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

  After his wedding, Thomas appears to have remained with Henry of Derby; he would be knighted before February 1386.

  In April 1383, John of Gaunt acquiesced in the Council's decision to resolve the differences between England and Castile by peaceful means, and again he put his plans on hold, deferring his invasion until the following spring. Still suspicious of his motives, the Council secretly instructed the English envoys in Bayonne to prolong matters as long as possible, in order to delay the Duke's departure. As it happened, Juan I refused to abandon his alliance with France, so negotiations broke down.

  John spent much of April at Kenilworth. Constance was with him to begin with, but left for Tutbury before he departed for the St George's festivities at Windsor: she evidently still preferred to hold herself aloof from the English court, and to remain in seclusion with her ladies. But the Duke had maintained great state while she was with him at Kenilworth, and his daily expenditure decreased significandy after she left. Clearly he was still treating her with great respect and deference, deliberately emphasising her status as the Queen of Castile.

  John's diplomatic powers were again called into play when he was sent north that summer to negotiate a renewal of the truce with the Scots. On 1 August, as he rode back south, his natural daughter, Blanche Morieux, was successfully petitioning the King for the pardon of a murderer. This is the last mention of her in the historical record, and sadly we must conclude that she died not long afterwards.

  That August, Bishop Despenser's crusade ended in ignominious failure and an appalling loss of life — for which the Bishop would be impeached and stripped of his temporalities. The Council now belatedly recognised that John of Gaunt was the only man with the resources and prestige to deal with the French, and accordingly he was appointed King's Lieutenant in France and asked to prepare for a foray across the Channel to negotiate a truce with the enemy and salvage something of England's honour.

  Katherine Swynford, meanwhile, had herself been petitioning the King, for on 20 October 1383, Richard granted a royal licence empowering her to enclose and empark three hundred acres of land and woods within the manor of Kettlethorpe. Again, the influence - direct or indirect - of John of Gaunt may be perceived, for the Duke was the man of the moment, deferred to by the majority, and the King, although increasingly jealous and resentful of him, could hardly gainsay such a request. Nevertheless, the patronage Richard extended to Katherine and her kinsfolk suggests he continued to think highly of her. The enclosing of a deer park usually meant the dispossession of tenant farmers, and often led to ill feeling. To Katherine, however, it meant a further improvement to the manor and her son's inheritance. As with her failure to drain her stretch of the Fossdyke, self-interest came before the consideration of others. It was an attitude typical of many mediaeval landowners.

  The Duke moved a crucial step closer to his Spanish goal in November 1383, when, following the death of the pro-Castilian King Ferdinand, which plunged Portugal into dynastic war, the Anglophile Joao I, brother of the late monarch, was elected by a rebel faction to its contested throne. Joao, needing English help to enforce his sovereignty against the claims of Juan I of Castile (who was married to Ferdinand's daughter, a lady of doubtful legitimacy), was only too willing to offer his support for John of Gaunt's claim to Castile.

  John returned from a mission to Scotland at the end of April 1384, and arrived at Salisbury for what turned out to be a tumultuous session of Parliament, for Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, launched a fierce and entirely justified attack on the King and his favourites, provoking Richard publicly to insult him. John of Gaunt tried to pacify both of them, putting Arundel's concerns in more measured terms to the King, yet angering both Richard and the court party - never before had Richard's hostility to his uncle been so evident. It was at this juncture that a plot was hatched against the Duke, obviously with the intention of eliminating him entirely from the political scene.

  The plot came to fight when, in de Vere's chamber, a Carmelite friar called John Latimer was said to have privately warned the King that John of Gaunt had organised a widespread conspiracy and was planning to have him assassinated. With suspicious alacrity, Richard accepted this at face value. He confronted his uncle, lost his temper, accused him of plotting treason, and was ready to have him summarily executed without any investigation of the matter, but the Duke, with dignified conviction, protested his innocence and accused the King himself of working against his own life. Richard responded with an astonishing about-turn, ordering that the friar be put to death summarily, but the lords in Parliament persuaded him to have the man questioned before proceeding further. It never happened: a band of knights led by the King's half-brother, the hot-headed Sir John Holland, seized Latimer as he was being hauled off to prison, and had him tortured to death. Someone, clearly, didn't want the wretch betraying the origins of the plot.

