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


  'When the news of this marriage reached the great ladies of England, such as the Duchess of Gloucester, the Countess of Derby [sic], Mary de Bohun had, of course, died in 1394], the Countess of Arundel [a Mortimer, and a descendant of Edward III] and other ladies with royal blood in their veins, they were surprised and shocked, considering it scandalous, and thought the Duke much to blame. They said that he had sadly disgraced himself by marrying his concubine, a woman of light character' — for such they apparently still perceived Katherine to be. Many thought John of Gaunt a fool, including perhaps Chaucer, who was the same age: around this time, in a poem dedicated to his friend Henry Scogan, he wrote that he was beginning to see himself as beyond the age for love and marriage. What, then, did he think of the Duke?

  What rankled most with the great ladies was that the new Duchess of Lancaster would take precedence before them. 'Since she has got so far,' they sniffed, 'it will mean that she will rank as the second lady in England, and the young Queen will be dishonourably accompanied by her.' But they were plotting their revenge. 'For their parts, they would leave her to do the honours of the court by herself,' they declared, 'for they would never enter any place where she was. They themselves might be disgraced if they permitted a woman of so base a birth, and concubine to the Duke for a very long time, inside and outside his marriage with the Princess Constance, to have place before them. Their hearts would burst with vexation, and righdy so!'

  The two people who were the most incensed and 'outrageous' about the marriage were Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, 'a man of an high mind and a stout stomach' who 'misliked his brother matching so meanly' and considered him 'a doting fool', and Thomas's wife, Eleanor de Bohun. 'They considered that the Duke of Lancaster had overstepped all bounds when he took his concubine to wife, and said they would never recognise her marriage, or call her lady or sister.' However, John's other brother, Edmund of Langley, 'soon got over it, for he was most often in the company of the King' - who, we may infer, supported the marriage — 'and his brother of Lancaster. The Duke of Gloucester was of different stuff, for he respected no one's opinions.'

  To make matters worse, by means that are not recorded, the existence of an impediment to the marriage, that of compaternity, somehow became 'publicly known', and because John and Katherine could produce 'no apostolic letters authorising its dispensation' — they had been given only an oral brief, not a full dispensation - they became 'apprehensive' that their marriage could 'very likely be impugned, and an annulment follow, and grave scandals arise therefrom'. They therefore 'made humble supplication' once more to Pope Boniface, 'that we deign of our apostolic benignity to provide for them concerning the aforesaid' and pronounce on the legitimacy of their children.45 They must then have spent many anxious months awaiting his reply, and hoping that no English bishop would see fit in the meantime to enquire into the validity of their union.

  Richard II, however, was welcoming to Katherine; it was he who had issued her with Garter robes so that she could participate in the St George's Day ceremonies. After those were completed, the Duke and Duchess moved to London, where they probably took up residence at Ely Place. There, on 16 May, John assigned Katherine the generous sum of £600 (£243,620) per annum, to be paid by his Receiver-General, for the expenses of her wardrobe, obviously anticipating that his new Duchess would dress herself and furnish her apartments as lavishly as her rank merited. Like John's previous wives, Katherine had her own separate wardrobe and household; we know nothing of its composition, however, or the names of her officers and ladies.

  In June, the King granted his uncle a charter of liberties for the Duchy of Lancaster, and proposed that his future Queen's sister, Michelle of Valois, be married to John's grandson, Henry of Monmouth. Richard also supported John in forbidding Henry of Derby to brave the dangers of a campaign in Friesland with the Duke of Gueldres.

  John's worsening health may account for his fears for the safety of his heir, who had been on perilous expeditions in the past, some financed by his father; yet his anxiety did not apparently extend to his younger son, John Beaufort, who went crusading against the Turks in Hungary and Bulgaria in 1396, and in September was present at the siege of Nicopolis, a campaign that ended in the mass capture and slaughter of the Christian army and left Bulgaria under Muslim domination for five centuries. John Beaufort, fortunately, came home to tell the tale.

