Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir

  Sometime during that sun- drenched summer of 1371, Guichard d’Angle, Marshal of Aquitaine and a trusted friend, diplomat, and member of the duke’s council, who had been held prisoner by Enrique of Trastamara for two years, suggested to John that he marry Constance and claim the crown of Castile in her right,36 a suggestion he would surely not have made without knowing that the idea was already in the duke’s mind, and perhaps in Edward III’s too. The Gascon barons backed the proposal. Such a union made good political sense: Not only would it bring John a throne and a kingdom, which he had perhaps long desired, but it would also break the alliance between Castile and France, which was posing a very real threat to England and her chances of winning the war. The proposal “pleased [the duke] so well that he sent without delay four of his knights for the young ladies.”37

  For Constance, regaining her throne and laying King Pedro’s bones properly to rest in his native earth appear to have been sacred duties, for she cherished the memory of her father. Her strong loyalty is perhaps reflected in Chaucer’s generous portrayal of Pedro in “The Monk’s Tale,” and we may suppose that the poet was used to hearing all about the murdered king’s virtues and death from his wife Philippa, who in turn must have heard it again and again from Constance, whom she was to serve for years. Thus, ignoring the more brutal realities of Pedro’s rule and character, Chaucer could write:

  O noble, O worthy Pedro, glory of Spain,

  Whom Fortune held so high in majesty,

  Well ought men thy piteous death complain!

  Mindful that her father had long desired his daughters to be married to sons of Edward III, Constance accepted the Duke of Lancaster’s proposal with alacrity, confident that such a great prince would be successful in helping her achieve her cherished aims. Realistically, though, that was a remote prospect, for with the backing of France, Enrique of Trastamara had become even more entrenched in Castile.

  Constance was in every way an ideal choice of a royal bride: She was young, beautiful, and devout, and brought to the marriage the promise of a kingdom. Her tragic plight appealed to John’s sense of chivalry: Guichard d’Angle had played on that when he pointed out that marrying her “would offer comfort and aid to these girls, daughters of a king, who are forced by circumstances to live in their present state.” It was these words that had “softened the heart of the duke.”38 Yet Constance was no stereotypical maiden in distress: For all her youth (she was seventeen) she had her father’s pride, his singularity of purpose and tenacity, and the passionate, grieving love that only an exile can feel for his or her native land.39

  We have only two surviving manuscript pictures of Constance. One is in a late fifteenth- century manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and shows her with John of Gaunt at the surrender of Compostela in 1386. The other, in a genealogy executed between 1493 and 1519, shows the descent of the royal House of Portugal, which includes members of the family of John of Gaunt:40 Constance wears a red velvet gown with a full skirt and blue kir-tle typical of Castilian dress of that later period, and an anachronistic horned headdress; her hair is black, parted, and looped to either side of the face in the style that would be favored by Queen Isabella of Castile; and her features are florid, with a long nose. This illustration may have been based on one in an older manuscript that has been lost, for the headdress is partly of the fourteenth century.

  Constance and John were married on September 21, 1371, at Roquefort-sur-Soulzon,41 a small town nestling on terraces on the side of a rocky outcrop near Mont- de- Marsan in the Aveyron, just south of Bordeaux; since the first century BC, the distinctive Roquefort cheese had been produced there and matured in the local caves. John’s wedding gift to Constance was a gold cup “fashioned in the manner of a double rose with a pedestal and lid, with a white dove on the lid,”42 while Constance gave him the finest gold cup he ever possessed.43 It would be no exaggeration to say that from the day of their marriage, the conquest of Castile would be the major preoccupation of John’s life.

