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


  John's nurse was pensioned off in February I346, at which time he would have been assigned a male governor to oversee his education and his training in the knightly arts. We know little about his childhood, but all the evidence suggests that he was fond of his parents — he was especially close to his mother — and his siblings, and grew up in a happy, stable family, which was not always the case where royal princes were concerned.

  Above all, John would have grown up to the heady awareness that his father the King was winning great victories over the French and international renown, and that his glorious brother, the Black Prince, ten years his senior, had assisted most nobly in achieving those victories. It was an era of growing national confidence and pride, and the young John's world was surely dominated by triumphal heroes.

  One man whose influence on John was paramount was Henry, Duke of Lancaster, the man whom, next to his father and eldest brother, he seems to have revered most. In Duke Henry, he had before him the example of a great lord who was honourable, trustworthy and pious, and doubtless the young John thrilled to tales of the Duke's youthful crusading adventures and his distinguished victories over the Scots and the

  French. He seems to have spent his life trying to emulate Henry of Lancaster, from his military successes and diplomatic achievements to his charitable enterprises and elegant mode of living.

  On 29 August 1350, when he was only ten years old, John first saw active service in the war with France, when he accompanied his father and the Black Prince on a naval expedition that ended in a dramatic victory over enemy ships off Winchelsea, with the King capturing twenty vessels. John was too young to take part, but Froissart says his father had taken him along 'because he much loved him’. And that decision nearly proved fatal, for the ship carrying the King and his sons was rammed by an enemy vessel and began to sink; they were saved only through the courageous intervention of Duke Henry, who brought his ship alongside that of the aggressor, boarded it and heroically rescued them. For John, it was a salutary initiation into the realities of warfare, and another reason for hero-worshipping the Duke.

  John was always close to his eldest brother, whom he obviously looked up to and tried — apparently without jealousy — to emulate, and from at least 1 March 1350 until 20 May 1355, he lived in the Black Prince's household, residing with him mainly at Berkhamsted Castle and the manor of Byfleet in Surrey. The Prince acted as a mentor to the boy, and supervised his training in arms; according to Froissart, he was 'very fond' of John and always referred to him as his 'very dear and well-beloved brother'.

  In July 1355, the fifteen-year-old John received the accolade of knighthood, whose chivalrous tenets he was to follow to the best of his ability all his life. That year, he served on a campaign in France under Duke Henry, and in the winter of 1355-6, he was in Scodand with the King, forcing a stand-down by the Scots that became known as 'Burnt Candlemas'; John was a witness to their surrender of Berwick on 13 January 1356. The young man's qualities evidently impressed the Scots, because in 1357 they proposed naming him as the successor to their childless King David II, a plan that - sadly for John - came to nothing. John was to retain a special understanding and respect for the Scots throughout his career, and would achieve significant diplomatic successes with them in future years.

  In The Boke of the Duchesse, Chaucer, who must have come to know John of Gaunt fairly well, and observed him on many occasions, has him say that from his youth he had 'most faithfully paid tribute as a devotee to love, most unrestrainedly, and joyfully become his thrall, with willing body, heart and all', and that he had carried on in this fashion 'for ages, many and many a year', with 'lightness' and 'wayward thoughts'. But his only recorded early love affair was with Marie de St Hilaire (or

  Hilary), one of his mother's damoiselles, who, like Katherine Swynford, came from Hainault. According to Froissart, this youthful indiscretion, which almost certainly occurred when John was in his teens, resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child — the only one, apart from the Beauforts, that John ever acknowledged. Her name was Blanche, and the likelihood is that she was born well before his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster, probably in the later 1350s. Certainly no hostile chronicler mentioned the affair later on, nor attempted to make political capital out of it, which supports the theory that it happened before John came to political prominence.

