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


  'I leave further [to Katherine] a complete vestment of cloth of gold, the bed and the furnishings, with all the copes, carpets for the chamber, cushions, pillows, embroidered cloths for the tomb and all other pieces belonging thereto, having a red ground diapered with a black trellis and, at each intersection of the diaper, a gold rose, with the letter M' in black and black leopards in alternate sections of it. And to her also, I leave my great bed of black velvet embroidered with iron compasses and garters and a turtle dove in the middle of the compasses, together with the carpets and hangings and cushions etc. belonging to the same bed and chamber.' This must have been one of the couple's nuptial beds, and its symbols further express their piety: the compass symbolised the Creator measuring out the world; the dove was a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

  John also left Katherine 'all the other beds made for me, called in England "trussing beds" [portable beds with hangings], with the carpets and other appurtenances, and my best circlet with the fine ruby, and my best collar with the cluster of diamonds, and my second cover of ermine, and two of my best ermine-lined mantles, together with the suits of clothes accompanying them. And to the said most dear companion, I leave all those possessions and castles which she had before our marriage, together with the other property and jewels which I have given to her since the said marriage, and, finally, those possessions and jewels which are in the keeping of my said companion and not listed in the inventory of my possessions'. Later in the will, Katherine was left £2,000 (£758,325) - by far the largest bequest made by the Duke.

  All of this gives a very vivid impression of the luxury in which Katherine had lived as Duchess of Lancaster, but it also paints a picture of a mutually supportive married couple, a generous husband and an esteemed and loved wife. When John had gone, Katherine would want for nothing, and she would have many reminders of him to cherish: beds they had shared, personal jewels and rich garments.

  To the King, John bequeathed, amongst other things, 'my best covered gold chalice, which my dearest Lady Katherine gave to me on New Year's Day'. There were generous bequests to his elder children: hangings, beds, armour, plate and jewels to Henry, a circlet and a chalice for Philippa, a covered gold chalice for Catalina, a bed, carpets and an ouche for Elizabeth. As for the Beauforts: 'I leave to my very dear son, John Beaufort, Marquess of Dorset, two dozen plates and two dozen saucers, two goblets of silver for wine, a silver chalice engraved, two basins and two ewers of silver,' plus £1,000 (£379,163). 'To the reverend Father in God and my beloved son, the Bishop of Lincoln [who was to be a supervisor of the will], a dozen plates and a dozen saucers, two silver goblets for wine, a silver chalice engraved, with a basin and one silver ewer, and my entire vestment of velvet with the things belonging to it, and also my missal and my psalter, which belonged to my lord and brother, the Prince of Wales, whom God preserve. I leave to my very dear son, Thomas Beaufort, their brother, a dozen plates and a dozen saucers, two silver goblets for wine and six silver cups,' and 1,000 marks (£126,388). 'I leave to my very dear daughter, their sister, the Countess of Westmorland and Lady Neville, a bed of silk and a covered gold chalice, also a ewer.'

  The will also reveals that the Duke generously left 'my very dear chevalier Sir Thomas Swynford' 100 marks (£12,639). He also directed that a chantry be founded at Leicester for the repose of his soul and that of 'my former very dear wife Constance'. In a codicil to the will, added after it had been sealed, he granted Katherine 'some portion' of 'divers seigneuries, manors, lands, building, rent, services, possessions or benefices from churches' that he had purchased 'before the marriage between myself and my very dear companion, Katherine, was celebrated'; she was to hold these for life, and 'some portion' of their revenues was to 'remain completely hers ... in her hands'. The rest was to go to John Beaufort, for himself and his heirs, while revenues from other property held by Katherine but not part of this grant were to be paid to Thomas Beaufort.

