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


  Katherine was to hold all these properties for the term of her life, to ensure that she was securely provided for in the event of her being left a widow. On her death, they would revert to the heirs of the Duke's body, and not therefore to the Beauforts, thus preserving the Lancastrian inheritance intact.

  Furthermore, during this year of 1397, John also arranged for some of that great inheritance to be held jointly by him and Katherine during their lives, a gesture that can only be viewed as a mark of his love and respect for her, and proof that their marriage was more than just a means of legitimising their children.

  With her jointure settled, the Duchess left court with the Duke and travelled north to Pontefract once more. They were there on 17 March 1397, but had returned to London by 15 April, after perhaps having been present when Henry Beaufort was ordained as a deacon around 3—7 April. That month, Henry achieved the accolade of being appointed Chancellor of Oxford University.

  The fortunes of Thomas Beaufort were also advanced at this time. On 6 July 1397, he was retained for life by the King with an annuity of 100 marks (£11,801), and by November of that year, he had married Margaret, daughter of Sir Thomas Neville of Hornby and niece of Joan Beaufort's husband, Ralph Neville. She was then living in Katherine's household with a governess, and was considered too young as yet to cohabit with her husband.

  Some writers assert that Katherine's daughter, Margaret Swynford, the nun at Barking, had died by 1397, for she is not listed among the sisters who took vows of obedience that year to the new Abbess in the presence of the Bishop of London, but she was still very much alive, for in 1419, she herself was elected Abbess of Barking, and in fact she survived until 1433, dying around the ripe age of seventy. Carvings of the names of Henry and Thomas Beaufort (with the date 1430) on surviving fragments of masonry from Barking Abbey, recorded in 1720, and a bequest of vestments by Thomas Beaufort in his will proved in 1427 are perhaps further evidence that Margaret, then Abbess, was their half-sister. Her cousin Elizabeth Chaucer did swear allegiance to the new Abbess in 1397, along with fourteen other well-born nuns,8' but that is the last surviving reference to her; her date of death is not recorded.

  There is barely a mention of Katherine in the sources covering the remaining years of her marriage to John of Gaunt. We can only assume that she was living the traditional life of a royal duchess, concerning herself with household matters, charitable enterprises and pious works, overseeing the Swynford interests, involving herself in the lives of her children and being a 'dearly beloved companion' to her husband. As the mistress of many Lancastrian castles and manors, she would have found herself moving about the country more frequently than in the years of her widowhood, and living in far greater luxury than ever before. How could she not have made comparisons with how things had been when she had been John's mistress, or in the years of their separation? Now, having achieved the highest position to which she could ever have aspired, and won her man in the process, she seems to have been content to keep a low profile and remain to a great extent a background figure in his life, much as she had done in the past, when she was his mistress.

  For most of the first eighteen months of her marriage, Katherine was often at court, where she enjoyed a prominent position, but political events were thereafter to overshadow her life with John, leading to tragedies that would deeply affect them both, and put their very lives in danger. Therefore it is necessary to digress and recount them here, even though Katherine was not directly involved.

  John of Gaunt might have been high in favour with the King, who confirmed him as Duke of Aquitaine for life on 6 July 1397, but Richard, in whom resentment had simmered for a decade, was now determined to force a reckoning with the former Lords Appellant. He told John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley that he had received intelligence from Thomas Mowbray, himself a former Appellant, that their brother of Gloucester and the Earls of Arundel and Warwick were plotting to depose and imprison him. Plaintively, he asked for their advice. 'Their plan is to separate my Queen from me and shut her up in some place of confinement,' he told them, looking as if he were suffering great anguish of heart, and sounding very convincing. His uncles did their best to calm him down, saying they would never suffer their brother to harm either him or the Queen, and as Richard had hoped, they consented to the arrests of the plotters.