  In 1360, Edward III granted Marie an annuity of £20 (£5,779) per annum, the same amount as that given in 1359-60 to Joan de St Hilary (who was surely Marie's sister), and in 1367 to Elizabeth Chandos, two of Marie's fellow damoiselles; this parity suggests that the annuity, handsome as it was, and more than the other damoiselles ever received, was awarded as much for exceptional service to the Queen as to support the mother of the Queen's bastard granddaughter. Marie remained in Philippa's service until 1369, and was still alive in 1399, when she was in receipt of a pension from John of Gaunt 'for the good and agreeable service she has rendered for a long time to our honoured lady and mother, Philippa, late Queen of England'.Thus, in his characteristically honourable fashion, John provided for Marie and — as will be seen - their daughter all their lives.

  John of Gaunt would surely have known Blanche of Lancaster well. Their fathers were cousins and staunch friends, and she was a frequent presence in the Queen's household. Given that they were close in age, John and Blanche - she was the younger by two years - may have been childhood playmates from infancy.

  At Christmas 1357 and New Year 1358, John was a guest of his brother Lionel of Antwerp, Earl of Ulster, and the Countess Elizabeth at the Queen's manor of Hatfield, near Doncaster in Yorkshire. This was the gathering at which young Geoffrey Chaucer was also present, and it was perhaps the occasion on which the talented Chaucer first came to John's notice.

  Blanche of Lancaster may also have been present at Hatfield, and if so, John may have taken the opportunity to pay court to her. It was six months later that Edward III applied for a dispensation for the young couple to marry.

  Chaucer, in his Boke of the Duchesse, recalled John telling him that he was first taken with Blanche's charms after being struck by how vividly she stood out among a group of fair ladies:

  In beauty, courtesy and grace,

  In radiant modesty of face,

  Fine bearing, virtue, every way ...

  It was my sweet, her right true self —

  Demeanour steadfast, calm and free,

  And poise imbued with dignity.

  He watched her dancing gracefully, singing and laughing, and noticed that her eyes were gracious, her voice 'warm with kindliness'. To him, she appeared 'a treasure house of utter bliss': 'that flower of womanhood was life and joy', the chief source of his 'well-being'. But when he embarked on his 'mighty quest' to win her love, he initially met with cool rejection. Blanche 'gave no false encouragement; she spurned such petty artifice'. Her ardent swain composed songs that, while 'not well done', were written 'in passion for my heart's delight', but he held back from confessing to her how much pain he was suffering on her account, fearing lest she might take offence at his presumption. Yet in the end, 'I had to tell her, or die.' Quaking in dread, he declared his love and devotion, swore 'to guard her honour evermore', and begged for mercy, not daring to look Blanche in the eye. Afterwards, he could not recall exactly what her response had been, but 'the gist of it was simply "No"'.

  Thus rejected, John stole away and hid his sorrow for many days. But his desire was such that he determined to persist in his suit, intent on overcoming all resistance, and in the end, after many months, he joyfully won the heart of his lady. 'To seal the gift, she gave a ring', which to him was 'the utmost precious thing'; he felt as if he had been 'from death to life upcast'.

  All this would have had little relevance to the realities of royal matchmaking, but it had everything to do with the game of courtly love, and no doubt the young and ardent John of Gaunt took full advantage of the opportunities afforded by that convention, for all that his was essentially an arranged
marriage. From what Chaucer tells us, we may infer that he set himself to win Blanche's heart as well as her hand. For him, she would always be 'my lady bright, whom I have loved with all my might'.

  There is other testimony beside Chaucer's to support the claim that John did fall in love with Blanche: his apparent faithfulness to her through all their years of marriage; his inconsolable grief at her passing; his enduring homage to her memory; and his desire to be buried beside her. Of course, that could equally have been inspired by a wish to be laid to rest beside the woman from whom he had derived his title and wealth, and who was the mother of his heir, but taken with all the other evidence, it would appear to have been motivated by deep affection and tender memories too.

