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

  Katherine, like many mediaeval mothers, was quickly having to accustom herself to her sons going off to fight in foreign parts, for John Beaufort, meanwhile - partly financed by his father - had been permitted to travel through France with four knights towards Genoa to join the Barbary Crusade, in which he was to serve under the French Duke of Bourbon; in designating Beaufort leader of the English contingent, Bourbon tacitly acknowledged his high status. In December, after the Christian forces failed to take Al-Mahdiya, near Tunis, young John returned to England to be reunited with his family.

  With John of Gaunt in such favour, the fortunes of Geoffrey Chaucer too were in the ascendant. In July 1389, when Richard was urging the Duke to return to England, Chaucer had been appointed Clerk of the King's Works, an important post that gave him overall responsibility for improvements to royal property and the building of new royal residences. By 1390, he was supervising a large workforce employed on the restoration of the royal chapel at Windsor Castle; it was probably in that year that his precocious son Lewis was sent up to Oxford, where he may have kept company with his cousin, Henry Beaufort.

  By September 1391, Chaucer had been replaced — for reasons we don't know - as Clerk of the King's Works, for at that time we find him serving as deputy forester in the royal park at North Petherton in Somerset (where in 1394-5 his son Thomas was joint petitioner in a lawsuit with his new wife, Maud Burghersh), and probably writing his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, which was almost certainly inspired by the Decameron of Boccaccio (from which some of the tales were lifted) and a pilgrimage Chaucer had made to St Thomas a Becket's shrine at Canterbury in 1388. He had evidently been in financial difficulties for some time, but in 1394, the King granted him a life pension of £20 (£8,750), which eased matters a little, although he was to apply for advances on his income several times until 1399, which suggests he continued to struggle to make ends meet. Chaucer remained in his post at North Petherton until at least 1398, and living so far away, he is hardly likely to have had much contact with Katherine Swynford, but in the years to come, John of Gaunt and Henry of Derby were to show favour to him and his son, which may have owed more than a little to her influence.

  John of Gaunt accompanied Henry of Derby and Thomas Swynford back to England, and said his farewells to them at Hertford Castle. With Mary de Bohun — again pregnant - now of the company, Henry and his companions rode north to Lincolnshire, where they made offerings in Lincoln Cathedral for the success of their holy venture. It would be surprising if, while in Lincoln, they had not visited - or even lodged with — Katherine Swynford, and taken their leave of her. Around 19 July 1390, hugely backed by the Duke to the tune of £4,000 (£1,607,802), Henry, with Thomas Swynford and a large company of knights, esquires and servants, took ship from Boston for Prussia and Lithuania. Some weeks later, Mary de Bohun gave birth to her fourth son, Humphrey, naming him after her father.

  As his son sailed away, John of Gaunt was lavishly entertaining King Richard and Queen Anne to a great hunting party at Leicester Castle, where he strove to bring about a reconciliation between the King and the former Lords Appellant. There is no mention of Katherine or the Beauforts among the many bishops, lords and ladies described by Knighton as being present, and Christmas that year saw John at Eltham Palace, where the King returned his hospitality.

  The following year, however, evidence emerges to suggest that Katherine and John had rekindled their relationship. The Duke's household check-rolls for the year 1391-2 fortunately survive, and they show that all four Beauforts were now intermittently in attendance on him and based in his household; John Beaufort was stabling six horses there. The rolls also reveal that Katherine Swynford was stabling twelve horses at the ducal residences at this time, which not only proves that she and John had renewed their acquaintance, but also strongly suggests that she was again occupying a substantially important place in his life. It shows too that she was well attended whenever she came to visit the Duke, as became a lady of high standing. i2d (£13.82) per day was allocated to her while she was lodging in his household, compared with 6d (£6.91) each for the Beauforts and 4d (£4.61) for Henry of Derby. This is unlikely to have been for their own keep, but for that of their horses.

