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

  Knighton, often well-informed, says that as soon as John returned to his estates in England, he 'at once took occasion to send [Katherine] away, that she should no longer dwell with him'. The wording of this passage suggests that she was already with him when he returned — which we know was not the case — or waiting for them to be reunited at a prearranged location. As to returning to his estates, John was at Pontefract Castle from 20 to 21 July, before meeting up with Constance, and at Leicester from 28 July to 4 August. Constance's presence apart, the Mayor of Leicester had called out the militia at the height of the Peasants' Revolt, anticipating an attack on the castle, so it is hardly likely that Katherine had sought refuge there. But she might have been at Pontefract: the twelfth-century castle was strongly fortified and garrisoned, some good way north, and easily accessible from Lincolnshire - just the kind of place where the Duke would have sent his lady for safety, for he had ordered his household to go there when he went to Edinburgh, and had arranged for firewood and barrels of the best wine to be delivered to them.51 It was also, as the centre of the Lancastrian administration and one of the favoured northern residences of the Duke, who had expended a fortune on lavish improvements there, a fitting residence for Philippa of Lancaster, who — as has been noted - may have been with Katherine. And Katherine's presence there might have been one of the reasons why the Duchess Constance was refused admittance. Considering that the Duke's household was already lodging there, there were no grounds for the constable to bar the door to his Duchess.

  Knighton implies that John imparted his fateful decision to Katherine in person before sending her away. We can only imagine that excruciatingly painful interview and the devastating impact his renunciation would have had on her. Not only had she lost her royal lover, but she was also to lose her position in the Lancastrian household. There was no question now that she could remain as governess or companion to Philippa of Lancaster—her name was too synonymous with scandal— and in February 1382 an entry in John of Gaunt's Register referring to her as 'recently governess of our daughters' confirms that she had ceased to occupy that office.34 We may assume that her duties came to an end at the same time as her affair with the Duke, when she delivered Philippa into his care.

  What is likely is that, at the same time as he informed Katherine that their sexual relations must cease, John assured her that she would always have his friendship and that he would continue to look after the interests of their children - his actions in the years to come bear this out. The fact that their relations remained amicable — at the very least — confirms that he made the break as kindly as possible. Of course, they would have a legitimate reason — and need - for keeping in touch with each other: the young Beauforts.

  Shocked and desolate as she must have been, Katherine may yet have shared John's qualms of conscience and fear of divine retribution - such was the mediaeval mindset. She may have been shocked to hear that he had had other women during the course of their nine-year relationship. But she was also, clearly, a survivor. Initially, she probably returned to Kettlethorpe, trying to recover her equilibrium and decide what she should do. Certainly she would never be in want: the Duke's generous provision for her had seen to that, while she had been a careful preserver of her son's inheritance. And there was to be further proof of John's care for her: on 7 September 1381, he substantially increased her annuity to 200 marks (£24,831) for life, in consideration of 'her good service to his daughters' - and possibly to reward Katherine for sheltering Philippa during the Peasants' Revolt. This grant has been seen as a pay-off," and it probably does mark the formal termination of Katherine's service as governess. Ten days later, the Duke ordered that moneys owing to her 'from the issues of land and tenements' that belonged to her ward, Eustacia de Savenby, be paid; and if the tenants did not pay their dues, the lieutenant ofTickhill was to 'distrain the lands and tenements of all goods and chattels'.

  It was probably later in 1381 that Katherine (perhaps using her new funds) took a lease on the Chancery, a fine house in Minster Yard (the cathedral close) in Lincoln, which was to remain her town residence until at least 1393. The fact that she kept this house on for at least twelve years argues that it was at first a refuge for her, a place that had no connections with the Duke, and that in time she came to feel at home in it. The Cathedral Close must have held some happy memories for her: at least one of her children had been baptised (and perhaps born) there, and she was apparently well thought of by the clergy who resided in the neighbouring houses. Maybe she was grateful for their support, and the chance to withdraw into this closed and protective community, a world dominated by the regular pealing of the cathedral bells.

  At the Chancery, as at Kettlethorpe, Katherine lived in some state. This important house had been the official residence of the cathedral chancellors since 1321, but was some years older than that, having been built before 1260, when it was leased by Canon Thomas Ashby; at that time, it had probably occupied the site of the brick range that now fronts Pottergate, the street that lies east of the cathedral; the vanished church of St Margaret, where Thomas Swynford was baptised, stood opposite on what is today a green situated beside by the Greestone Stairs to the city, while the Bishop's Palace lay a few yards to the west. When Chancellor Anthony Bek (later Bishop of Norwich) acquired the house in 1321, needing adequate space for study and recreation, he built a wing stretching north at right angles to the existing building, added a stately timber hall and extended the garden, creating a grand residence. For this, he was paying an annual rent of 10s. (£172) — a pittance for such a fine house. Fourteen new windows were inserted in the property by carpenters in 1343, at which time the Chancery boasted at least one stone privy.

