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


  Katherine's fine tomb chest of Purbeck marble, with its moulded plinth and lid, had armorial shields encircled by garters along each side; it was surmounted by a canopied brass depicting Katherine in her widow's weeds, and bearing her arms impaled with those of John of Gaunt, while above it was raised a vaulted canopy with trefoiled arches, cusped lozenges and miniature rose bosses. The canopy and associated stonework would have been painted in bright colours. Her epitaph, recorded by Lancaster Herald, Francis Thynne, around 1600, was as follows:

  Ici gist dame Katherine Duchesse de Lancastre jadis feme de le tresnoble et tresgracious prince John Duk de Lancastre fils a tresnoble roy Edward le tierce, la quelle Katherine mourust le X jour de May l’an du grace MCCCC tiers de quelle alme dieu eyt merci et pitiee. Amen."

  This translates as:

  Here lies Dame Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster, once the wife of the very noble and very gracious Prince, John, Duke of Lancaster, son to the very noble King Edward III, the which Katherine died the 10th day of May in the year of grace 1403, on whose soul God have mercy and pity. Amen.

  On 27 June 1403, annuities amounting to £1,300 (£416,705) that had been paid to Katherine out of the issues of the Duchy of Lancaster were transferred to Queen Joan.34 The late Duchess's passing had apparently occurred virtually unnoticed, for no chronicler comments on it, and there is no record of court mourning. She died as she had lived during those sad years of her widowhood, quietly and without any stir, almost as a private person. Certainly the wording of her epitaph does not reflect the grandeur of her own position, but rather emphasises her husband's rank and lineage and her need for divine mercy; this emphasis on humility and an awareness of the innate sinfulness of human nature, as well as specific sins, was typical of the age, and probably derived from the ageing Katherine's own feelings about herself and her life.

  Lucraft has pertinently pointed out that we would know more about the latter if Katherine's will had survived, but there is no trace of it, either in Lincoln or in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury records.35 We know that a will was made because not long after her death, the Lincoln Chapter's Clerk of the Common rode to Liddington in Wiltshire to discuss the proving of her testament with Bishop Beaufort; and in her own will of 1440, Joan Beaufort bequeathed to her eldest son a psalter willed to her by 'the illustrious lady and my mother, Lady Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster', which she directed should go to each of her sons in turn, clearly intending it to be an important family heirloom." Of the will's other provisions, there is the likelihood that Katherine bequeathed Gisors Hall in Boston to Thomas Beaufort.

  On 19 May 1403, sixteen days after Katherine had died, the Priory was leased to Canon Richard of Chesterfield, but he withdrew from the agreement on 29 June 'on account of fear of the Queen'; it seems that Joan of Navarre, with the King's consent, had promised the house to Elizabeth Grey, the widow of Philip, Lord Darcy, who lived in a house nearby. Katherine had probably known her, given their close proximity and the fact that Elizabeth Grey's daughter-in-law, Margaret Grey, the present Lady Darcy, later became Sir Thomas Swynford's second wife; Elizabeth Grey could well have been a friend of Katherine's, indeed, Katherine may even have asked Queen Joan to arrange for Lady Darcy to lease the Priory after her death. Be this as it may, the King did grant it to her.

  Plans for the foundation of the chantry chapel at Lincoln for which John of Gaunt had obtained a licence in 1398 were shelved: three times, in 1400, 1402 and 1413, the Duke's executors acknowledged their failure to carry out his wishes.59 Not until 1437 do we hear that an altar had been set up, but even then no formal foundation had apparently been made.

  Katherine's chief legacy to history was her Beaufort children.John Beaufort continued to serve as Captain of Calais until 1404 or 1405, when Sir Thomas Swynford was acting as his deputy. In 1407, John Beaufort asked Henry IV to clarify the status of himself and his siblings, whereupon the King, on 10 February that year, confirmed the statute of 1397 that legitimised them, but added the words excepta dignitate regali ('excepting the royal dignity') in his Letters Patent, denying them the right of succession to the Crown, an act of dubious legality that would be called into question in the years to come, for it was never approved by Parliament, and the original Act had been left unamended. There has been speculation that Henry IV had always privately feared the implications of the Beauforts being legitimised, and while he himself had four strapping sons and must have known that John Beaufort's loyalty — and that of his siblings — was beyond question, he could not rely on the fealty of subsequent generations; so this clause probably reflects his determination to pre-empt any future threat to the senior Lancastrian line.

