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


  Early in August, Henry received word that the trial by combat would take place on 16 September. Richard may have been trying to lull John of Gaunt into a false sense of security when, on the 8th, he confirmed and extended his powers in the palatinate of Chester, upgraded the earldom of Chester to a principality and appointed the Duke its hereditary constable. But this was to be the last public office ever granted to John, whose relinquishment of the Duchy of Aquitaine that year suggests an awareness that he was no longer able to bear the responsibilities that possession of that turbulent domain entailed. In his place, at the end of August, the ever-upwardly mobile John Beaufort was appointed King's Lieutenant in Aquitaine for seven years.

  At last, 16 September dawned, the day everyone concerned had been awaiting or dreading, and the two protagonists faced each other at Gosford Green, Coventry, with the King (who was lodging at Sir William Bagot's house), the young Queen, the Duke and Duchess of Lancaster, the whole court and vast crowds of sightseers looking on. But as the contestants sat there on their steeds, poised to charge, the King threw down his staff and forbade them to proceed. Instead, they were summoned to kneel before him, and without further preliminaries, he sentenced Henry to ten years' banishment, and Mowbray to exile for life. Both were commanded to leave England by 20 October. At a stroke, Richard had rid himself of the two remaining Appellants.

  'The whole court was in a state of turmoil.' The summary sentences — handed down without any charges being made or any form of trial — stunned everyone and provoked much criticism of the King, not the least because Henry was 'extraordinarily popular' in England. At last Richard had revealed his hand, showing that he had meant all along to have his revenge on every one of the former Appellants. On the plea of John of Gaunt, he did immediately reduce the term of Henry's banishment to six years, but he was otherwise implacable. Banishing Henry and Mowbray had been a clever move on his part, for he must have been aware by now that the Duke did not have much longer to live, and with Henry abroad at the time his father died — as he surely would be — it would be far easier for the King to appropriate the vast Lancastrian estates.

  For John of Gaunt and his son, however, it was a tragedy, for it meant that Henry had to leave his father, with whom he had always enjoyed a touchingly warm relationship, at a time when the latter's health was failing fast and it must have been obvious that the prospect of their meeting again in this life was remote indeed. John may have made this point, to no purpose, in his plea to the King. More than that, the future security of the Lancastrian patrimony, which for over thirty years the Duke had preserved and enriched as the inheritance he would leave his son and the heirs of his dynasty, was now clearly under threat. Many historians have observed that he made no public protest; Froissart says that he 'was very angry and felt that the King should not have reacted as he had ... And the more sensible of the barons agreed with him.' Nevertheless, while he 'deplored the matter in private, [he] was too proud to approach Richard II, since his son's honour was involved'. That is understandable, but, given the King's unpredictable humour, probably he did not dare to protest, for to do so might only worsen the situation, and so much was at stake. He had, after all, pleaded with the King in private, and failed to soften his resolve.

  The prospect of death was undoubtedly in John's mind at this time, for on 17 September, only one day after Richard pronounced his terrible judgement, the Duke obtained from him a licence to found a chantry for himself and Katherine in Lincoln Cathedral, where their souls could be prayed for in perpetuity by two chaplains. When his time came, John would be buried in the double tomb he had built for himself and Blanche in St Paul's, but he desired to retain a spiritual affinity in death with Katherine, who must already have decided that she would be laid to rest in Lincoln Cathedral, a place with which she had long enjoyed a close association, and where she and John had been married. That she had the right to burial there is perhaps further evidence that she was a member of the cathedral's confraternity, although her long residence in the Close might have qualified her for the privilege, and her royal status.

  After their marriage, John and Katherine had forged even closer links with Lincoln Cathedral. They bestowed rich gifts. In his will, John left a gold chalice graven with a crucifix and an image of Christ, a gold table, large gold chandeliers and a stone altar he called 'Domesday' that was encrusted with sapphires, diamonds, pearls and rubies, all of which were from his own chapel, as well as new vestments of red cloth of gold adorned with gold falcons, and an altar cloth with the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the twelve Apostles embroidered in gold thread.

