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

  It flowed in Portugal, too, where Philippa of Lancaster died of plague in 1415. In 1433, her son Duarte I succeeded to the Portuguese throne, and for the next two hundred years, her descendants would rule there. Her sister, the spirited Elizabeth of Lancaster, Katherine Swynford's other erstwhile charge, died in 1426 and was buried in Burford Church, Shropshire, where a fine painted effigy graces her tomb.

  John and Katherine had many descendants in the Beaufort line. John Beaufort's eldest son, Henry, Earl of Somerset, died young at seventeen in 1418, when he was succeeded by his fourteen-year-old brother John.

  Their sister, another Joan Beaufort, married James I, King of Scots, in 1424, and thus Katherine's granddaughter became a queen. Through Queen Joan, the sovereigns of the royal House of Stewart (later Stuart) traced their descent from John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.

  In 1443, the younger John Beaufort was created Duke of Somerset by Henry VI, the second of Katherine's descendants to achieve ducal rank. That year, his wife, Margaret Beauchamp, bore their only child, a daughter, the Lady Margaret Beaufort. John Beaufort did not long enjoy his dukedom. He died, perhaps by his own hand, on 27 May 1444, and was buried in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, leaving his daughter as his heiress. In 1450, the young Lady Margaret was the unwitting focus of a plot by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk (the husband of Alice Chaucer), to marry her to his son and make her Queen of England upon the murder of Henry VI - a treasonable plan that cost the Duke his head. Yet it was proof enough that a Beaufort claimant to the throne was a viable prospect to some.

  In October 1455, Margaret Beaufort, aged only twelve, was married to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the twenty-five-year-old son of Henry V's widow, Katherine of Valois, by Owen Tudor, with whom she had formed a misalliance — some say a marriage, although there is no proof of that - in the late 1420s and 1430s. Margaret's marriage did not last long, for Edmund died in November 1456, leaving his young wife pregnant. Their son, Henry Tudor, was born on 28 January 1457. After the deposition of Henry VI in 1461, Henry Tudor was deprived of the earldom of Richmond, and was forced to spend most of his youth in exile.

  From the 1450s onwards, the Beauforts were prominent in public life. John Beaufort's brother Edmund succeeded to the dukedom of Somerset and was a mainstay of Henry VI — and one of the chief rivals of Richard, Duke of York - at the onset of the Wars of the Roses, before his death in 1455 at the Battle of St Albans. His son, Henry Beaufort, the third Duke, another prominent Lancastrian, was executed in 1464, and his brother Edmund lost his head in 1471, after fighting for Henry VI at the Battle of Tewkesbury; another brother, John, fell in the battle. Thus the male line of the Beauforts died out. Henry, the last Duke, had never married, but he left a bastard son, Charles Somerset, born around 1460. He was later created Earl of Worcester, and died in 1526, in the reign of Henry VIII. The present Duke of Beaufort, whose dukedom was created in 1682 by Charles II — in recognition of his 'most notable descent from King Edward III by John de Beaufort, eldest son of John of Gaunt by Katherine Swynford' — is descended from him. There is an amusing but apocryphal story of how Henry Charles FitzRoy, 8th Duke of Beaufort, showed Queen Victoria documents containing proof that John of Gaunt had married Katherine and fathered John Beaufort before the birth of Henry IV, thus rendering spurious the claims of every English sovereign after 1399; Victoria is said to have thanked him for bringing the papers to her attention, then promptly thrown them into the fire.

  From the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, the possibility that the Beauforts might have a claim to the throne began to be taken more seriously. Henry IV had barred them from ever succeeding, but on dubious legal grounds, a matter that exercised not a few legal minds. In the 1470s, the exiled Henry Tudor clearly regarded himself as Henry VI's heir and the rightful Lancastrian claimant to the throne, and when Richard III usurped the throne in 1483, after having almost certainly eliminated Edward IV's sons, the so-called Princes in the Tower, Henry Tudor vowed to marry the Princes' sister, Elizabeth of York, and take the English throne. In retaliation, Richard III publicly asserted that Henry had no true claim to it because the Beauforts had been 'gotten in double adultery', an assertion that was only half-true, but has been accepted by many as a fact. We have seen, however, that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Katherine Swynford was a widow when she became the mistress of the married John of Gaunt.

