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


  That Katherine shared a close kinship with the lords of Roeulx is doubtful on heraldic evidence alone—or the lack of it.3 Her family was relatively humble. The chronicler Jean Froissart, a native of Hainault, who appears to have been quite well informed on Katherine Swynford’s background, states that Jean de Roët, who died in 1305 and was the son of one Huon de Roët, was her grandfather. Neither bore a title. Yet it is possible that there was some blood tie with the Roeulx. Paon de Roët, the father of Katherine Swynford, whose name appears in English sources as Payn or Payne,4 and is pronounced “Pan,” was almost certainly baptized Gilles, a name borne by several members of the senior line of the Roeulx, which is one reason some historians have linked him to this branch of the family.5 Of course, the similarity in surnames suggests a connection—in that period, the spellings of Roeulx and Roët could be, and were, interchangeable—as does the fact that both families are known to have had connections with the area around Mons and Le Roeulx. But discrepancies in arms would appear to indicate that Paon was at best a member of a junior branch of the House of Roeulx; all the same, it is possible that the royal blood of Charlemagne and Alfred the Great did indeed run in Katherine’s veins.

  The arms of the town of Le Roeulx were a silver lion on a green field holding a wheel in its paw;6 this is a play on words, for “wheel” in French is roue, which is similar to, and symbolic of, Roeulx. It was a theme adopted by Paon’s own family: His arms were three plain silver wheels on a field of red; they were not the spiked- gold Katherine wheels later used by his daughter.7On the evidence of heraldic emblems on the vestments given by her to Lincoln Cathedral, Katherine Swynford used not only her familiar device of Katherine wheels, which she adopted after 1396, but also her father’s device of three plain silver wheels.8

  If Jean de Roët was his father, as seems likely, then Gilles alias Paon was born by 1305-06 at the very latest. Thus he did not marry and father children until comparatively late in life. The references in the Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut to “Gilles de Roët called Paon or Paonnet” imply that the name Paon was almost certainly a nickname, although it was the name by which Gilles became customarily known, and it even appeared on his tomb memorial. In French, paon means “peacock,” which suggests that Paon was a vain man who liked dressing in brightly colored, fashionable clothes, possibly in order to impress the ladies. However, in the form pion, it means “usher,”9 a term that may be descriptive of Paon’s duties at court.10

  John of Gaunt’s epitaph states that Katherine came from “a knightly family,” and Paon’s knighthood is attested to by several sources,11 although we do not know when he received the accolade. In 1349 he is even referred to as a lord, and his daughter Elizabeth as “noble,”12 which reflects his landed status and probably his links to aristocratic blood. This is also evident in his ability to place his children with royalty,13 which suggests—in the case of his daughters, at least—that there was the prospect of some inheritance that would ensure they made good marriages.14 We know Paon held land in Hainault, because in 1411 his grandson, Sir Thomas Swynford, Katherine’s son, was to pursue his claim to lands he had inherited there from his mother.15 Paon is unlikely, however, to have owned a large estate and was probably not a wealthy man16 since he was to rely heavily on royal patronage to provide for his children’s future.

  Paon had first come to England in December 1327 in the train of Philippa of Hainault, who married the young King Edward III on January 24, 1328, in York Minster. Paon perhaps served as Philippa’s usher, and may have been present in that capacity at the royal wedding, which took place in the as yet unroofed minster in the midst of a snowstorm.

  After Philippa’s nuptial celebrations had ended, nearly all her Hain-aulter servants were sent home. Apart from a handful of ladies, only Paon de Roët and Walter de Mauney, her carving squire, are known to have been allowed to remain in her retinue,17 a mark of signal royal favor, which suggests that Paon was highly regarded by both the young king and queen, and was perhaps a kinsman of Philippa, possibly through their shared ancestry.

