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


  After the ceremony, wine and comfits were served, then the company repaired to the castle for a feast hosted by the Duke.10 Professor Goodman is probably correct in suggesting that John made this auspicious day the occasion for a farewell gathering prior to his departure. And with the focus on two of her sons, her sister, her former charge and her patron, there can be little doubt that Katherine Swynford, whose house was nearby, was also present with her other children. Nor that her long association with the cathedral, and the omission of her name from the fist of new members of its confraternity, suggest that she herself already belonged to it, and perhaps had done for some years, for Sir Hugh Swynford may also have been a member.

  Philippa Chaucer's admission suggests that she was still resident in Lincolnshire at this time and living apart from her husband. She was probably preparing to go to Castile in the train of the Duchess Constance: after all, her son Thomas was going with the Duke, and with her daughter in a convent and her husband living apart from her, there was little to keep her in England.

  John of Gaunt returned to London immediately after the ceremony; his Duchess was then away on a pilgrimage to various shrines, praying for the success of her husband's great enterprise. She can hardly be blamed for not attending the ceremony in Lincoln, at which the Swynford connections were so prominent." Instead, she was received into the confraternity .of St Albans Abbey, home of the chronicler Walsingham, a place where she was much admired for her piety, which might account in part for Walsingham's past hostility towards the Duke.

  On 8 March, Richard II formally recognised John of Gaunt as King of Castile, placing him next to himself at the council table. At Easter, the Pope again proclaimed the enterprise a crusade, and sent John a holy banner. By then, the Duke had begun assembling his fleet, and there was a ceremony of farewell at court, with the King and Queen solemnly placing golden diadems on the heads of John and Constance. After that, John departed on his own pilgrimage to various shrines in the West Country. On 8 April, as King of Castile, he agreed a treaty of perpetual friendship with Richard II, and on the 20th, the King ordered the impressing of every ship in the realm for John's fleet.

  By 14 June, the Duke had arrived in Plymouth; four days later, his fleet was finally assembled. Preoccupied as he was with the myriad aspects of his venture, he yet had to find time to deal with the unseemly conduct of his strong-willed daughter, Elizabeth of Lancaster. Bored with her child husband, who was still only fourteen to her twenty-three years, Elizabeth had willingly allowed herself to be seduced by the King's half-brother, Sir John Holland, a volatile schemer who in 1384 had been involved in the plot hatched against John of Gaunt at the Salisbury Parliament; it was he who in 1385 had caused outrage - and grief to his mother, the Princess Joan — by killing Stafford's son, as a result of which he had been forced to flee to sanctuary until the King's wrath abated. Holland was licentious too, and around 1380, he had reputedly enjoyed a torrid affair with the flirtatious Isabella of Castile, Constance's sister and the wife of Edmund of Langley. Now, Higden says, he had been 'struck down passionately' by his love for Elizabeth of Lancaster, 'so that day and night he sought her out'.

  When John of Gaunt learned that Elizabeth was pregnant by Holland, he arranged for her unconsummated marriage to Pembroke to be annulled; that unfortunate boy was to remarry, but he would die horribly, pierced through his genitals, in a jousting accident at Christmas 1389. On 24 June 1386, Elizabeth and Holland were hastily wed in or near Plymouth, narrowly averting a scandal and effecting his complete rehabilitation. The Duke was to show great favour to this son-in-law, so obviously the scoundrel had charm and ability. The couple's daughter Constance was born the following year, and four other children — the eldest being named John, after the Duke - would follow.

  Clearly the headstrong Elizabeth had inherited her father's sensual nature; it may have seemed to her that there was no harm in following the example set by her former governess Katherine Swynford in giving herself outside marriage to the man she loved. But Katherine was not a princess of the blood - Elizabeth was, and the corruption of her virtue was a more serious matter. It seems that Katherine had failed, by precedent or precept, to impress upon Elizabeth the need for a girl in her position to conduct herself virtuously. Fortunately, her father had dealt with her leniently and advantageously, and her marriage turned out to be successful.

