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


  John of Gaunt prudently went north; on 24 August, he was with his grieving family at Pontefract, and the following day, having heard to his dismay that there were people at court questioning his own loyalty to the King, and being mindful that Richard's temper was on a short fuse, he wrote him a letter protesting his loyalty. This evidently paid off, for in September, the King confirmed him as Duke of Aquitaine, which meant that John would have to go there without delay, in order to enforce the royal authority and look after his interests in the Duchy. Immediately he began assembling his retinue at Leicester, prior to sailing from Plymouth early in October.

  John Beaufort was going with him — it is possible that, around this time, the Duke planned to create a new fief for the young man in Aquitaine, although this was not to remain a viable prospect for long — and Katherine was no doubt bracing herself for another prolonged parting from John, and from their son. Silva-Vigier suggests that she actually accompanied the Duke to Aquitaine on this occasion, but there is no evidence or comment in the chronicles or official records to support this theory, which there surely would have been had she gone. The fact that the Chancery was not leased to the new Chancellor until after 1396, and that he had had to be found alternative accommodation in 1391—2, strongly suggests that Katherine was still living there during the Duke's absence in 1394-5.

  By the time he left for Aquitaine, John had probably made up his mind to marry Katherine Swynford. The text of a letter from Pope Boniface IX dated 1 September 1396 makes it clear that 'when Constance, of blessed memory, had come to the end of her life, Duke John and Katherine, desiring to marry' had applied for a dispensation, which was necessary because of the compaternity created by John long ago acting as godfather to Katherine's daughter. This reads as if the approach to the Pope had been made as soon after the death of the Duchess as was decent, and it also suggests that John had already resolved to marry Katherine as soon as he was free to do so; this would in part explain the esteem in which she had been held by his family and the King, and it may also have been the reason why Katherine had never remarried. Armitage-Smith thought that the Duke may have enquired even before Constance died if there were impediments to his marrying Katherine, although that is unlikely, as Constance's death seems to have been rather sudden. Any enquiries were probably made after her demise.

  According to Pope Boniface, the couple, 'being not unaware that John had lifted from the font a daughter of the same Katherine, begotten by another man, and that later the same Duke John adulterously knew the same Katherine, she being free of wedlock, but with marriage still existing between the same Duke John and the aforesaid Constance, and begot offspring of her; and believing that marriage between them was now allowable because, the impediment of the aforesaid compaternity not being notorious but rather occult', sent a petitioner (whose name is unknown) to the Holy See to obtain the necessary dispensation. The Pope obligingly delivered to this petitioner a brief, 'signed by our own hand, and containing therein a declaration of our having given our consent in this matter by word of mouth'. Because the impediment was not notorious, Boniface had felt it necessary to give only an oral dispensation. The 'credential brief in which it was enshrined does not survive, and there is no record of the date on which it was issued. Given the time it would have taken for the petitioner to travel from England to Rome, where the legitimist Papacy was now based, the delays that may have been encountered in obtaining the brief

  (although the Pope would not have wished to inconvenience his staunch supporter, the Duke of Lancaster, too greatly), and the fact that the marriage did not take place until January 1396, it may be that the dispensation was not applied for until a year had elapsed since Constance’s death, and that the marriage was further delayed by John setting his affairs in order in Aquitaine, for he did not return to England until December 1395. This is not to say that marrying Katherine was not a priority with John, just that he had to wait for a decent interval to pass after Constance's death, for the Pope to act, and to meet his own obligations, before he could proceed.

  It was virtually unheard of at that time for a royal duke to marry his mistress, especially one who was the daughter of a humble foreign knight, and John could have been in no doubt that the union would prove highly controversial. Twice he had entered into wedlock for political reasons: once successfully, the other time far less so. Even now, at fifty-five and old by contemporary standards, he was an eligible prize in the European marriage market, and could easily have made a political alliance that favoured his cherished peace process with France, or an advantageous union with an heiress that would handsomely augment the Lancastrian domains. That he did not pursue such alliances speaks volumes. Instead, he was resolved to make the unusual, highly unconventional and indeed brave choice of marrying for love. There can be little doubt that his feelings for Katherine played a large part in his decision — Froissart says he 'had always loved and maintained this Lady Katherine', and the settlements that he was to make on her during their marriage are ample evidence of his feelings for her.

  But there was more to it than that. 'From affection to [their] children, the Duke married their mother,' Froissart adds, making it seem as if Katherine really did not come into the equation, although the chronicler may have drawn this conclusion himself, unable, along with many other people, to comprehend that the mighty Duke of Lancaster had so far forgotten himself as to marry for love. Yet love for Katherine aside, John's desire to see the Beauforts legitimised was surely a powerful enough motive for marrying her, and perhaps just as important to the Duke. They were now growing up and proving themselves able and gifted, and he must have wanted them to enjoy the high offices of Church and State for which their royal blood befitted them and for which he had had them educated; and he perhaps also had a view to forging advantageous noble alliances through them. He may, too, in the wake of that series of tragic deaths, have felt the hand of time upon him; he was fifty-four when Constance died, and — as we have seen -aged beyond his years, although he must have been reasonably fit at this time because he was contemplating going crusading against the Turks in distant lands; nevertheless, he perhaps felt an impulsion to seize whatever happiness he could while he could still enjoy life, and secure his children's future before he died. These things, Katherine and the children, were clearly so important to him that he was prepared to brave public opinion to have his desire.