  In August 1485, Henry Tudor invaded England and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, where the latter was killed. In October, the victor was crowned Henry VII, first sovereign of the House of Tudor, and in January 1486 he married Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York. Henry and Elizabeth were both Katherine Swynford's great-great-grandchildren. In 1485, in Henry VII's first Parliament, Richard II's statute of 1397, which removed the stigma of bastardy from the Beauforts, was re-enacted.

  Notwithstanding this, the Tudor sovereigns made very little of their descent from Katherine Swynford, which is perhaps understandable; her notoriety had not dimmed — witness Richard Ill's libel, which clearly presupposed that people would know what he was talking about - and her ancestry left something to be desired. It may be for this reason that Katherine merits barely a mention in Tudor chronicles. Much as he had glossed over scandal in an epitaph for his grandmother, Katherine of Valois, when it came to providing a new inscription for John of Gaunt's tomb in St Paul's, Henry VII laid emphasis on Katherine's beauty rather than her virtues, as has been noted. It is unlikely that his fourth daughter, Katherine, born at the Tower a century after Katherine Swynford's death, was named after her, as some have suggested; probably she was so called after the Queen's sister, Katherine of York, or Katherine of Valois.

  In the reign of Henry VIII, who succeeded his father in 1509, Katherine was still discreetly omitted from the royal pedigree. In a pageant given at Leadenhall in 1520 to honour the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, an actor representing John of Gaunt sat at the foot of a tree, from which rose many branches representing all the kings and queens who could claim lineage from him. Some were sprung from Katherine too, but she was not alluded to. Again, in plans drawn up for Henry VIII's funeral by the Garter King of Arms, reference is made tantalisingly to 'a banner of Lancaster with the marriage', which probably refers to the union of Henry VII and Elizabeth ofYork rather than that of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. Thus Katherine was virtually erased from history, and the fleeting references that were made to her by historians over the centuries usually referred disparagingly to her immorality or made a brief mention of her being the ancestress of the Tudors. Until 1954, that is, when Anya Seton's Katherine was published, and people began taking a more sympathetic and romantic view of its heroine.

  After Katherine died, the Swynfords lived on at Kettlethorpe, and for a time her son Sir Thomas continued his career in royal service, being involved in 1404-6 in peace negotiations with France and Flanders. From 1406, he was retained by his half-brother, Thomas Beaufort, and there is no further record of his being employed by the Crown. He does not appear to have fallen from favour, though, for in 1411, when Thomas was having problems laying claim to 'divers inheritances in the county of Hainault' that had 'lately descended' to him 'from the most renowned lady Katherine de Roelt, deceased, late Duchess of Lancaster, his mother', Henry IV stepped in to assist 'our beloved and truly trusted knight'. And Thomas was in need of such help, having recently been declared an outlaw on account of being in debt to a London draper.

  We do not know who was then in possession of those lands in Hainault, which Katherine had clearly owned — it was possibly Roët relatives who had entrenched themselves thinking their tenure would not be disturbed by their English kinsfolk. But whoever it was, 'certain persons in those parts' were determined not to be ousted: they had expressed their doubts that Sir Thomas Swynford 'was begotten in lawful matrimony', and had 'not permitted the said Thomas to possess the said inheritance or to receive the farms, rents or issues thereof.The implication was surely th
at Thomas was Katherine's bastard son by John of Gaunt, their affair having become notorious on the Continent as well as in England. But Henry IV was quick to set the matter straight: in October 1411, he issued a mandate under his Great Seal firmly attesting Sir Thomas's legitimacy:

  Be it known unto you all that the aforesaid Thomas is son and heir of the aforesaid Katherine, begotten and born in lawful wedlock, and that a certain writing of the said Thomas, to these our present letters annexed, sealed with his seal of arms, is his deed; and that he and his father, and all his paternal ancestors, have in times past borne the said arms and used the like seal.

  We hear no more of the matter, or whether Thomas was successful in his claim. Possibly his absence from royal service can be accounted for by his need to visit Hainault to pursue it and perhaps set his affairs there in order. In 1426-7 there is a record of him reclaiming Kettlethorpe; possibly he had needed to lease or mortgage it to finance himself while he was living abroad.