  The Chancellor was the senior clergyman responsible for overseeing the diocesan grammar schools and the cathedral library. The close, which was surrounded by a strong high wall, two turrets of which still stand in the garden of the Chancery, contained the Deanery and other spacious houses for the cathedral canons, some of which survive at least in part today. For much of the second half of the fourteenth century, thanks to the Black Death and poor endowments, chancellors were in short supply, and consequently the Chancery - the oldest of the clergy houses, and known by this name before Katherine's time — was sublet and rented out to various persons in succession, including a number of canons, the 'Lady of Withornwick' (who came from a knightly family in Holderness) in 1379-81, and after her, Katherine Swynford.

  By the end of the 1380-1 financial year, the Lady of Withornwick had vacated the house, then from 1381 to 1386, an unnamed female tenant paid the very reasonable annual rent of 40s. (£751), plus 10s. (£188) towards the cathedral's fabric fund. This must have been Katherine, because in 1386-7 we find 'the Lady Katherine, renter of the house' doing repairs there. In 13 91-2, Katherine Swynford is again referred to in the Chapter accounts, when the new Chancellor, John Huntman (who had been appointed in 1390) received a remittance from the Chapter on account of the Chancery, because it was then occupied by her by 'an old grant of the Chapter' (which no longer exists), and was obliged to ask for another house in which to live. Katherine therefore appears to have taken out a long lease on the Chancery, for at least twelve — and possibly fifteen — years, because of which poor John Huntman was unable to take possession of his official residence until after 1396. It was in 1390-2 that John of Gaunt secured a settlement highly favourable to the close in a long-running dispute with the Bail, so the Chapter are hardly likely to have put pressure on Katherine to vacate the Chancery at that time.

  In moving into this almost exclusively ecclesiastical male enclave, which was inhabited by nearly 130 men in holy orders in 1377, Katherine was isolating herself from the citizens of Lincoln - with whom she was clearly not popular, as will be seen — and surrounding herself by people who had shown themselves friendly, such as the canons who had served as sponsors at the font for her son, who were now among her neighbours.38 However, their willingness to accept such a notorious woman into
their community may have stemmed not so much from their past esteem of her as from a desire to ensure that John of Gaunt continued to show favour to the-close, especially in its endemic conflicts with the Bail; as a member of its Confraternity, he had a great spiritual affinity with the cathedral, which must have predisposed him to partiality towards the close. The cathedral's sub-Dean, John of Belvoir, seems to have been instrumental in obtaining the tenancy for Katherine. In so doing, he and his brethren were acknowledging the continuing friendship that was perceived to be between her and the Duke after the ending of their love affair.

  It may be too that, knowing Katherine as they had done since before she became the Duke's mistress, the canons realised that she was a woman of greater integrity than most people gave her credit for - and, of course, she was now no longer living in sin. One canon, John Dalton, left her a silver cup when he died in 1402; another made provision for prayers to be said for her soul and that of the Duke in the Chapel of Spital in Lincolnshire. Evidently she was held in some regard by her new neighbours.

  The Chancery is still lived in by the Chancellor today, and a substantial amount of it survives from Katherine's time. Although the redbrick front facade with its gatehouse and great chamber dates only from the early Tudor period, the north gable of the street range, and the stone-and-timber wing projecting northwards at right angles from the street, which incorporates Katherine's solar and chapel and the screens passage from her great hall, are of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century respectively. The great hall itself does not survive, but once extended across what is now the garden, lying parallel with the gatehouse; in Katherine's day it had courtyards on either side, and the central hearth was possibly on the site of the present ornamental pond.We know the hall was timber-framed because the parliamentary surveyors who inspected the property for Oliver Cromwell in 1649 mistook the derelict structure for a 'large shed open to the roof; this last detail probably refers to a mediaeval louvre that allowed the smoke from the fire to escape. Fortunately, the commisioners recorded the measurements of this building: at 40' by 28', this was no shed, but a mediaeval hall of imposing proportions, with entrance doors on either side. Unfortunately for posterity, it was demolished in 1714.

  The dais where Katherine would have presided at table over her household, and sometimes entertained John of Gaunt, has long disappeared therefore, but the surviving screens passage boasts three fine doorways, each adorned with corbel heads of a king and a bishop. The left one led to the buttery, which still has a fourteenth-century window, and the right gave access to the pantry and the kitchen beyond (which also had a louvre), while the middle door opened on to a straight flight of stairs leading up to the chapel, where Katherine would have worshipped and heard Mass. The small chapel has a fourteenth-century triple-lancet window, an aumbry for the Blessed Sacrament, and a piscina with a delicately sculpted ogee arch. The windows and floor date mainly from the late fifteenth century.

  Katherine's solar, a private first-floor apartment built around 1300 and located between the Tudor frontage and the chapel anteroom, is unrecognisable today, having been divided into bedrooms and corridors. Like the adjacent chapel, it was open to the roof beams in her day. The solar was the chamber in which she had her bed (the most expensive item of furniture she would have owned), received visitors informally, sought refuge from the world, and perhaps bathed in a wooden tub lined with white cloth and filled with scented water.