  And given that this was a love match, it is feasible that John's ardour for his lady was well established by the time he spent that Christmas at Hatfield, for Chaucer tells us that Blanche kept him at bay for a year. This combination of true love and political and dynastic desirability was most unusual in that era of arranged marriages — but John of Gaunt was more than once to prove unconventional when it came to love and marriage.

  John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster were married on Sunday 19 May 1359 in a lavish ceremony in the Queen's Chapel at Reading Abbey, one of the foremost Benedictine monasteries in the realm. He was nineteen, she seventeen. Thomas de Chynham, clerk of the Queen's Chapel, officiated, and Robert Wyvil, Bishop of Salisbury, pronounced the benediction. John's wedding gift to Blanche was a gold ring with a great diamond set in pearls.

  Two weeks of festivities followed the wedding. There were feasts, boat races and three days of jousting in the meadows on the banks of the Thames. Then the royal family and their guests rode to London, where tournaments were held over a further three days at Smithfield, before huge crowds. Here, the King, his four eldest sons and nineteen of his lords disguised themselves as the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London, acquitted themselves with great honour in the lists, then revealed their true identity, to the lyrical delight of the spectators. Alongside the captive Kings of France and Scotland, the Queen was watching, along with her daughters and her ladies, and it is more than likely that the Roët sisters were present too.

  If Chaucer is to be believed, John's love for Blanche deepened after marriage, and he was convinced he could not have chosen a better wife, for she was good, loyal and true,'the queen of all my body'. Throughout their marriage, he 'belonged to her entire': there is no record of him dishonouring his marriage vows, and no breath of scandal tainted his name, which is in sharp contrast to the reputation he was to gain during his second marriage. Chaucer has John declare,

  'Our joy was ever fresh and new,

  Our hearts were so in harmony

  That neither was ever contrary

  To the other heart when sorrows came.'

  In truth, they bore all things the same

  Whatever joy or grief they had.

  Alike, they were both glad or sad;

  'Assured in union we were,

  And thus we lived for many a year,

  So well, I cannot tell you how'

  Although Blanche was younger than John, and sworn to obedience and subservience to him, Chaucer implies that he always deferred to her. For –

  When I was wrong and she was right, Always in generosity [She] forgave me most becomingly. In every youthful circumstance She took me in her governance. Always her counsel was so true.

  It is worthy of notice that, in his idyllic portrayal of the married love between John and Blanche, Chaucer made a dramatic departure from contemporary literary practice, in which marriage is often seen as sounding the death-knell to love, which can only truly flourish in an illicit or courtly context. This striking departure itself suggests that the conjugal relationship between John and Blanche was unusually close and tender.

  It is tempting to speculate on the kind of sexual relationship those two shared. Chaucer makes it clear that Blanche had a degree of worldly knowledge and an understanding of good and evil, but says her self-esteem was such that she would not permit any diminution of respect towards her person. One would imagine that the young John, with his well-bred ideals of love and chivalry, treated his wife with deference, and even reverence, in bed. A later assertion by the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, that John brought prostitutes to share in bedtime romps with his understandably distressed wife, is almost certainly malicious and groundless, and invented purely for the purposes of character assassination.

  Devoted as she was, Blanche, unlike the Queen, did not accompany her husband on his frequent expeditions overseas.26 First, John was usually sent abroad on military campaigns in which there was no place for women; and second, Blanche was frequently pregnant.

  The young couple were both pious, and took their spiritual life very seriously. They were joint founder members St Mary's College next to St David's Cathedral in Wales;-7 they petitioned the Pope for the right to choose or change their confessors, for permission for themselves and members of their households to have portable altars, and for 'plenary remission [of sins] at the hour of death'. Like most aristocratic ladies, Blanche undertook charitable works, and in 1367, she successfully pleaded with the King to pardon a condemned murderer.