  Before long, the storm that followed upon her marriage abated, and Katherine became accepted at court and within the royal family. This probably had a lot to do with Richard II's support and his improving relations with John of Gaunt, but it was undoubtedly due in no small part to Katherine's own personal qualities, her discretion and dignity, and her well-bred understanding of how to conduct herself as a duchess. 'The lady herself was a woman of such bringing up and honourable demeanour that envy could not but in the end give place to well-deserving.' Above all, 'she loved the Duke of Lancaster and the children she had with him, and she showed it'.52 None could have impugned her sincerity.

  In July 1396, with the conclusion of the new treaties between England and France, preparations were set in train at last for the King's marriage to Isabella ofValois. Early in August, John apparently went to Calais with the King for a meeting with the Duke of Burgundy, returning to England by the 23rd.53 Some time before Michaelmas, perhaps at Katherine's request, the Duke arranged for two pipes of wine to be conveyed from London to the abbey of Barking, and there given to her daughter Margaret Swynford; and before 15 September, he took Katherine to St Albans Abbey to visit Abbot Thomas de la Mare, who was dying after ten years of chronic ill health brought on by an attack of the plague. The Abbot had been a friend of the Black Prince and the exiled King John II of France, and would have shared many memories with John of Gaunt. The purpose of the visit was no doubt to ask for the Abbot's blessing and say a sad farewell. Later that month, the Duke and Duchess were at Hertford Castle, where they had probably been lodging for most of the month.

  Meanwhile, on ! September, in Rome, Boniface IX had pronounced their marriage valid:

  We therefore [he wrote], who freely seek the peace and tranquillity and health of mind of all Christ's faithful, especially of those who are illustrious because of sublime dignity, desiring to avoid such scandals to the extent that we can under God, and wishing salubriously to provide otherwise for the abovementioned circumstances, being inclined to such supplications, we ratify, approve and confirm by apostolic authority the aforesaid marriage contracted between John and Katherine, and we reinforce it by the protection of the present document.

  He then proceeded to pronounce on the legitimacy of their children:

  And so that the same John and Katherine may freely and licitly remain in the said marriage contracted between them, the impediment and other matters described above completely notwithstanding, we dispense them through the same authority by the tenor of the present letters, declaring legitimate offspring received and to be received from this marriage.

  This clearly refers to the Beauforts and to any other children that might be born to the couple — obviously the Pope had no idea that Katherine was about forty-six and highly unlikely to become pregnant again. But he had provided for that contingency anyway, and he concluded his letter with the warning that anyone presuming to question the validity of the marriage would incur 'the indignation of Almighty God'.57 That, of course, was sufficient to silence any critics, and John and Katherine would doubtless have been quite relieved to receive this dispensation. It may have arrived in England before they left for France, which was shortly after 7 October.

  The King having already crossed the Channel, Henry of Derby and Joan Beaufort accompanied their father and Katherine when they travelled to Calais in October. On the 27th, at a lavish ceremony near the town, attended by much pomp and pageantry (the wedding celebrations were rumoured to have cost Richard £200,000, more than £81 million in today's values), the two kings met; Charles VI had already experienced attacks of the mad
ness that was to blight his life and reign, but he was enjoying a lucid interval on this occasion, and cordial pleasantries were exchanged.

  On the 28th, with John and Katherine and a host of other lords and ladies looking on, little Isabella was carried to her father's pavilion and formally handed over by Charles VI to her bridegroom, who thanked him 'for so gracious and honourable a gift' and kissed the little girl. He then 'commended her to the Duchesses of Lancaster and Gloucester’ — the senior royal ladies — 'and the Countesses of Huntingdon and Stafford and other ladies', including Joan Beaufort, who all received her with great joy before escorting her to Calais in twelve packed chariots. Evidently the Duchess of Gloucester had abandoned her resolve to have nothing to do with Katherine, while the latter's prominent role in the ceremonies demonstrates how quickly she had been accepted by the establishment and how respectable she had become.