  It~was almost certainly with this aim in mind that, probably before he went abroad, John made provision for his eldest son by Katherine, and for the Chaucers. It was possibly in 1394, and certainly before 28 September 1397, that John Beaufort was married to Margaret Holland, daughter of Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, the son of the late Princess Joan by her first husband; Margaret was therefore a niece of the King, and she had been born about 1381-5. By 1395, in order to provide for the young couple, the Duke had purchased for John Beaufort the reversion of the manors of Curry Rivel, Langport and Martock in Somerset.

  Around the same time, John made a gift of 20 marks (£2,917) to Thomas Chaucer, doubled his pension to £20 (£8,750), and paid £100 (£43,749) to secure his marriage to a wealthy heiress, Maud, the daughter of Sir John Burghersh of Ewelme; she came from a respected baronial family and brought him large estates in Surrey and Oxfordshire. Such lavish generosity towards Katherine's nephew indicates not only a desire to please her, but also a genuine appreciation of Thomas Chaucer's worth. Nor was Thomas's father Geoffrey, still ensconced in the wilds of Somerset, forgotten, for it was during this year of 1394-5 that Henry of Derby sent him a grant of money and a fur-lined scarlet robe.

  Summoned by the King, who wanted the Duke's support for the French marriage alliance that Thomas of Woodstock was so hotly opposing, John of Gaunt, armed with the Pope's brief, returned to England in December 1395. He was no longer feeling in the best of health, and the crossing from Calais to Kent must have been disagreeable, even painful, for him: for when, late in November, he had visited Brittany and opened ultimately unsuccess
ful negotiations for a marriage between his grandson, Henry of Monmouth, and Duke John de Montfort's daughter, he had declined an invitation to attend the wedding as 'it will be very hard-going and very uncomfortable to him to sail'. This suggests he was suffering some bodily infirmity at this time, possibly the recurrent malady to which he was to refer in 1398, which may be one reason why he made a short pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket at Canterbury upon returning to England, no doubt to give thanks for his safe return home, pray for relief for his complaint and ask the saint's blessing on his coming marriage.

  John was still in Canterbury at the beginning of January 1396, for his son Henry sent him nineteen ells of velvet there as a New Year gift. He left soon afterwards for Langley, Hertfordshire, to pay his respects to Richard II and seek his permission to marry Katherine Swynford. More than twenty years later, Walsingham claimed that the marriage came as a surprise to the King, but as his foremost subject, it is hardly likely that John of Gaunt, that great traditionalist and pillar of the monarchy, would have omitted his feudal obligation to obtain royal sanction for the marriage to go ahead. It is also doubtful if the Duke's request came as a surprise to Richard, who apparently readily gave his consent. His manner towards his uncle, however, although cordial, was noticeably cool and, some said, 'without love'. He wanted John's backing, it was true, but he did not want him dominating political affairs as before. This change in Richard marked the beginning of the end of John's political influence, which would now slowly but steadily decline; his health, of course, could also have been a factor. Nevertheless, he was to maintain a constant presence at court in the coming years, and would witness every royal charter up till July 1398.

  Katherine herself must have been in Lincolnshire at this time, probably living at the Chancery, although she was still exercising authority as the Lady of Kettlethorpe — on 4 December, she presented a new rector to the parish church there. This was none other than John Huntman, the Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, he who had had to seek alternative accommodation in 1391—2 because Katherine was in possession of his official residence, the Chancery. In appointing him Rector of Kettlethorpe, was Katherine attempting to compensate in some way for the inconvenience she had caused?

  John did not delay long at court, but, having obtained the King's permission to depart, set off north to Lincolnshire, to Katherine, to make her his wife without further delay. They 'publicly contracted marriage'27 very soon after the Octave of the Epiphany, which fell on 13 January 1396 — possibly their wedding took place on the 14th, or even as late as February, which is far less likely. The ceremony in Lincoln Cathedral was probably conducted before the splendid chancel screen by the ageing Bishop Buckingham, who is known to have been in Lincoln later that month. Evidently John's health had improved, for, as he and Katherine later confided to the Pope, their marriage was consummated 'by carnal copulation'. There can be no doubt that they were lovers once more.

  Katherine was now the Duchess of Lancaster and, in the absence of a queen, the first lady in the land - a position she could not expect to enjoy for long, because the coming spring would see the signing of a new peace with France that was to be cemented by the marriage of Richard II to Charles VI's six-year-old daughter Isabella.

  Katherine's feelings at this time may only be imagined. They must have encompassed love and gratitude with regard to the man who was now her husband, and perhaps a sense of relief that the long years of self-denial, steadfastness, waiting and uncertainty were over - not to mention triumph and elation at having come to a safe harbour at last, and at making such a spectacular marriage in the process, something that no other royal mistress of that age — and only a privileged few in other periods — would ever achieve. She was set up for life, and would never again have to worry about financial security." There was, too, the comforting knowledge that the way was now clear for her Beaufort children to be formally legitimised, and that their futures were secure — as indeed were those of Thomas Swynford and Katherine's Chaucer relatives.