  Parliament erupted in fury, so the King hastened to dissolve it. He then had to deal with his youngest uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, who, brandishing his sword, furiously threatened to kill anyone, Richard included, who dared to accuse his brother Lancaster of treason. Deprived of the only witness, the case against John collapsed.

  It looks very much as if the King and his favourites, especially Robert de Vere, were behind this attempt to overthrow John of Gaunt. Vere bitterly resented the Duke's influence, and had been playing on the King's jealousy of his uncle's dominance, urging him to shake it off and rule autonomously. At bottom, of course, Richard needed his uncle. Good relations were soon restored, at least on the surface and for the time being, and in June, John was again made King's Lieutenant in France and sent there to negotiate a renewal of the truce.

  Katherine Swynford — like most people — would soon have learned what had happened at Salisbury, and the knowledge that her erstwhile lover and generous patron, the father of her children, had come so close to an ignoble death must have distressed her greatly. But this was not the only unpleasant event to affect Katherine in 1384. On 17 August, at Reading, a commission of oyer and terminer was issued following a complaint by her against no less a person than Robert de Saltby, the Mayor of Lincoln, and other named men of that city, including its bailiffs, John Prentyss and John Shipman, for breaking into her close there, taking her goods and assaulting her servants. On 20 September, this time at Westminster, a similar commission was issued in respect of an attack on her close in Grantham by the same men and others.

  Given the status of the attackers, this was no common assault by petty-minded people on a notorious woman of whose morals they disapproved: it was far more serious than that. And considering that Katherine had been living apart from John of Gaunt for more than three yean now, it is highly unlikely to have been an expression of public outrage at her private life. No, these crimes were more likely to have been born out of angry resentment at Katherine's siding with the clergy in the ongoing conflict between the Bail and the cathedral close over the close's demand to be placed beyond the jurisdiction of the town authorities, a dispute that had simmered in Lincoln for some years, and would not be resolved until John of Gaunt ruled in 1390 and 1392 that the close was to enjoy immunity from the jurisdiction and demands of the Mayor and citizens — for which the jubilant canons gave him a gold image of his patron saint, John the Baptist, from the cathedral treasury. Katherine's strong links with the close would have placed her firmly on that side of the divide. The citizens were also resentful of the Duke's perceived encroachment, as constable of the castle, upon their liberties. And Katherine's failure to clear her stretch of the Fossdyke would have ruffled no few feathers amongst the burghers of the town; that same year of 1384, John of Gaunt presided over a commission that failed to address the problem effectively. Moreover, the Duke was known to be Katherine's patron still: it may have been that the canons had rented the Chancery to Katherine in a bid to win his support, and there were perhaps fears in the Bail that she influenced him unfairly in favour of the close and in respect of the Fossdyke. So these
attacks, cunningly timed while he was abroad, were probably intended as a warning to Katherine not to involve herself — or try to prejudice her powerful protector - in the city's quarrels. Even so, they were an outrageous attack on her property, and a highly provocative intrusion in the cathedral close that did not help the cause of the citizens in the long run.

  We do not know if Katherine was in Lincoln when the Chancery was raided; the presence of her servants might suggest that she was, but she may have left a skeleton staff there in her absence. There or not, the assaults must have shaken her to the core, for if the Mayor himself was involved, what support could she look for in Lincoln outside the precincts of the close? It cannot have been pleasant knowing herself so hated. There is no record, however, of what happened to the perpetrators, nor of any further assaults on her property.