  In July 1386, the Duke's retinues began to embark. Having appointed his son Henry to serve as Warden of the Palatinate of Lancaster during his absence, John entertained him to a farewell dinner on board his flagship on the 8th. The following day, a fair wind sprang up; father and son bade each other a hasty farewell, and the fleet set sail on its glorious venture. With it went the Duke's three daughters, his sons-in-law John Holland, who had been appointed constable of his army, and Sir Thomas Morieux, serving as marshal; Thomas Chaucer and probably his mother Philippa; and the Duchess Constance, now in high hopes of occupying her father's throne and continuing his dynasty.

  For Constance was possibly pregnant at this time, with a child doubtless conceived primarily for dynastic purposes. The arrival of a male heir on Castilian soil would signify divine approval of her cause and inspire the loyalty of her subjects. It would also serve to proclaim that she and her husband were fully reconciled, and go some way towards obliterating the scandal of his former life. Alas, the child — if there was a child at all - was not of the desired sex: the contemporary chronicler Monk of St Denis says that the Duchess was delivered of a daughter soon after she and the Duke disembarked at Corunna on 25 July. No further mention is made of the infant, so either she did not live, or the Monk's information was inaccurate and she never existed.

  Katherine Swynford was probably living quietly in Lincolnshire when John went away - she was still renting the Chancery in 1386-7, for at that time she was having repairs done to the house. Perhaps she went to the cathedral and offered up prayers for the success of the Duke's enterprise, as Bishop Buckingham requested of his flock on 28 July. There is later evidence to suggest that she and John were in touch while he was abroad, so probably at some stage she and her Beaufort children received word of his arrival in Compostela and his decision to winter in Galicia before attempting to take Castile. In his absence, she busied herself with domestic matters and continued to administer her son's lands. In 1386, Henry de Fenton granted Katherine tenements in Kettlethorpe, further improving the Swynford inheritance.

  Katherine cannot have seen much of her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer, these days; maybe, with Philippa possibly gone overseas, they now had little to say to each other. Chaucer did not fare well after the Duke's departure. In 1386, he was a man of substance and status, and in the summer of that year he was nominated to sit in Parliament as Knight of the Shire for Kent, taking his seat in October. But towards the end of the year, he either resigned from, or was deprived of, his lucrative controllerships, and he gave up - or was evicted from — his house in Aldgate. He possibly took lodgings in Greenwich or Deptford, but his only income now was his royal pension, which he continued to collect himself twice a year from the Exchequer.

  The loss of his house and offices coming only months after John of Gaunt's departure argues that they had indeed been granted to him through the Duke's influence. But the absent John was now persona non grata in England, for the King was relieved to be rid of his too-powerful and intimidating uncle, and his favourite Robert de Vere now reigned triumphant at court. This might explain why Chaucer - whose wife was sister to the Duke's former mistress — had lost his offices and would not regain favour until Richard realised just how much he needed John of Gaunt's support.

  Meanwhile, the Duke had met up with his ally, Joao I of Portugal, and both were trying to enforce John's claims through diplomacy before resorting to war. To cement their friendship, Philippa of Lancaster was given in marriage to King Joao in February 1387 in Oporto Cathedral.

  Philippa was to prove a model — and much-loved — queen consort. She was devoted and o
bedient to her husband, bore him eight children (two were named after her parents; another was the great explorer prince, Henry the Navigator), had them well educated, and set a deeply pious and charitable example. In every way she was a credit to her father, and also to Katherine Swynford, who had been in overall charge of her from the time Philippa was thirteen, and who had evidently succeeded with her where she had failed with her sister. And it was perhaps Philippa's fondness for Katherine and the Beauforts that led her to treat her husband's bastard children with kindness and tolerance.

