrill When that they would any Fleming kill.

  It sounds as if Chaucer had heard those chilling yells himself.

  The mob also breached the Tower's defences and ransacked the armoury. Some burst into the Princess Joan's chamber, where — as they tore her bed-hangings apart - one man made so bold as to snatch a kiss from her. The shock (whether of the attack or the kiss is uncertain) was so great that she fainted. Fourteen-year-old Henry of Derby, John of Gaunt's heir, was smuggled out of the Tower in the nick of time, but old Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was not so lucky: he was seized whilst at prayer in St John's Chapel in the White Tower, dragged outside to Tower Hill and there horrifically decapitated, it needing eight blows to sever his head. Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer, and John of Gaunt's physician, Brother William Appleton, suffered a similar fate.

  The next day, 15 June, Richard II again met with the rebels, this time at Smithfield, and again - 'saving only the legality of his crown' - agreed to all their demands, including one for a new version of Magna Carta. But while he was speaking with Wat Tyler, Sir William Walworth, the hardline Lord Mayor of London, appalled at the familiarity with which the peasant leader was treating the King - calling him 'brother' and staying in the saddle drinking ale when he should have been kneeling — tried to arrest Tyler. Tyler retaliated by drawing his dagger, whereupon Walworth fatally stabbed him. Seeing their leader cut down, Tyler's followers were ready to erupt in outrage, but the young King — with great presence of mind — stayed them, raising his hand and declaring, 'I will be your leader! You shall have no captain but me!' Promising them all parchments confirming that they would be made free men, he persuaded the rebels to disperse peacefully, which they did, believing that all they had asked for had been granted.

  How wrong they were. Walworth immediately rode off to raise an army. The Council, scared out of its wits at the demonstrations that had just taken place, was determined to crush any moves to change the old order. There were to be no parchments, just summary justice and bloody reprisals — two hundred were hanged. 'Serfs ye are, and serfs ye will remain,' the young King now said, forgetting his promises. By the end of June, the 'great mischief, as Froissart called it, had been decisively crushed. The only good thing to come out of it, as far as John of Gaunt was concerned, was a degree of public sympathy and outrage ignited by the wanton destruction of his property.

  By 19 June, news of the Peasants' Revolt and the destruction of the Savoy had reached John of Gaunt at Berwick. We can only imagine its immediate impact on him, although 'he heard the tidings with a cheerful countenance, as though he were unmoved by them, and kept them to himself'.'7 But his actions during the days to come strongly suggest that he was profoundly shocked an
d had come rapidly to view his devastating losses, the violent hostility towards him, and the danger in which he still stood not just as the appalling consequences of national unrest, but also as clear proof of divine displeasure with his immoral ways. He considered, says Knighton, 'on every side the past events of his life, and everything that he had done, to see whether he had offended, either privately or publicly, the King or the realm, in such wise that he might deserve the fate that had fallen upon him. And weighing all justly in his mind, he fastened his mind upon God.' One thing above all 'turned in his mind ... He frequently had heard, both from churchmen [who no doubt included his Carmelite confessor, Walter Dyssel and from members of his own household, that his reputation was greatly tarnished in all parts of the realm. He had paid no attention to what was said to him, because he was blinded by desire, fearing neither God nor shame amongst men.' The object of that blind desire had, of course, been Katherine Swynford. Now, 'considering these things, and inspired by the grace of God, he turned about and, committing himself wholly to the divine mercy, and promising that he would reform his life, he vowed to God that he would, as soon as he was able, remove that lady from his household, so that there could be no further offence'. Walsingham says that, in making private confession of his sins, John 'blamed himself for the deaths of [those] who had been laid low by impious violence' during the Peasants' Revolt, and 'reproached himself for his liaison with Katherine Swynford, or rather renounced it'.

  Practical considerations came first. Immediately, the Duke, displaying great presence of mind and no sign of fear, ordered the garrisoning of all his castles.l8That same day, 19 June, he agreed with the sympathetic Scots a renewal of the truce until February 1383. Then he left Berwick and rode south, but when he sought a lodging with his former ally, Henry Percy, Percy snubbed him. Fearing no doubt to be associated with the unpopular John of Gaunt, he told him he would not be welcome at any of his castles until he, Percy, had been assured by the King that the Duke could be trusted. Bitterly insulted, a despairing John decided to retreat to Edinburgh.

  The shock and the strain he had suffered had had a profound effect on him. When dismissing his servants, who were not to be obliged to share his exile, he broke down and made an astonishing public announcement, declaring 'with tears and expressions of grief that 'he observed that God wished to chastise him for his misdeeds and the evil life that he had for long led, namely in the sin of lechery, in which he had particularly associated with Dame Katherine de Swynford, a she-devil and enchantress, and with many others in his wife's household, against the will of God and the laws of Holy Church'. Accordingly, he had decided to renounce Katherine (and presumably the others), and he assured those around him that he had promised the complete 'amendment of his way of life to God'. 'By these devices, so he believed, he placated the Lord's anger,' observed Walsingham.

  Needless to say, the chroniclers were unanimous in applauding the Duke's belated realisation of his folly, and in their version of events, it is Katherine — the woman, the temptress — who emerges as the villain of the piece. Knighton felt the Duke had been lucky to be spared a worse fate, and imputed his being in the north when 'those wicked wretches' struck to the work of divine Providence. Wakingham, who was convinced that John's renunciation of Katherine 'turned away the wrath of God', was to write more kindly of him in the future. In fact, all the chroniclers viewed that renunciation as a crucial turning point in the Duke's life, and they are hardly likely to have continued to do so had they not been convinced that it was genuine. Moreover, they clearly believed that he saw it as a turning point too.