  Thomas's wife, Jane Crophill, died between 1416 and 1421. She had borne him two known children: his heir, Thomas, around 1406 (he was twenty-six when his father died in 1432), who spent his youth in the service of his uncle, Thomas Beaufort, and a daughter, named Katherine after her grandmother. This Katherine had married Sir William Drury of Rougham, Suffolk, by 1428, and bore him six children before dying in 1478. By 1427, Cardinal Beaufort had secured an heiress, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Beauchamp of Powick, as a bride for young Thomas Swynford.

  Before July 1421, Sir Thomas Swynford had married a second time, his bride being Margaret Grey, daughter of Henry, Lord Grey de Wilton, and widow of John, Baron Darcy.95 There was one son of this marriage, William Swynford, to whom Cardinal Beaufort left £400 (£181,426) and some silver plate in his will. Sir Thomas died on 2 April 1432, and was probably buried in Kettlethorpe Church, although there is no proof of that, since the church has long been rebuilt and there are no records of the mediaeval memorials. His widow, Margaret, survived until 1454. Because he had enfeoffed his estates to trustees, he died effectively landless.

  His son, the younger Sir Thomas, did not long outlive him: he was dead by 8 January 1440, when his heir, Thomas Swynford III, was aged four or five. In 1468, this latter Thomas conveyed Kettlethorpe and Coleby to his uncle, William Swynford, the son of the first Sir Thomas by his second wife; William passed away before 1483, having willed those properties back to his nephew. When Thomas Swynford III died childless on 3 May 1498, the male line of Hugh and Katherine Swynford's descendants came to an end, and Kettlethorpe and Coleby passed to the heirs of Thomas's daughter Margaret, the wife of Thomas Pauncefote.

  Kettlethorpe descended in turn to the Beaumonts, the Meryngs and others before coming into the possession of the Amcotts family in the eighteenth century. Their arms are still displayed above the front door. In the mid-seventeenth century, the brick walls that still encircle the gardens were built, while the hall itself was largely remodelled in 1713, at which time the fourteenth-century gatehouse was probably reconstructed. A drawing by J. Claude Nattes of the refurbished house, then called Kettlethorpe Park, survives from 1793, and shows it to have been a large but undistinguished residence. In the early nineteenth century, the hall was allowed to fall into a decline; in 1857, Weston Cracroft-Amcotts had it demolished and built a plain redbrick Victorian house, into which was incorporated some of the mediaeval fabric surviving from Katherine's time.

  That is the house that stands today, in seventeen acres of grounds.Traces of Katherine Swynford's deer park also survive. In 1983, Kettlethorpe was purchased by the Rt Hon. Douglas Hogg, QC, MP, Viscount Hailsham, whose coat of arms, like that of the Swynfords who once inhabited the manor, bears three boars' heads.

  In the second half of the fifteenth century, during the Wars of the Roses, the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster was defaced and the original painted alabaster effigies destroyed. It was John and Katherine's descendant, Henry VII, who in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century had the tomb restored and a new epitaph set up to 'the illustrious Prince John, named Plantagenet, King of Castile and Leon, Duke of Lancaster, Lieutenant of Aquitaine, Grand Seneschal of England'. This is the epitaph in which it is incorrectly stated that it was Constance, and not Blanche, who was buried with the Duke, and in which Katherine's beauty rather than her virtue was emphasised: 'His third wife was Katherine, of a knightly family, and an extraordinarily beautiful and feminine woman; they had numerous offspring, and from these came the maternal family of King Henry VII.' The chief function of the epitaph was to publicise the Duke's illustrious descendants and connections. New effigies, wearing Tudor costume and armour (the Duke in a surcoat emblazoned with his arms, the Duchess in an ermine-trimmed mantle), with hands clasped in prayer, were placed on the tomb, probably in the 1530s, since Blanche's headdress is of that date; an earlier headdress would have had longer lappets.

  During the Reformation, the chantry founded for the souls of John and Blanche was dissolved and its endowments appropriated by the Crown. Little damage appears to have been done to the tomb itself, which was described in 1614 as 'a most stately monument'. A drawing of it was made in c.1610; Wenceslaus Hollar did an engraving, as did Sir William Dugdale, Garter King of Arms, then Richard Gaywood

  (around 1664-5) for the royal genealogist Francis Sandford.These pictures show an arcaded tomb chest with trefoil motifs and a fine triple-arched canopy with a tabernacle screen, on which the Duke's armorial achievements — his lance, cap of maintenance and shield — were displayed. The canopy or tabernacle was defaced during the Civil War, and never repaired.