  John of Gaunt died later that day, 3 February 1399, at Leicester Castle, aged fifty-eight. The fact that he left the drawing up of his long will until what proved to be his last day on earth, and in it mentioned the possible eventuality of his dying outside London, suggests that he expected to five longer and even recover sufficiently to be able to return to that city, and that the end came after he took a sudden turn for the worse. His .death ended one of the greatest and most poignant love affairs in English history. It left his son Henry - now Duke of Lancaster, Earl of Leicester, Lincoln and Derby — in possession of a landed inheritance worth more than £43 billion in modern terms, and Katherine a widow for the second time. She now, at forty-nine, donned once more the robes of widowhood, robes in which she is depicted on her tomb brass, which are similar to those worn by her sister-in-law, Eleanor de Bohun, on her brass in Westminster Abbey. They comprised a long flowing gown, a barbe, a wimple and a veil. By this date, it had become de rigueur for royal and noble widows from the rank of baroness upwards to wear the pleated barbe above the chin, ladies of knightly rank or lower being obliged to wear it below. Katherine, as a dowager duchess, would have worn it covering her chin, with the nun-like wimple falling over her shoulders. On public occasions, she may have worn a ducal coronet on top of the wimple. Noble widows such as Katherine usually wore this garb until they died or remarried.

  In his will, John had left instructions that, like Job, 'my body should remain on the earth for forty days', uninterred. This was not only an exercise in humility and penitence that was typical of its time, but also gave the executors time in which to arrange the obsequies. The embalmed body would have been placed in a coffin in the castle chapel, where Katherine would surely have regularly kept vigil beside it: again, we may recall Froissart saying that she showed her love for the Duke in death.

  Early in March, the Duke's corpse was brought south to London in solemn procession. Katherine, as chief mourner, was escorted by her son, Bishop Beaufort, and Robert Braybrooke, Bishop of London, an old friend of her husband. On 12 March, the body was to rest overnight at St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, but when the cortege arrived, the Abbot refused to admit anyone, or assign lodgings to any of the mourners, because of Beaufort's presence, fearing that, if the latter were allowed to officiate at the Requiem Mass, the Abbey's cherished exemption from his episcopal jurisdiction might be compromised. An undignified row ensued, and was only resolved when, at Braybrooke's urging, the outraged Bishop undertook to indemnify the Abbey against any derogation of its immunities. Only then would the Abbot admit everyone and himself insisted on celebrating the Requiem Mass with the two bishops. The following day, Bishop Beaufort graciously - and diplomatically — confirmed the Abbey's privileges. But it took the gift of a precious reliquary, presented on his next visitation, to mollify him.

  On the evening of 13 March, the Duke's body rested in the Abbey's chapel of St John at Bar net, and the following day it was carried to London and - according to his wish — brought to the church of the Carmelites, his favoured order of friars, south of Fleet Street, 'to have exequies sung that same night and Requiem Mass the following morning'. Today, an inn, the Old Cheshire Cheese in Wine Office Court, stands on the site of the Whitefriars' guesthouse where Katherine probably lodged, unless nearby Ely Place had been made ready for her.

  On 15 March, the hearse was borne to St Paul's for a final nocturnal vigil. Then, forty days after his death, on Passion Sunday, 16 March, in the presence of the King and all the nobility, and following a final Requiem Mass, John of Gaunt was laid to rest with great honours beside his once-beloved Blanche in the 'incomparable sepulchre' Henry Yevele had built for them near the high altar. At the committal, twenty-five large candles were grouped symbolically around the coffin: ten for the Ten Commandments, seven for the Seven Works of Charity, five for the Five Wounds of Christ, and three for the Holy Trinity. The chantry chapel in which the tomb was housed was finally completed by March 1403, and the chantry was formally founded on 20 December 1411. The chapel was sumptuously appointed with vestments, altar clot
hs and hangings left by the Duke, and a silver and enamelled cross 'of renowned beauty' presented by Bishop Beaufort.

  The Duke's grandson, eleven-year-old Henry of Monmouth, the future Henry V, may have represented his exiled father, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, at the funeral - he and his siblings were all issued with black mourning robes — but it is just possible that Duke Henry, who had immediately put his Parisian household into mourning, had covertly hastened back from Paris to attend it himself, in disguise, for three warrants issued under his privy seal were dated in London on 17, 18 and 20 March.

