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


  It was John who met the new Queen, Anne of Bohemia — 'so good, so fair, so debonair', according to Chaucer — as she disembarked at Dover, and John who escorted her through the streets of London prior to her wedding to Richard II in January 1382 at Westminster. (It was Anne who introduced the horned headdress, or 'moonytire', into England, a fashion that Katherine Swynford may well have worn.) At the end of that month, John asked Parliament for a loan to finance an expedition to Castile, but the response was generally unenthusiastic.

  John of Gaunt never rebuilt the Savoy. Instead, he left the blackened ruin as it was, a stark reminder of the violence done to his property;43 the site would remain derelict until Henry VII built the Hospital of the Savoy on it over a century later. The Duke concentrated instead on making Kenilworth the Lancastrian showpiece, and when he was needed in London, he resided at Hertford Castle - its roof was restored in 1383 with lead from the Savoy— or in the Bishop of London's palace at Fulham, or at La Neyte (also known as the Neate), the country residence of the Abbot of Westminster, located by the River Tyburn in the area that is now Bayswater and Hyde Park.

  Historians have long debated the implications of the quitclaim that John of Gaunt issued to Katherine Swynford on 14 February 1382 in London. Its text is as follows:

  John, by the grace of God, King of Castile, etc., greetings.

  Let it be known that we have remised [a legal term meaning relinquished or surrendered], released and entirely from ourselves and our heirs quitclaimed the Lady Katherine de Swynford, recently governess of our daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster, and all manner of actions concerning her that we have, have had, and could possibly have in the future, reckoned by an agreement of debt, transaction, or whatever other means from the beginning of this world up to the day of the completion of these presents. And so that neither ourselves, our heirs, nor our executors, nor anyone else through us, or in our name, may in the future by reason of some premise or other, demand or be able to vindicate any claim or right concerning the aforementioned Lady Katherine, her heirs or her executors; but from all actions let us be totally excluded by the witness of these presents. In testimony of which we affix our private seal to this, with the sign of our ring on the reverse.

  Confusion has long reigned as to the purpose of this document: was it drawn up to protect John's interests or Katherine's? The answer lies in understanding what a quitclaim deed actually was. Since mediaeval times, it has been a document in which the granter relinquishes all rights and interests in a property to the grantee. The granter is the person who has sold or transferred a piece of property, or an interest in it, and the grantee is the person who has received it. Thus, in issuing a quitclaim, the granter 'quits' any claims to the property referenced in the deed. To quote a simplistic example, in the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the knight, referring to a weapon, says: 'I quit claim to it. He shall keep it as his own.'

  And that was exactly what John of Gaunt was doing when — on behalf of himself and his heirs — he quit all claims to the property and other assets he had granted Katherine Swynford. Which is a very far cry from asserting - as many writers have done - that he intended that neither she nor her children were ever again to have any claim on himself and his heirs. On the contrary, it was a most generous and loving gesture intended to protect the interests of Katherine and the Beauforts and ensure they were handsomely provided for.

  I am indebted to Joan Potton for pointing out the significance of the document being issued on St Valentine's Day. In the late fourteenth century, it was believed that birds paired up and mated on that day; the custom of choosing a 'Valentine' did not emerge until the fifteenth century, but the connection of lovers with St Valentine may go as far back as the emergence of the cults of two Roman martyrs of that name, and the tradition probably became popular with the development of the mediaeval concept of courtly love. Thus there was a clear association between love and St Valentine's Day in 1382, when John of Gaunt issued the quitclaim deed, and the choice of this date — surely no accident — was perhaps to reassure Katherine that the Duke still secretly cherished deep feelings for her, even if they could not be lovers as before.

  Other evidence shows that he was still very protective of her welfare and determined to be a good lord to her family. On 20 February 1382, he sent Katherine a gift of two tuns of Gascon wine, one from Bristol, the other from Rothwell.47 John of Gaunt's Register shows that by 1382, young Thomas Swynford was already a member of the Duke's retinue, serving as a soldier and shield-bearer, which suggests that John had taken him into his service as soon as he was old enough to be useful and promoted him quickly; Silva-Vigier credibly suggests that he had willingly assumed a fatherly role in the boy's life. Now, in 1382, he placed Thomas, aged fifteen, in the retinue of Henry of Derby, a youth of his own age, to whom Thomas seems to have acquired a lifelong attachment.