  The second commission relating to these offences contains the only known reference to Katherine having property in Grantham. A close then meant an enclosed piece of land, usually beside a cathedral or other important building, and containing staff housing or offices, such as the Chancery in Lincoln. Thus her close was probably near St Wulfram's, the most important church in the town, and the hub around which it had grown; its soaring 282-foot spire was a landmark for miles around. The house she owned here was almost certainly one of several ancient mansions that once stood in this area, and may have been of equal status to Grantham House in Castlegate, which survives today. Grantham House was originally a stone hall house built around 1380 in what was then a rural area near the church; it still stands in twenty-seven acres of gardens on the banks of the River Witham. Its mediaeval core is now hidden beneath sixteenth- and eighteenth-century additions and alterations. From the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth century, this house was known as Hall Place, after the wealthy family of merchants that lived there; prior to that, it was apparently owned by the Htzwilliarns. Both Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots, and Cardinal Wolsey stayed here in the sixteenth century. The original Grantham House appears to have been of a similar type to the properties that Katherine Swynford leased in Lincoln, and probably exemplifies the kind of house she had in Grantham.

  These were perilous times. In February 1385, Robert de Vere - with the connivance of the King — made a second attempt to bring down John of Gaunt, hatching yet another court plot to kill him at a tournament. On the 24th, an outraged John, accompanied by an armed escort and wearing a breastplate, confronted Richard II at Sheen, lecturing him 'with some harshness and severity' on the folly of relying on bad counsel. Early the next month the Princess Joan intervened to bring about a public reconciliation, while John's former adversary, William Courtenay, now Archbishop of Canterbury, censured the King for the way in which he had behaved towards the Duke, and condemned his evil advisers - at which Richard had to be restrained from running the Archbishop through with his sword and transforming him into a second Thomas a Becket. Both John of Gaunt and Courtenay had voiced the increasingly widespread concern about the King's favourites, and Richard's reaction shows how unwilling he was to listen to measured criticism. His resentment of his uncle had now reached boiling point. Yet these days John's priorities were focused not on maintaining political supremacy in England, but on Castile, as the prospect of a crown there became daily more viable. In April, an English force was finally dispatched overseas to the aid of Joao I, who that month — after prolonged resistance to the forces of Castile — was once more defiantly proclaimed King of Portugal.

  John spent the summer accompanying Richard II on a lacklustre invasion of Scotland, having first lavishly entertained the King and Queen at Leicester Castle. During this campaign, John's brothers, Edmund and Thomas, were created Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester respectively. While they were all up north, tidings came of the death of the Princess Joan on 8 August at Wallingford. Her end was perhaps hastened by the news that her son the King intended to proceed against his half-brother, Sir John Holland, for the murder of the heir of the Earl of Stafford, but Walsingham tells us that the Princess, who had spent a life 'devoted to pleasure', was 'so fat from eating that she could scarcely walk'; it may be that her obesity, as well as stress, had predisposed her to a heart attack. Joan was buried beside her first husband, Sir Thomas Holland, in the church of the Grey Friars at Stamford, some five months after her passing, in the presence of the King; Chaucer was a mourner, having received black cloth for the occasion from the royal Wardrobe, while John of Gaunt must have sincerely mourned the loss of this dear sister-in-law who had been such a stalwart friend to him.

  At the end of August 1385, as he returned to his estates in the Midlands, John received the most exciting and encouraging news: King Joao, his army boosted by English troops, had won a magnificent victory over his enemies at Aljubarrotta on 14 August, and was now the unchallenged sovereign of Portugal. The Duke was jubilant, for the way was at last clear for Joao to offer him the support he needed for his Castilian venture. Late in November 1385, John appealed to Parliament to vote the necessary funds for an invasion of Castile by means of 'the way of Portugal', and Parliament - in which his son Henry was sitting for the first time — at last responded favourably.

