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


  Nine councillors were dismissed. William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and founder of Winchester School and New College, Oxford, had been active in leading the clerical opposition to the Crown in Parliament, and was to prove a lifelong enemy of John Wycliffe. Wykeham had been dismissed as chancellor in 1371, but recalled by the Good Parliament. He typified the career churchmen so detested by Wycliffe, while John of Gaunt was determined to target the wealth of the Church, which enjoyed immunity from taxation, and was incensed that Wykeham had supported Parliament to the detriment of the King. Thus it may have been the duke who prompted Wycliffe to preach against Wykeham in London. But the new Bishop of London, William Courtenay, a young aristocrat of great ability and energy was a supporter of Wykeham, and deplored John’s perceived anticlericalism, while the Londoners themselves had their own grievances against the duke: They resented his interference in the city, believing that he cherished “an ancient hatred” against their jealously guarded liberties. In actuality, John was keen to protect the interests of struggling artisans and small craftsmen in the face of the financial might and monopolies wielded by the wealthy merchants and trade guilds.

  In October, still relentlessly moving against his enemies, the duke accused William of Wykeham of misappropriating public funds, and presided over the judicial proceedings taken against him; on November 17, Wykeham was stripped of his temporalities and banished from court.15 It was perhaps around this time that the duke’s infant son by Constance died,16 a tragedy that must have hit John hard.

  That same month, Walsingham claims, John attempted to chasten the Earl of March by ordering him to Calais, but the earl refused to go, so he was forced to resign his office of Marshal of England, which was assigned by John on December 1 to his cousin Henry, Lord Percy,17 one of the foremost northern barons, in a successful attempt to buy the latter’s loyalty. It is more likely that March resigned the marshalship because he was needed in Ireland.18 However, Peter de la Mare, Speaker of the Commons during the Good Parliament, was a target of the duke’s wrath: He was sent to prison. In January, Adam Houghton, Bishop of St. David’s, a friend of the duke and of his first wife, Blanche, was appointed Chancellor of England. In his prologue to Piers Plowman, William Langland refers scathingly to the “rout of rats” by “a cat of the court”—John of Gaunt—who:

  … came where he liked

  And leapt over them lightly, and caught them at his will,

  And played with them perilously, and pushed them about.

  Meanwhile, on November 20, in belated response to the urgings of the Commons in the Good Parliament, Richard of Bordeaux had been created Prince of Wales. On Christmas Day the King hosted a great feast in Westminster Hall at which all the peers, led by John of Gaunt, knelt in turn and solemnly swore allegiance to Richard as the heir to the throne; then the boy was placed next to his grandfather at table, above the duke and the King’s other children.19 This was a tactical move, no doubt orchestrated by John himself, to demonstrate that he was no threat to Richard but loyally supported him as heir to the throne. On January 25, further underlining his commitment, John and his brothers attended a great open- air entertainment put on by the Londoners for the prince, with mummers in fantastic costumes parading by torchlight and prizes to delight a young boy.20

  It was during that turbulent year of 1376-77 that Katherine Swynford received her first recorded payment, of £50 (£13,442), for the wardrobe and chamber expenses of Philippa of Lancaster. The duke also arranged for her to be paid £100 (£28,885) a year in equal portions, at Easter and Michaelmas, to meet these expenses, for which she was to issue letters of acquittance under her seal21—which sadly does not survive. This grant suggests that she was caring for her charges throughout the tumultuous period of the Good Parliament and its aftermath; Elizabeth, as the younger daughter, would have shared her sister’s chamber. The duke ordered these payments to be made to William Oke, the clerk of his Great Wardrobe, so perhaps both governess and charges were in residence at the Savoy for much of the period. John’s readiness to entrust such large sums to Katherine demonstrates his confidence in her integrity and her financial acumen.