  10

  "The King's Mother'

  With all the preparations for the Duke's obsequies and the sorting out of affairs following his death, Katherine can have had little time to mourn. Now, with the funeral behind her, she faced life alone without the man she had loved for more than thirty years.

  Before she could make any decisions about her future, she had to look to her financial affairs. Immediately following the Duke's death, the royal escheators had wrongfully taken into custody her dower lands along with the Lancastrian estates, so Katherine had to petition Richard II to restore them to her, which he did promptly on 9 March. He also confirmed an annuity of £1,000 (£379,163) charged upon the Duchy lands, which had been granted to her by John of Gaunt. But on 18 March, the King did what had no doubt been in his mind for some time: without any legal pretext, he extended Henry's exile for the term of his life, and declared the Lancastrian inheritance forfeit, annexing the Duchy to the Crown, and distributing its lands among his favourites. It was a shocking turn of events, and one of the grossest examples of Richard's tyrannical rule.

  The King had shed no tears for his late uncle, and had even communicated his passing to Charles VI 'with a sort of joy'. Yet his affection for Katherine and her family is evident in the measures he took to mitigate the impact of the forfeiture on them. He allowed Katherine to keep the lands left to her for her dower, and when in May his escheators — whose zeal far exceeded their competence — seized lands in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Norfolk that she had held before her marriage to the Duke, he ordered that these lands be released to her. Thereafter, she made no known protest about the forfeiture of the Lancastrian inheritance, kept very much to herself and thus managed to remain on good terms with the King.

  On 20 March, Richard confirmed the annuity of 100 marks that John of Gaunt had granted in 1383 to Thomas Swynford and his wife, and the same day he compensated Thomas Chaucer for the loss of the offices granted him by the late Duke. John Beaufort was scheduled to go to Aquitaine at the beginning of April, but the King postponed his departure and kept him in attendance at court; on 16 April he was one of the witnesses of Richard's will. Perhaps John took advantage of the respite to help his mother settle her affairs, or to be a moral support to her at this time of mourning. In April, Richard provided Garter robes for Joan Beaufort and Jane Crophill, Thomas Swynford's wife. Katherine was not among those for whom such robes were provided - she would not have been expected to attend the Garter ceremonies so early in her widowhood.

  Katherine did not choose to reside at any of her dower properties. She probably visited them rarely, if at all, for there is little or no trace of her at any of them, and of course she only held them for a short time; their function was chiefly to provide her with an income from rents and feudal dues. Instead, she went back to the cathedral close in Lincoln, where she had sought refuge at the time of that earlier parting from John, and which had evidently come to represent home to her. In absenting herself from London and the court, she removed herself from the turmoil of political life that had engulfed her last years with John, and hopefully in so doing found a kind of peace.

  Having arranged for Thomas Swynford to take over the running of Kettlethorpe and Coleby, she leased one of the most desirable houses in Minster Yard, the one known today as the Priory. The exact date on which she took up residence there is not recorded, but it must have been early on in her widowhood; she was certainly renting the house in 1400-1, and held it until she died.7 She did not pay the rent of 46s.8d (£869) per annum, but opted instead to make repairs to the house, which may have given her something on which to focus during her widowhood.

  The Priory is now a private school, and it was not known by that name until the early nineteenth century, when it housed an earlier school for young ladies, which was established by 1824; however, it will henceforth be referred to as the Priory for ease of reference. The present house is set back from the street and somewhat isolated from the other houses, standing against the fortified wall that was built around the cathedral close in the early fourteenth century, and lying to the north of the Chancery, further along Pottergate. In Katherine's day, the New Gate of the close stood outside the house, next to which was the Priory's own, smaller gatehouse, long since demolished; the cathedral's octagonal Chapter House is opposite.