  That kinship may also have been established, or reinforced, through marriage. No one has as yet successfully identified Katherine’s mother, for the name of Paon’s wife is not recorded in contemporary documents. The slender evidence we have suggests he perhaps married more than once, that his first marriage took place before ca. 1335, and that his four known children, who were born over a period of about fifteen years or more, may have been two sets of half siblings; in which case Katherine was the child of a second wife, whom he possibly married in the mid- late 1340s. We know he maintained links with Hainault, probably through the good offices of Queen Philippa and other members of her house, so it may be that at least one of his wives was a Hainaulter.18

  It is also possible that Katherine’s mother herself was related to the ruling family of Hainault,19 and while this theory cannot be proved, it is credible in many respects. If Paon was linked by marriage, as well as by blood, to Queen Philippa, that would further explain his continuing links with the House of Avesnes and the trust in which he and his family were held by the ruling families of England and Hainault. It would explain too why all his children received royal patronage and why Queen Philippa took such an interest in them; and it was possibly one reason why John of Gaunt may have felt it was appropriate to ultimately marry one of them.

  But there is unlikely to have been a close blood tie.20 If Paon’s wife was related to the House of Avesnes, it must have been through a junior branch or connection. Had the kinship been closer, we would expect Paon to have enjoyed more prominence in the courts of England and Hainault. There have, of course, been other unsubstantiated theories as to who Katherine’s mother could have been,21 but this is the most convincing.

  Whether Paon was related by marriage to Queen Philippa or not, he was evidently held in high regard by her, and he played his part in the early conflicts of the Hundred Years War, which broke out in 1340 after Edward III claimed the throne of France. For a time Paon served Queen Philippa as Master of the House,22 and in 1332 there is a record of her giving money to “Panetto de Roët de Hanonia”;23 this is the earliest surviving reference to him. His lost epitaph in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral describes him as Guienne King of Arms,24 and it may have been through Philippa’s influence that he was appointed to this office in ca. 1334,25 Guienne being part of the Duchy of Aquitaine and a fief of the English Crown.

  By the mid- 1340s, Paon was back in Queen Philippa’s service as “one of the chevaliers of the noble and good Queen.”26 In 1346 he fought at Crécy under Edward III. That same year, “Sir Panetto de Roët” was pres ent at the siege of Calais, and in August 1347 he was Marshal of the Queen’s Household, and one of two of her knights—the other was Sir Walter de Mauney—assigned to conduct to her chamber the six burghers who had given themselves up as hostages after Calais fell to Edward III, and whose lives had been spared thanks to the Queen’s intercession.27

  Philippa, however, never courted criticism by indiscriminately promoting her compatriots, which may explain why Paon, although well thought of and loved by the Queen because he was her countryman,28 never came to greater prominence at the English court29 and why he eventually sought preferment elsewhere.

  By 1349, the year the Black Death was decimating the population of England and much of Europe, Paon had apparently returned to Hainault. From that year on, there are several references to him in the contemporary Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut, the official record of service of the counts of Hainault.30 The first reference concerns a “noble adolescent, Elizabeth de Roët, daughter of my lord Gilles, called Paonnet, de Roët,” who, sometime after July 27, 1349, was nominated as a prebendary, or honorary canoness (chcmoinness),31 of the chapter of the Abbey of St. Waudru in Mons by Queen Philippa’s elder sister, Margaret, sovereign Countess of Hainault and Empress of Germany. The choice of a convent in Mons, so close to the former Roeulx estates, reinforces the theory that Paon was connected to that family and that h
is lands were located in this area.

  Girls were not normally accepted into the novitiate before the age of thirteen, so Elizabeth de Roët, who was described as being “adolescent” at the time of her placement, was probably born around 1335-36 at the latest. St. Waudru was a prestigious and influential abbey, and it was an honor for a girl to be so placed by Countess Margaret; it further demonstrates the close ties between the Roëts and the ruling family of Hainault, and suggests yet again a familial link between them. It was unusual for the eldest girl of a gentle family to enter the cloister, but given the fact that Paon’s daughters were both to offer their own daughters as nuns, we might conclude that giving a female child to God was a Roët family custom.

  Paon also had a son, Walter de Roët, possibly named after Sir Walter de Mauney,32 who in 1355-56 was in the service, in turn, of Countess Margaret and her son, Duke Albert, and Edward III’s eldest son and heir, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, popularly known to history as the “Black Prince.” As Walter was a Yeoman of the Chamber to the Prince in 1355, and probably fought under his command at Poitiers in 1356, he is likely to have been born no later than 1338-40.