  But she was not residing with John permanently at this time — she rented the Chancery until at least 1393 - and her intermittent presence in his establishment must have been in part due to her desire to see her children. There was no question that it was greatly to their benefit to live in the household of so great a lord — Katherine would have recognised that. She had clearly brought them up well, and it had perhaps been decided long before that the Beauforts would come to their father on his return from his Castilian venture.

  Considering that John and Constance were now living apart, that he was aged beyond his years but perhaps not sufficiently to dampen the old Adam in him, and that they would marry in due course, it would be logical to conclude that he and Katherine had grown close again. Constance's withdrawal had left them free to rekindle their relationship, and it is possible that they had become lovers once more, although if this was the case, they must have been very discreet about it, for Katherine was openly visiting the Duke, attended by an entourage, without attracting adverse comment. Although there is no hint of scandal in the chronicles, it is clear from what Froissart, an eyewitness at the court of Richard II, states, that in 1396, people at court were saying that the Duke had married the woman who had been his concubine for a long time, 'inside and outside his marriage', which must mean after it ended in 1394, since we have established that their liaison began after John had married Constance. Elsewhere, Froissart says that John loved and maintained Katherine after Constance's death. This all strongly suggests that a sexual relationship between them was regarded as an established fact, and not only in the distant past. Katherine was now about forty-one, young enough to bear children, but old enough to have passed the menopause, so pregnancy might not have been a risk.

  Of course, this may be putting too modern an interpretation on their relationship: John had twice publicly repented of his former life, and promised to God the complete amendment of his ways, and Katherine had not only accepted his renunciation of their love in good part, but had perhaps bought herself a papal indulgence by donating funds to his 'crusade’. That all suggests a sincere degree of repentance on both sides. Each of them may have been reluctant to prejudice the state of grace they had reached by backsliding into immorality, and they might well have considered the effect that discovery of a sexual affair might have on their maturing children and their wider families. On the other hand, aristocratic society took a lenient view of extramarital affairs, so any evidence that the Duke and Katherine Swynford were once again lovers would probably have been accepted with tolerance in courtly circles. And privately, within the family — and even by the King, whose treatment of Katherine proves he was aware she was more than the average royal mistress — it may have been known that if the opportunity ever arose, John intended to marry Katherine.

  It may be too that the horror John had clearly felt in the aftermath of the Peasants' Revolt was now a distant memory. He and Katherine were both heart-free and no longer young. Maybe they decided to seize the chance of happiness while they could. And, so long as discretion was maintained, who could have blamed them?

  In the spring of 1391, the Duke was probably at Lincoln - he dated a letter there on 5 March, omitting the year, to the ruler of Lithuania, asking him to release two of Henry's knights, so the letter almost certainly belongs to 1391. That same month, he arranged for Gascon wine to be sent to Katherine in Lincoln by cart from London. Perhaps he had visited her at the Chancery, and wished to reward her hospitality; perhaps there was more to it than that. He was back at Westminster when Henry of Derby and Thomas Swynford returned from their crusading adventure (and a winter spent enjoying the hospitality of the Teutonic Knights) around 30 April; John Beaufort was there to greet them when they disembarked at Hull. It was probably afte
r their return that the Duke invited Thomas Swynford to serve him as one of his chamber knights; his presence in the Duke's household is attested to by the surviving checkrolls.104 On 12 May 1393, as a signal mark of royal favour, Richard II would grant an annuity of 100 marks (£15,179) to Thomas and his wife Jane.105

  As we have seen, John of Gaunt was well aware of the pressing need to make suitable provision for his bastard children, and in December 1390, the King licensed him, along with Sir Thomas Percy and the Lancastrian receiver in Northamptonshire, to grant the manors of Overstone, Maxey, Eydon and a half share in Brampton Parva, together worth £88 (£35.372) a year, to John Beaufort, with reversion to Thomas and Joan Beaufort. Henry Beaufort's name is missing from the reversions because he was already earmarked for a career in the Church.

