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


  Whether Katherine was in Blanche's household sooner rather than later, she had again been exceedingly fortunate in being placed with a kind and affectionate mistress. Blanche's many qualities would have made her an easy person to serve, and her piety and literary interests were bound to have made some impression upon a young and intelligent girl of Katherine's age. In Blanche, Katherine could profit from the example of a lady who conducted herself with dignity and honour, who was moderate in all her doings, with an effortless grace and serene demeanour, and who expected and received the respect that was her due, not just as a duchess but as a woman. The young and impressionable Katherine would have observed too the great love that lay between the Duke and his lady, and perhaps hoped that she herself, in due course, would find such unusual happiness in marriage.

  Katherine spent her youth, indeed her life, in the shadow of the Hundred Years War, but in 1360 that war was going well for England. Having failed to assert his claim to the Crown of France, Edward III had resorted to diplomacy, and on 8 May concluded the Treaty of Bretigny, which ceded to him all the lands he had won by conquest as well as an extended duchy of Aquitaine in full sovereignty. On 18 May, the King and his sons returned home to England in triumph, John having the added joy of greeting his new daughter. On 20 May, doubtless in recognition of his son's good service in France, the King granted John the honour and castle of Hertford and other property/3

  Hertford Castle was a residence that suitably befitted the exalted estate of the young Earl and Countess of Richmond. Formerly the property of John's grandmother, Isabella of France (the widow of Edward II), who had died in 1358, it had been built three centuries before by William the Conqueror on low-lying land on the encircling banks of the River Lea. Successive monarchs had embellished the hall, chapel and royal apartments, but the ancient fortifications had crumbled, and never been replaced because there was no longer any need for them in this more peaceful age. Hertford was also conveniently situated, being within easy riding distance of London and Westminster. John of Gaunt instituted an ongoing programme of lavish improvements there, transforming the castle into a virtual palace, and unsurprisingly, it remained one of his favourite residences all his life.

  John was abroad again, in France with the King, from August to November 1360, and on 20 November received his first summons to Parliament, as Earl of Richmond. This marked his debut in political life.

  The year 1361 saw another virulent outbreak of the dreaded Black Death, which claimed no less than a quarter of the already decimated population of England. Its most notable victim was the widely mourned Henry, Duke of Lancaster, who died on 23 March and was buried near the high altar in St Mary's Church in the Newarke at Leicester, the foundation he himself had handsomely endowed, doubtless intending it to serve as a mausoleum for the House of Lancaster; the church was unfinished at his death, and it was left to John of Gaunt to take Duke Henry's place as its patron and pay for its completion.44

  Not long afterwards, the Duchess of Lancaster also died of plague at Leicester. She too was buried in the Newarke. Losing both her parents at almost the same time must have been a terrible blow to poor Blanche, who was probably pregnant with her second child.

  But Duke Henry's death brought about a spectacular change in John of Gaunt's fortunes, for the dead man's great titles and estates were to be divided between his two co-heiresses, whose husbands would inherit them in their right.’5 Not surprisingly, Edward III acted swiftly: only two days after the Duke expired, in the absence of Matilda of Lancaster, who was in Hainault, John was granted temporary custody of all the Duke's lands until a fair division could be made.

  Resplendent in 'a scarlet robe embroidered with garters of blue taffeta', John was admitted by the King to the Order of the Garter that April. Edward III had founded this prestigious order of chivalry in 1348, in honour of England's patron saint, St George, and in emulation of King Arthur's Round Table. Its motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense (Evil be to he who evil thinks), is said to have originated when, in the face of much coarse jesting on the part of his courtiers, the King gallantly retrieved the Countess of Salisbury's garter, which had slipped off while she was dancing; the motto was adapted from the words he used to rebuke the onlookers, adding that they would soon see the garter much honoured. Membership of the order was limited to the King and twenty-five knights, and admittance to it was one of the highest accolades of chivalry. The Queen herself was an associate member, as a Dame of the Fraternity of the Garter, and one day, Katherine Swynford too would be associated with this famous order.