  That same year, Katherine and her daughter Joan Beaufort, who was five, were briefly in attendance on Henry of Derby's young wife, Mary de Bohun, who was still living in the household of her mother, the Countess of Hereford, at Rochford Hall in Essex. As has been mooted, Joan Beaufort may have been born under the Countess's roof, and named after her; the Countess, if she had been her sponsor at the font, would have taken a special interest in her.

  On 1 February 1382, John had paid the Countess money for the maintenance of his daughter-in-law, Mary de Bohun, up till her fourteenth birthday, which fell on 15 February that year. Officially, Mary and Henry of Derby were not supposed to start cohabiting until then, but they had breached this rule at least seven months earlier, and Mary was now pregnant. She bore a son, Edward, on 24 April, at Rochford Hall, but he only lived four days. A week later, the disappointed young father — who had raced to be with his wife and hastily appointed a nurse and governor for his son - was taking part in the May Day jousts at Hereford (jousting was his newly discovered passion, delightedly encouraged by his father), perhaps chafing under the Duke's prohibition of any resumption of marital relations with Mary for the time being: she would not bear another child for five years.

  Katherine's arrival in the Countess's household may have been timed to coincide with the birth of Mary's baby. Katherine had had long experience of looking after infants, and she was good with children and young people. Her association with Mary de Bohun was to endure until death severed it, suggesting that Mary regarded her as a friend and mentor. There is evidence too to show that Henry of Derby thought highly of Katherine - his regard and affection for her would become clearly evident in the years to come. It has been asserted by several writers that Katherine became at this time a permanent fixture in Mary's chamber, and that this provided a cover for her continuing intimacy with the Duke, but there is no evidence for this, and it would be three years before a household was set up for the young Earl and Countess of Derby. The lack of any further references to Katherine being in attendance on Mary in the ensuing months and years suggests that she was with her for only a short time in 1382, hardly evidence of a permanent position.

  If John of Gaunt visited his son's wife when Katherine was at Rochford Hall in 1382 (and there is no evidence that he did), he could have done so without incurring any scandal, for the Countess of Hereford, their mutual friend, was there to act as chaperone. We can only imagine how difficult John and Katherine found the first meetings after their parting, how long it was before they grew used to the fact that there could be no more between them than friendship, and how long before the pain ceased to be raw. Given that they probably resumed their affair some years on, we might surmise that their feelings for each other were never fully stifled, and that desire remained lively and had constantly to be suppressed.

  On 6 May 1382, back in London, the Duke paid for gifts for his daughters, Mary de Bohun and Philippa Chaucer, who received another hanap.50 With Katherine busily dividing her time between Kettlethorpe, Lincoln and the Derby household — and the affair between her and the Duke officially ended —
Philippa Chaucer may have felt more comfortable about resuming her duties in the Duchess's household, although she remained based in Lincolnshire, probably residing with her sister, until at least 1383, and most likely till 1386. John's favour was still extended also to Geoffrey Chaucer, who — thanks no doubt to his influence — was appointed Controller of the Petty Customs of London on 8 May 1382.

  That July, John and Henry of Derby visited Lincoln to witness the public recanting of a Lollard heretic, the hermit William Swinderby -whom John himself had once maintained - before Bishop Buckingham in the Chapter House of the cathedral. This was another example of John's new orthodoxy, but he did successfully intervene to save Swinderby from 'the bitterness of death' at the stake. With Katherine's house hard by — supposing she was in Lincoln at that time — it is hard to believe that John passed up the opportunity to visit her and their children there. By the end of July, he had moved on to Leicester.

