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


  It could be conjectured that Katherine joined Hugh Swynford overseas, once it was known that he expected to be in Aquitaine for some time, and that the attraction between her and John of Gaunt flourished in the south of France. But that is an unlikely scenario. The wives of soldiers rarely accompanied them abroad; only laundresses and prostitutes followed armies, and any other woman who did so was putting her reputation at risk. And Katherine was the wife of a landed knight, however poor; her task during his absence was to oversee his estates in England and rear their young family.67

  Even if Katherine had been in Aquitaine with Hugh, there is virtually watertight evidence that her affair with John did not begin until after she was widowed. In John and Katherine’s petition to the Pope of September 1, 1396, they asserted that sometime after John had stood godfather to Katherine’s daughter, “the same Duke John adulterously knew the same Katherine, she being free of wedlock [author’s italics], but with marriage still existing between the same Duke John and [his wife] Constance, and begot offspring of her.”68 The compelling reasons for accepting the statements in this letter as the truth have been previously stated, and therefore we must accept that Katherine was no longer married to Hugh when she became John’s mistress and conceived a child by him, although he was already married to Constance. 69

  That means they could not have become lovers until November 1371 at the earliest, and makes nonsense of claims that they had begun their affair in the lifetime of Duchess Blanche,70 and of Froissart’s assertions that Katherine “had been mistress of the duke both before and after his marriage with the Princess Constance” and while Hugh Swynford was alive. “Both during and after the knight’s lifetime [he claims] Duke John of Lancaster had always loved and maintained this Lady Katherine.” Since Froissart incorrectly states in the same passage that John and Katherine had three children, not four, his sources can hardly have been reliable.71 He was, after all, writing long after these events.

  John and Katherine’s statement to the Pope also exposes as blatant propaganda Richard III’s proclamation of 1485, which was designed to impugn the claim to the throne of his rival, Henry Tudor, who was descended from John of Gaunt through John Beaufort: Richard asserted that Henry “was descended of bastard blood both of the father’s side and of the mother’s side … His mother was daughter unto John [Beaufort], Duke of Somerset, son unto John [Beaufort], Earl of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of her in double [author’s italics] adultery begotten, whereby it evidently appeareth that no title can or may be in him.”72 Richard conveniently ignored the fact that he himself was descended from John of Gaunt through Katherine Swynford.

  It is very unlikely that Katherine was at the Savoy when John returned there in November 1371. It is more probable that she came to his remembrance when he heard of the death of Hugh Swynford, which was perhaps what prompted him to find a place for her in his new wife’s household. It was quite possible that the news of Hugh’s death reached England in little over two weeks—in 1386 it took John of Gaunt sixteen days to sail from England to Spain. The duke must have heard of it by late January, when he was back at the Savoy and probably engaged in assembling a household for his wife, ready for her arrival in London. Since Hugh was his retainer and vassal, John would have naturally taken an interest in his widow and dependants, and the disposal of his estates, and it would have been quite legitimate for Katherine to inform him of the dire financial straits in which she now found herself, and appeal to him for aid.

  He had probably not seen Katherine for about three years, and maturity and vulnerability may have made her appear more beautiful and alluring; for him, she must have had too those indefinable qualities known as charm and sex appeal. Was it her fair Hainaulter beauty that appealed to him? Did it remind him of the “full feminine visage” of his mother, Queen Philippa, or the white- blond rounded loveliness of his late wife Blanche, or the charms of Marie de St. Hilaire, another Hainaulter? If these are indicative of John’s taste in women, then the theory that Katherine herself was fair and voluptuous appears even more credible. Certainly for John, Katherine’s extraordinary beauty eclipsed the charms of Constance. But even if the first attraction was physical, the enduring nature of his love for her must have been rooted in far more than beauty and sex, for she was intelligent, cultivated, and accomplished, and could thus share in his sophisticated tastes and interests. Theirs must have been what Shakespeare later called “a marriage of true minds.”

  Much of what Katherine saw in John is obvious: He was royal, authoritative, and powerful, a heady and sexy combination, especially when combined with aristocratic good looks, a tall, lean, and muscular body, a cultivated mind and attractive personality. More than that, he was a man who knew about love, and who had been brought up to treat women chivalrously and with respect.

  John had not found love with his bride. There is no way of knowing whether they were incompatible from the start, or if Katherine’s appearance in his life so early in the marriage put paid to any chance of him growing closer to Constance. For despite its auspicious beginnings, John’s second marriage appears never to have been particularly happy. There is no evidence of any real love or affection between him and his wife, just mutual courtesy and respect, and although Constance was beautiful, she does not seem to have inspired any passion in her husband. In fact, the young duchess, far from dwelling on thoughts of love, was more probably consumed with a deep hatred for the usurper who had murdered her father and seized his throne,73 and apparently saw her husband chiefly as a means of regaining it. It does not seem that she made much attempt to integrate in England, and was rarely at court; in her youth she had led a narrow, miserable existence, and even after her marriage, although she kept regal state, she preferred to live in seclusion with her Castilian ladies in the Spanish manner, residing mainly at the duke’s magnificent castles at Hertford and Tutbury,74 biding her time until she could return to her native Castile.75 Perhaps she found the English climate uncongenial or the people strange and unintelligible. Communication with her husband was probably inhibited by the fact that she spoke little English and he only limited Castilian: Seventeen years after their marriage, he had difficulty in following an oration in that language.76 Not that they would have had much in common, apart from Castile, for unlike Katherine, Constance was more pious than accomplished. All John seems to have shared with her was a burning ambition to regain her throne, and thus he would often defer to her judgment when it came to Castilian affairs. In every other respect he belonged to Katherine Swynford.