  Was it John who used the words 'she-devil and enchantress', or was the description that of the anonymous chronicler of York? The passage reads as if the writer was reporting the Duke's actual speech, although he could not of course have been there to hear it in person. Perhaps he heard a garbled version of it, repeated by travellers. But these particular words could well be a monastic interpolation, born of moral outrage and the belief that women employed the snares of the devil to entice men to sin; we do not, from other sources, get a sense of the Duke feeling — as did many mediaeval men — that in some way he had been the victim of a woman's wiles, or lured by witchcraft to fall from grace. On the contrary, he made it repeatedly clear that he himself bore the responsibility for his sins: he did not try to blame Katherine. In this respect, Walsingham's hasty qualification in his account of John's renunciation of her is most revealing: the Duke, he says, 'abhorred, or rather abjured, the fellowship of that concubine of his' (author's italics).

  In Edinburgh, John was made most welcome. Lodged at Holyrood Abbey, he gave further evidence of repenting his former sinful existence, again declaring his intention of expelling Katherine from his household. On 23 June, again in keeping with his new resolve to change his mode of life, he summoned the Duchess Constance to come north to him at once, and directed his receiver in Lancashire to entrust her with urgently needed funds. Six days later, having heard that Constance was at Knaresborough, and not knowing if she was safe, he made plans for a rescue attempt, summoning a force to meet him at Berwick on 13 July.

  John stayed in Edinburgh until 10 July, awaiting Richard II's assurance that it would be safe for him to return to London, and — more to the point — that the King would welcome him there. When this was forthcoming, he rode speedily south via Berwick — where he was joined by his military escort — Bamburgh, Newcastle, Durham and Northallerton, which he reached on 19 July. Here he met his wife, who had left Knaresborough and was travelling north in response to his summons.

  Constance had suffered a nightmare journey.Terrified in case she herself become a target of the rebels, she had fled north from Hertford and sought refuge in Pontefract Castle, only to find the gates barred to her by its faint-hearted - or perhaps over-cautious - constable, who said he did not dare to admit her. Hearing this, many of her frightened servants deserted her, so, 'smitten in her heart with great fear', and with only a small escort, she rode by lanternlight through the night and the forest, braving footpads and outlaws, to Knaresborough Castle, where to her relief the castellan afforded her a sympathetic welcome. This experience had left her thoroughly frightened and vulnerable, and she now looked 'to find safety under the wing of her lord'.

  Seeing the Duke approaching, and with her retinue drawn up behind her, Constance went to meet him. There, on the road, she prostrated herself three times before him, as if she were the one in need of forgiveness — John may not have been the only one whom recent events had shocked into a fit of conscience. Quickly he dismounted, raised her up, took her by the hand and kissed her, then listened compassionately to her woeful tale, while she in turn expressed sorrow at the perils and misfortunes that had befallen him. At length, John asked her pardon for 'his misdeeds to her', and 'she forgave him willingly'. That evening, they repaired to the Bishop of Durham's strongly fortified and moated palace, a favourite stopping place of royalty that stood two hundred yards west of All Saints' Church, Northallerton, 'and there was great joy and celebration between them, and with their companions that day and night'.29

  We can only imagine with what reluctance John of Gaunt returned to his wife. Severing his emotional and physical connections with Katherine must have been deeply painful, however strong his moral convictions. There can be little doubt that he genuinely felt he had to make amends for his sins, but there was probably more to it than that. Never a man to concern himself overly with public opinion, he must yet have been aware of the need to defuse the threatening situation in which he now found himself, and to make it clear that he was abandoning a way of life that had conceivably brought down divine vengeance upon him, and indeed upon the kingdom. To have persisted in it would have been to court further disaster.

  His concern was not only for himself. Perry makes the pertinent point that the Duke's property had been destroyed, his physician and several officers murdered and his wife thoroughly frightened, while the mob had violently targeted the Flemings and demand
ed his own head. Only by disassociating himself from Katherine, therefore, could he hope to protect her and their children.

  There were political considerations too. John now had much more realistic hopes of winning the throne of Castile, and would have realised that he stood a greater chance of success — with Parliament and the Castilians, as well as the Almighty - if he presented a united front with Constance. A convincing reconciliation was therefore imperative. In this, the Duke and Duchess would willingly collaborate, brought together by their shared ambitions and by his increasing reliance on her knowledge of her kingdom, her judgement and her advice.

  Only compelling reasons such as these could have persuaded him that he must give up Katherine Swynford. Was he sincere? Did he truly mean to sever all illicit connections with her? At the time, almost certainly he did. There is no doubt that the Peasants' Revolt had been cataclysmic for him.

  It might also be argued that, after nine years together and four children, John had tired of Katherine anyway, but the facts do not bear this out: the two of them were to keep in touch, mutually supportive of each other, for many yean to come, while John proved a good father to their children, continued to extend his patronage to Katherine's family, and eventually risked public censure by marrying her, while she clearly continued to play an important role in his life. All those things argue a deep-seated and long-cherished love between them — in which case, John's public renunciation of Katherine and all that they meant to each other must have cost him dear, and occasioned him deep private suffering. It is surely no coincidence that, on 23 July, just days after he announced his intention of separating from her, he granted land for the foundation of a chapel dedicated to her name-saint and the Virgin Mary — for whom he himself had a special devotion - at Roecliffe in Yorkshire; nor would it be too far-fetched to imagine that he was founding this chapel in the hope that the grateful saints would guard and watch over Katherine in the difficult days ahead. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the chapel was ever built, so perhaps the Duke came to a belated awareness that openly associating himself with a foundation dedicated to his repudiated mistress's name-saint was not the wisest of gestures.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]