  The little Queen had already been assigned a French gouvemante, Lady de Coucy, and it was this lady who took charge of her and who was her sole companion in her richly appointed chariot on that ride to Calais. Of course Katherine was one of the chief ladies in attendance on Isabella and would have joined the other noble ladies in assisting the bride in her wedding preparations. But her association with Isabella was not limited to that, for Froissart, who was well informed about events at Richard II's court at this time, later stated that she 'had been some time the companion of the young Queen of England', and that she remained so until the late summer of 1397. She evidently took on this role at the time of Isabella's marriage and her influence would have been invaluable during the period immediately following it, when the court was travelling back to England and Isabella was being initiated into her new position. Who better to act as her companion and mentor than the Duchess of Lancaster, the second lady in the land, who had had experience of looking after royal princesses, and who was clearly good with children?

  Katherine, along with her daughter Joan Beaufort, the Duchess of Gloucester and the Countess of Huntingdon, was given a gold livery collar to wear at the royal wedding. A heavy chain denoting rank, worn to proclaim the wearer's affiliation to some king or great lord, it might have been adorned with the Lancastrian SS links, but is more likely to have been bestowed by the King and to have incorporated his white hart emblem, and perhaps fleurs-de-lis in honour of the bride.

  On 4 November, in the church of St Nicholas at Calais, Isabella was married to Richard II by Thomas Arundel, the new Archbishop of Canterbury; she was then not quite seven years old, and not a little precocious — 'it was pretty to see her, young as she was, practising how to act the Queen'. The ceremony was followed by sumptuous feasting.

  The King and Queen (her dolls packed away with her trousseau) and all their party, including John and Katherine, crossed back to Dover in

  November, the voyage taking just three hours. They dined and slept at Dover Castle the first night, then made their way towards London via Canterbury, Rochester, Dartford and Eltham, where the Duke and Duchess of Lancaster and the other lords and ladies presented cosdy gifts to Isabella before taking their leave of the royal couple and hastening ahead to make ready for the young Queen's state entry into London.

  On 13 November, Isabella made her way in triumph to the Tower, and on the following day, she was ceremoniously conducted to the King at Westminster; such were the crowds in the capital that nine people were crushed to death. It appears she was never crowned — a summons to her coronation on Epiphany Sunday 1397 survives, and an unreliable London chronicle states she was crowned on 8 January, but there is no other evidence for such a momentous event. John and Katherine entertained her at their London 'hostel' - Ely Place - probably late in 1396 or early in 1397, the Duke presenting her with a massive gold cup and basin, while Katherine gave her a much smaller cup, more suitable for a child to use. Isabella spent most of what was to prove a short married life in the care of Lady de Coucy at Windsor Castle or Eltham Palace, indulgently treated by her husband, of whom she became inordinately fond.

  Papal confirmation of the marriage of John and Katherine not only put paid once and for all to the nasty rumours and backbiting, but also had an enormously beneficial impact on the lives of the Beauforts. Joan Beaufort had recently been widowed - her husband, Robert Ferrers, died some time between May 1395 and November 1396 — and she was evidently now viewed as a highly desirable bride, for in November 1396, probably as soon as her parents returned to England, the powerful northern baron, Ralph Neville, 6th Baron of Raby, married her as his second wife. John of Gaunt, who was clearly pleased to have the thirty-two-year-old Neville as a son-in-law and ally, settled a handsome annuity of £206.13s.4d

  (£89,914) on the couple for life. Neville's estates were in Durham and Yorkshire, and Joan was to make her home there. His first wife, Margaret Stafford, who had died in June that year, had borne him twelve children, so Joan, at just nineteen, became stepmother to a sizeable family on her marriage; yet those children, as will be seen, would have little cause to love her in the future.

  It was probably at the request of John of Gaunt that in January 1397, the Pope issued a Bull appointing Henry Beaufort Dean of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, launching the twenty-year-old cleric on what was to prove a spectacular and meteoric career in the Church. John also pressed the King, with whom he was now on the best of terms, and who was desirous of his continuing support against the war lobby, to regularise the position of the Beauforts, and on 6 February, 'yielding to the prayers of your father', Richard issued Letters Patent formally legitimising them in law:

  To our most dear cousins, the noble men, John the knight, Henry the clerk, Thomas the young gentleman, and to our beloved damsel the noble Joan Beaufort, the most dear relatives of our uncle, the noble John, Duke of Lancaster, born our lieges, greeting, and the favour of our royal majesty. Whilst internally considering how incessantly and with what honours we are graced by the very useful and sincere affection of our aforesaid uncle, and by the wisdom of his counsel, we think it proper and fit that, for the sake of his merits, and in contemplation of his favours, we should enrich you (who are endowered by Nature with great probity and honesty of life and behaviour, and are begotten of royal blood, and by the divine gift are adorned with many virtues) with the strength of our royal prerogative of favour and grace.