  Between 1350 and 1352 there are seven references to Paon in the Cartu-laire des Comtes de Hainaut. For example, on May 11, 1350, he is recorded as preparing to accompany Countess Margaret’s sons—Duke Albert, Duke William, and Duke Otto—on a pilgrimage to the church of St. Martin at Sebourg near Valenciennes to make their devotions at the shrine of the twelfth- century hermit, St. Druon. It was probably in that year that Paon’s famous daughter was born.

  C.L. Kingsford, in his article on Katherine Swynford in th e Diction ary of National Biography, suggested that she w as born in 1 35 0. There is no contemporary record of her date of birth, but since the minimum canonical age at which a girl could be married and have marital intercourse was twelve, and Katherine probably married around 1362-63 and had her first child ca. 1363-64, a date of 1350 is feasible, although she could have been born a little earlier. November 25 is the feast day of St. Katherine, so it is possible that Paon’s second daughter was named for the patron saint on whose anniversary she was born, and for whom she was to express great devotion and reverence.

  In the Middle Ages, St. Katherine of Alexandria was one of the most popular of female saints. Edward III and Philippa of Hainault had a special devotion to her; their accounts show that Katherine wheels, the symbol of her martydom, adorned counterpanes on the royal beds, jousting apparel, and other garments. Like other English medieval queens, Philippa was patroness of the royal hospital of St. Katherine- by- the- Tower in London, which had recently been rebuilt under her auspices, and with which Katherine Swynford herself would one day be associated.33

  St. Katherine probably never even existed. There is no record of her in antiquity, and her cult did not emerge until the ninth century. She was said to have been of patrician or even royal birth, beautiful, rich, respected, and learned. Her studies led her to convert to Christianity at a time when Christians were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, and she dared to publicly protest to the Emperor Maxentius (reigned AD 306-312) against the worship of pagan idols and the persecution itself. Maxentius was greatly impressed by her beauty and her courage in adhering to her convictions, and sent fifty of his sages and philosophers to reason with her. When they failed to demolish her arguments, he was so infuriated that he had them all burned alive. He then demanded that Katherine abjure her Christian faith and marry him, but she refused on the grounds that she was a bride of Christ. At this, the emperor’s patience with her gave out, and she was beaten, imprisoned, and sentenced to be broken on a spiked wheel that had its two halves rotating in different directions. But just as her agony was about to begin, an angel appeared and smote the wheel with a sword, breaking it into pieces. This miraculous intervention is said to have inspired the mass conversion of two thousand Roman soldiers, whereupon an even more enraged Maxentius had Katherine beheaded. Afterward, other angels appeared and miraculously carried her remains to Mount Sinai, where a Greek Orthodox monastery was built to house her shrine. It should be noted that there are many variations on this fantastical tale.

  Throughout the Middle Ages the cult of St. Katherine gained momentum. She was revered for her staunch faith, her courage, and her blessed virginity, and was believed to have under her special protection young maidens, churchmen, philosophers, students, craftsmen, nurses, and the dying. Numerous churches and bells were dedicated to her, and miracle plays were written about her. Her story, and her symbol of a wheel, appeared widely in art, mural paintings, manuscripts, ivory panels, stained glass, embroideries, vestments, and heraldry.34 And many little girls were named in her honor, in the hope that they would emulate her manifold virtues.

  That Katherine was Paon de Roët’s daughter is not in doubt. The chronicler Jean Froissart, himself a native of Hainault and a servant of Queen Philippa, may well have met Katherine—he certainly took an interest in her—and he states that she was “the daughter of a knight of Hainault called Sir Paon de Roët, in his day one of the knights of good Queen Philippa of England.”

  Paon’s fourth child, Philippa,35 was probably so called in honor of the Queen, who may have been her godmother. It is often claimed that Philippa de Roët was placed in royal service in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, by 1356, in which case she would have been born in the early 1340s at the latest. However, as will be proposed below, this claim is probably unfounded.

  In 1631, John Weever36 asserted that Katherine was the oldest of Paon’s daughters, but this can hardly be the case, as that would make her at least twenty- eight when she married, middle- aged by medieval standards; but perhaps Weever knew nothing of Elizabeth de Roët and had Katherine’s other sister, Philippa, in mind, in which case he was probably correct in saying that Katherine was the elder.