  In fact, both Dukes were reluctant to take sides: quite simply, 'they did not wish to be involved'. John's overriding concern would have been for his son, who had collaborated with Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick back in 1387-8, and thus laid himself forever open to accusations of treason; and he would naturally have been anxious to safeguard the future of the Lancastrian dynasty. Thus, in order to avoid becoming further embroiled in the gathering storm, John and Edmund, with their families, immediately 'retired to their own castles, the Duke of Lancaster taking with him his Duchess, who had for some time been the companion of the young Queen of England'. Thus ended — for a time, at least — Katherine's close association with Isabella ofValois. Instead she found herself 'hunting stags and deer' with her husband. However, both Dukes were 'bitterly' to regret their decision to leave court at this crucial time, for it deprived them of their last chance to save their brother and avert a disturbing political crisis.

  'Shortly after the Duke of Lancaster had gone away,' continues Froissart, 'the King decided upon a bold and daring move.' Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick were arrested, Richard apprehending his uncle in person. On 15 August, John of Gaunt was back at court and present in the House of Lords when the three nobles were accused of committing treason in 1387-8, and later that month, he and his son Henry of Derby were ordered to muster forces for the King.

  Gloucester had been taken to Calais after his arrest, and he was almost certainly murdered there - suffocated in a feather bed — on the orders of the King, before 15 September. On 9 September, in a bid to retain John of Gaunt's support, Richard created John Beaufort — who was willingly to assist in the prosecution of the Appellants - Marquess of both Somerset and Dorset. On 21 September, the three arrested Appellants were called upon to answer for their treason. Gloucester, of course, was not present; Arundel argued that he had been formally pardoned, but he was condemned all the same (with the Duke of Lancaster - as High Steward of England — pronouncing sentence), and beheaded the same day; Warwick, who had pleaded guilty and thrown himself on the King's mercy, escaped with forfeiture and life imprisonment. Three days later, Thomas Mowbray, another former Appellant, now Captain of Calais, announced in Parliament that Gloucester was dead.

  John of Gaunt made no public protest about his brother's murder, even though, according to Froissart (whose evidence may not be reliable), he and Edmund held the King responsible for it, and planned to meet in London to discuss what action they should take; they had 'considerable support', but instead of speaking out, they made their peace with the King, having heard that he was growing suspicious of John of Gaunt too. Maybe John felt he had no choice, given that he was in fear for his son. 'But the common view was that they could have prevented the arrest of their brother, had they foreseen it.' This sinister episode effectively marks the end of John of Gaunt's active intervention in affairs of state, and indeed his political influence, and it may have coincided with — or exacerbated — the onset of failing health.

  'So King Richard was reconciled with his uncles over the death of the Duke of Gloucester, and went on to rule more harshly than before.' Richard's ire did not, at that time, apparently extend to Henry of Derby, who had supported the proceedings against his former colleagues. Naturally, Richard had no wish at this time to alienate John of Gaunt, that stout bulwark of the throne. The King was Henry's guest during that September, and on the 29th, in a mass preferment of peers calculated to reward those who had supported him in the recent proceedings, he created his cousin Duke of Hereford. John of Gaunt's sons-in-law, John Holland and Ralph Neville were made Duke of Exeter and Earl of Westmorland respectively, and John Beaufort was granted eleven of Wa
rwick's manors; on 20 November, he would be appointed Constable of Wallingford Castle for life.

  Richard II's proceedings against the former Appellants mark the beginning of his descent into tyranny. He was done with being told how to govern his kingdom and was determined from now on to rule by divine right as an absolute monarch. In the process, he became obsessed with projecting his own majesty, and introduced increasingly elaborate and rigid ceremonial and protocol at court. He would sit for hours crowned and silent on his high throne at Westminster, 'more splendidly and in greater state than any previous king', and 'if he looked on any man, he must kneel'.

  'He began,' says Walsingham, 'to act the tyrant and oppress the people.' Crippled by debt because of his extravagant lifestyle, he imposed forced loans on his subjects, irrevocably alienating them in the process. As his unpopularity increased, he became paranoid about his own security, and instituted a large bodyguard of Cheshire archers to protect his person. In his own eyes, he could do no wrong. He was, he told Parliament, 'absolute Emperor of his kingdom of England'.

