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


  Walsingham’s passage quoted above is the only description that survives of John and Katherine together;71 it is also the first mention of Katherine’s name in any chronicle, and is evidence that she had now become notorious. Although it is worth pointing out that no other chronicler mentions this specific public display by the lovers, Katherine was from then on to be referred to elsewhere in disparaging terms. To the monkish author of the Anonimalle Chronicle, she was “a she- devil and enchantress,” a charge that echoed Walsingham’s branding of her as a witch, and was therefore highly provocative and detrimental, and reveals just how perilous Katherine’s position might have become. Thomas Brinton, Bishop of Rochester, castigated the duke from his pulpit for being “an adulterer and pursuer of luxury,”72while Froissart, writing decades later, thought Katherine “a woman of light character.” Even Henry Knighton, the pro- Lancastrian chronicler from Leicester, who admired John of Gaunt, clearly did not approve of his mistress: “In his wife’s household, there was a certain foreign lady, Katherine Swynford, whose relations with him were greatly suspect.” Knighton reveals that members of the duke’s household were very concerned about the effect of their master’s involvement with his mistress; they, as well as he, were aware that it was his duty, as lord and master, to set a good moral example to his servants, as the Church enjoined. John himself disclosed in 1381 that he had been repeatedly warned by his clerics and his servants of the detrimental effect his relationship with Katherine was having on his reputation but that he had chosen to ignore them.73

  Not everyone disapproved. Katherine seems to have been held in lasting affection by the Cathedral Chapter of Lincoln and by the Mayor of Leicester, who, probably in company with a lot of people, took a pragmatic view of her dubious position. Between 1377 and 1379 he paid £3.6s.8d (£1,165) for a horse and £2.0s.6d (£708) for an iron pan (probably a large cauldron), both of which were presented to Katherine in gratitude for “expediting business touching the tenement in Stretton,74 and for other business for which a certain lord besought of the aforesaid Katherine with good effect, and besought so successfully that the town was pardoned the lending of silver to the King in that year.”75 (The mayor seems to have had the better part of the bargain.)

  In assessing Walsingham’s stance on John of Gaunt’s affair with Katherine Swynford, it is important to remember that he loathed and feared John for many reasons, and always seized upon every means to discredit him;76 he was not above exaggerating the duke’s faults or even making things up, and in his view John was foolish, unscrupulous, and “without conscience.”

  When it came to sexual matters, Walsingham was at his most inventive, claiming that the duke’s character “was dishonored by every kind of outrage and sin. A fornicator and adulterer, he had abandoned lawful wedlock” and deceived both of his wives. “He not only dared to do such things secretly and privately, but also took the most shameless prostitutes to the beds of these wives, who, grief- stricken as they were, did not dare to protest.” This assertion is uncorroborated elsewhere and entirely at variance with what we know of John of Gaunt; this particular calumny surely stems solely from the chronicler’s desire to discredit the champion of the heretical Wycliffe, and it can be dismissed as pure character assassination, born of moral outrage and a fevered imagination.

  Learning that John had publicly flaunted his relationship with Katherine gave Walsingham further ammunition against the hated duke. It has been claimed that his comments about Katherine were aimed primarily at John, and were not intended to cast aspersions on her character beyond the charge of immorality,77 yet being branded an “unspeakable concubine” was damaging to the reputation of a woman who was, after all, governess to the Lancastrian princesses. Let it not be forgotten that adultery and promiscuity were then perceived to be far more sinful in a woman than in a man and carried a greater stigma. The fact that Katherine did not take a second husband for twenty- four years may have been a matter of personal choice—with the duke supporting her, she had no need to, although marriage could confer a veneer of respectability upon royal mistresses—but it may also indicate that there was a shortage of suitors due to her living in open adultery with the duke, and that her increasing notoriety lessened her chances of remarrying.

  There can be little doubt that, once it became clear that his marriage to Constance had failed, and the crises of 1376-77 had passed, John and Katherine grew reckless and ceased to exercise the same discretion they had employed in the early years of their affair, and that the liaison was now public knowledge. The notorious reputation and conduct of Alice Perrers had prejudiced public opinion against royal mistresses, and it would not be surprising if people viewed Katherine too as an immoral and self- seeking woman and a corrupting influence on the duke, nor that they were incensed that Duchess Constance should be so slighted and insulted. For if she had not been too bothered before about her husband’s mistress, with the affair now exposed, she was forced into an impossible position that gave her just cause for complaint, and could no longer discreetly turn a blind eye to what was going on. That cannot have improved relations between Constance and the duke, and it appears to have led to an informal separation. Later evidence suggests that Constance felt herself to be at fault with regard to the breakdown of the marriage, and in time it was she who begged for John’s forgiveness, so there were apparently more factors at play here than his affair with Katherine, although that was probably the catalyst for the separation.