  Philippa de Roët was certainly in the Queen’s service on September 12, 1366, and was married by then; she was therefore likely to have been born in the early 1350s, and was probably Katherine’s younger sister, as Weever implies, rather than the elder of the two, as is usually assumed.37 Thus, Paon appears to have had two older children, Elizabeth and Walter, born between ca. 1335 and ca. 1340, and two younger daughters, Katherine and Philippa, born around 1350 or later. The long gap between the births of Walter and Katherine suggests that Paon married twice and that each marriage produced two surviving children.

  It is sometimes erroneously stated that Katherine Swynford was born in Picardy, France; this error has arisen from some historians confusing Philippa de Roët with a waiting woman of the Queen, Philippa Picard, but they were in fact two different people,38 so there was no Roët connection with Picardy. Froissart refers to Katherine as a Hainaulter, and in England she was regarded, by virtue of her birth and descent, as a stranger or alien, the chronicler Henry Knighton calling her “a certain foreign woman.” We may therefore conclude that she was born in Hainault, probably on her father’s lands near Mons. This being the case, the earliest possible date for her birth is 1349.

  Katherine was born into a troubled world, and would not long remain in the country of her birth. In 1351, Paon was in the service of Countess Margaret as the Knight Master of her household, in which capacity he seems to have been responsible for enforcing the observance of protocol.39But Margaret’s position was by no means secure: In 1350, she renounced her claims to Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland in favor of her second son, William, in the hope of retaining Hainault for herself, but in the spring of 1351, William seized control of it. Several attempts at negotiation failed, and all four counties became embroiled in the conflict. When Margaret was forced to flee from Zeeland and take refuge in Hainault, her followers were exiled, their castles destroyed, and their property and offices redistributed. Paon must have been caught up in this political maelstrom, and may temporarily have found himself faced with ruin.

  In December 1351, hoping to enlist the support of Edward III, Margaret fled to England with her househo
ld, taking Paon with her.40 Given the uncertainty of any future in Hainault, he is likely to have brought with him his children, Walter, Katherine, and possibly Philippa, and indeed his wife, if she was still alive. Elizabeth, of course, was left behind in her convent; it is doubtful if Katherine ever knew her elder sister.

  A settlement was quickly reached between Margaret and her son, whereby Margaret was to keep Hainault, and early in 1352, William came to England to be married to King Edward’s cousin, Matilda (or Maud) of Lancaster. In March, when the Hainault royals returned home, Paon was with them,41 but after August 1352 he disappears from contemporary sources entirely. His date of death is nowhere recorded, and we know only that he was buried in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where a memorial inscription to him was put in place after 1396. In 1631, in his Ancient Funerary Monuments, John Weever described Paon’s sepulchre, which was “in this cathedral church, and near unto Sir John Beauchamp’s tomb, upon a fair marble stone, inlaid all over with brass (of which nothing but the heads of a few brazen nails are at this day visible) and engraven with the representation and coat [of] arms of the party defunct. Thus much of a mangled funeral inscription was of late time perspicuous to be read, as followeth: Hic jacet Paganus Roët miles Guyenne Rex Armorum Pater Catherine Ducisse Lancastriae.” (Here lies Paon Roët, soldier, Guienne King of Arms, father of Catherine, Duchess of Lancaster.)

  The likelihood is that Katherine herself commissioned this tomb and memorial for her father. Weever’s description suggests that the tomb was of great antiquity in 1631, and the use of Katherine’s title without anything to qualify it (such as “late Duchess”) implies that it was executed in her lifetime, which would date the tomb to the period 1396-1403. The question is, did Paon survive until then? It is just possible, but not at all probable in those days, that he lived well into his nineties, and witnessed Katherine’s ultimate triumph. What makes his survival improbable, though, is the complete absence of references to him in contemporary records after 1352, although of course he may have continued to serve Countess Margaret until her death in 1356 and then retired to his modest holdings in Hainault. No Inquisition Postmortem has been found for him,42 which suggests that he did not die in England. The most likely conclusion is that he died long before 1396, possibly even as early as 1352, but more probably in 1355, as is suggested below; that he was buried either in St. Paul’s—which in itself would underline his importance and the honor and esteem in which he had been held by the royal families of England and Hainault—or elsewhere; and that after 1396, Katherine or John of Gaunt perhaps had his remains transferred to St. Paul’s, or simply placed a new memorial over his resting place, wanting his memory to be invested with her own greatness.43

 
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