  There is evidence that John of Gaunt was in contact with Katherine Swynford at this time, the first on record since he had sent her wine in 1382. During the November Parliament, the Duke petitioned for the removal of Sir John Stanley from the manors of Lathom and Knowsley in Lancashire. Sir John had recently married Isabel, the daughter of Sir Thomas Lathom; upon Lathom s death in 1370, those manors had passed to his heir, another Sir Thomas, who died underage in 1383. Because Thomas had been a minor, John of Gaunt, as his feudal lord, had taken him and his manors into wardship, and although Isabel was her brother's heiress, her husband had taken possession of Lathom and Knowsley on Thomas's death without first establishing his right to do so in the Duke's palatine chancery. There was, of course, more to this than met the eye: Sir John Stanley, who became Robert de Vere's deputy in Ireland the following year, appears to have been a client of the favourite, and almost certainly deVere was behind this slight to the Duke and upheld Stanley's possession of the manors in Parliament.

  But the law was on the Duke's side. After John of Gaunt complained that Stanley had been in 'grave contempt' of his ducal rights, Parliament decreed that Stanley's entry into the manors had been illegal and ordered him to vacate them and to lodge his claim in the palatine chancery. In the end, John of Gaunt was just. He had vindicated his right to the manors, but he was aware that they should pass to Stanley in right of his wife. So he granted them to Katherine Swynford, who in turn, at his behest, sold them to Stanley. The Duke even returned to Stanley a substantial part of the price. Thus we have evidence that John and Katherine were in contact, indeed, in collaboration, at this time, and that she was willing to support him in such matters.

  The King, eager to get rid of his troublesome uncle, now lent him money for his Castilian venture, and from January 1386, preparations for the great invasion went ahead.


  'The Lady of Kettlethorpe'

  Nearly five years on from the end of their affair, Katherine could perhaps view the prospect of John leaving England for a long period with equanimity. After all, it would not be forever - there is some evidence to suggest that he never intended to take up permanent residence in Castile, but anticipated that England would remain his chief base.' Thus their children would not be permanently deprived of a father, nor Katherine of the occasional contact with him.

  Inwardly, she might have worried about John, for he was no longer young. Fernao Lopes, whose description of him as he appeared in Portugal in 1386-7 may derive from the reminiscences of Philippa of Lancaster and other contemporaries, says he was still tall, lean and upright, but estimated him to be 'about sixty years old, with fewer white hairs than is normal for one of his age' - unsurprisingly, as he was still only forty-six. It does appear, though, that a lifetime of care and campaigning had prematurely aged him, and his experiences in Spai
n would doubtless leave their mark as well.

  The Duke spent the months prior to his departure putting his affairs in order, and his provision extended to Katherine's family. He took Thomas Chaucer into his service.2 He betrothed nine-year-old Joan Beaufort to Sir Robert Ferrers of Willisham, heir through his mother to the Boteler estates inWem.3 And on 19 February, on the day after the standard of the Cross was raised in St Paul's Cathedral and his Castilian venture was preached as a crusade, he was in Lincoln.

  John was there to attend an impressive ceremony in the chapter house of Lincoln Cathedral, in which, in the presence of nine canons, 'the Lord Henry, Earl of Derby, son of the Lord John, the most high Prince, King of Castile and Duke of Lancaster' was to be admitted by Bishop Buckingham to the cathedral's confraternity, just as John himself had been admitted at the age of three. Alongside Henry, John Beaufort, now about thirteen and already knighted, Sir Thomas Swynford, Philippa Chaucer and Sir Robert Ferrers were also made members. Sir Thomas Swynford, in company with another Lincolnshire knight, Sir William Hauley, was officially in attendance on the Duke that day.i The inclusion of Katherine's sons, her sister and her future son-in-law in this important Lancastrian ceremony demonstrates how highly regarded, and how important, she and her family were within the Duke's closest circle.

  Admission to the cathedral's 'order of the brotherhood' — which it claimed had been founded 'when the Bible was written', but which in fact dated from c.1185 — was a socially prestigious privilege that enabled members of the laity to benefit from the prayers of the clergy in perpetuity, and to be buried in the cathedral; in return, it was piously hoped, they would be generous benefactors and patrons.8 The Duke no doubt felt that he and those dear to him needed such intercessions at this crucial time. His visit to Lincoln Cathedral would have afforded him the opportunity to pray at the three altars where his name-saints were worshipped, and to the Holy Virgin, to whom the church was dedicated.

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