  It was probably before his departure that Katherine had lent John a substantial sum of money. The Pope had promised special remission of sins to those who helped finance the Duke's 'crusade', so Katherine, mindful of her former life, was perhaps laying up treasure in Heaven. The fact that she had such funds to lend is further testimony to her financial acumen - it will be remembered that John himself had entrusted her with large sums of money for the maintenance of his daughters, and we know she was careful with her income, and prudent in providing for the future. But when the Duke was in need, she did not hesitate to assist him liberally, showing herself selflessly sympathetic to his cause, even though it took him away from her. John did not forget her generosity, and on 16 February 1387, he sent instructions to his receiver in Yorkshire to repay £100 (£33,471) in part repayment of the 500 marks (£41,058) she had loaned him 'in his great necessity'. We might infer from this that he and Katherine were maintaining some kind of contact while he was abroad: the interests of their children alone would surely have necessitated it.

  In the spring of 1387, diplomatic solutions having failed, the Duke took Galicia, and at the end of March he and King Joao invaded Leon, a kingdom ruled by Juan I of Castile. But things did not go well — there were complaints that the Duke's womenfolk slowed down the march; his son-in-law, Sir Thomas Morieux, died, worn out by fighting; and the Castilians had laid waste the land, so that countless men and horses died of starvation, dysentery and heat exhaustion. 'These are the fortunes of war,' observed Froissart. 'The Duke was at his wits' end, and weighed down by anxiety. He saw his men exhausted and ill and taking to their beds, while he himself felt so weary that he lay in his bed without moving.' John nearly died too, but forced himself to get up and look cheerful, for the sake of maintaining morale among his men. Nevertheless, there was much muttering about his leadership of the campaign, even though the Count of Foix thought John had 'conducted himself valiantly and wisely in this war', and soon King Joao began urging him to abandon the fighting in favour of a return to diplomacy.34 But the Duke refused.

  On 26—27 March 1387, Richard II and Anne of Bohemia visited Lincoln, to be admitted to the confraternity of the cathedral. It is hard to conceive that Katherine, probably a member herself, was not among the congregation that witnessed this ceremony. Richard II thought highly of her, and may well have singled her out on that day, because the following month, he appointed 'Lady Katherine de Swynfbrd' a Lady of the Garter (or, more correctly, a 'Lady of the Fraternity of St George and of the Society of the Garter'), the highest English honour to which a woman might aspire. Her formal robes of scarlet wool embroidered with blue taffeta garters in gold, with the motto Honi soit qui mal y pense in blue silk, and a matching hood, were paid for by the King the following August.

  In 1387, Katherine would have gone to the glittering court at Windsor, donned her robes, participated in the Garter ceremonies with the other ten ladies of the order, and attended the great feast hosted by the King on St George's Day. Doubtless she met up with many people she had known during her glory days with the Duke, but Katherine could now hold her head up at court in the knowledge that she was there in an honourable and legitimate capacity. Even so, her admission to the most prestigious order of knighthood in Europe was probably a tacit acknowledgement by the King of her special relationship with John of Gaunt, and of her influence with him. It might also indicate that the scandal surrounding their affair had died down and that people knew they were no longer lovers.

  Edward III had begun the practice of appointing 'Dames of the Fraternity' with Queen Philippa and his eldest daughter Isabella, but since the beginning of his reign, Richard II had been assiduous in admitting ladies to the order, notably his mother Joan of Kent, the Duchess Constance, her sister Isabella, and Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster in 1378-9, and Queen Anne, Catalina of Lancaster, Eleanor de Bohun and Lady Mohun in 1384. So Katherine Swynford was in august company. But there was an ulterior motive for her advancement. By 1387, Richard was engaged in a bitter struggle with those lords who resented his reliance on worthless favourites like Robert de Vere and his former tutor Sir Simon Burley, and were demanding a new push to win the war with France: Richard had never yet led an army into the field — an abrogation of his duty, in the eyes of his martially minded magnates — and was essentially inclined to peace. That summer, Parliament itself was to demand that he remove his offensive counsellors. Richard had therefore come to a belated realisation of how loyally John of Gaunt had supported him; he knew how much John cared for Katherine, and making her a Lady of the Garter was one way in which he could show favour to his uncle and solicit his support; this would not be the first time he had promoted ladies to the order to forge useful alliances with his nobles.37 It is probably no coincidence too that Chaucer's fortunes now began to improve: in July, he was sent to Calais on the King's service, and in August he was acting as a justice of the peace at Dartford in Kent — more sops to the Duke perhaps.