  John of Gaunt spent the Christmas of 13 91 at Hertford, bringing his minstrels with him. Katherine and their daughter Joan were among the guests, as were Henry of Derby and his family, and at New Year, Henry gave gifts to Katherine and Joan. Katherine received a gold ring set with a diamond, and Joan 'a pair of paternosters' (rosary beads) of coral and gold. Joan was soon to marry Sir Robert Ferrers, who at nineteen was about four years her senior; the date of their wedding is not known, but it had certainly taken place by 30 September 1394, and is likely to have been celebrated in 1392, because their daughter Elizabeth is described as being aged eighteen and more in 1411: she had thus been born in 1393 at the latest. Joan also had another daughter, Mary, probably named in honour of Mary de Bohun, whose patronage Joan had long enjoyed. After their wedding, Joan and her husband remained in John of Gaunt's household.

  In the spring of 1392, John of Gaunt was at Amiens negotiating with the French King, Charles VI, who hailed him as the most revered knight in Christendom. The Duke 'took the view that the war had lasted long enough and that a good peace would benefit the whole of Christendom', but all he could secure was a year's truce. While he was away, Mary de Bohun bore a daughter, Blanche, at Henry of Derby's manor house at Peterborough, a residence she seems to have favoured. The Duke returned to England in April, and before June, thanks to his influence, John Beaufort was appointed one of the King's household knights on an income of 100 marks (£13,903) per annum — an acknowledgement of the younger John's proven military expertise. Soon afterwards, Henry of Derby departed on another crusade, to Prussia this time, and Henry Beaufort returned to Queen's College, Oxford, where he would complete a degree in theology in the summer of 1393. On 23 November 1392, Constance's pleasure-loving sister, Isabella, Duchess of York, died; she was 'buried by the King's command at his manor of Langley, in the friars' church', where Richard II himself would one day be temporarily laid to rest.

  Katherine's lease on the Chancery is known to have run until 1393 at least, and she may not have vacated the property until 1396.'21 There is no evidence of her role in the Duke's busy life at this time, nor that she was a guest in the Lancastrian household at Christmas 1392. References to her children are rare, but all were comfortably seeded by 1393: John in the royal household, Henry at university, Joan married, and Thomas with his father; further evidence of family solidarity emerged in December of that year, when Henry of Derby - just back from his crusade and a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land — ordered new suits of armour to be sent to Hertford Castle for the use of himself and Thomas Beaufort in the jousts he planned to hold there. The Duke joined his family at Hertford for the Christmas festivities of 1393, and this time Katherine Swynford was among the company. Henry presented his wife and 'Dame Katherine Swynford' with four lengths of luxurious white damask silk at 78s.4d (£1,778) each. Her being given the same gift - and costly material -as the Countess strongly suggests that Katherine was now a very prominent member of the Duke's circle.

  In January 1394, Henry hastened to London to take part in yet another tournament; in the midst of the excitement, he remembered to send a hamper of fish delicacies to Hertford for Mary, who was pregnant for the seventh time. Katherine also said farewell to John Beaufort, who departed early in 1394 on another crusade in Lithuania and Hungary, during which he is thought to have fought with the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lettow. Katherine was living in Lincoln or at Kettlethorpe for at least part of 1394: on 27 February, in order to lay claim to his inheritance, Thomas Swynford was required to present proof of age at Lincoln, and Katherine was ordered to be present; she was there one Friday when he and his many witnesses turned up with their evidence, which was some time between 22 June 1394 and 22 June 1395. After this, Sir Thomas apparently took possession of his manors and established himself at Kettlethorpe; his mother Katherine would nevertheless remain in control there, for Thomas was often absent in the service of the House of Lancaster.