  In July 1361, the Lancaster inheritance was apportioned between Matilda and Blanche, by mutual consent: Matilda - who now hastened back to England - succeeded as Countess of Leicester, and Blanche as Countess of Lancaster, Lincoln and Derby; from henceforth, in right of his wife, John of Gaunt was earl of those counties, and in possession of the vast northern estates that went with these great tides.49 He also became Lord of Beaufort and Nogent in France, Lord High Steward (or Seneschal) of England (his hereditary right as Earl of Lincoln) and Constable of Chester. Overnight, he had become immensely rich and powerful.

  The royal family spent Christmas 1361 at Berkhamsted Castle as guests of the Black Prince and his bride, Joan of Kent, whom he had married in October. The marriage had occasioned no little stir within the royal family, because Joan had a scandalous past; Queen Philippa in particular was unhappy about it, although she had attended the wedding. But the Black Prince had been determined to marry Joan. She was 'in her time the most beautiful lady in all the realm of England, and the most amorous, famous for the extravagance of her dress', and their precipitate secret wedding suggests that the Prince was in love with her — Froissart calls it a love match. As far back as 1348, Edward had given his cousin 'Jeanette' a silver beaker; the nickname suggests a long familiarity between them, and of course they would have known each other from childhood. Because of the illicit nature of their marriage — which took place without the King's knowledge, and had to be solemnised a second time after the requisite dispensation had been granted — the Pope required the Prince and Princess to do penance. If it had been unusual for John and Blanche to find love in an arranged union, it was astonishing for the heir to the throne, the most desirable catch in Europe, to marry for love, and gain no political or material advantage from it. But despite this, and the misgivings of her in-laws, Joan proved to be a model Princess of Wales, being of a gentle and kindly nature, a peacemaker by inclination, a loyal and loving wife who kept well out of public affairs — and a good friend to John of Gaunt.

  This would be the last Christmas the Black Prince was to spend with his family for many years. In July 1362, the King created him Duke of Aquitaine, and he and the Princess crossed the sea to take up permanent residence in Bordeaux.

  The childless Matilda of Lancaster died unexpectedly in England on 9 April 1362. John of Gaunt had much to gain from her death, for it brought him the other half of the Lancastrian inheritance, his wife Blanche being Matilda's sole heir, and made him the most powerful man in the realm after the King; he would now own about one third of all England, and enjoy an annual income of approximately £12,803, (£442,075), which far exceeded that of any other peer, only a lucky few realising even £4,000 (£1,075,396).

  The acquisition of such wealth — his landed estate was worth £43 billion in today's values - gave rise to the first of the many scurrilous rumours that were to blight John's life. By June 1362, when he and Blanche were touring their new estates and came to Leicester Castle, the 'vulgar repute' that Matilda had been poisoned by her brother-in-law was rife. In fact, it appears that the rumours were entirely baseless, and that, like her parents, she had died of plague.55 But these calumnies never quite went away.

  To mark his own fiftieth birthday on 13 November 1362, Edward III formally created John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster: ‘and then our lord the King invested his said son John with the sword [and] garbed him with a fur cape and above it a gold circlet'; at the sam
e time, John's brothers Lionel and Edmund, his junior by a year, were created Duke of Clarence and Earl of Cambridge respectively.56 From now on John would be known as 'Monseigneur de Lancaster'.

  The Duchy of Lancaster was effectively a state within a state, with lands and property extending mainly across the Midlands, the North and the Welsh Marches, hundreds of manors, a well-oiled administration and vast revenues. John was to spend the bulk of his income on maintaining, rebuilding or remodelling his numerous castles, houses and estates, keeping his enormous household and retinue, affording the lavish hospitality and gifts that were expected of a great prince, financing military expeditions and diplomatic trips, and providing for his growing family.