  John Beaufort died on Palm Sunday, 16 March 1410, aged only thirty-seven, in the Hospital of St Katherine-by-the-Tower, a royal charity founded in 1148 by Matilda of Boulogne, the wife of King Stephen, to offer spiritual comfort and alms to the poor; given the fact that its patrons had always been royal ladies, that John Beaufort died there, and that John of Gaunt had founded a chantry in the hospital, as well as its connection with her name-saint, it is highly likely that the hospital had been under Katherine's patronage when she was Duchess of Lancaster. John was buried in St Michael's Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, near his uncle the Black Prince and the shrine of St Thomas a Becket, a resting place probably chosen for him by Henry IV, who was himself buried nearby in 1413.

  John was succeeded as Earl of Somerset by his eight-year-old son, Henry. His widow, Margaret Holland, became the wife of Henry IV's third son, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, and in due course she and her second husband were interred in the same tomb as John Beaufort, with the effigy of Margaret recumbent between those of her two spouses. The latter are similar, but John's effigy is shorter and his face, distinguished by its Plantagenet nose and heavy-lidded eyes, may well be an attempt at a likeness.

  Henry Beaufort was the most dynamic of Katherine's sons. In 1404 he was translated from the See of Lincoln to that of Winchester. He stood high in the counsels of Henry IV and his son, Henry V (who succeeded his father in 1413), was one of the chief mainstays of the House of Lancaster, and played a prominent role in the history of England during the first half of the fifteenth century, becoming enormously rich and influential in the process; it has been said that he was probably the greatest royal creditor of the age. In 1418, he narrowly missed being elected Pope. Three years later, he was nominated godfather to Henry V's only son, and when that infant became Henry VI in 1422, he was entrusted to the care of Henry and Thomas Beaufort. During the minority of Henry VI, Bishop Beaufort was a leading figure on the regency Council, and in 1426 was made a cardinal, achieving one of the highest accolades the Church could bestow. In 1431, he was one of the judges who condemned Joan of Arc to be burned at the stake. He died at Wolvesey Palace, Winchester, in the spring of 1447, aged seventy-two, and was buried in the chantry he had founded in Winchester Cathedral; his parents were among those for whom he had requested that perpetual prayers be said there. He had one bastard child, a daughter called Joan. It has often been stated that her mother was Eleanor FitzAlan, daughter of the Earl of Arundel, but there is no evidence to support that claim.

  There is a fine effigy of Cardinal Beaufort, wearing his red robes and wide-brimmed hat, on his tomb, and a stone head of him at Bishop's Waltham Palace, Hampshire. It has recently been suggested that a portrait of a cardinal by the celebrated Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck may also portray him. The sitter was once thought to have been Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, but his well-fleshed appearance and fur-trimmed robe does not ride with what we know of the ascetic Albergati. Henry Beaufort was in Ghent in 1432, at the time this portrait is thought to have been painted, and clearly the sitter was an important man. Could this cardinal, with his closely shaven face, large nose, keen brown eyes and pleasant, playful smile, have been the son of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt?

  The very able Thomas Beaufort also had a distinguished career in royal service. In 1403, soon after his mother's death, he wa
s made Admiral of the Northern Fleet, and on 21 July that year he fought under the future Henry V at the Battle of Shrewsbury. He again served as admiral in 1408-9, and in 1410, he reached the pinnacle of his career when he was appointed Chancellor of England, as well as Captain of Calais. He resigned the chancellorship in 1412, the year he was created Earl of Dorset, and in which he saw military service in France, Henry V having abandoned the peace policy of his grandfather, John of Gaunt, and resurrected England's ancient claim to the French throne. Thomas was the King's Lieutenant in Aquitaine in 1413, and in 1415, with his cousin Thomas Chaucer, he wielded his sword for Henry V in the French campaign that ended with the jubilant English victory at Agincourt. The town of Harfleur was also taken, and Thomas Beaufort was made its captain. He was appointed Lieutenant of Normandy in 1416, and created Duke of Exeter on 18 November that year. Two years later, he took an active part in Henry V's ruthless push to conquer Normandy, and was created Count of Harcourt on 1 July.