  During her marriage and widowhood, Katherine too gave beautiful vestments, some from her own chapel; these comprised 'a chasuble of red baudekin [rich silk] with orphreys [ornamental bands or borders] of gold with leopards powdered [sprinkled] with black trefoils, and two tunicles and two albs of the same suite'; twenty 'fair copes', each having 'three wheels of silver in the hoods;... a chasuble of red velvet with Katherine wheels of gold, with two tunicles and three albs, with all the apparel of the same suite;... five copes of red velvet with Katherine wheels of gold, of the which three hath orphreys of black cloth of gold, and the other two hath orphreys with images of Katherine wheels and stars'. There were also four other copes 'in red satin figured with Katherine wheels of gold, with orphreys having images, staffs and Katherine wheels', and 'two cloths of red velvet embroidered with Katherine wheels of gold of divers lengths and divers breadths'. All were 'of the gift of the Duchess of Lancaster', and they were recorded in an inventory taken in 1536, when they were still proudly numbered among the cathedral's treasures. These descriptions give some indication of the splendour in which the Duke and Duchess worshipped, while the proliferation of Katherine wheels testifies to the Duchess's desire to be identified with her patron saint.

  Immediately after obtaining his licence from the King, John rode with Katherine to Leicester Castle. To show that he bore the Duke no ill will for the misdeeds of his son, Richard visited them there from 20 to 24 September, and on the last day of his stay, he granted Mowbray's lordship of Castle Acre in Norfolk to Thomas Beaufort. Were these sops to lull John into believing that Richard had no further moves against the House of Lancaster planned?

  During his visit, Richard must have seen a deterioration in John of Gaunt's health. For some time, says Froissart, John was 'low spirited on account of the banishment of his son', and he was clearly not a well man. Although on 3 October Richard was apparently anticipating that his uncle might undertake another trip to Scotland in 1399, this was perhaps a ploy to make people believe he thought the Duke would five to see his son return from exile, in order to deflect any suspicions that he had his eye on their lands; for on that same day, he went so far as to issue letters authorising Henry to receive his inheritance in the event of John's early demise.

  Katherine was probably present with John at Eltham Palace that month to witness Henry taking his leave of the King. Their own sad farewells were made soon afterwards, and on 13 March, Henry, riding through vast crowds of people 'weeping and crying after him', left London for Dover, where he was to board a ship bound for France. On his father's advice, he had arranged to spend his exile in Paris, at the French court, near enough to England for him to be able speedily to return if necessary.

  John of Gaunt, now overtaken 'by a sudden languor, both for old age and heaviness [depression]', and 'gravely desolated' by the absence of his son and the prospect of never seeing him again, rode north with his beloved Katherine to Leicester Castle, arriving there by 24 October. He would not leave this long-favoured residence alive. As Silva-Vigier and

  Goodman point out, the greater part of his short married life with Katherine had been darkly overshadowed by Richard II's tyranny and latterly the Duke's sickness — and there was to be no happy ending. In November, his health deteriorated, and at Christmas, according to Froissart, he became very ill. It may have been at this time that he took to 'his chamber bed, trava
iled in that infirmity'. This was by far the worst manifestation of the illness he had suffered from intermittently for at least a year, a malady that some believed had been brought on or exacerbated by the strain of recent events.

  The nature of that illness cannot be determined for certain, but there are possible clues. The following 'indecent tale' was deemed so disgusting by the Duke's Edwardian biographer, Armitage-Smith, that he had the whole text, and his own dismissive observations, printed in Latin; later historians, such as Pearsall and Bevan, have also cast doubt on its credibility. But were they right to do so? A closer look at the evidence is required.