  The new Duke's establishment now increased in size and splendour to reflect his magnificence. Only the King's was greater. John had his own council, receiver-general, secretariat and hierarchy of household officers, as well as an army of officials to administer and care for his estates and properties. His household numbered 115 persons, and he maintained the greatest and most powerful noble retinue in the kingdom/a chivalrous company' of between 160 and 200 men, including between 80 and 125 'highly-regarded knights conspicuous for their courtly and chivalrous skills', who were required to model themselves on King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. They were bound to the Duke by indentures, having promised to serve him in times of war and peace in return for more-than-generous annuities, grants of land, liberal patronage and the social prestige that came from being allied to so great a magnate. Needless to say, demand for places in the Duke's retinue was high. John of Gaunt's retainers and servants sported his livery of white and blue, and the officers of his household wore the famous Lancastrian livery collar of linked Ss.

  A survey of the ducal warrants shows that John exercised a close degree of personal interest in all aspects of his affairs, and that he was frequently generous, benevolent and merciful to his bondsmen and tenants, showing himself 'in all his actions good and gentle'. He ensured that their dwellings were kept in good repair, excused them rents and dues in times of hardship, and willingly permitted them to go on pilgrimage or take holy orders. He distributed £2 (£626) in alms every Friday and Saturday, sent gifts of firewood to the poor lepers of Leicester, and wine to the prisoners in Newgate gaol. He allowed his villeins to perform their service of carrying wood to his castle at Tutbury in summer, to spare them the discomfort of doing it in the winter cold. The chronicler Knighton, who lauded him for his clemency, tells how he refused to hang certain servants who had stolen some of his silver, declaring,'No man should lose his life for my chattels.' In the years to come, Katherine Swynford herself would benefit repeatedly from John's open-handedness and consideration.

  Thanks to the enormous wealth and power that had come to him through his magnificent marriage, John of Gaunt was for the rest of his life to play a leading role at the centre of English — and indeed international - politics. And with the Black Prince in Aquitaine, and Lionel serving as the King's deputy in Ireland, John, at just twenty-two, was now the most important man in England after the monarch himself. Edward III quickly came to rely on him, as both a soldier and a diplomat, although it must be said that he was to enjoy considerably more success in the latter capacity. The acquisition of the Lancaster inheritance also gave John the capacity to raise large armies from his estates, and so play a prominent role in the war with France. At home, he was to be active in Parliament and highly influential at court.

  It was an honour to serve such a prince, and a signal responsibility to help nurture the ducal children, which is what Katherine de Roët was probably doing at this time. And she would have been kept busy. Around 1362 (or 1364), Blanche bore a son and heir, John, who tragically died young, probably before 4 May 1366, when his mother gave birth to another son who was also named John. The first John was probably still living in 1365, when a second son Edward was born; the fact that two of the ducal sons were called John after their father suggests that this was the name of choice for the heir, so we may infer from the use of the name Edward for the second son that the first John still lived when he was born, but that the latter had died by the time the third son was given the same name. This first John was probably the child buried under an arch near the high altar in St Mary's Church in the Newarke at Leicester. By 21 February 1363, Blanche was also the mother of a second daughter, Elizabeth, having borne three children in less than three years.

  Like all great mediaeval households, John of Gaunt's was itinerant, moving around the country to satisfy the demands of politics, estate business, law enforcement, hunting and the social calendar. The Duke himself would ride from house to house, resplendent on his hunting courser, but kept horse-drawn carriages for the use of his wife and children. The whole household went with them, accompanied by a long train of carts, pack-horses and sumpter mules carrying furniture, hangings, household effects, clothing, documents and the ornaments of the ducal chapel.64

  Nearly every summer. John made a habit of spending time on his lands in the Midlands and the North. Katherine would soon have become familiar with an array of luxurious Lancastrian residences, including the imposing castles at Kenilworth, Higham Ferrers, Bolingbroke, Tutbury, Knaresborough and Pontefract — there were more than thirty in all. But for much of the rest of the year, John was at Hertford or in London, and when he was in the capital, he was to be found at his chief residence, the magnificent palace of the Savoy, the pride of his properties and the outward symbol of his greatness. It was here that he entertained visiting royalty and ambassadors, who were invariably suitably impressed by their luxurious surroundings.

