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


  It is reasonable to suppose that Katherine accompanied John when he moved to Kenilworth later in August, and that this was only one of many visits she made to that imposing castle, which she must have come to know well.

  Kenilworth, which lies four miles north of Warwick, was to be one of the most magnificent of the castles owned by John of Gaunt, who by 1377 had begun building a sumptuous range of apartments and lodgings there. This massive and important stronghold, built of golden sandstone, dated from the early twelfth century and had been extended and formidably fortified by King John—who surrounded it on three sides with a defensive lake called “the Mere”—and Henry III, whose mighty keep still stands. In 1265 the castle had fallen to the latter after a nine- month siege during the Barons’ Wars, and in 1267 it was granted to Henry’s younger son, Edmund Crouchback, founder of the House of Lancaster. Since then, it had remained one of the chief Lancastrian seats, and under John of Gaunt was to become a luxurious palace. He built the massive Perpendicular great hall, which still survives in a ruined state, and an extensive range of private apartments and domestic offices, also now ruined.71

  John’s great hall, or “New Chamber,” which measures 90 by 45 feet, was accessed at one end by an external processional stair leading up from the inner court to an imposing main doorway decorated with fine stone panels and carvings, and set within a vaulted porch. The other end of the hall was graced by an oriel window; in the privacy of its embrasure, which had its own fireplace, would be set the duke’s table, where he would eat with his family and friends; Katherine must have sat at board with him here on many occasions. The rest of his household dined at trestle tables placed along the length of the hall, which was heated by two vast fireplaces of carved stone and lit by four huge traceried windows with stone seats in the alcoves beneath. Anyone sitting there reading or sewing—as Katherine might well have done—would have benefited from the natural light such windows afforded. The vast timber hammerbeam roof has long disappeared, as has the wooden floor of the hall, but much remains of the once- vaulted undercroft, which was used for storing wine and provisions. From here, a northeastern doorway led to the three- story service block known as the “Strong Tower,” which housed the kitchens, bakehouse, servants’ quarters, and other domestic offices.

  Adjacent to the great hall at the southwestern end were the duke’s apartments, accessed through the Saintlowe Tower; this range overlooked the Mere. His family, knights, esquires, and, of course, Katherine would have lodged with him there. His great chamber, known as the “White Hall,” was a rectangular room located on the first floor; this was where he gave audiences and received guests, seated on a throne on a dais beneath a canopy of estate bearing the royal arms of Castile. Gaunt’s Tower, a four- story edifice that lay beyond the chamber block and projected over the lake, contained his private lodgings, or lesser chamber, which could be reached via a spiral staircase leading from a door in the inner court, although it must surely have been possible to access them from the great chamber. Gaunt’s Tower also contained a chapel, and had garderobes on the ground and first floors. The garden outside was enclosed in September 1373,72 possibly to allow the duke some privacy with his mistress, and along the causeway that now leads to a car park there was a tiltyard.

  Work on Kenilworth continued on and off until 1394, cost the duke a princely fortune, and provided employment for numerous masons, carpenters, goldsmiths, and embroiders. In its finished state it was the embodiment of its owner’s status, splendor, and authority, which was doubtless his intention, and in later years it replaced the Savoy as the showpiece of the Lancastrian inheritance. The great hall, which has been called one of the finest fourteenth- century rooms in England, is said to have inspired Richard II’s remodeling of Westminster Hall in the 1390s.