  Richard II was to figure large in Katherine's life. While John of Gaunt was in Lincoln, the young King, now fifteen, began exercising a degree of personal authority over the government. Despite his youth, and a slight stammer, he was already able to influence government policy and personally exercise patronage. Unfortunately, he chose to extend it to a favoured clique of unworthy but flattering courtiers, amongst whom the arrogant and incompetent Robert de Vere (son of the Earl of Oxford) was the foremost.55 The early 1380s would witness the gradual emergence of this court faction, its struggle with the conservative John of Gaunt and the great nobles for supremacy, and the deterioration of John's relations with

  Richard II. The same period also saw public enmity and resentment shifted from John of Gaunt, who was now beginning to be seen as a force for good in politics, to the profligate de Vere and his satellites.

  Drip-fed vitriol by his favourites, the precocious and temperamental adolescent King came not only to resent his uncle's dominance, wealth and power, but also to chafe increasingly at being in tutelage to him. John had an inbred veneration for kingship, and was inclined to lecture his nephew on his duties and obligations, and to censure him for his profligate abuse of patronage. Naturally, this led to tension between them, with the teenaged Richard attempting to throw off the restraints with which the wiser and vastly more experienced Duke tried to control him, and John attempting to instil in his truculent and changeable nephew the principles of good government. Ignoring the ties of kinship and precedence, the King actively encouraged his favourites in their opposition to his uncle. They feared him, wrote a now-admiring Walsingham of the reformed John of Gaunt, 'because of his great power, his admirable judgement and his brilliant mind'. It was fortunate for Richard that his uncle had an unshakeable loyalty to the Crown.

  Richard II grew up to be a true sybarite and aesthete, 'extravagantly splendid in his entertainments and dress, and too much devoted to luxury'.57 He loved good food - he was the first English king to employ French chefs and the first to have a cookery book (The Form of Cury) dedicated to him — and his hospitality was legendary. Tall (his skeleton, found in 1871, measured six foot), fair and handsome in a rather feminine way, he adorned himself in fine, elegant clothing, furs and jewels, on which he was to lavish a fortune, and is said to have invented the handkerchief. Artistically inclined, he was to commission two portraits of himself, the first surviving painted portraits of an English king: the most famous is the Wilton Diptych (now in the National Gallery, London), in which the young King, sumptuously gowned in cloth of gold, and with his patron saints standing protectively behind him, kneels before the Virgin and Child; on the reverse is a white hart, Richard's personal emblem; the other portrait is a full-length of the King enthroned in majesty against a gold background, which now hangs in Westminster Abbey. That these are true portraits and not just iconic representations of a king is proved by their facial similarities, which bear close comparison with the effigy on Richard's tomb.

  The Monk of Evesham accuses Richard II of 'remaining sometimes till midnight and sometimes till morning in drinking and other excesses that are not to be named'. This could mean anything, but it may be that the writer did not wish to be too explicit. Walsingham charged Richard with being homosexual, but the King seems to have been attracted to both sexes: his devotion to his Queen, Anne of Bohemia, is dramatically well-attested, and even Walsingham admitted that the royal favourite, Robert de Vere, was a notorious womaniser, a 'Knight of Venus, more valiant in the bedchamber than on the field'; de Vere's torrid affair with Agnes Launcekron, one of the Queen's ladies, caused great scandal. But Richard's marriage produced no children, and he certainly was in thrall to, and influenced by, de Vere, who had proved himself assiduous in sycophantically cultivating his royal master. Their relationship, according to Walsingham, was 'not without signs' that 'obscene familiarity' was taking place, to which the disapproving chronicler attributed de Vere's rapid and undeserved promotion. It may be significant that in 1392, after de Vere had died abroad and was brought home for burial, Richard had his coffin opened so that he could look upon his face one last time and stroke his hands. Another contemporary chronicler, Adam of Usk, tells us that a charge of sodomy was later brought against Richard by his enemies, although this might have been mere politically desirable character assassination. It is possible that the effete Richard did indeed have latent homosexual tendencies, and that the charismatic and highly sexed de Vere was aware of this, exploited the King's devotion to the full, and was perhaps bisexual himself.