  Given public sympathy for Constance, John of Gaunt’s enduring reputation for lechery, as well as contemporary observations about and responses to his relationship with Katherine, there can be little doubt that the publicizing of their affair did indeed damage his political standing in England and ruined her reputation.

  But it was certainly not Katherine who had kept John from sailing to France. On April 29, after seeing his wife and elder daughters admitted with Princess Joan to the confraternity of the Garter at Windsor, he was at a council meeting at Westminster,78 and in May he was at the Savoy, busy commandeering the extra ships so urgently needed.79 On May 20 he levied an aid for the knighting of his heir, Henry of Derby,80 and early in June he attended another council meeting. Five days later the invasion fleet returned to England, but when, later that month, Castilian ships threatened St. Malo in Brittany, which was perilously close to home, John decided to take the offensive. On June 17 he was appointed King’s Lieutenant in France and Aquitaine, and thereafter he divided his time between Southampton and the Savoy, making preparations for his attack and waiting for a favorable wind.81 In July he appointed Henry of Derby Warden of the Palatine County of Lancaster, and soon afterward sailed for France with his navy. None of this sounds like idle dalliance with his mistress.

  John spent August and September besieging St. Malo, to no effect. Repulsed by the Castilians, he returned ignominiously to England in September to face accusations of cowardice and incompetence.82 “And the Commons of England began to murmur against the noblemen, saying how they had done all that season but little good.”83 There were wild and unfounded rumors that John had appropriated for himself the taxes voted by Parliament for the war, and even that he and Wycliffe were plotting the destruction of the Church itself.84 It seemed that the superstitious predictions of divine retribution were being fulfilled, and that John’s failure to take St. Malo was God’s punishment for his sins.

  Between May 28 and September 19, 1378, Geoffrey Chaucer had been abroad on business in Lombardy. On May 21, before Geoffrey left, John of Gaunt arranged for Philippa Chaucer’s royal annuities to be paid by the Sheriff of Lincoln and other officials from Michaelmas 1378.85 From this we may infer that Philippa had taken up residence with her sister Katherine at Kettlethorpe. But what may have begun as a temporary arrangement ended up lasting for a minimum of four years, for until 1383, at least, Philippa’s royal annuities were paid to her by the Sheriff of Lincoln and other officials in Lincolnshire;86 furthermore, from 1381 to 1386 all customs receipts were divided be
tween Chaucer and his wife. From this we may infer that the Chaucers had decided they were happier living apart.

  It may be that they had finally agreed they were incompatible, yet there was possibly another woman involved, for in May 1380 there is an intriguing record of Alice Perrers’s stepdaughter, Cecily Chaumpaigne, releasing Geoffrey from any action resulting from “my rape and other causes.”87 Rape in the fourteenth century was not necessarily a sexual crime: Although it could refer to sexual assault as well as forced intercourse, it could also mean abduction. Either way, it was a serious offense, punishable by hanging (and formerly by castration), and thus very rare.88

  In this case, the rape—if it was that—may have involved penetration. We know that Chaucer had a son called Lewis, who was born probably in 1381; Lewis seems to have been a very bright boy because he was admitted to Oxford University when only about nine, and it was to “little Lewis my son” that Chaucer dedicated his Treatise on the Astrolabe in 1391; at that time, Lewis had reached “the tender age of ten years.” Given the long gap between the births of Elizabeth and Thomas Chaucer and that of Lewis, it can be conjectured that Philippa was not Lewis’s mother, and some historians have credibly suggested that he was Geoffrey’s son by Cecily Chaumpaigne. If so, he was perhaps not the fruit of rape, but of an affair: Cecily, with the proverbial fury of a woman scorned, may initially have pressed the rape charge in the hope of gaining some financial provision for her child. But Chaucer brought forward four eminent witnesses in his defense: the King’s chamberlain and two of his household knights, as well as the Collector of Customs, Chaucer’s own superior.89 Their testimony persuaded Cecily to drop the charge, but that there was some substance to her accusations is evident in Chaucer paying her £10 (£3,877) in compensation for her “rape” two months later.

  We can only conjecture that it was this episode that drove the Chaucers apart. What seems likely is that Geoffrey and Philippa separated on reasonably amicable terms. In the 1380s it was he who usually went to the Exchequer twice a year to draw her annuity.90 She remained a member of Constance’s household, on very good terms with the duke and duchess.91However, her removal to Lincolnshire, although apparently primarily for personal reasons, came at a time when her sister’s relationship with the duke had become notorious, and afforded her perhaps a welcome respite from the tensions in the duchess’s chamber.