  As we have seen, Blanche won high praise from Chaucer and Froissart, both of whom knew her personally. She could read and write, had literary interests and enjoyed poetry, so she may have been their patron. Thomas Speght, in his 1602 edition of Chaucer's works, claims that one of the poet's earliest poems, 'An ABC was 'made, as some say, at the request of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, as a prayer for her private use, being a woman in her religion very devout'. Speght may have had access to sources that are lost to us, but his claim cannot be proved because there are no perceptible allusions to Blanche in 'An ABC'.

  Blanche conceived her first child by the end of June 1359, and was four months pregnant when her husband left England on 28 October to accompany the King on a new military expedition to France, Edward III being determined to have himself crowned at Rheims. It was on this campaign that Geoffrey Chaucer was captured by the French and had to be ransomed.

  Blanche's baby, named Philippa in honour of the Queen (who was probably her godmother), was born on 31 March 1360. Out of the concern that we feel for her condition', Edward III had arranged for Blanche to stay with the Queen for the last months before her confinement,33 but her child was actually born at Leicester Castle: on 21 May, Philippa paid the expenses of the ceremony to mark her daughter-in-law's 'uprising' (or 'churching') at Leicester.34 The midwife in attendance had perhaps been 'our well-beloved Elyot, midwife of Leicester', who later attended John's second-wife and Katherine Swynford, and was rewarded for her services in both cases.

  Blanche had her own household, separate from that of her husband, with her own staff of officers, ladies and servants. There is no record of Katherine de Roët being in that household before 24 January 1365 — when she is referred to as Blanche's ancille (maidservant) — but John of Gaunt's registers for this period have not survived, so it is quite possible that Katherine was serving the Countess considerably earlier than that, and had been placed by the Queen in Blanche's nursery in 1360 to help care for the new baby, possibly as a rocker, a job often assigned to a young girl of Katherine's age, which was then about ten years. Froissart just says that 'in her youth, she had been of the household of the Duchess Blanche of Lancaster', but he doesn't specify how old she was at the time.

  The female attendants of noblewomen were routinely required to help care for their mistress's offspring, and given Katherine's later appointment as governess, and her evident rapport with the young, it would appear that she had early on gained experience in looking after children and demonstrated a talent for it, thus earning the confidence of her employers. It may be that Katherine's placement with the Duchess

  Blanche came about as a result of arrangements that were made by the Queen when the pregnant Blanche was staying with her, and that Katherine was one of those who travell
ed with the Countess to Leicester.

  Leicester Castle, the principal seat of the Earls of Leicester, was to become one of John of Gaunt's favourite residences, probably because of its associations with Duke Henry; John 'especially loved to be with his household' here, keeping great state, entertaining lavishly and hunting in nearby Leicester Forest, where he had a substantial hunting box called — delightfully — Bird's Nest. And he was popular in Leicester, for thanks to his frequent presence in their midst, the townsfolk enjoyed greater prosperity than they had ever known.

  Over the years, Katherine would probably stay in Leicester Castle on many occasions. It had been built in 1068-88 and extended in the middle of the twelfth century, when the great aisled hall of stone that John and Katherine knew, with its lofty roof of braced beams, was put up; below were cellars or dungeons. Inside the castle was the ancient Saxon church of St Mary de Castro, which had been rebuilt in the twelfth century by the earls of Leicester; its slender spire was added in the fourteenth century.

  In the outer ward of the castle was the Hospital of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, founded by Henry, Earl of Lancaster, in 1331 for the care of the poor and infirm of Leicester. This foundation was extended by his son, Duke Henry, in the 1350s to house a precious relic, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, and it was at that time that the small but 'exceeding fair' collegiate church of St Mary was built beside it, with cloisters and pretty houses for the prebendaries. The whole area of four acres, which was enclosed by the thick castle wall and accessed by a stately triple-arched and vaulted gateway, became known as the novum opus, or the new work, which was soon being colloquially referred to as the Newarke, a name still in use today.

 
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