  In September, when John moved south to tour the West Country,73Katherine returned to Kettlethorpe, and it is often erroneously claimed that she used her influence at this time to get the Fossdyke cleared.74 This, the oldest canal in England, had been constructed by the Romans around AD 120, to link the River Trent at Torksey to the River Witham at Lincoln, eleven miles away, and during the Middle Ages became a major waterway for the transport of wool from Nottingham, Hull, York, and other places. But for thirty years now it had been silted up, and it was claimed that £1,000 (£282,562) were lost in trade as a result. During the Michaelmas law term of 1375 a Lincoln jury had made representations about this, pointing out that local landowners such as “the Lady Katherine de Swynford,” whose manors and lordships abutted the Fossdyke, “ought and were wont to clean, empty, and repair” their own stretches of the dike, according to an ancient rota; but clearly they had long since ceased to perform their responsibilities in this respect. The protest fell on deaf ears. On May 15, 1376, a commission of oyer and terminer was appointed at Westminster “on complaint by the citizens of Lincoln … that the dike is now obstructed partly by riparian [i.e., riverside] owners [Katherine Swynford being one of them] who have meadows and pastures on both sides of the dike, taking across their cattle in summer to pasture, and also by grass growing therein in unusual quantities.”75 Far from agitating to have the canal cleared, Katherine and other landowners were taking advantage of it being silted up. Yet despite parliamentary intervention, nothing appears to have been done, for in 1384 another commission, headed by John of Gaunt himself, was appointed to solve the problem.76 But even he was not entirely successful, for efforts were still being made to have the Fossdyke cleared in 1518, and the problem was only finally solved by an Act of Parliament passed in 1670.

  By the end of September, John had returned to the Savoy77 to prepare for yet another round of peace negotiations in Bruges. Having arranged for his three- year- old daughter Catalina to have her own chamber at Melbourne Castle, where she would be looked after by a Castilian lady, Juana Martyns,78he departed with Constance for Bruges at the end of October 1375.79Katherine was probably still at Kettlethorpe at this time.

  John apparently took Constance with him because she was expecting his child; no doubt he relished the prospect of her bearing a son and heir to Castile while the eyes of all Europe were on Bruges. Prior to her confinement the duchess went on pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint- Adrien de Grammont,80 but the boy she bore late in the year at Ghent—another John of Gaunt—appears to have been sickly, and died young, possibly in November 1376. Constance would hardly have traveled abroad at full term, so her baby was probably born several weeks after her arrival in Flanders, in early December. In that case, she must have fallen pregnant just before John left for Bruges in early March.

  Constance would not conceive again for nearly ten years, when there were compelling political reasons to produce a son. Comparing this dismal record with that of Blanche of Lancaster, who bore seven children in nine years, and Katherine Swynford, who had at least four in the same time span, it can only be concluded that conjugal relations between the duke and duchess were now either very infrequent or had ceased entirely, probably because of John’s passion for Katherine Swynford, and because of Constance’s own antipathy. She seems to have been more preoccupied with her Castilian ambitions than with her husband, and she could not hope to compete with the other woman in his life, whose influence was so all- embracing.

  John remained in negotiation at Bruges until at least January 20, 1376, then made a brief visit back to England before returning to the peace conference for the conclusion on March 1 of a new truce, which would prolong the first until April 1377 and bring hostilities to a halt.81 The lavish ostentation, “rioting, reveling, and dancing”—all funded by public money—that attended John’s embassy attracted much criticism from the chroniclers, who suspected that he was only advocating peace in order to enrich himself82The duke and duchess sailed home at the end of March, and on April 23, John was at Westminster for the annual feast of the Knights of the Garter that Edward III hosted to mark St. George’s Day. Five days later what was to become known as the “Good” Parliament met at Westminster, sum
moned because the King was in desperate need of money, and John of Gaunt found himself facing one of the worst crises of his career.

  SIX

  His Unspeakable Concubine

  John of Gaunt was now the most hated and feared man in England. “Oh, unhappy and unfortunate duke!” fulminated Walsingham in 1376. “Oh! Those whom you should lead in war you betray by your treachery and cowardice, and those whom you should lead in peace by the example of good works you lead astray, dragging them to ruin!” People of all ranks were suspicious and envious of the duke’s vast wealth and power, his incomprehensible—to the insular English—foreign ambitions, and the trappings of sovereignty that underlined his kingly rank. Churchmen abhorred his anticlerical stance and his patronage of John Wycliffe. His perceived military failures, his staunch advocacy of a peace policy, and the recent truce he had negotiated, outraged all those who felt that the English should be winning great victories over the French, as in the glory days of Edward III and the Black Prince. And the common people, long burdened by the crippling taxes levied to pay for no more than a series of humiliating losses in the war with France, blamed John for England’s misfortunes. This mounting resentment, building for some time, was now about to explode. No Parliament had been called since November 1373, and such was theimportance of this new session that the desperately sick Black Prince had himself carried to Westminster for it. Meanwhile, the city was loudly resonating with “a great murmur of the people,” and soon it became clear that the Commons were bent upon challenging the authority of the Crown itself, and that their chief targets were the corrupt influences about the King, foremost among them Alice Perrers, who were “neither loyal nor profitable to the kingdom.” This unprecedented attack was to appear dangerously radical to the politically conservative duke, and his honorable but ill- judged attempts to protect his father’s interests were further to undermine his standing in the land.