  In the Hilary Parliament of 1394, John of Gaunt found himself the object of vitriolic criticism by the abrasive Earl of Arundel, who was jealous of his influence with the King. It was contrary to the King's honour for him to be often seen walking arm in arm with the Duke, Arundel complained, and to wear the Lancastrian livery collar; furthermore, the Duke had so intimidated the lords with 'rough and bitter words' that they were now afraid to speak up in Council or Parliament; and the King should not have alienated Aquitaine to his uncle, nor given him money to invade Castile. Arundel had hoped to play on the King's vanity by implying that the monarch was the Duke's client, but a 'grieved and displeased' Richard spoke up vigorously for his uncle and forced Arundel to apologise publicly to him — after which Parliament declared the Duke free from any cause for blame, and Arundel, who had received no support from the other nobles, retired to sulk in private. Afterwards, John of Gaunt, clearly fearing that his integrity and loyalty had been impugned, wrote to the King: 'I dare to call God to witness, and all loyal men, that never have I imagined, or tried to do, anything against your most honourable estate.

  Following his sons' departure, John also left England that spring: in March 1394, he went to France, where, on the 27th, he concluded a four-year truce with the French. He was therefore out of the country when the Duchess Constance died on 24 March at Leicester Castle, leaving him a free man.


  'My Dearest Lady Katherine'

  It is unlikely that John of Gaunt had gone to France earlier in the month knowing that his wife was dying. There is no indication that Constance had suffered a long illness - she was at a hunting party and festive gathering at Much Hadham in July 1393 - and in those days even a virus could prove fatal. Moreover, her funeral was delayed until July so that the Duke could attend it; after signing a peace treaty at Leulighen on 24 March, the day of her death, he was obliged to remain in France until late June.

  The year 1394 was to witness the tragic deaths of three royal ladies in quick succession, although 'the grief of all these deaths by no means equalled that of the King', for on 7 June, at Sheen, Queen Anne died of the plague, plunging Richard II — who had loved her 'even to madness' — into such all-consuming grief that he was to order that the wing of the palace in which she had breathed her last be razed to the ground.5 Then, on 4 July, just ten days after John of Gaunt's return to England, and a month after she had borne her seventh child, a daughter called Philippa, Mary de Bohun passed away at Peterborough, aged only twenty-six and possibly a victim of puerperal fever. Katherine Swynford may have been in attendance on her during her last weeks, and the loss of her young patroness must have caused her considerable grief.

  Meanwhile, John of Gaunt had travelled north to Leicester to attend Constance's burial before the high altar in the collegiate church of St Mary in the Newarke at Leicester, and a hasty decision was made to have Mary interred there the next day in the choir, while all the mourners were gathered; these obsequies took place with great ceremony, and at staggering expense, totalling £584.55 (£255,62i), on 5 and 6 July, just days after Mary had died.

  It has sometimes been suggested that Constance was buried at Leicester because the Duke neither wanted her to lie beside him for eternity nor considered that she merited a great state fun
eral; yet he did not choose to be buried with his beloved Katherine Swynford either, while the cost of Constance's obsequies and her interment in the established mausoleum of the House of Lancaster strongly suggests that John wanted every honour paid to the memory of the woman who — whatever tensions had lain between them - had been his Duchess for twenty-two years.

  Having received two salutary reminders of the frailty of human life, John of Gaunt soon afterwards ordered alabaster effigies of himself and Blanche of Lancaster for their tomb in St Paul's Cathedral, and he was to raise 'a tomb of marble with an image of brass like a queen on it' for his 'dear companion, Dame Constance'. He also, in his will of 1399, arranged for an obit to be celebrated every year on the anniversary of her death in perpetuity, for the safety of her soul. In 1413, Henry V commissioned an effigy of his mother, Mary de Bohun, from a London coppersmith, which would he on her marble tomb.

  The third royal funeral was somewhat more dramatic. At the end of July, when Queen Anne was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey, the Earl of Arundel, still smarting after his forced apology to John of Gaunt, had the insolence to turn up late, provoking an outraged Richard II to strike him in the face and draw blood, thereby desecrating the sanctity of the church, which had to be re-consecrated before the funeral could continue. Arundel was committed to the Tower for several weeks, then made to swear an oath guaranteeing his future loyalty and pay the King a large indemnity.

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