  It was a gesture calculated to ensure the Duke's continuing friendship and loyalty. For the Pope's brief legitimising the Beauforts, although morally satisfactory, carried no weight under the laws of inheritance in England: it was purely a spiritual expunging of the stain of bastardy, and could not lift the legal bar to them inheriting lands or tides. What was required was an Act of Parliament confirming their legitimacy in common law, and this Richard secured.

  The King's Letters Patent were read out on 6 February 1397 in Parliament by Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury; then, on the 9th, it appears that a 'mande ceremony' was performed in the Parliament chamber, with the Duke and Duchess and their four offspring standing together beneath a mantle known as a 'care cloth'; normally, when the single parents of bastards married, they and their children stood under the care cloth during the wedding ceremony. Even so, only the Church recognised them as legitimate; feudal inheritances were strictly safeguarded from bastard interlopers, and under English common law, up until 1920, 'mantle' children could not inherit property. In the case of the Beauforts, the care cloth was used symbolically, while an Act - unique in English history - was passed confirming their legitimisation and declaring them fully capable in law of inheriting 'whatsoever dignities, honours, pre-eminences, status, ranks and offices, public and private, perpetual and temporal, feudal and noble there may be, as fully, freely and lawfully as if you were born in lawful wedlock'.7'

  Being formally declared legitimate facilitated the full acceptance of the Beauforts into the royal House and removed all barriers to their preferment in the peerage and the Church, and further improved their prospects, literally overnight in the case of the chivalrous John Beaufort, f
or on 10 February the King created him Earl of Somerset, himself girding him with the sword and placing on his shoulders a cloak of velvet, 'a garment of honour'. That April, John Beaufort would be made a Knight of the Garter. Formerly, he had borne a shield of blue and white (the Lancastrian livery colours, and now his own too) differenced by the red bend sinister of bastardy charged with the arms of Lancaster; now he took for his arms the quartered leopards and lilies of England with a segmented border in blue and white. It was probably at this time too that he adopted the famous portcullis badge that would later feature so prominently in Tudor heraldry. Katherine, the herald's daughter, must have felt wonderfully gratified to see her children legitimised and her son a belted earl. The wits of Richard II's court, however, derisively referred to the Beauforts as 'Fairborn', an interpretation of their name that was still being used ironically a century later, proof that the taint of bastardy still clung to the family. Notwithstanding this, the legitimisation of the Beauforts was to have massive implications for the future of the monarchy, and indeed for the history of England itself.

  The next day, 11 February, the King licensed John of Gaunt to settle a jointure on Katherine, namely the estates he had received from the Crown in 1372 in exchange for the earldom of Richmond. These lay mainly in Yorkshire, Norfolk and Sussex, and comprised the honours, castles and manors of Knaresborough and Tickhill, and the wapentake (hundred) of Staincliffe.all in Yorkshire; the hundreds of North Greenhoe, North and South Erpingham and Smithdon, in Norfolk; 200 marks (£23,601) annual rent from St Mary's Abbey, York; the castle, manor and free chase of the High Peak in Derbyshire; the manors of Gringley and Wheatley in Nottinghamshire, of which Katherine was already in possession; the manors of Willingdon and Maresfield in Sussex, Wighton, Aylsham, Fakenham and Snettisham in Norfolk, and those of Glatton and Holme in Cambridgeshire; Pevensey Castle and adjoining land in Sussex; Ashdown free chase and the bailiwick of Endlewick in Sussex; the advowsons of St Robert of Knaresborough and Tickhill; the free chapels of Castleton (High Peak), Maresfield and Pevensey Castle; and the priories of Wilmington and Withyam, both in Sussex.

 
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