  The closeness and family solidarity increasingly and enduringly demonstrated between the Lancastrian children, the Swynfords, the Beauforts, and the Chaucers suggests they had all known each other from childhood, so it is quite likely that Katherine had her own children with her when she was acting as governess to the princesses, and that the Chaucer children were in evidence too, in Constance’s household with their mother. It is not beyond the bounds of probability that Katherine’s royal charges sometimes came to stay with her at Kettlethorpe, just as they sojourned from time to time in other households. These arrangements meant that all the children grew up in an environment in which learning, literature, poetry, religion, the arts, and intellectual debate were strong elements, and that they would have absorbed those influences from their infancy, with even the girls encouraged to participate, for John of Gaunt was the most enlightened of medieval men in that respect, and Katherine was herself a cultivated and intelligent woman. Furthermore, it is obvious that John’s legitimate children were fond of Katherine, and readily accepted her children by their father as their half siblings, even embracing her Swynford children within the family circle.

  The effects of such an upbringing are apparent in the success that all these children were to achieve in later life. That success, and the establishment of close and harmonious relationships within what could have been a highly dysfunctional family, must largely be a tribute not only to John of Gaunt’s forceful character and influence, but also to Katherine’s tact, humanity, and obvious gift for getting the best out of people.

  All the evidence suggests that Katherine and John were good and caring parents whose children grew up to love and respect them. Judging by the gifts that attended their arrival, the births of the Beauforts were welcomed by the duke, who must have seen them as a means of extending his affinity and influence. But there was more to it than that. John, whose devotion to his offspring by Katherine was commented upon by Froissart, was to prove diligent in securing for them a place in society that befit their noble birth and in promoting their interests, while cautiously ensuring that these did not infringe upon the rights of his legitimate heirs, a policy that would have preempted any jealousy on the part of the latter. As for Katherine, “she loved the Duke of Lancaster and the children she had with him, and she showed it.”22

  In 1376, probably at the intercession of John of Gaunt, the Pope granted permission (an “indult”) for “Catherine de Swynford,” in the diocese of Lincoln, to have a portable altar in her lodgings,23 which is surely further testimony to her piety, although we might wonder if the pontiff was aware of her adulterous relationship with the duke, or if her conscience was ever troubled by it. Could she have gone to confession, knowing she was committing a sin in the eyes of the Church every time she slept with him? Or did she confess these transgressions, sincerely intending each time not to commit them again, but failing miserably? We have no way of knowing.

  Katherine’s disappearance from the records during the turbulent latter months of 1376 was probably occasioned by advancing pregnancy: It is likely that she bore her third child by John in the early months of 1377.24This was a dramatic and highly publicized period in the duke’s life, but nowhere is there any mention in the chronicles of Katherine, who may well have been in seclusion at Kettlethorpe or elsewhere at this time. It might be significant that, on February 25, Edward III licensed John to grant to Katherine for her lifetime the ducal manors of Gringley and Wheatley inNottinghamshire, which were jointly worth more than £150 (£52,428) per annum;25 this grant perhaps marked the birth of a third child, and the rents from these manors were possibly intended to provide for its upbringing, as might have been the profits from the Sauneby wardship, granted by John the previous July when the pregnancy would have been confirmed. The duke also presented Katherine with a tun of wine at this time.26 Armitage- Smith op
ines that it was Thomas Beaufort who was born early in 1377, but this third child was probably Joan Beaufort, Katherine’s only daughter by John, perhaps named in honor of the Dowager Princess of Wales, who was demonstrating such kindness and friendship to the duke at this critical time. The usual date given for Joan’s birth is 1379, but that would mean she was barely fourteen when her first child was born around 1393, and the pattern of grants is not repeated in 1379. An earlier birth date of 1377 is probably more realistic.

  Joan might have been born at Kettlethorpe, but given the political situation at this time, her birth perhaps took place elsewhere, for John of Gaunt was so hated in the country that anyone connected with him was at risk— as would be proved dramatically in February 1377—and Katherine, as his mistress, was especially vulnerable. Professor Goodman, who places Joan’s date of birth in 1379 with reservations, has suggested that she was delivered at Pleshy in Essex, the residence of Joan FitzAlan, Dowager Countess of Hereford, Essex, and Northampton. The countess was the daughter of Eleanor of Lancaster, a sister of Duke Henry, and she—like her late husband, Humphrey de Bohun (pronounced Boon)—enjoyed an enduring friendship with John of Gaunt. Her elder daughter Eleanor had just married Thomas of Woodstock, John’s youngest brother, who would be created Earl of Buckingham on July 16, 1377. Given the fact that the latest Beaufort was christened Joan, and was later welcomed into the household of the countess’s younger daughter Mary, it is indeed possible that she was born at Pleshy Castle near Chelmsford, and that the countess acted as her sponsor.27

  The King confirmed the grant of Gringley and Wheatley at Sheen on March 4, 1377.28 The acquisition of these two manors, both situated not far from Kettlethorpe, added considerably to Katherine’s income; she was by now a fairly wealthy woman.