  Thomas was widely renowned for his highly developed sense of chivalry, his moral rectitude, his Christian piety, and his charity to the poor and to travellers. He was impervious to corruption, refusing all gifts and rewards, and he forbade swearing, tale-bearing and lying in his household. It is tempting to wonder if he had been deeply humiliated by the irregularity of his birth and his former bastardy, and if all this stiff propriety was a subconscious attempt to compensate for those stigmas.

  When the King's brother, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, was defeated and killed at the Battle of Beauge in 1421, Thomas Beaufort was taken prisoner by the French; he was released the following year. Soon afterwards, Henry V died, having entrusted the guardianship of his heir, the infant Henry VI, to his 'dear and true Duke of Exeter, full of all worthyhood', whereupon Thomas returned to England to share responsibility for the upbringing of his nephew with his brother, Bishop Beaufort. From 1424, their cousin, Thomas Chaucer, was also a member of the regency Council.

  Thomas Beaufort died on 31 December 1426, and was buried in the Lady Chapel of the abbey of Bury St Edmund's in Suffolk. He left no heir, his only son Henry having died young. In his will, he made provision for Masses to be celebrated for the souls of his parents, and left a silver-gilt cup to his half-brother, Sir Thomas Swynford. His tomb was lost when the Lady Chapel was pulled down in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1772, a lead coffin thought to be Thomas Beaufort's was found by workmen on the supposed site of its altar. The remains it contained were well preserved in cerecloth, and were reburied in a wooden casket near the north-east crossing pier.

  Thomas Chaucer, who had turned down a knighthood, died on 14 March 1434 and was buried at Ewelme. His only daughter Alice married William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, and thus became a duchess, the highest rank to which a woman could aspire outside the royal family. Her son, John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was to marry Edward IV's sister Elizabeth of York, and their son, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was acknowledged as heir to the throne by Richard III after the latter's son died in 1484. Thus the descendants of Geoffrey Chaucer, the son of a London vintner, were raised to the highest echelons of the nobility and might, but for a turn of fate, have become kings of England - and it was all largely due to Geoffrey's sister-in-law having become the mistress and later wife of the mighty Duke of Lancaster.

  Joan Beaufort proved to be a strong-willed, formidable lady, with wide literary interests — she liked pious works, romances and histories, and the poet Thomas Hoccleve dedicated a book to her. Yet she also demonstrated a deep religious piety that embraced the mysticism of Margery Kempe, the holy woman of Lynn. In 1404, Joan's husband, Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, conscious of his lady's royal connections and dynastic importance, disinherited his legitimate son by his first wife in favour of Joan's children, provoking a legal wrangle that would drag on for years, but in which the ruthlessly determined Joan would ultimately triumph.

  In 1424, Joan's daughter Cecily Neville married Ralph Neville's ward, Richard, Duke of York. York was the grandson of Edmund of Langley, fifth son of Edward III and younger brother of John of Gaunt, and he was also descended, through Philippa of Clarence and the Mortimers, from Lionel of Antwerp, Edward Ill's second surviving son. Thus he had a strong claim to the throne, which he would assert in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses, insisting that he had a better right to rule than Henry VI. York was killed that same year at the Battle of Wakefield, but his claim was inherited by his son, Edward, Earl of March, the eldest of the fourteen children born of his marriage to Cecily Neville.