  But Katherine must also have been aware that society at large might not view her as the most suitable wife for the Duke. Notoriety and a tarnished reputation had never been desirable qualities in royal wives; moreover, John was a prince of the highest rank and renown, and could have advantageously made a grand marriage for profit or policy; that he should stoop to marry a woman of far lower degree, however highly regarded she was by his family, was unthinkable. But he had defied convention and done so, and now here she was, exalted above all other women in the realm.

  In order to emphasise her royal status, and perhaps at the same time hopefully to obliterate memories of her immoral past, Katherine assumed as her coat of arms the three gold wheels of St Katherine, her patron saint, who was strongly associated with royalty, virtue and erudition in the popular imagination. These wheels were blazoned on a red shield, and they would have been prominently displayed on hangings, trappings, furnishings, clothing and livery badges. They appeared in profusion on the vestments she was to give to Lincoln Cathedral, and they also adorned her tomb there,34 while the image of St Katherine appears in the Beaufort Hours, a manuscript commissioned after 1401 by John Beaufort, who clearly wanted to honour his mother and associate her memory with the saint.35 The conversion of the silver Roët wheels into gold Katherine wheels suggests both a deep devotion to her name-saint, and a conscious effort on the part of the new Duchess to construct a far more respectable public image for herself.36

  It is highly likely that the Duke was also involved in this mediaeval version of 'spin-doctoring', or was even the inspiration behind it. After all, he had a vested interest in the heraldic emblems of the Lancastrian inheritance, and in the way people regarded his wife, whose character and demeanour reflected on his own nobility and honour; at the very least, Katherine would have had to consult him on this matter and seek his approval — married women in the Middle Ages enjoyed little autonomy, even if they had become used to making their own decisions during a long widowhood, as Katherine clearly had. One may infer from the sources quoted in this chapter, however, that John was a loving husband eager to make his lady happy. It may be that it was he who, after their marriage, arranged for the reburial of her father in St Paul's Cathedral, or for the erection of a memorial tablet on Sir Paon de Roët's existing grave there.

  It was to Katherine's advantage that 'she had a perfect knowledge of court etiquette, because she had been brought up in princely courts continually since her youth'; this made her eminently well-qualified for her new rank, and it would have given her confidence as she came to grips with the realities of her new status.

  The newly wedded Duke and Duchess made a short trip up north together before facing the court; possibly John wished to test the water by taking Katherine on a tour of his domains. By 23 January, they were lodging at Pontefract, a place that might have held bitter but long-exorcised memories for them, but which clearly became a favoured retreat during their marriage. High on its escarpment, the castle enjoyed commanding views of the River Aire; the royal lodgings were in the turreted trefoil-shaped donjon, which the Duke had had heightened twenty years earlier, so that it dwarfed all the other towers. Here he and Katherine would have resided in great comfort and luxury, for he had lavished huge sums of money on the place.38

  By 10 March, they had moved north-westwards to Rothwell Castle, a thirteenth-century royal hunting lodge owned by the Duke, which lay hard by his manor of Leeds. They stayed there until the 31st, before travelling south.

  It may have been at this time — it was certainly in 1396 — that they broke their journey at Coventry, where they were admitted as members of the prosperous Guild of the Holy Trinity, St Mary, St John the Baptist and St Katherine. The ceremony either took place in St Mary's Guild Hall (constructed between 1340 and 1460) in the heart of the town, or at the Guild's chapel in the collegiate church dedicated to St John the Baptist, which had been founded by John's grandmother, Queen Isabella, the widow of Edward II; in 1344, she h
ad given land in Coventry to the Guild of St John for the founding of the chapel. This Guild had later amalgamated with those of St Katherine and Holy Trinity. Since their patron saints were both represented, John and Katherine would have felt a special affinity with this Guild.

  The new Duchess made her debut at court some time in April, probably at the St George's Day celebrations, for she was issued with Garter robes that year. Her appearance there, and the announcement of her marriage to the Duke, gave rise to stunned shock and widespread disapproval, for most people regarded it as a disastrous misalliance: 'the which wedding caused many a man's wondering for, as it was said, he had held her long before'.

  'Everyone was amazed at the miracle of this event,' wrote Walsingham with some irony, 'since the fortune of such a woman in no way matched a magnate of such exalted rank.' Froissart says the marriage 'caused much astonishment', in France as well as in England, 'for she was of humble birth, far unmeet to match with his Highness, and nothing comparable in honour to his two former wives, the Duchess Blanche and Duchess Constance,' while he was the richest, most powerful and most eligible catch in the land. In the fifteenth century, the chronicler John Capgrave recalled how the Duke had married Katherine 'against the opinion of many men'. Even in our own time, such a marriage would cause comment. 'Men of title and privilege simply do not marry their mistresses,' observed the late Queen Mother, so we may imagine how much greater an outcry the union of John and Katherine provoked in 1396.

 
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