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


  On August 31, John sailed for Gascony with his father the King and the Black Prince, for both of whom this would be their last military adventure; and for Katherine and John, the first of many partings occasioned by the war. The expedition was a disaster, with ships smashed or blown off course by contrary winds and gales and many lives lost, and after two hellish storm-tossed months in the Channel, the remains of the fleet limped home, having accomplished nothing.

  During John’s absence, Katherine would have been preparing for her coming confinement. Her baby probably arrived in the winter of 1372-73;95by this reckoning, John Beaufort’s age, as given in Richard IIs grant of 1392, must be inaccurate. In which case, if Constance gave birth in the summer of 1372, Katherine’s pregnancy would not then have been apparent; she had probably left the duchess’s household soon afterward and returned to Ket-tlethorpe. Her child was perhaps born there. The delivery of oaks in June 1372, on the duke’s orders, might have been intended for the refurbishment of the manor house, to make it a fit place in which Katherine could bear or rear his child; if the calculations above are correct, it was around June that her pregnancy became a certainty. It is possible, though, that Katherine actually gave birth to this son in Lincoln, and that he was the child for whose baptism in February 1373 rich cloths were provided.

  In childbed, Katherine succeeded where Constance had failed, for she had borne a son, a boy who would be known as John Beaufort of Lancaster;96 named John for his father, with whom he was always to be “a great favourite,”97 and Beaufort after the lordship of Beaufort in Champagne, once held by the duke as part of his Lancastrian inheritance.98 In 1369, John of Gaunt had lost Beaufort to the French through the treachery of one of his vassals,99 thus it was a safe name to give to his bastard son by Katherine Swynford: It was a name associated with the duke, yet the lordship was no longer part of—and could not therefore prejudice—the inheritance he would leave his lawful heir.100 It was often claimed101 that John’s children by Katherine Swynford were born at Beaufort Castle, but that would not have been possible, for he had sold it years before, and never visited it anyway.102

  John Beaufort’s early years were probably spent at Kettlethorpe. The pattern of the duke’s grants to Katherine, some of them concerning its refurbishment, some of them handsome gifts, may indicate the dates of birth of their other children, and certainly suggests that the manor was being made a fit place for them to be brought up in. Kettlethorpe was a remote village with a tiny population, an ideal setting for discreet confinements and the raising of royal bastards whose existence was better kept secret—for the present.

  Certainly the lovers were discreet, at least to begin with—had they not been, the world would soon have known of their affair, and we would not have to rely on inference and speculation in determining the circumstances in which it began. Costain argues that it was Katherine who insisted on secrecy in the early years of the liaison—she was, after all, newly widowed— but there were political imperatives to be considered too: John would not have wished to openly dishonor his new wife when all his hopes were centered on claiming the crown of Castile in her right. Thus, the need for discretion was probably mutual, and it ensured that for some years to come his affair with Katherine was conducted in secrecy and with great circumspection.

  FIVE

  Blinded by Desire

  The love and friendship between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford was to endure for more than a quarter of a century. For great lords, marriage was normally a political affair and love a private one.1 The Church and the public at large might frown on extramarital liaisons, but they were an accepted part of aristocratic life, given that love rarely followed marriage. Because John’s liaison with Katherine was to last so long, many people in court circles must have come to regard it as unremarkable. In the meantime, John would treat his young wife with respect and courtesy, for she was his duchess and a queen in her own right; but clearly his heart was Katherine’s, and would probably remain so until death.

  It was quite permissible, in a world in which courtly love held sway over relationships between the sexes, for a man like John of Gaunt to pay open court to a lady who was not his wife. But Katherine was a widow, who for the first year of her widowhood was expected to be unattainable; she was of far lower degree than he, for all that she might have been distantly related, and had nothing more than herself to offer him; and John was a newly married man. Yet where Katherine was concerned, he seems to have been unable to restrain his passion: “He was blinded by desire, fearing neither God nor shame amongst men.”2 Was Chaucer thinking of his sister- in- law and John of Gaunt in the 1380s, when he wrote, “You wise ones, proud ones, worthy ones and all, never scorn love… For love can lay his hands on every creature … The strongest men are overcome, and those most notable and highest in degree.”3 John’s younger brother, Thomas of Woodstock, would later put it more succinctly, calling him (says Froissart) a “doting fool” for loving Katherine Swynford so utterly and so enduringly.