  On September 25, after some brief celebrations in Bordeaux,44 the duke and his new duchess arrived at the port of La Rochelle, and there requisitioned a salt ship bound for England, obliging the master to offload his cargo to make room for their retinue and chattels.45 John was attended by a train of Castilian knights wearing the Lancastrian livery, and Constance by a bevy of Castilian ladies. They docked at Fowey, near Plymouth, on November 4, and rested at Plympton Priory from November 10 to 14.46 Two days later the duke and duchess moved on to Exeter, where they offered 20s. (£335) in the cathedral.47 John then left Constance and rode to London to make ready for her arrival; he was in residence at the Savoy, and reunited with his three children, by the end of the month,48 when he went “to report to the King.”49Then in December, after paying his respects at Blanche’s tomb in St Paul’s, he traveled down to Kingston Lacy in Dorset, where he and his bride kept Christmas, feasting on venison and rabbits. 50

  John was back at the Savoy by January 22, having arranged for Constance to journey up to London at her leisure. Her long sojourn in the West Country had perhaps been necessitated by her suffering the discomforts and sickness of early pregnancy.

  Hugh Swynford had not accompanied his lord back to England. He died “beyond seas” in Aquitaine, “on the Thursday after St. Martin,” November 13, 1371. 51 The fact that he did not follow the duke north in September argues that he was already too ill to do so. The news of his death would have taken some weeks to reach Katherine, but probably arrived in time for her to spend a dismal Christmas facing up to early widowhood and the prospect of bringing up her children alone on a pittance, for Hugh’s finances and affairs had been left in little better shape than when she married him.

  The medieval church at Kettlethorpe has long since largely disappeared, and with it any fourteenth- century tombs and memorials, so there is no way of knowing whether Hugh’s body was brought back to England and interred there, but given his parlous financial state, he may well have been buried in Aquitaine.52 Whether he was laid to rest in Kettlethorpe Church or not, a requiem mass would surely have been held there for him, with Katherine in attendance.

  Katherine was only about twenty- one when she was widowed, yet custom required her to put on nunlike mourning garments consisting of a black gown and cloak and a white wimple; the constricting barbe that covered the chin and spread like a cape across the shoulders mercifully had not yet come into fashion. She would wear these weeds until the expiration of her first year of widowhood, after which she might remarry with propriety. 53

  It would appear that John of Gaunt came to her rescue, and that learning of her plight, and doubtless recalling her good service to Blanche, he invited her to serve his second duchess in a similar capacity. Philippa Chaucer, likewise redundant because of the death of a royal mistress, was also appointed to serve Constance as one of her many married damoiselles; on August 30, 1372, at Sandwich, John of Gaunt awarded her an annuity of £10 (£3,347) “by our especial grace for the good and agreeable service that our well-beloved damoiselle Philippa Chaucer has done, and will do in the future, for our very dear and well- loved companion the Queen.”54

  There is no record of Katherine being in Constance’s household until March 1373, but given the fact that the King and John of Gaunt were helping her financially in the spring of 1372, and that she was in attendance when Constance bore a child probably in the summer of that year, it is likely that she was engaged with her sister when the duchess’s establishment was set up between January and April. Katherine’s former experience as a long-term, much loved member of Duchess Blanche’s household would have left her uniquely qualified to serve the young Constance, and that she was chosen to convey news of the birth of Constance’s child to the King suggests that her position was of some prominence.

  Philippa Chaucer’s appointment to the Lancastrian ménage while her husband remained in royal service, and the fact that she was now often to be resident at Hertford Castle or Tutbury Castle, and would r
emain with the duchess for some years to come, meant that henceforth she and Geoffrey would see much less of each other. This may be a further indication that their marriage was unhappy, and also that Philippa was done with child-bearing. Having spent most of her life at court, she probably preferred the social cachet conferred on her by her return to royal service to living in obscurity as the wife of a royal esquire; she had perhaps not liked living in London, where foreigners were regarded with suspicion and even hostility. Chaucer himself may have welcomed this new arrangement with amicable resignation, seeing his wife when their duties permitted and agreeing to pool their financial resources; from 1374, he went in person to collect Philippa’s pension from the Exchequer. 55

  On January 30, Edward III’s council formally recognized John of Gaunt as King of Castile and León; henceforth, John would be known as “Monseigneur d’Espaigne” rather than “Monseigneur de Lancaster;” he would sign his letters in regal Castilian style as Nos el Roy (We, the King) and his seal would bear the royal arms of Castile and León impaling those of England. He would now be deferred to as if he were a reigning sovereign, and the etiquette observed at his court would have reflected this.