  On 4 September 1666, when Old St Paul's Cathedral was destroyed during the Great Fire of London, John of Gaunt's tomb 'suffered the violence of the late conflagration' and was irrevocably lost, 'burnt to ashes'. It is unlikely, therefore, that the corpses of John and Blanche were among those that were dragged from the ruins and propped up in Convocation House Yard for passers-by to gawp at.

  Katherine's tomb, and that of her daughter Joan, standing side by side, were described by John Leland in the early sixteenth century,"1 and were also engraved by Dugdale around 1640. Today, those tombs stand end to end, with Joan's, the smaller, apparently cut down at some stage, at the foot of Katherine's. There are matrices where the canopied brasses once lay, and Katherine's tomb has indents to show where armorial shields were originally displayed. The patterned vault of the heavily restored canopy, its east and west abutments and the wrought-iron grille on its buttressed stone plinth are all that survive of the chantry chapel that once housed the tombs."3

  The perpetual chantry set up by the Countess Joan lasted until the mid-sixteenth century. It was dissolved during the reign of Edward VI, at which time it was valued at £i3.6s.8d (£4,203), and contained two chalices, two silver cruets (for holding holy water and communion wine), a silver pax and a silver sacring bell.

  In 1644, the tombs were defaced, the brasses ripped off and stolen, and the stonework of the chantry badly damaged during the sacking of Lincoln Cathedral by Cromwellian soldiers in the Civil War; a 'bargeload' of spoils was floated down the River Witham to the sea, and the brasses and other tomb furniture may well have been on it. By 1672, the tomb chests had been moved into their present positions and the canopy clumsily restored."7 A nineteenth-century plan for a 'Gothic' restoration of the monuments was fortunately abandoned. Of the tombs of John of Gaunt's three wives, Katherine's is the only one to survive. Claims on the internet that the tombs are empty and that the remains of Katherine and Joan were despoiled by the Roundheads are unsubstantiated; there is no record of the bodies being disturbed, and they are probably still in a vault under the pavement beneath the tombs.

  On 10 May each year, Katherine's name is always included in the obit prayer offered up during Evensong in Lincoln Cathedral. She is worthy of remembrance, and not only because of the famous and illustrious people who have descended from her and John of Gaunt — among them the present Queen Elizabeth II, who is also Duchess
of Lancaster, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and nearly every monarch in Europe; five American presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George W. Bush; Sir Winston Churchill, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, 'besides many other potent princes and eminent nobility of foreign parts'. Her memory is also honoured because she is a unique figure in the annals of mediaeval England, a royal mistress who became a duchess and the foundress of the Tudor dynasty, and above all a lady, as Chaucer said, so 'well deserving' of the fame that is still hers today.

  Appendix: Anya Seton's Katherine

  In my efforts to discover the truth about Katherine Swynford - or as much of the truth as we can ever know or guess at — I have remained very conscious of the fact that Anya Seton's novel continues to exert a tremendous influence over many people's vision of Katherine. I can testify myself to the novel's popularity: during the course of many events at bookshops and elsewhere, I have frequently been asked what my next project is to be about, and there is invariably a frisson of excitement in the audience when I say, 'Katherine Swynford.' Afterwards, I can guarantee that several delighted people will come over and say, 'I read Katherine .. .' Even in the solemn stillness of Lincoln Cathedral, the notice by Katherine Swynford's tomb reads: 'This is Katherine, of Anya Seton's famous historical book.'The Cathedral Library holds annual Study Days on Katherine, and tickets are in high demand. If you enter 'Katherine Swynford' on any internet search engine, you will get thousands of responses.

  Of course, there have been other fictional portrayals of her — she is the model for Bronwen Morgan in Susan Howatch's ambitious saga, The Wheel of Fortune, and she appears prominently too in Jean Plaidy's Passage to Pontefract, a fictionalised life of Richard II. But nowhere is she depicted so vibrantly as in Katherine, which has been called one of the best historical novels ever written, 'an all-time classic' on a par with the works of Margaret Mitchell, Mary Renault and Dorothy Dunnett.

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