  Gringley- on- the- Hill is a pretty village perched eighty- two feet above sea level, twelve miles to the northwest of Kettlethorpe, and boasts beautiful views over Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire, and a church with a Norman arch, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. To the east is Beacon Hill, the site of the original Saxon settlement. The medieval manor had been granted to John of Gaunt by Edward III,29 and between 1372 and 1377 he kept the manor house and its chambers in repair.30 There was good hunting to be had nearby: In his Register, the duke refers to “the West Park” and “our parks of Gringley.” Katherine surely would have visited and stayed at this desirable property.

  Wheatley, which is mentioned in Domesday Book and was granted to John of Gaunt by Edward III,31 is now two villages, North and South Wheatley, but in Katherine’s time it was a manor set in woodland and famous for the strawberries that grew there. It is situated three miles south of Gringley and nine miles northwest of Kettlethorpe.

  At some unspecified date, possibly in 1377, Katherine was also granted the manors of Waddington and Wellingore in Lincolnshire. The entry in John of Gaunt’s Register (which is erroneously dated 1354, at the Savoy) states that these properties were bestowed on her in reward “for the good and loving service which Lady Katherine Swynford has rendered to our late dearly beloved duchess.”

  Waddington lies about five miles south of Lincoln, and had formed part of the Lancastrian inheritance. Wellingore is five miles farther south, and ten miles east of Newark on the Lincoln road. Originally a Saxon settlement and Domesday village, it occupies a magnificent position on the Lincolnshire Cliff, with the old village built of light brown stone lying to the west, where the escarpment rises 260 feet above sea level; below is the valley of the River Witham. Apart from the heavily restored twelfth- century church, the ruined stone cross by the old main road is the only surviving medieval structure; the Manor House to the north and Wellingore Hall, set in extensive parkland to the south, both date from the eighteenth century.

  Katherine was at Nottingham, or had business there, sometime during 1377, for her seal was used there by John, son of Walter de Dunham, in witness of a document.32 John de Dunham was a prominent merchant and burgess of Bishop’s (later King’s) Lynn in Norfolk; he owned at least one shop there in the 1370s, and served as one of the town’s chamberlains in 1377-78. His father, Walter, held the same office in 1340-41. The Dunham family was spread all over East Anglia and the East Midlands, while an earlier John de Dunham’s will had been dated at Lincoln in 1346.33 Katherine’s links with the family probably arose through trading connections, for at some point she too owned a house in King’s Lynn (see Chapter 10), while Dunham’s use of her seal suggests a degree of friendship between them.

  Katherine’s fortunes may have been in the ascendant in 1377, but John of Gaunt’s were under serious threat. His reversal of the decisions of the Good Parliament had made him even more hated and feared than before. It was probably around this time that his daughter Philippa’s former nurse, a lady known only as Maud, wrote warning him that five friars of Canterbury “have wickedly and treacherously spoken of you, my very redoubtable lord.” She beseeched him to protect himself “well from them and all others, in God’s name.”34 Did Katherine tremble for her lover when she heard of such things?

  Parliament had reassembled on January 27, with Prince Richard and John of Gaunt presiding. It has often been said that it was packed with John’s supporters, but the evidence does not bear this out.35 Nevertheless, due to the duke’s influence, much of the legislation of the Good Parliament was formally reversed.