  Ralph Neville died in 1425, and was buried in Staindrop Church, County Durham, beside his first wife. His effigy may be seen there today, lying between those of both his ladies, but although Joan founded a chantry at Staindrop for herself and her husband in 1437, she was never to be buried with him. Either she disdained to lie for eternity near his first wife, or she wanted to be with her mother: in her will, dated 10 May 1440, the thirty-seventh anniversary of Katherine's death, she asked if the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln would enlarge her tomb enclosure so that she, Joan, could be interred 'in the same altar where the body of Lady Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster, my mother, is buried'. On 28 November 1437, she had obtained a royal licence for her second foundation, a perpetual chantry in Lincoln Cathedral for the souls of both her parents, finally fulfilling their wishes almost forty years after John of Gaunt had obtained licence to found such a chantry 'for the good estate of himself and Katherine his wife'.The foundation, which dated from 16 July 1439, was to be formally called 'the Chantry of Katherine, late Duchess of Lancaster, in the cathedral church of Lincoln'. Two chaplains were appointed to celebrate Mass each morning at 7 a.m. at the altar beside the tomb, and Joan made provision for prayers to be offered for Henry IV, Henry V and her late husband, Ralph Neville, as well.

  Joan herself died on 13 November 1440, at Howden, Yorkshire, aged fifty-nine, and was buried with Katherine as she had wished; their two table tombs stood side by side, and Joan's also had a memorial brass and arms encircled by garters and Lancastrian collars of SS. Her epitaph, engraved on a brass plate, was recorded by Sandford in the seventeenth century; unlike Katherine's, it depicted its subject in heroic vein, asserting, 'The whole nation mourns her death.’ It was after Joan's interment, when the tomb space was enlarged, that an ornamental wrought-iron grille was set up to enclose it, as she had requested.79 As Bishop Beaufort was a supervisor of his sister's will, he may have been responsible for the commissioning of her tomb.

  I am indebted to Jackie Goodman, the wife of Professor Goodman, for sharing her interesting theory concerning Joan Beaufort. There is a miniature of Joan and her daughters in the Neville Book of Hours,8' and in it there appears a scroll on which is written the first verse of Psalm 50:'Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great Mercy. 'This rather echoes the sentiments in Katherine Swynford's epitaph, and expresses a similar humility, awareness of sin, and penitence. But verse 6 of the Psalm says, 'For behold, I was conceived in iniquities: and in my sins did my mother conceive me.' If Joan was responsible for this psalm being quoted in the miniature, which is possible, then Jackie Goodman may be making a very valid point when she suggests that Joan's sense of her own sinfulness derived from the circumstances of her birth and her early awareness of her bastardy, and that to some extent she bore the burden of her mother's guilt, which she attempted to expunge all her life by religious observance and the study of contemplative literature, just as her brother Thomas had sought to occupy the moral high ground. Hence her desire to share Katherine's sepulchre, honour her memory and secure for her eternal salvation.

  We have seen how, by 1450, through advantageous marriages, Joan's Neville children came to be related to nearly every peer in the realm. But there was greater glory to come. In 1461, her grandson, Edward, Earl of March, deposed Henry VI and seized the throne as Edward IV, first sovereign of the House of York. Henry was briefly restored in 1470 through the machinations of the man who had once been the mainstay of Edward's
throne, Warwick the Kingmaker — another of Joan's grandsons. When Henry VI was murdered in 1471, the direct line of the royal House of Lancaster, the kings descended from John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, became extinct. In 1483, Edward IV himself died, and yet another of Joan's grandsons, his brother, Richard III, ascended the throne. Thus did Katherine, the herald's daughter, become the great-grandmother of kings.

  Of course, John of Gaunt had many other descendants; indeed, he could justifiably be termed the 'grandfather of Europe'. In the Iberian kingdoms, and among the Burgundian Habsburgs, his memory was long honoured as a noble progenitor of dynasties. In 1406, his grandson, Catalina's son, Juan II, succeeded to the throne of Castile. In 1469, Juan II's daughter, Isabella, Queen of Castile, would marry Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and thus unite Spain as its joint sovereigns. Their youngest daughter, Catalina of Aragon, born in 1485, was named for her great-grandmother, Catalina of Lancaster (who had died paralysed in 1418), and became — with her name anglicised as Katherine of Aragon - the first wife of Henry VIII of England, and by him the mother of Mary I. Thus the bloodline of John of Gaunt was continued in the royal families of Spain and, through intermarriage, Austria, and was carried back into the English royal family.

 
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