  Richard's court - which Katherine would one day frequent - was to become one of the most celebrated in English history, for its chivalry, its art and culture, its literature, its strict protocol and elaborate ceremony, and its unprecedented splendour. In every respect it reflected the majesty of its monarch, a connoisseur and showman who set a new standard of luxury in his palaces, from the bathrooms with multicoloured floor tiles to the many beautiful objets d'art he acquired. It was Richard who employed Henry Yevele to modernise Westminster Hall by adding the magnificent hammerbeam roof that survives today. With his all-encompassing interests and discerning patronage, Richard II foreshadowed the multitalented princes of the Renaissance, for whom magnificence and courtesy were sacred maxims.

  Froissart asserts that no English king before Richard had spent so much money on his court and household, and naturally there was much criticism of his extravagance. But female influence may account in part for that, for there is some evidence to indicate that there were far more women at court than in previous reigns — the closeness of the King's and Queen's households, the emphasis on love and chivalry, the number of women admitted to the fraternity of the Garter, and the proportion of ladies featuring in courtly scenes — and Katherine Swynford would come in time to be a part of that female community.

  There was a dark side to Richard, though. He emerged from his experiences during the Peasants' Revolt with an unshakeable conviction in his own heroism and superiority, and an aversion to taking advice. He was emotional, insecure, suspicious, devious and untrustworthy. His violent outbursts of temper were legendary, and he could be ruthless and vindictive when provoked. To Katherine Swynford and her children - whom he clearly liked — he would, however, prove a good friend.

  Widespread conjecture that John of Gaunt's invasion of Castile was imminent was well founded, for in October 1382, a French invasion of England seemed likely, prompting calls for an Anglo-Portuguese military expedition to crush France's ally, Juan I of Castile. This was to be a veritable crusade, supported by the Church, with the Pope himself promising pardons for the sins of all those who assisted and accompanied the Duke. That November, John began making preparations for the campaign he hoped would at last win him a crown, but by March of 1383, a short-sighted Parliament had made it clear that it would not vote the necessary funds to support what many believed were the Duke's personal ambitions. Instead, Bishop Despenser of Norwich was to lead a force to France.

  By 1383, John of Gaunt had granted Thomas Swynford the very handsome annuity of £
40 (£16,288) — further evidence of his continuing patronage of Katherine's family. And the Duke was to be more generous still — in March, despite his major political preoccupations, he yet found time to grant Thomas a second annuity of 100 marks (£13,573) on his marriage to Jane Crophill of Nottingham. Jane may have been related to the Crophills who were members of the Trinity Guild of St Mary in that city, to which John of Gaunt, the Duchess Constance and Katherine Swynford also belonged;6’ this important and wealthy guild had its chapel and altar in the north transept of St Mary's Church in High Pavement - the present chuch dates from c.1376, and the eighteenth-century Shire Hall now occupies the site of the House of the Trinity Guild, or Trinity House, as it later became known. Katherine's membership of this guild, like her properties in Boston and Grantham (see below), is perhaps indicative of the extent of her financial interests, or possibly of the willingness of corporate bodies to please John of Gaunt by showing favour to her. Apparently no one questioned the incongruity and dubious moral value of extending membership of the Guild to his wife and his former mistress.

  The parentage of Thomas's bride is unknown, but there are clues. The name Crophill occurs several times in the fourteenth century in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. The family probably originated at Cropwell Bishop and Cropwell Butler, villages a mile apart, to the east of Nottingham, which in Domesday Book were both known as Crophill or Crophell. In the fourteenth century, three Crophills became mayors of Nottingham, and they were kinsmen of the royal House. Given her links with Nottingham, Katherine Swynford must have known the family, and it was probably she who arranged her son's marriage. Considering the Crophills' royal connections, and their status too, Katherine had done well for her son.

  Jane must have been very young at the time of her marriage, or perhaps she failed to conceive for a long time or suffered a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, because the couple's only known son, named Thomas after his father, was not born until about 1406. There was probably a daughter, too, the Katherine Swynford who married Sir William Drury of Rougham, Suffolk, before 1428. The estimated date of their nuptials, and the fact that this Katherine died in 1478, suggests that she too was born late in the marriage, and that the elder Katherine Swynford never knew these grandchildren.

 
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