  Yet, sadly for those romantics who would prefer to believe that the duke stayed true to Katherine within the limits of their adulterous relationship, there is some evidence that he had fleeting sexual encounters with other women during the course of it. In 1381 he was publicly to confess that he had committed the sin of lechery with Katherine herself “and many others in his wife’s household.”4 Certainly this reputation for lechery endured. Francis Thynne, Lancaster Herald under Elizabeth I, and a commentator on Thomas Speght’s edition of Chaucer,5 asserted that John of Gaunt “had many paramours in his youth, and was not very continent in his age.” In The Boke of the Duchesse, on which Thynne must have based his assertion, Chaucer has John recalling that from his youth he had “paid tribute as a devotee to love, most unrestrainedly, and joyfully become his thrall, with willing body, heart and all.” When contemporary chroniclers spoke of the duke as a lecher and “great fornicator,” they may not have been commenting solely on his liaison with Katherine Swynford, as is often claimed. Then there is some fifteenth- century evidence that John died of a venereal disease, which—if true—he is unlikely to have contracted as a result of long years of fidelity to the same mistress.6 Even if this evidence is unsound, the fact that the allegation was made at all is proof that, forty years after his death, the charges of promiscuity were remembered and believable.

  In his confession of 1381, John’s reference to “his wife” can only be to Constance; there is no evidence that he was unfaithful to Blanche, although it is of course possible. Thynne and Chaucer were obviously referring to John’s early amorous encounters. Today, we know only of his affair with Marie de St. Hilaire, but there were seemingly others; possibly the occasional grants to various ladies in the Register are rewards for favors bestowed. Thynne’s comment about John not being continent in his age probably refers to his notorious relationship with Katherine Swynford. But the duke’s own confession, and Chaucer’s portrayal of him as a man who unrestrainedly pursued sexual pleasure, suggest that he found it hard to remain physically faithful. During the years of his affair with Katherine, they were often apart, and he would have had many opportunities for straying. His taking many women of his wife’s household to bed supports the theory that he and Constance did not enjoy a satisfying conjugal relationship—they had just two, possibly three, children in twenty- three years—and suggests that on his visits to her, he often abstained from her bed and assuaged his needs elsewhere. For great lords, such casual dalliance was easy, and many regarded it as their privilege; in aristocratic society, these things were accepted. Fidelity and the pursuit of the courtly ideal were conceits that masked the indulgence of lust. And probably John’s amours were fleeting and purely physical—and made no impact on his obviously deep feelings for Katherine Swynford.

  Katherine may only have found out about these casual affairs in 1381, after John made his public confession. Throughout their years together, he appears to have treated her with dignity, discretion, and generosity, and perhaps
never admitted to what he considered to be insignificant lapses.

  The medieval Church, however, essentially regarded all sexual acts as potentially sinful, following St. Augustine, who wrote: “There is nothing that degrades the manly spirit more than the attractiveness of females and contact with their bodies.” St. Paul’s dictum, “It is better to marry than to burn,” implied that celibacy was the ideal state. Even within marriage, sex was meant to be only for the purpose of procreation: According to the ascetic St. Jerome, a man and wife who indulged in carnal lust for pleasure were no better than adulterers, for “in truth, all love is disgraceful, and with regard to one’s own wife, excessive love is. The wise man must love his wife with judgment, not with passion. Let him curb his transports of voluptuousness, and not let himself be urged precipitately to indulge in coition. Nothing is more vile than to love a wife like a mistress.” Certain sexual positions were forbidden, as were masturbation and coitus interruptus, and those found guilty of indulging in oral sex might incur a penance lasting three years. You could not make love on Sundays, holy days, or saints’ days, or during Lent, pregnancy, or menstruation. For the devout, married life must have been a continual battle with temptation.