  But his contemporaries knew him to be arrogant, rapacious, vindictive, cunning and vain; they hated and feared this new imperious Richard. Rumours persisted that Arundel, his head and body miraculously reunited, had been restored to life, so to put paid to them, on 1 October, John of Gaunt was assigned the unpleasant task of viewing Arundel's exhumed body in London; he and Katherine were probably staying at Ely Place at this time. By 1 November, John had gone north to Hertford with Katherine and his son, the new Duke of Hereford. The Duke and Duchess spent Christmas at Leicester, which must have afforded a welcome respite from the political turmoil at Westminster.

  Henry had stayed in London. Some time in December, while riding to Windsor, he entered into a fateful conversation with Thomas Mowbray. Out of the blue, Mowbray startlingly revealed that four of the King's most favoured lords were plotting to kill Henry and his father the Duke when they came to Windsor after Parliament had risen in the New Year; the King would then seize the Lancastrian domains. It appeared that there were also secret moves afoot to reverse the pardon granted posthumously to the Duke's forebear, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who had been executed by Edward II in 1322; if that happened, John of Gaunt would be disinherited. Mowbray feared that he and Henry 'were on the point of being undone, in revenge for what was done at Radcot Bridge', for he believed

  Richard would not allow their treason as former Appellants to go unpunished, and could hot be trusted to keep his oath.

  There is some evidence to suggest that Mowbray was not exaggerating the danger. On 1 and 3 March 1398, one of Richard's most favoured councillors, Sir William Bagot, MP for Warwickshire, entered into two sinister-sounding recognizances, the first for £1,000, to be forfeit from him should he 'in time to come make suit for disherision [disinheriting] of John, Duke of Lancaster, his wife or any of his children'; the second stated that 'if John, Duke of Guienne and Lancaster, his wife or any of his children shall in time to come be by him [Bagot] slain, upon proof thereof he shall be put to death without other judgement or process'. This looks like evidence of a plot to disinherit and murder not only John of Gaunt, but Katherine and their children, and it appears that Bagot was to be the scapegoat for whoever was behind the plot, should things go wrong. In 1399, under a new king, Bagot was to admit in court that he had once intrigued to assassinate the Duke, and there is some later evidence that Bagot, Mowbray and Richard II himself were the conspirators. It is unlikely, however, that Katherine ever discovered how close she herself had come to becoming the victim of an assassination attempt.

  Henry reported this alarming exchange to John of Gaunt, who thought it best to tell the King about it. Naturally, given the nature of the conversation they had had, both Henry and Mowbray — who was outraged at his confidences being reported to Richard — wished to portray themselves in the best possible light, and each ended up accusing the other of treason before Richard. Adam of Usk claims that Mowbray himself - who had been implicated in the death of Gloucester, and perhaps believed that Henry's complaint was prompted by his father in reprisal for that, with a view to bringing Mowbray to grief — began plotting to murder John of Gaunt when the Duke travelled to Shrewsbury for the coming Parliament, but that the latter was warned and managed to escape the snare.

  The strain told on John. At the beginning of February, after Parliament rose, he was suffering from a high fever, and was obliged to retire with Katherine to nearby Lilleshall Abbey for a couple of days to recuperate. By this time, he was, as he confided to the King in a letter, suffering from a recurrent illness that proved intermittently incapacitating, and this was probably one such attack. Lilleshall Abbey, where John rested with Katherine, was a remote but imposing Norman house of red sandstone founded by Arroasian (later Augustinian) canons in 1148 and extended in the thirteenth century. Extensive ruins remain today, and the west front is especially magnificent.

  Confronted with the prospect of his own mortality, John was having to face the possibility that Richard II had designs on the Lancastrian inheritance, and Katherine would certainly have shared in her husband's anxieties on that score, and indeed been concerned for him too. The King had already moved against three Lords Appellant, so what was there to stop him from proceeding against the other two? Even if he stopped short of indicting Henry for treason, he might yet use devious means to seize the Duchy for the Crown. As soon as he was well enough, John sought from Richard an assurance that he would not use the forfeiture of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, in 1322 as an excuse to appropriate the Duchy's lands, a request Richard readily granted.