  John’s zeal for winning a foreign kingdom for himself was to cost him much trust and popularity in England, where people suspected him of disloyalty to the Crown and speculated that his ambitions might not be satisfied with the throne of Castile. Unlike him, many lacked the foresight to see that with an English king reigning in a friendly Castile, France would lose a valuable ally, Castilian naval raids would cease, and England’s chances of achieving some success in the war would be vastly improved. Furthermore, for many years to come John was to subordinate his dynastic ambitions in order to give priority to prosecuting the war with France on England’s behalf, and not only because there was no money to pay for an offensive against Castile. Only time would prove that his loyalty to the English Crown was never in doubt, but to many of the xenophobic and increasingly nationalistic Commons, to whom all foreigners were “strangers” and therefore suspect, he was at best pursuing personal aggrandizement and at worst a traitor.

  This would not have mattered so much had not John become the chief influence over the King. Because of Edward III’s escalating physical and mental decline, the Black Prince’s infirmity, and the death of Lionel of Antwerp in 1368, John was now the most important and powerful man in the realm. It was to him that men looked for political leadership, at a time when England’s great victories against the French were long past and the war was going disastrously. There were frequent enemy raids on the south coast and consequent disruptions to trade, while a population ravaged by plague was increasingly burdened with the crippling taxes needed to pay for the war. At the same time, Edward III’s once brilliant court was degenerating into corruption. It would not be long before both Lords and Commons looked about them for a scapegoat and pointed a finger at John of Gaunt. Hence he would become widely hated throughout the kingdom, which would ultimately have repercussions for Katherine herself.

  John’s unpopularity was unfairly linked in the public mind to that of the King’s mistress, Alice Perrers, the married daughter of a Hertfordshire knight, who was now queening it over the court. Edward had first taken her to his bed perhaps as early as 1364, when she was one of Queen Philippa’s damoiselles, and soon, despite her not being beautiful and lacking a good figure,56 “Alice had been preferred in the King’s love before the Queen.” Since Philippa’s death, Alice had gained ascendancy over her royal lover, who was now descending into a childlike dotage and was rarely seen in public; claims that his decline resulted from the gonorrhea with which she had infected him have never been substantiated. She bore her royal lover a son and two daughters, and over the years wheedled out of him jewelery worth at least £375 (£105,723), an annuity of £100 (£28,193), twenty- two manors, land in seventeen counties, and a London town house.57 It is not surprising therefore that she has been seen as the model for the acquisitive and corrupt Lady Meed in William Langland’s poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman:

  I… was ware of a woman, wonderfully clad,

  Her robe fur- edged, the finest on Earth,

  Crowned with a crown, the King hath no better,

  Fairly her fingers were fretted with rings,

  And in the rings red rubies, as red as a furnace,

  And diamonds of dearest price, and double sapphires,

  Sapphires and beryls, poison to destroy.

  Her rich robe of scarlet dye,

  Her ribbons set with gold, red gold, rare stones;

  Her array ravished me: such riches saw I never.

  By 1372, Alice’s reputation was notorious; she was shameless, rapacious, and ruthless, and exploited to the full her dominance over the senile King. She persuaded him to let her wear the queen consort’s jewels, presided with him over a tournament in Smithfield, decked out as the “Lady of the Sun,” controlled the flow of royal patronage to the benefit of her favorites, and caused outrage by overseeing the proceedings at the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall from the sovereign’s marble throne, intervening to secure favorable judgments for her friends. “This Lady Alice de Perrers had such power and eminence that no one dared prosecute a claim against her.” The public were scandalized, and some accused Alice of using witchcraft to achieve her aims, as they were one day to accuse Katherine Swynford. “It is not fitting or safe that all the keys should hang from the belt of one woman,” fulminated Thomas Brinton, Bishop of Rochester, while Thomas Walsing-ham castigated Alice as “a shameless doxy,” “an infamous whore,” and “a thoroughly bad influence.” Alice’s career illustrates just how influential—and ruinous to a prince’s reputation—a royal mistress could be, a salutary lesson from which Katherine Swynford’s conduct when she herself came to be a royal mistress suggests she had learned much.