  The Savoy Palace, that 'very fine building on the Thames', was to figure large in Katherine's life. Standing a mile beyond the western walls of the City of London, amongst the aristocratic and episcopal mansions that lined the Strand on the Thames side, it occupied a large area that today stretches from Waterloo Bridge to Durham House Street. In those days, the Strand was paved as far as the Savoy. The churches of St Mary-le-Strand and St Clement Danes stood a little to the north-east, and the convent gardens of Westminster Abbey (now Covent Garden) were opposite. Further east was the Temple and beyond it the City of London itself. Immediately to the south of the palace was the London residence of John's 'faithful friend', the Bishop of Carlisle, then beyond it the house of the Bishop of Durham, the cross at Charing built in memory of Edward I's queen, Eleanor of Castile, the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Hospital of St Mary of Rouncevalles, which enjoyed John of Gaunt's patronage and stood at the entrance to the present Northumberland Avenue. Beyond it, as the Thames curved south, lay York Place, the town palace of the Archbishops of York, and Westminster, the seat of government, with its imposing royal palace and abbey.

  The Savoy Theatre (built 1881) and the Savoy Hotel (built 1889) now occupy 'the Precinct of the Savoy' in which the palace was sited, and Savoy Street, Savoy Place, Savoy Way, Savoy Steps, Savoy Row, Savoy Court, Savoy Buildings and Savoy Hill are reminders of it. The Duchy of Lancaster, which is now incorporated in the Crown, still has its offices where the mighty palace once stood, in Lancaster Place by Waterloo Bridge.

  Although there had been a mansion on the site as early as 1189, the original Savoy Palace was built by Peter, Count of Savoy, an uncle of Henry Ill's queen, Eleanor of Provence, in the thirteenth century. In 1245, Peter was granted a parcel of land east of Westminster 'in that street called the Strand', and in 1263 raised a palace there. It is his gilded statue that stands above the doorway of the modern Savoy Hotel. In his will, he bequeathed this property to the Hospice of St Bernard, a monastic community in Savoy, from whom Queen Eleanor purchased it for her son, Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, in 1284. In the 1350s, at a cost of £35,000 (£13,660,715), his grandson, Henry, Duke of Lancaster,'entirely rebuilt' the Savoy as a sumptuous palace, paying for it out of the profits he had made in the Hundred Years War. In 1357-60, the captive King John II of France enjoyed 'a most agreeable' stay at the Savoy, and when he returned
to England as a hostage in 1364, he specifically asked to stay there; he died there in April of that year.

  The palace was reputed to be the most beautiful and opulent building in England — it was 'a marvellous structure unmatched in the kingdom', 'the fairest manor in Europe', 'unto which there was none in the realm to be compared in beauty, splendour, nobility and stateliness'. It rivalled even the King's great palace at Westminster. It was built on a quadrangular collegiate plan; at its core was a magnificent great hall, which was surrounded by domestic and service ranges erected around courtyards and connected by cloisters and alleyways; the ducal apartments lay behind the great hall, and had windows facing the river. The whole precinct was surrounded by a fortified wall, bisected by a massive gateway with a portcullis on the Strand, a smaller gate next to it for pedestrians, and a river gate at the side. There was a chapel to the right of the front gateway, a library, a treasure chamber, extensive wine cellars, accommodation for an army of servants and retainers, stables, orchards, a fish pond and beautiful rose and vegetable gardens with ornamental rails and flower borders, all sloping down to the Thames; the Duke loved his gardens, and actively involved himself in their planning and maintenance. At the rear of the palace, elegant terraces overlooked the Thames, which in the fourteenth century was much wider and shallower than it is today. A low wall ran along the river's edge, and stairs led down to the landing stages, where barges could be moored. With the narrow streets of London so congested, most people preferred to travel by river. John's richly appointed barges -he bought a new one in 1373 — had a master arid a crew of eight oarsmen, and he would use them whenever he wished to visit the court at Westminster or, later on, the Black Prince at Kennington Palace on the Surrey shore of the Thames.

 
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