  But John had far more pressing matters on his mind. His campaign in Leon had ended cruelly in dysentery, mass desertions and disaster, he had failed to rally sufficient Iberian backing for his cause, and he now saw that there was no prospect of him ever taking Castile. His army, encamped on an open plain in the burning sun, was decimated by the bloody flux.'You must believe that the Duke of Lancaster was not without trouble night or day, for he was sorely ill, and his valiant knights dead. He sorrowed for them and cried (if one can say so) every day, and took everything to heart.'‘0 To make matters worse, King Joao fell seriously ill and nearly died, as a result of which his distraught bride, Philippa of Lancaster, suffered a miscarriage. Their recovery was seen as little more than a miracle.

  One of those who perished of dysentery in Leon may have been Philippa Chaucer. On 18 June 1387, Geoffrey collected her annuity as usual from the Exchequer, but on 7 November, when the next instalment was due, he fetched only his own pension. Nor did he ever pick up any more payments to Philippa. Since the usual reason for disappearing from these records was death, the assumption must be that she died between 18 June and 17 November I387.

  It has been suggested that a stone effigy of a mediaeval lady that was discovered in the nineteenth century beneath the floor of the church of St Mary the Virgin at Old Worldham in Hampshire is that of Philippa Chaucer. This claim is based on the evidence of a brooch, or 'fermail', on the breast of the figure, which is said to display a Roët wheel. However, the design bears very little resemblance to that emblem, and in fact is common to such brooches. The costume, moreover, is that of the first half of the thirteenth century (when the church was built), not the last quarter of the fourteenth.

  Of course, Philippa could have died in Lincolnshire and been buried there, perhaps at Kettlethorpe — that is the traditional version - or even in Lincoln Cathedral, to which she was entided as a member of its confraternity. It has also been suggested that she returned to Hainault and spent the rest of her life there, having inherited property in that region. But the most credible theory is that she accompanied Constance to Spain and died there, which would account for there being no record of her death in England and no known tomb. If she did succumb to dysentery in the heat of Leon, she was probably buried in a pit with other victims, with scant ceremony and no memorial.

  Wherever Philippa died, Katherine had lost her sister, and she must have mourned her sincerely: they had evidently been close in recent yean, living often in the same household. There is no
record of their mutual bereavement bringing Chaucer and Katherine closer together: their lives seem hardly to have coincided for a long time afterwards. For Geoffrey, who never made any reference to his wife's death in his verse, there must have been feelings of regret, but his loss did not (diminish his cynicism regarding marriage — far from it, as his later poems show. Nor would he 'fall of wedding in the trap' again.

  It was now painfully obvious that John of Gaunt's long-cherished dream of winning the throne of Castile was never going to come to fruition.

  Finally accepting this, he agreed terms with King Juan I, and at Trancoso, in July 1387, a settlement was proposed whereby, in return for a cash payment of £100,000 (£33,470,817) and an annual pension of £6,666 (£2,231,165), John and Constance would relinquish their Castilian claims to their fifteen-year-old daughter Catalina and enter into negotiations for her marriage to Juan's son Enrique.

  Just before John of Gaunt concluded the peace with Juan I, he made an emotional promise to the Virgin Mary to amend his way of life, and was seen weeping in repentance for his sins. This echoed the public avowal he had made in 1381, and begs the question whether or not he had lapsed into his old promiscuous ways. But given how ill and weak he was at this time, that is unlikely. Was he referring to Katherine Swynford? Although he had been abroad for over a year, he was perhaps still carrying the proverbial torch for her, and might have maintained contact between them, thereby affronting his wife. If so, that contact can only have been intermittent: that summer, there were alarming rumours in England, but they were just that, for even Walsingham had no idea of what was really happening in Spain; that the Duke's army had suffered terrible losses was known, but some were claiming that the hot weather had 'induced deadly plague'.48 We can only imagine what Katherine and her children would have felt if they heard that.

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