  Katherine, in contrast, had a shared history with the duke; having lived in his household for many years, in attendance on his wife and children, she probably knew him quite well, and she had witnessed his devotion to Blanche, whom she herself seems to have loved and revered. Possibly the recall of those happy times created a shared bond between Katherine and John; each had memories to treasure, and the poignant remembrance of grief. But it was now more than three years since Blanche’s death, long enough for her widower to have recovered sufficiently to love again.

  John’s early experience of love and his happy first marriage would have awakened him to the joy in sharing his private life with a responsive woman, and we may see his need for Katherine as a tribute to Blanche, and perhaps an attempt to recreate the idyllic domestic joys of his youth. And the fact that Katherine was a Hainaulter, and possibly a distant relative, was probably an added bond: John himself was half Hainaulter through his mother, and throughout his life was to demonstrate that affinity by showing friendship to the Low Countries.

  The most probable theory is that Katherine and John became lovers soon after she moved into Constance’s household in the spring of 1372, when he was thirty- two and she about ten years younger and helping to look after his children. In this context, Armitage- Smith’s delightfully Edwardian suggestion that the duke’s visits to the nursery facilitated a rapidly growing intimacy may be accurate. The speed with which the supposedly grieving widow fel
l into John’s bed suggests that her marriage had never been much more than a convenient arrangement, and that her sorrow for Hugh did not run deep. After all, she had not seen him during the sixteen months before his death, during which time she might well have grown used to living without him. And we might also wonder if Katherine had for years cherished a secret, unvoiced desire for John.

  After his grant of May 1, 1372, there is further evidence of John’s interest in “our very dear damoiselle Katherine de Swynford,” and his concern for her financial problems, a concern far in excess of the usual consideration shown by an overlord to the widow of one of his knights. On May 15, 1372, again at the Savoy, he generously increased her permanent annuity from the Duchy of Lancaster (which originally must have been awarded during or after her years in Blanche’s household) from 20 marks (£2,231) to 50 (£5,578), on account of “the good and agreeable service she has given to our dear companion [Blanche], whom God pardon, and for the very great affection that our said companion had for the said Katherine.”77

  When a vassal died leaving an underaged heir and a widow provided with a dower, his estates and property were normally taken into the hands of his overlord, who would then administer them as he thought fit until the heir attained his majority;78 the wardship of that heir was assigned or sold to the person designated to raise him, and such arrangements could be very profitable for all concerned. Sir Hugh Swynford’s estates had therefore reverted for the time being to the King and the Duke of Lancaster, but— unusually—both now broke with custom and acted swiftly to ameliorate Katherine’s financial plight.

  On June 8, Edward III stepped in, doubtless at John’s behest, and ordered his escheator to assign Katherine her dower, on condition that she swore an oath not to marry without the King’s license; that dower was formally assigned on June 26, after she took that oath.79 By this means she gained control of Kettlethorpe during the minority of her son. On June 20, at the Savoy, again on account of the “good and agreeable service” she had rendered to Blanche, John granted “our well- loved Lady Katherine” wardship of all the lands and tenements that her late husband had held of the Honor of Richmond in Lincolnshire, “which is now held of us because of the minority of Thomas, son and heir of the said Sir Hugh.” Katherine was “to have and hold” these lands “with all the profits appertaining to them from us and our heirs till the full age of the said heir, with nothing to render to us or our heirs.” The only exceptions were the marriage fee due when Thomas took a wife and “what is due to the Church,” which refers to Hugh’s two ad-vowsons, the right to appoint priests to the churches of Kettlethorpe and Coleby.80 Thus Katherine gained control of one- third of the manor of Coleby.

  On June 23, John made Katherine a further gift of three bucks, which he had probably killed himself while hunting near Hertford, and on June 28 he ordered that she be provided with oaks from his estates, presumably so she could undertake building repairs and improvements at Kettlethorpe.81

  The Inquisition Postmortem on Sir Hugh Swynford was taken soon after April 25, 1372, at Navenby, nine miles south of Lincoln, and on June 24 in Lincoln itself.82 Thomas Swynford, “aged four years and more,” was recognized as his father’s heir, but Kettlethorpe and Coleby were still in a poor state and worth little or nothing.83 Again Edward III and John of Gaunt came to Katherine’s rescue. On September 12, 1372, in return for a fee of £20 (£6,694) to be paid at the Exchequer, the King granted Katherine the remaining two- thirds of the manor of Coleby, and the marriage of her son until such time as he reached twenty- one.84

  Thanks to his influence over his father the King, and through his own generosity, John had provided handsomely for Katherine, ensuring her rights to the control of Hugh’s estates and the disposition and upbringing of her son, and by granting her a substantial annuity. The bountiful care and consideration shown to her by John of Gaunt and the King, and the speed with which her affairs were settled, is proof that she was very highly regarded in royal circles, and is also indicative of her being in regular contact with the duke, as a member of his household and, indeed, probably much more than that. Ever a man to take his responsibilities seriously, John had done his best to ensure that she and her children did not suffer want, but there was more to his generosity than this: By the summer of 1372, Katherine was almost certainly expecting his child, and he no doubt wished to provide handsomely for them both.