  In the 1440s, Thomas Gascoigne, Chancellor of Oxford University, claimed in his treatise Loci e libro veritatum (Passages from a book of truths) that John of Gaunt 'died of putrefaction of his genitals and body, caused by the frequenting of women, for he was a great fornicator'. According to Gascoigne, Richard II visited John of Gaunt as he was 'lying thus diseased in bed', and the Duke 'showed this same putrefaction' to the King, laying bare his corrupted genitals and other parts. Gascoigne, who attributed this illness to 'the exercise of carnal intercourse with women', and who says he got his information from 'a faithful student of theology who knew these things and told them to me', wrote this passage to illustrate his typically clerical theory that excessive sexual intercourse had dire consequences for men; yet it seems strange that the private shame of the Duke of Lancaster, the great-grandfather of the then-reigning King and the progenitor of his dynasty, should be chosen as an exemplar and thus exposed. Surely Gascoigne would have had to be sure of his facts before writing something so injurious to the Duke's posthumous reputation?

  Armitage-Smith observed that Gascoigne, a respected and honest preacher who was vehement in his opposition to Lollards, was biased against the Duke, who had once been notorious for his support of Wycliffe. But there is some evidence that may corroborate his allegations. Richard II was in the Midlands in January 1399, so it is possible that he did visit his uncle. One source asserts that not only did Richard visit John at this time, but that John raged at him for exiling his son, while the Scottish chronicler, Andrew Wyntoun, writing two decades later, has Richard speaking courteously to him with 'pleasant words of comfort', the effect of which was promptly spoiled when he threw unpaid bills on the Duke's deathbed.

  If Gascoigne's story is true, there were enormous implications for Katherine. First, we know that her marriage had been consummated in 1396, so there is the possibility that she herself had been infected with the venereal disease contracted by her husband. The fact that she outlived John by only four years, mostly in retirement, may be significant. Second, the worsening symptoms of John's illness would have put paid to any lovemaking between them. Third, there was the emotional impact on Katherine, who would have had to come to terms with the ghastly consequences of her husband's earlier promiscuity, a constant reminder that he had not been faithful to her in former years. Maybe, though, she had long since reconciled herself to that, and forgiven it, as it was her Christian duty to do. But watching her dearly beloved lord die in agony can only have been painful in the extreme.

  Yet what of any corroborating evidence? That may perhaps be found in the great St Cuthbert window in the south choir aisle ofYork Minster, which was gifted between c.1430 and c.1445 by the Duke's former clerk, favoured protege and executor, Thomas Langley, Bishop of Durham and Dean of York, who owed his early advancement in the Church largely to John's patronage, knew him very well, was much respected by his son and grandson, and was Lord Chancellor under three Lancastrian kings. John of Gaunt had been a devotee of St Cuthbert, and he appears in this window, kneeling at a prayer-desk. On it is a book displaying the Latin text of the first line of Psalm 38: 'O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy wrath, neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure.'

  Of course, it might be that Langley wished purely to emphasise the devout - and conventional — contrition of his former patron for any sins he had committed, but a reading of the entire psalm may reveal Langley's inside knowledge of what the Duke had really suffered. In particular, verse 3: 'There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine anger, nor is there any rest in my bones because of my sin'; verse 5: 'My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness'; verse 7: 'For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease: there is no soundness in my flesh'; verse 8: 'I am feeble and sore broken'; and verse 10: 'My heart panteth, my strength faileth me: as for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me' — had John indeed gone blind towards the end? The psalm also refers to his enemies laying snares for him and saying mischievous things, which could well refer to the events of 1397—8. Saddest of all, perhaps, in this context, is verse 11: 'My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my sore; and my kinsmen stand afar off.' Does this, with its specific reference to 'lovers', suggest that Katherine herself could not bear to go too near John in his extremity? Probably not, for Froissart says of Katherine, 'She loved the Duke of Lancaster ... and she showed it, in life and in death.'

  Langley must have known the words of this psalm well, as would many other clerics and educated people; why else would he — normally a man of discretion, and utterly loyal to the House of Lancaster — have used it, with all its references to a physical rather than spiritual malaise, unless he knew it to be especially apt? And why, if the Duke had not had such a disease, did Langley choose to draw attention to this particular text?