  As with the Chancery, a parliamentary survey, drawn up in 1649, exists for the Priory, providing us with many valuable details about the property leased by Katherine. The Priory's largely Victorian exterior conceals the core of the thirteenth-century house lived in by Katherine, which had once been a canon's residence; there had been a tenement on the site since the twelfth century. The remains of the 'fair hall 40' long and 22’ broad with walls between two and three feet thick, which dates from the late thirteenth century, are incorporated in the present house, along with sections of its walls and two of its original entrance doorways, while at the screens end there survives between two pointed-arched doors an imposing stone buffet delicately sculpted with ball flowers and a frieze of quatrefoils, which is built into the stone wall. There is also a carved basin for the washing of hands. The survey records 'a buttery or cellar at the lower end of the hall, and at the upper end a fair parlour wainscoted, 28' long and 21' broad, with a closet adjoining'. This parlour probably occupied Katherine's original solar wing at the south end of the hall, where she would have had her private chambers. Like that in the Chancery, the hall would have been open to the roof-beams in the fourteenth century, with a louvre to let out smoke from the central hearth. In this wing, there was also, in 1649, 'one other beer cellar there with pantry and buttery', and among the rooms on the second floor, above the parlour, was a 'chapel chamber', which probably dated from at least Katherine's day, for a household oratory had been licensed in 1259.

  When the close wall was built, around 1316—28, a strong three-storeyed stone tower with its own spiral staircase, octagonal chimney shaft and embattled parapet was built into it, Unking it with the north side of the hall of the Priory, and forming part of the house. The parliamentary survey describes how the stone stairs led up to 'two lodging rooms', which may have been guest chambers or accommodation for household officers. The contemporary chimney shaft, rare in such houses, suggests an unusual degree of comfort and privacy for its time, while a small extension to the east side of the tower, which has traces of mediaeval windows, may have housed latrines. The ground-floor room, which has mullioned windows, was probably used as a buttery and pantry. There is now no fireplace in the first-floor chamber (now the music room), but this was clearly an important room because it still boasts windows surmounted by ogee arches on both sides, which would have been there when Katherine leased the property. It may be that all trace of the original hearth has been lost. The second-floor room has one window with an ogee arch, and a fireplace with a chamfered stone lintel that was uncovered in 1966.

  In those days, a long range of buildings abutted the close wall between the gatehouse and the Priory itself, but all that survives are a row of corbels. In the seventeenth century, these comprised a brewhouse, stable and hayloft; they may have served as stables in Katherine's time. The surveyors mention 'an orchard and garden adjoining on the south side of the said dwelling, walled about with stone walls', which occupied about two acres, and yards of a similar size.

  The Priory was largely rebuilt around 1670, when the staircase in the tower was repla
ced, and new windows and a porch were added in Victorian times.

  Its proportions and architectural features show that, in the fourteenth century, the Priory had clearly been a house of some distinction, and after Katherine had filled it with the sumptuous beds, furnishings and treasures left to her by John of Gaunt, it would have been splendid indeed, and a fitting residence for the Dowager Duchess of Lancaster.

  That Katherine enjoyed good relations with the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln during her widowhood is strongly suggested by her decision to live among them, the rich gifts she made to the cathedral, and the fact that one canon, John Dalton, left her a silver cup in his will.

  There are all too few references to Katherine during the period of her widowhood. She lived out a quiet existence in Lincoln, taking no part in public life, and playing no role in the cataclysmic events that were to take place later in 1399. She seems to have retained an interest in Kettlethorpe, and it may have been she who, in the absence of Thomas Swynford, provided a new rector there, William Wylingham, on 16 July that year. Professor Goodman suggests that Kettlethorpe, with its frequently flooded meadow, may have been too damp for comfort for the middle-aged Katherine," so she may not have been there very often.

  Her sons, however, were to become increasingly involved in the political life of the kingdom. When Richard II went campaigning in Ireland in June, Henry Beaufort was in his train, looking after his nephew, Henry of Monmouth. John Beaufort, meanwhile, was raising a force to take to Aquitaine, but he would soon be deploying it in England instead.

 
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