  The small anteroom to the chapel has a fourteenth-century squint, permitting the observation of Mass in private. Such squints were sometimes used to enable people excluded from services, such as lepers, to be present without infecting others, but they were also used to facilitate the sight of one altar from another, ensuring co-ordination in the administering of communion, so it could be that the chapel was too small to accommodate all Katherine's household at Mass, and that some people were obliged to worship in the anteroom. An alternative theory is that the anteroom, which was adjacent to her solar, may have served as Katherine's private oratory; we know that she had twice before received permission to have portable altars, so evidently she had a penchant for solitary devotion. Possibly she preferred to participate in services apart from her household.

  Katherine's great chamber, the 'lord's chamber' of 1343, where she — and perhaps the Duke on occasion — formally received visitors, was long ago demolished to make way for the Tudor wing fronting the street. Above the pantry and kitchen to the north of the property, according to the 1649 survey, were six lodging chambers with garrets above, now also long gone. Possibly these chambers had once provided accommodation for Katherine's children and guests, with the servants upstairs in the attics.

  Below the fourteenth-century wing and the gatehouse were cellars for storage. We cannot be sure that the brew-house and wood-house that adjoined the kitchen in 1649 and had servants' quarters above were there in Katherine's time. The parliamentary survey also records a stableyard with stone stables incorporating three bays, a hayloft above and a tiled roof, but given Katherine's status and the likely size of her household, her stables were probably larger, for in 1391, we will find her keeping twelve horses in John of Gaunt's stable-block. In 1649, the three gardens (or 'courts') belonging to the Chancery contained fruit trees.

  To assert, as Lucraft does, that there is 'much evidence' that John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford were 'very much still together' in the 1380s (a decade in which he was in fact abroad for over three years) is perhaps to overstate the case. In order to determine the nature of their relationship in the period from 1381 to 1396, we have to look for clues in just two dozen or so references to Katherine in records of this period (some of which have nothing to do with John of Gaunt). It is important to remember that these official records give us no more comprehensive a picture of relations between John and Katherine than do those that are extant for the period during which they are known to have been lovers. For these records are not complete — less so than before, in fact, for John of Gaunt's Register survives only up to 1383. It is circumstantial evidence that suggests that the Duke had less frequent dealings with Katherine than he had prior to 1381.

  There can be no question, though, that Katherine continued to play a part - possibly an important one - in his life, nor that other people were aware of this. John continued to provide generously for her and their children, and sent her gifts, as before; moreover, it is clear that he was seen to be her protector. They obviously remained on good terms and mutually supportive, she lending him money when he needed it, and he showing marked favour to her family. Both the Dean and Chapter at Lincoln on the one part, in 1381, and Richard II on the other, in 1383, 1384, 1387, 1388 and 1389, recognised that, if they wanted to please the Duke and retain his powerful support, they should show favour to Katherine Swynford. And Katherine herself continued to be a woman of influence and standing, which must be attributed to her connection with John of Gaunt.

  Of course, this could all have stemmed from the fact that she was the mother of the Duke's children. Yet few royal mistresses had ever achieved such status, and the fact that Katherine did is surely evidence of his continuing esteem and love for her — as, of course, is the fact that he later married her, in an age when it was virtually unheard of for princes to wed the mothers of their bastards. But love can be expressed in many different ways, and it looks very much as if, until 1389 at least, John kept his word and refrained from her bed.

  The soundest argument in favour of their relationship remaining platonic, at least for the present, is that Katherine is not known to have borne any more children. She was only in her thirties, and had conceived fairly frequently during her years with John and her marriage to Hugh; nor was there any effective contraception that might have facilitated the secret continuance of sexual relations.

  Then there is the fact that no chronicler — and Walsingham in particular was quick to censure the Duke — even so much as hinted that the affair was still going on after the public renunciation; given it
s notoriety beforehand, we might expect people to have been on the lookout for signs that the erstwhile lovers had fallen from grace. But there was no further scandal. No, the picture we have, at least for the 1380s - as will become clear — is one of affection and mutual support, driven and cemented by the common bond of the couple's children.

  From 1381 to 1386, John of Gaunt remained at the forefront of the English political scene. He dominated the Council and Parliament, and played a leading role in diplomacy. At the same time, he was pursuing his quest for the Castilian crown, vigorously promoting 'the way of Spain' as England's best chance of defeating the French. Knighton says that, after the perils he had endured, the honour in which he was now held was a great consolation to him; and he seems to have achieved some peace of mind and conscience too, for at length 'joy came to the Duke, and to those who were dear to him'. 'He drew such strength from his virtue that he sought no revenge, but patiently forgave the offences of anyone who sought forgiveness.' Only two men were brought to trial for having assisted in the destruction of the Savoy.

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