  Edward III was too infirm to attend Parliament. Thus it was that in May the Commons dared to confront a “very ill- at- ease” John of Gaunt in the House of Lords.1 They accused the government—and, by implication, John himself—of profiteering from the war, wasting public money, and corrupt practices. The King, they insisted, must “live off his own” in the future, and not burden his people with heavy taxes. John of Gaunt was inwardly infuriated by the insolence of these “degenerate hedge- knights of tallow,” as he put it.

  “Do they think they are kings or princes of this realm?” he raged in private. “Whence have they got their pride and arrogance? Have they forgotten how powerful I am? I will give them such a fright that they shall not provoke me again.”2 But such was the strength of parliamentary fervor that he had no choice but to back down and graciously agree to an inquiry into the royal administration, along with the impeachment of allegedly corrupt courtiers and the banishment of Alice Perrers from court for having fleeced the King of up to £3,000 (£806,547) a year, to his great damage.3 Never before had a royal mistress suffered such public castigation. John saw this as an attack on monarchical authority itself, and his overriding priority was to crush it, but his transparent efforts to forestall these proceedings, and his high- handed attitude toward his adversaries, only served to antagonize them further.

  He was certainly in touch with Katherine Swynford during this tumultuous time; she had perhaps joined him at the Savoy after his return from Bruges, and she probably conceived another child during that spring. Preoccupied though he was with the tortuous affairs of Parliament, John found time, on May 15, to appoint a commission to address the matter of draining the Fossdyke. His aim may have been to mollify the citizens of Lincoln while at the same time protecting Katherine’s own interests.

  When the Black Prince had himself carried into Parliament, he fainted several times and was forced to withdraw to his sickbed at Kennington Palace. Claims that he supported the Commons derive mainly from the overimaginative Thomas Walsingham and have been greatly overstated: He was far too ill to play any political role, and his overriding concern was to safeguard the rights of his nine- year- old son, Richard of Bordeaux. For six years now the prince had suffered the most debilitating and humiliating illness, with a recurrent “flux, both of seed and blood, which two infirmities made him so feeble that his servants took him very often for dead.”4 On June 7, 1376, aware that he was dying, he made his will, and his father, his wife, and his brothers gathered around his bed “amid great lamentations. No one there could keep from tears,” and there was “great desolation at the sorrow of the King taking leave of his son forever.”5 The Black Prince died the following day, Trinity Sunday, leaving young Richard of Bordeaux as the heir to the English throne. The prince was later buried in a magnificent tomb executed by Henry Yevele in Canterbury Cathedral.

  The Black Prince’s death left John of Gaunt as the ailing Edward III’s chief counselor and hence the most powerful man in the land. “The King no longer wished to be guided through his lords assembled in Parliament, and so he had recourse to his son, John of Gaunt, to guide himself and the realm. Until the death of the King, the duke acted as governor and ruler of the kingdom.”6 The general feeling was that John was too powerful, while some feared that he had sinister designs on the Crown itself. Walsingham claims that during the Good Parliament, John demanded that the French Salic Law, which barred women from succeeding, or transmitting a claim, to the throne, be introduced into England.7 This would effectively have removed from the succession the heirs of his elder brother Lionel, who had left one daughter, Philippa, now the wife of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, by whom she had four children. The implication was that John wanted to be acknowledged heir presumptive after Richard of Bordeaux. For Walsingham, that was a step too near the throne, and therefore suspect, and he tells us that the Commons rejected the duke’s petition, much to the triumphant glee of the Earl of March. But this episode may just be one of Walsingham’s imaginative calumnies, for it is not referred to in other chronicles. However, Parliament did take the precautions of having Richard brought before it and acknowledged as heir apparent and of appointing a council of peers to ensure good government, designating several of their number to attend upon the prince and protect him from his dangerous uncle.