  There was therefore no hope that the Church would ever officially look upon the adulterous relationship of John and Katherine with anything other than disapproval; each would have been regarded as equally guilty, and irrevocably damned.

  In practice, however, attitudes were more lax. By the fourteenth century the promiscuity of the clergy had become a byword, and many in holy orders took a relaxed and worldly view of immorality. Whereas in the thirteenth century adulterers had been publicly whipped, they were now more likely to be forced to do public penance, going in procession to church wearing just a sheet and carrying a candle. But no one ever called for the mighty Duke of Lancaster and his mistress to be punished in such a humiliating way.

  The laity were generally tolerant of sexual license, albeit in men, blaming it on the frailty and insatiability of women. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron reveal just how licentious fourteenth- century society was, and how relaxed with regard to fornication. The aristocracy were sophisticated to a degree in their attitudes to sex outside marriage: It was accepted that titled men took mistresses or had casual sexual encounters. The royal court, as we have seen, was a hotbed of promiscuity, due to the financial inability of many young knights or gentlemen to marry. But where the wives and daughters of the nobility were concerned, chastity was the order of the day, for dynastic bloodlines and inheritances had to be protected, and soiled goods were of little value in the marriage market. Thus, the purity of noblewomen was jealously guarded. Females of lower rank were considered fair game and more responsive than their betters, and any gently born woman who so far forgot herself as to have an affair outside wedlock usually lost her reputation irrevocably. It is easy to see, therefore, why Katherine Swynford was so bitterly disparaged in the monastic chronicles.

  When it came to bastardy, the world could be a cruel place. A bastard could not officially inherit lands or titles, nor obtain preferment in the Church. Yet these barriers could be circumvented by bequeathing property or by dispensations, and when it came to the aristocracy, much could be gained from a sympathetic monarch. Moreover, being the bastard child of a great lord conferred nobility, inspired deference, and entitled one to bear the paternal arms differenced with a bend sinister denoting illegitimacy. The infant John Beaufort’s arms were the leopards and lilies of England on a bend, mounted on a shield of blue and white, the Lancastrian colors. Fathers were seen as having a duty to provide equally for their legitimate and illegitimate children.7

  Katherine must have embarked upon her affair with John of Gaunt knowing exactly what she was doing and aware of the risks she was taking and the penalties that society could impose. That she chose to be his mistress in light of this knowledge suggests that she loved him enough for the consequences not to matter, and that this and the protection, security, and benefits such a relationship could afford her were not only welcome to her, but of more importance than the stigma attached to being a partner in adultery and losing her reputation.

  Much of what we know of Katherine Swynford’s years as John of Gaunt’s mistress is recorded in John of Gaunt’s Register, which survives for the periods 1372-76 and 1379-83. This covers much of the period in question, although three vital years are missing, as are the years following their parting. These missing records would surely have contained more clues to the truth of the relationship between Katherine and John, so their loss is only to be lamented. Nevertheless, as will shortly become clear, there is much that can be inferred from the information that has come down to us.

  John of Gaunt spent Christmas of 1372 at Hertford Castle with Constance. Game from Ashdown Forest in Sussex and five dozen rabbits from Aldbourne were delivered there for the Christmas feasts, while the duke’s valet brought him cloth of gold, furs, silk, and linen from his wardrobe at the Savoy.8 On Christmas Eve, Alyne Gerberge was dispatched to the Savoy to collect some jewels and precious stones that the duke intended to give as New Year gifts, as well as jewels given by Edward III and the Black Prince to Duchess Constance, who doubtless wanted to wear them during the festive season. It is tempting to speculate that some of the other jewels were intended as presents for Katherine Swynford, whose New Year gifts from her royal lover were almost never recorded in his Register. Her presents were probably paid for out of the large sums of money the duke frequently arranged to be “given into my own hands for my own secret business.”9 Philippa Chaucer’s gifts were recorded, however, and at this New Year of 1373 she received six silver- gilt buttons attached to an embroidered strip of fabric called a “buttoner,”10 which indicates that, after less than a year in Constance’s service, she had become highly regarded by both the duke and duchess. Her life would now have been centered mainly upon the Lancastrian household, which was as well, because royal duties were keeping her and her husband increasingly apart: Chaucer was in Italy at this time on official business, and would not return until the following May.