  So far, then, there had been no tangible evidence that the King was entertaining any sinister intentions towards the House of Lancaster. On 5 February, he again showed generosity to John Beaufort, appointing him to the prestigious offices of Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle, the key defensive fortress of the realm, and on 9 May Beaufort would be named Admiral of the North and West. In granting these offices, Richard was acknowledging John Beaufort to be one of the leading lords in the kingdom, a worthy son of his father.

  John of Gaunt was evidently in better health by 5 February, for on that day the King again commissioned him to treat for peace with the Scots, and on the 20th, he was at Pontefract again, on his way north."5 He may have left Katherine there to await his return, for it is unlikely she accompanied him to Scotland, in view of the lawlessness of the Border regions.

  There was much adverse comment when, on 27 February 1398, Henry Beaufort, a proud and ambitious young man of just twenty-one, was named Bishop of Lincoln by the King. He had been provided to the See by a bull of Pope Boniface DC, who was ever eager to gratify the wishes of the influential Duke of Lancaster, the Duke having shamelessly canvassed for the appointment; normally thirty was the minimum age for bishops. Even for the son of the mighty John of Gaunt, this was too rapid a promotion, and a flagrant abuse of the power of the Papacy. Evidently the aged Bishop Buckingham thought so too, because, rather than meekly submit to being translated to the less prestigious See of Coventry and Lichfield, ostensibly for the benefit of his health, but in reality to make way for his successor, he insisted on continuing with his episcopal duties in Lincoln up until 12 July that year. By then, he was too infirm to carry on anywhere, and was sent to live out his days in Canterbury, where he died on 10 March 1399. On 14 July 1398, having resigned as Chancellor of Oxford and renounced most of his other offices in order to focus on his episcopate, Henry Beaufort was consecrated Bishop of Lincoln, receiving his temporalities five days later atTutbury. He was to prove a typical career bishop, busy and competent in all his affairs, who would enjoy power within the State as well as the Church, and whose interests embraced both the secular and the sacred, yet who saw himself, before all else, as a Lancastrian prince. With his preferment, Katherine found herself the mother of a marquess, a countess and a bishop — attainments she could never at one time have dreamed of for her bastard children.

  In the m
iddle of March 1398, near Kelso John of Gaunt appointed deputies to serve on the northern Marches, then rode south, unaware that he had just completed his last diplomatic mission — appropriately in the interests of peace. From that time onwards, he was to play little part in public life, a clear indication that his health was failing fast, as is the sudden cessation of his witnessing royal charters in July 1398. Worry about his son must have been a contributory factor.

  The quarrel between Henry and Mowbray was still unresolved, and for Richard II, this was a God-sent opportunity to press home his advantage, for he had come to see the House of Lancaster, with its enormous power and vast wealth, as a threat to himself and his throne, and was indeed resolved to neutralise it. On 19 March, the two protagonists again appeared before the King at Bristol, and since honour had to be satisfied and neither party was willing to be reconciled, the case was referred to the Court of Chivalry to consider a 'wager of battle'. John of Gaunt, 'greatly upset', according to Froissart, went to Westminster with Henry on 25 March, but he and Katherine had retired to Leicester by 14 April, and so John was consequently spared the ordeal of witnessing Richard II, on the 29th at Windsor, ordering that, since there were no witnesses to the fateful conversation, the issues between Henry and Mowbray be settled by judicial combat between the protagonists — an outdated but still legal (until 1819) process whereby guilt was apportioned to the man left dead or disabled, or the one who ended the fight by crying 'Craven!' In this case, 'the duel was to be a matter of life and death'.

  Henry raced north to break the news to his father and to hone his skills for the coming fight. John of Gaunt now faced the terrible prospect of his beloved son and heir being killed and branded a traitor, but on the other hand, Henry was an expert swordsman and jouster, and his father may have been optimistic as to the outcome. For all that, the Duke 'was much annoyed and disturbed' by the King's actions, although he did not wish to say a word against Richard because Henry's honour was involved, as was his own. A sense of disaster threatening may well have overshadowed the family's time at Pontefract, where they resided from at least 9 June until 14 July, before removing to Rothwell. It would appear that Richard was unaware of his uncle's increasing frailty, for at the beginning of July he renewed his commission as Lieutenant of the Marches.

 
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