  Before Alice Perrers, the mistresses of English kings had made only fleeting appearances in history. Their names are more often than not the stuff of legend or passing references in official documents, and none was particularly influential. Even fair Rosamund de Clifford, for whom Henry II planned to divorce Eleanor of Aquitaine in the twelfth century, played a passive role. Prior to the fourteenth century, such women lived obscure lives, enjoying brief liaisons with monarchs, bearing royal bastards, and occasionally meriting a mention in a chronicle.

  But Alice Perrers broke the mold. With Edward III’s blessing and the backing of her allies—William, Lord Latimer, John, Lord Neville of Raby, and the powerful London financier, Richard Lyons—she controlled not only access to the King, but also the flow of royal patronage, and thus secured for herself a position of the greatest influence. John of Gaunt may not have liked her, but along with many other eminent figures of the day, including the Pope himself, he respected her abilities and tolerated her for his father’s sake—indeed, he was later to protest that he was powerless in the face of her hold over the King—and in May 1373 we find her serving Duchess Constance alongside Philippa Chaucer at the Savoy, and receiving gifts from the duke.58

  On February 10, 1372, Constance made her state entry into London and was formally welcomed as Queen of Castile by the Black Prince, who had risen from his sickbed and struggled onto a horse for the occasion. He was accompanied by “several lords and knights, the Mayor of London, and a great number of the Commons, well- dressed and nobly mounted,” who conducted the new duchess “through London in a great and solemn procession. In Cheapside were assembled many gentlemen with their wives and daughters to look at the beauty of the young lady.” This statement suggests that Constance’s physical charms were already renowned.59 “The procession passed in good order along to the Savoy,” where John of Gaunt was waiting to greet his wife.60 The Black Prince’s welcome gift to his sister- in-law was a golden brooch or pendant depicting St. George, adorned with sapphires, diamonds, and pearls, while the King presented her with a golden crown set with diamonds and pearls. 61

  Soon afterward, Constance took up residenc
e at Hertford Castle, where her three Lancastrian stepchildren were sent to join her; in 1372 they shared a common chamber, or household, for which their father allocated 300 marks (£33,471) annually to cover their expenditure. Henceforth, they would be attended and attired as befit the children of a king. 62 The appointment of Alyne Gerberge as a damoiselle to Constance 63 suggests that she was still looking after Philippa of Lancaster. By now Katherine Swynford and Philippa Chaucer were probably also part of the duchess’s household, and both are likely to have had their children with them. Once again Katherine’s duties probably involved helping to care for the ducal children, who must have known her well, and had perhaps welcomed her back warmly.

  In March and April 1372, John of Gaunt made a generous settlement on his wife, assigning her 1,000 marks (£111,569) per annum for the expenses of her wardrobe and chamber. He also presented her with costly gifts: rich furs, lengths of cloth of gold, nearly four thousand loose pearls (probably for embellishing her gowns and making buttons), a small circlet of gold encrusted with emeralds and balas rubies, a golden filet set with four balas rubies, and twenty- one pearls set in gold rubies. All were delivered by the Clerk of the Wardrobe to Alyne Gerberge.64

  This was no more than any royal duke would be expected to do for his bride. But John’s generosity might have been prompted by his conscience, for despite his recent marriage, he had taken a mistress: On May 1, 1372, at the Savoy, he gave Katherine Swynford the handsome sum of £10 (£3,347), his first recorded gift to her.65 This and other evidence strongly suggests that the love affair that was to change the course of English history had begun.

  We do not know for certain when John and Katherine became lovers, but their affair had certainly begun by the late spring of 1372. In determining the date of birth of John Beaufort, the first of the children born to them, we may also discover the likeliest date for the commencement of their relationship. According to the grant of an annuity made to him by Richard II on June 7, 1392, John Beaufort was then in his twenty- first year;66 thus, he was supposedly born between June 1371 and June 1372. But the dates are problematical. John of Gaunt went to Aquitaine in late June 1370, and did not return until November 1371. To have been born within the stated period, John Beaufort had to be conceived between September 1370 and September 1371; however, his father was abroad for the whole of that period, and in September 1371 he married Constance of Castile.

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