  John was still at Hertford on January 10, 1373, but soon afterward he moved to the Savoy, where he remained until June, apart from a brief visit to Hertford in early February to celebrate the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary with his wife.11 Katherine Swynford, meanwhile, had given birth to John’s child, but was probably back at the Savoy by March 31, for it was on that date that Edward III rewarded her for bringing news of Catalina of Lancaster’s birth to him the previous year.

  Writing after 1378, the chronicler Knighton describes Katherine as being in Duchess Constance’s household. Certainly she would have been there from time to time, but probably not as a lady- in- waiting, for none of the many grants to her by the duke would be made in consideration of her good service to his second wife, although several were awarded in regard to her devotion to his first. Instead, John had found another post for Katherine that would facilitate her being near him as often as possible, and be eminently suited to her character and talents. He appointed her magistra— which means mistress, directress, leader, or, more loosely, governess—to his daughters: Philippa, now thirteen; Elizabeth, ten; and perhaps to his six-year- old heir Henry too, until a governor was appointed for the boy in 1374. Effectively, Blanche’s children would now have two stepmothers—Duchess Constance and Katherine Swynford, who was mistress in different senses to them and their father.

  We do not know the exact date on which Katherine was appointed governess, and it has been suggested that she had fulfilled this role while in Blanche of Lancaster’s household. But she would have been quite young at that time and frequently pregnant; moreover, continuity would have been an important factor, and there is no evidence to show that she was employed by the duke between 1368 and 1372, when it appears that others were caring for the ducal daughters. An undated letter of ca. 1376 from a woman called Maud to John of Gaunt identifies Maud as a former nurse to
young Philippa,12 and in 1370, Alyne Gerberge was rewarded with a lifetime annuity for caring for Philippa in the aftermath of Blanche’s death. In November 1371 we find that Lady Wake was serving as governess to all three of the Duke’s children.13 But she would not have been able to remain in the post of governess for long because she was preoccupied with bearing her husband a dozen children throughout the 1370s and 1380s. So by 1373 there was definitely a vacancy to be filled.

  Katherine had the requisite skills and experience, and certainly helped to look after Blanche’s children during their mother’s lifetime, a factor that John must have taken into account when choosing her as his daughters’ governess, because in everything that mattered, she was going to be a mother to them. John’s children were still sharing a joint household in 1372,14 so the likeliest date for Katherine’s preferment was after the birth of John Beaufort, around the spring of 1373. It may be that the children had been looked after in the interim by the damoiselle Amy de Melbourne, who was rewarded in 1375 by John of Gaunt for her care of them, or that Amy was an assistant to both Lady Wake and Katherine Swynford. From 1372, Amy and Alyne Gerberge were entrusted to look after the jewel coffers of the duke’s womenfolk, and Alyne was then not only caring for Philippa, but also dressing Duchess Constance’s hair and setting her coronet in place. We know that the duke thought highly of Amy because he sent her a pipe of wine each Christmas from 1372 on.15

  Katherine’s appointment as governess was timely, because John was traveling abroad and expected to be away for some time. The war was going catastrophically, and England needed to intervene quickly, otherwise Aquitaine—that precious jewel in the Plantagenet crown—would be irrevocably lost. On March 1, 1373, John had begun to gather an army, having sealed an indenture to go campaigning in France for a year. By then Katherine must have faced up to the painful fact that the demands of his position, and the likely necessity for her to spend long periods in the country discreetly bearing his children, might mean that they would often be apart.

 
Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]