  Given that John of Gaunt may have died of a venereal disease, what could it have been? The only symptoms described or perhaps alluded to were intermittent attacks of illness in the late 1390s, putrefying genitals and blindness. Syphilis was then unknown in Europe; it is thought to have been introduced from the Americas in the late fifteenth century. Gonorrhoea, however, had been known from ancient times, as had other sexually transmitted diseases such as non-specific urethritis and chlamydia. John is likeliest to have contracted such an illness in the years prior to 1381, when he reached forty-one, and in many cases symptoms do not appear for some yean. When they do appear, men can suffer painful urination, swollen testicles, a whitish discharge from the penis, infection and reddening of its opening, genital itching and infertility - it may be significant that the Duke fathered no more children after 1385. His children need not necessarily have inherited the disease, because their mothers were probably not infected — at least not at the time they gave birth. Moreover, John seems, however, to have been a generally fit man up until his fifties, apart from nearly dying of dysentery in Spain in 1387. In later life, however, untreated venereal diseases can cause arthritis, rheumatism, prostatitis, heart problems, meningitis, paralysis and/or blindness.

  None of this is conclusive, and against it, of course, we may argue that, had John of Gaunt died of a venereal disease, it would have merited some mention by other chroniclers. Given the private nature of such a disease, however, it may be that the only people who perhaps knew the truth about the Duke's illness were members of his inner circle — Langley may have been present at his deathbed, and might possibly have been the 'faithful student of theology' who confided in Gascoigne — and that they kept it to themselves until he had been dead for at least thirty years.

  Over in Paris, an anxious Duke Henry was told by one of his knights, Sir John Dymoke, whom he had sent as a messenger to his father, that the Duke's physicians had said he was suffering from such a dangerous disease that he could not live for long. This alarming report dissuaded Henry from visiting the courts of Castile and Portugal, where his sisters were established, and from going on pilgrimage to St James of Compostela. Who knew when he might enter his inheritance, or even be permitted to return to pay his last respects to his dying parent?

  On New Year's Day 1399, Katherine presented John with a gold cup, her last gift to him. On 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany, the Duke sent to Lincoln Cathedral the treasures he intended to bequeath to it in his will, instructing that they be exhibited on the high altar. Clearly he believed he was laying up treasure in Heaven also.


  At this time, Henry Beaufort was in Oxford, serving on a committee advising the Crown. Since he was to escort his mother south after his father's death, he may have hastened to Leicester to be with the Duke at the end. There is no record of John's other children being present, so perhaps it was only Katherine and the young Bishop who kept vigil by the sickbed.

  On 3 February 1399, John of Gaunt had his extremely detailed and meticulously thought-out will drawn up, the complexity of which is evidence that his mental faculties remained acute until the last. He began by commending his soul to God 'and to His very sweet mother St Mary, and to the joys of Heaven', and directing that his body be buried in St Paul's Cathedral 'next to my former dear companion Blanche'. He made provision for the eternal celebration of his obit and those of 'my very dear former companions, Blanche and Constance, whom God preserve', and left handsome sums to churches, religious houses and prisons.

  Then came his lavish bequests to his Duchess, which are surely further evidence of his love for her. 'I leave to my very dear wife and companion, Katherine, the two best nowches [ouches] which I own, after the nowche which I leave to my esteemed lord and nephew, the King.' An ouche was a brooch or a setting for a precious stone; the word derives from the mediaeval Latin nusca, meaning an ornament. John also left Katherine 'my largest gold chalice', which the King had given him, 'together with all the gold chalices which she herself has previously given to me' — a touching insight, this, into private gifts revealing shared devotional interests. Katherine was bequeathed too 'all the sacred images, buckles, rings, diamonds, rubies and other things which are to be found in a small cypress casket which I have, and to which I myself carry the key. After my death this will be found in the purse which I carry also on my person. 'These must have been John's most cherished and personal possessions.

 
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