  Sadly for the duke’s reputation, it is Walsingham’s so- called “Scandalous Chronicle” (his Chronicon Angliae) that records most of the events of this time. It is hopelessly biased. The waspish and vituperative Walsingham, incensed at and deeply suspicious of John’s patronage of the increasingly outspoken anticlerical Wycliffe, went out of his way to record—and doubtless embroider—every evil bruit he had heard concerning the duke. He asserted that John was a traitor to his country and his house, guilty of underhanded intrigue, bribery, and murder; that he was a wicked uncle, intriguing to assassinate Prince Richard, or plotting with the French king to have the boy declared a bastard; that his military campaigns had failed because of his cowardice and corruption; that he led an immoral life—the only accusation founded on fact—and had treated his first wife shamefully. But if Walsingham knew that the duke had a mistress, he clearly did not at this time know her name, for if he had, he would surely have mentioned it. He resurrected the old calumny that, back in 1362, John had Blanche’s sister, Matilda of Lancaster, poisoned so he could claim her inheritance. No accusation was too vile or far- fetched to be leveled at the hapless duke, and Walsingham was to continue this relentless campaign of character assassination until 1388. The sad thing was that many people were prepared to believe his allegations, with the consequence that John of Gaunt became the scapegoat for all the evils and insecurities plaguing the realm.

  In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that John had sinister designs on the throne. He had given his oath to his dying brother to loyally serve Richard of Bordeaux, and he was always to honor it. He could indeed have challenged Richard’s legitimacy, given Joan of Kent’s checkered matrimonial history, but to his credit, he made no attempt to do so. Nor would the Black Prince have made his “very dear and well
- beloved brother of Spain”8 his chief executor if he believed that his son had anything to fear from John: This appointment, like so much else, bespeaks a deep respect and trust between the brothers.

  There appears to have been a keen mutual regard between John and his widowed sister- in- law and cousin, Joan of Kent—which there surely would not have been had the shrewd princess for a moment entertained any suspicions of John’s intentions. The welfare of the young heir was a matter of importance to them both: John clearly felt a strong sense of responsibility toward Richard, for he had sworn to protect him, and he had an affection for the boy as his revered brother’s son. An interest in Wycliffe’s teachings was another common bond with the princess.9 Soon after the Black Prince’s death, John saw to it that Joan’s dower rights were confirmed, ensuring her financial security, while she, on her part, was to prove warmly supportive of him in the months to come. Lavish New Year gifts to her are recorded in John of Gaunt’s Register.

  On July 10, Parliament had the temerity to refuse the Crown’s request for funds, and in retaliation, an angry Edward III dissolved it that same day. However, he “wholly laid down the government of the kingdom and put it in the hands of the duke, allowing him to do all he wanted.”10 John of Gaunt became effectively the uncrowned ruler of England. Before the month was out, John’s overriding influence was made manifest, as he firmly asserted his authority and began steadily reversing and undoing all the work that Parliament had done, high- handedly reinforcing the supremacy of the Crown and making many enemies in the process, while establishing himself as the supreme champion and defender of royal power.

  John then rode north to Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire, probably with Katherine in his train, and it was there, on July 25, that he granted her the wardship and marriage of the heiress of Bertram de Sauneby, in recognition of the “good and agreeable” service she had rendered and continued to render “to our dear daughters.”11 Again this grant may mark a new pregnancy.12When John returned to London in the early autumn, “he permitted the King to receive back into grace many who had been perpetually banished from his presence”:13 The courtiers displaced by Parliament were pardoned and restored to their former places, while Alice Perrers hastened back to the side of a grateful Edward III. On October 7 the ailing King made his will and named John of Gaunt as his chief executor.14

 
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