  Katherine was not the only woman who was to bear the duke an infant:,Duchess Constance was also pregnant, and on June 6, at the Savoy, her husband sent orders to Sir William de Chiselden, his receiver of Leicester, to send for “Elyot the wise woman” (“wise woman” being a common term for a midwife) to attend “our well- loved companion the Queen” at Hertford Castle “with all the haste that in any manner you can.”85 Elyot had delivered one or more of Blanche of Lancaster’s babies—John mentions in 1372 that she had attended “our dearly loved companion, whom God keep in His command;” his reference to “our well- beloved Elyot, midwife of Leicester,” and the payment of an annuity to “Eleyne, midwife” (who must be the same person) out of the revenues of Leicester in 1377-7886 suggest he had enduring confidence in her, for she was also to assist during at least one of Katherine Swynford’s confinements.87

  John had sent to Chiselden his “well- loved esquire” John Raynald, “who will inform you fully of this matter” and who was to accompany Elyot to Hertford. Considerately, John stipulated that Chiselden was to order for her journey “a chariot or a horse or any other manner that seems best to you for her ease.”88 The urgency implied in the duke’s commands suggests that the birth of Constance’s child was reasonably imminent—he would have had to allow a week or more for his orders to reach Leicester and for Elyot to travel to Hertford—and that this pregnancy had resulted from the bride conceiving soon after her marriage in September. This would account for her remaining in Devon and Dorset from November to February, at that stage of pregnancy when morning sickness and debility are at their most troublesome. The date of her child’s birth is not recorded, and since it was not until March 31, 1373, that Edward III rewarded Katherine Swynford with 20 marks (£2,231) for bringing news of it to him,89 several historians are of the opinion that the birth occurred nearer to that date. However, given the other circumstances, the fact that months could elapse before royal rewards were actually paid or recorded, and the delay in payment perhaps accounted for by Katherine’s absence from the Lancastrian household for some time due to her own pregnancy, it is more likely that Constance’s child was born in the summer of 1372 at Hertford Castle. Gifts of wine were sent to Hertford that summer, and the duke was there on July 7, probably to see his new child.90

  Disappointingly—for the royal parents were doubtless anxious for a boy to inherit the crown that John meant to wrest from Enrique of Trastamara— the baby was a girl. She was named Katherine—or Catalina, as her mother called her, and as she would one day be known in Castile—and styled Katherine d’Espaigne. Her Christian name had never been used by the Castilian royal family, and was rare in the House of Plantagenet, so one is tempted to wonder if John of Gaunt chose it, and why. Was the choice prompted by Katherine Swynford, out of devotion to St. Katherine? Or was John himself so entranced with Katherine that he was blind to the implications of using her beloved name for the child his wife had borne him? Of course, the choice of name may have sprung from some other association entirely: St. Katherine may have been one of Constance’s favorite saints, as well as John’s.

  Katherine’s conveyance of the news of Catalinas birth to the King suggests that she was in attendance; having borne at least four children of her own at a young age, she would have been able to reassure and support Constance through her ordeal. But as soon as her own pregnancy became obvious, a pregnancy that could not have been her husband’s doing, she was obliged to resign her post and return to Kettlethorpe.

  The war with France was not going well at this time. The French were making inroads into Aquitaine and attacking Brittany. I
n June, at Hertford, in order to retain the friendship of a valuable ally against France, John surrendered the earldom of Richmond to John de Montfort, Duke of Brittany, in whose family it had previously been for centuries, receiving other lands in exchange. That same month, Edward III resolved on a naval offensive against France, whereupon, on July 1, John undertook to serve overseas for a year.

  John was probably at Wallingford Castle on July 11,91 attending the marriage of his younger brother, Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge, to Constance’s younger sister, Isabella of Castile, an alliance that had been arranged by John of Gaunt to bolster England’s links with the future monarchy of Castile and to “save [Isabella] from her enemies.”92 It was also seen as a way of preserving England’s claims to Castile should Constance die in childbirth.93

  On the same day as the wedding of Edmund and Isabella, John of Gaunt summoned all his retainers to attend him on the coming campaign, then went north for a few weeks’ hunting in Leicester Forest before joining his army at Sandwich before August 18.94 There, on August 30, he granted the annuity to Philippa Chaucer in recognition of her past and future services to Duchess Constance. We might conclude that Philippa had been instrumental in helping her young mistress to settle in a strange land, and perhaps assisted her during her pregnancy and confinement and was helping to look after her baby; and we might wonder if John’s grant to her was at Katherine’s behest.

 
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