  By this time disturbing rumors that John of Gaunt was a changeling were causing “great noise and great clamor” in London and the rest of the kingdom. They appear to have been spread by the banished William of Wykeham (although he was to deny that),36 and/or his supporters, in a bid to topple the duke from power. It was asserted that in 1340, Queen Philippa actually gave birth to a daughter but overlaid and suffocated her. Fearful of confessing this to King Edward, she substituted the little corpse for a living baby boy, the son of a Ghent laborer, butcher, or porter (there are various versions of the story), this infant having been smuggled into St. Bavon’s Abbey where the Queen had been confined; she named him John and brought him up as her own. Philippa was said to have admitted this in confession to William of Wykeham on her deathbed in 1369, insisting that, should there ever arise any prospect of John succeeding to the throne, the bishop must break the seal of the confessional and publicly reveal the truth, “lest a false heir should inherit England.”37

  There are inherent flaws in this story. First, there was a strong family resemblance between Edward III and John of Gaunt, who had typically Plan-tagenet features. And second, Queen Philippa was a lady of great integrity, unlikely to have contemplated such a deception; nor is there any evidence that Edward III was so fearsome a husband that she could not have told him of the tragedy that had supposedly occurred; on the contrary theirs was an affectionate union, and he both loved and indulged her. Finally had there been any substance in the story surely the bishop would have openly proclaimed the truth, rather than stooping to spread scurrilous unsubstantiated rumors. Unsurprisingly, few believed the tale, although there were those who were ready to use it as a weapon against the duke. The rumors angered John himself, and doubtless hurt him, for he had cherished a high regard for his mother, but he did not stoop to contradict them. It would have been beneath his dignity to do so.

  On February 2, Convocation—the assembly of bishops—met, and demanded that William of Wykeham be present among them. Bishop Courte-nay now seized his opportunity to move against Wycliffe, who had openly preached against Wykeham; he was determined to silence Wycliffe’s subversive views on the Church and its wealth, and summoned Wycliffe to appear before him to answer a charge of heresy. John of Gaunt rightly saw in this an attempt to disparage him too, for he shared those views, and he resolved publicly to champion Wycliffe’s cause and discredit the bishops who had opposed him. He began by appointing four doctors of theology to undertake Wycliffe’s defense.

  February 19 was the day appointed for the trial of John Wycliffe. John of Gaunt and Henry, Lord Percy, backed by a band of heavily armed r
etainers, “stood shoulder- to- shoulder” with the reformer as he arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and forced a path through the large crowds of Londoners who had gathered there, Percy brandishing his staff of office and jostling the people aside. Bishop Courtenay was angered by the presence of the duke and the marshal, and a sharp quarrel erupted, with the bishop castigating Percy for manhandling his flock, whereupon the Duke retorted that Percy would conduct himself as befit the marshal whether Courtenay liked it or not. This incensed both the bishop and the people, who chose to interpret John’s words as a further threat to the city’s jealously guarded liberties, and the atmosphere grew dangerously heated.

  Once the tribunal had assembled in the Lady Chapel, further harsh words were exchanged. Percy showed Wycliffe to a seat, but the bishop ordered him to remain on his feet throughout the proceedings, at which John of Gaunt uncharacteristically lost his temper.

  “Lord Percy’s motion is but reasonable,” he insisted, “and as for you, my lord Bishop, who are grown so proud and arrogant, I will bring down the pride, not of you alone, but of all the prelacy in England.” Courtenay told him to do his worst, provoking the stern warning that Courtenay need not think that his aristocratic relations would protect him from the day’s repercussions, for they would be hard put to it to look to themselves. The bishop replied that he would trust in God, not in his relatives. Angered by the duke’s threats, the people began loudly to heckle him. He warned them he would have them arrested if they persisted, but Courtenay threatened to excommunicate him if he dared to do so in his cathedral. Whereupon the duke muttered, “Rather than endure this, I should take him by the hair and drag him out of the church.” It was probably said in the heat of the moment, but John’s arrogance and his apparent determination to ride roughshod over the privileges of the Londoners were to prove his downfall. Incensed by his treatment of their bishop, and inflamed by a rumor that he intended to deprive them of their elected mayor and replace him with the marshal, the citizens exploded in anger, and the proceedings collapsed in chaos, with Wycliffe being hustled away by the duke and Percy and escaping ecclesiastical censure for the time being.38 Nevertheless, he was now a marked man, irrevocably alienated from the hierarchy of the Church. As for John of Gaunt, far from directing the opprobrium of the Londoners toward the bishops, as he had intended, he had succeeded in turning it upon himself.

 
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