  Philippa and Katherine now had much in common: Both were essentially femmes soles, both had dedicated a daughter to God, both were rearing sons called Thomas who were of similar age, and both were an integral part of the Lancastrian social circle, Katherine especially so. But while Katherine was the duke’s mistress, Philippa loyally served the duchess, and historians have conjectured that Philippa could only have looked on her sister with disapproval, and that her loyalties were painfully divided between Constance and Katherine. Yet if so, Philippa would hardly have chosen to live for some years with Katherine at this time and in these circumstances. It may have been a case of loving the sinner while deploring the sin, but her removal to Kettlethorpe perhaps reflects the need of the younger and distressed sister for the support and companionship of the elder, who had in the past demonstrated great concern for her through the favors she obtained for her and her husband. And Constance, regardless of her feelings toward Katherine Swynford, seems to have liked Philippa for her own sake; they were, after all, much of an age, and Philippa seems to have rendered excellent service to her mistress.

  It may have been Geoffrey Chaucer who disapproved of Katherine, despite all the favors her influence had procured for him. His disparaging remark about governesses with a past, and his panegyric lauding Pedro the Cruel, may well reflect his opinion of his sister- in- law and his loyalty to Constance.92 In “The Man of Law’s Tale,” the heroine—tellingly called Constance—is a model of patience and piety who accepts “the will of Christ” in all the misfortunes and sufferings that are laid upon her.93 This too may be a comment on the tribulations and virtues of Duchess Constance. Certainly Katherine does not feature largely—or features barely at all—in the surviving records of Chaucer’s life, and it may be that, after his separation from Philippa, he had as little to do with her as possible. His attitude toward her may have been a further source of discord between the Chaucers.

  With Philippa in residence at Kettlethorpe, it would surely have been a lively household. When she was not in attendance on the duchess, Philippa would have had her ten- year- old son with her. Thomas Swynford, probably a year older, and the young Beauforts were playmates for him. As there is no record of her marriage, we may suppose that Blanche Swynford, who would have been about fifteen in 1378, had already died, but possibly her sister Dorothy was still at home. John Beaufort was now about five, Henry possibly three, and Joan not quite two. It would have been a chaotic household, with all the building works going on at this time, and of course the lady of the manor was often away. Katherine was probably with John when he was at Leicester Castle on October 4, for on that day he issued letters patent permitting her to cut down oak trees at his manor of Enderby in Leicester Chase, “and to sell or carry this wood wherever she wishes, and use the profits for her own use.”94 It was probably used for the ongoing renovations at Kettlethorpe, which by now must have begun to look very imposing indeed; it was perhaps in this period that the great stone gateway was built.95 To all appearances, Katherine’s was now a lordly household, reflecting the wealth and social position of its mistress.

  Katherine probably went home to supervise the new works she was planning when John rode south to Gloucester, where Wycliffe was allowed to address Parliament, which assembled there in late October. That was to be Wycliffe’s political swan song. The following year, “this second Satan” would attack the sacrament of the Eucharist itself, whereupon the deeply orthodox duke began to distance himself from his former protégé—”he was deceived, as were many others.”96 In 1380, Wycliffe was ordered not to preach, and the following year his heretical views on transubstantiation were condemned by the Church. He had just completed his translation of the Bible into English, but his works were all condemned and banned in May 1382. By then John of Gaunt had severed all connections with him, and he had retired to Lutter-worth, where he died of the effects of a stroke in 1384. His bones were exhumed and burned in 1419, under a heresy law that had not been in force in his lifetime.

  Nevertheless, when Parliament, in 1395, proposed the burning of Wycliffe’s Bible, John of Gaunt, with “great oaths,” spoke up in its defense. “Other nations have God’s law in their own mother tongue,” he argued, “and we will have ours in English.”97 In this, he was way ahead of his time—it would be another 150 years before English Bibles were chained in churches for all to read.

  After spending some months at the Savoy, John of Gaunt was again at Leicester in August 1379,98 probably enjoying the pleasures of the chase. But he was back in London before September 12 for Blanche’s obit at St. Paul’s,99 where an elaborate iron grille had been set up around her new tomb.100 John must have left immediately after the obit for Kettlethorpe, where, only two days later, he made a grant to Katherine.101

  This was probably a fleeting visit, for John was not among the witnesses to a deed dated that same day, September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and issued at Kettlethorpe in the presence of the rector, Sir Robert de Northwood; in it, John de Dovdale of Chaworth granted to Katherine and her heirs “certain tenements he had in the town and fields of Kettlethorpe and Laughterton.” Some years later, on July 25, 1387, John de Sereby, citizen of Lincoln (who had been at her son’s baptism), granted to “Lady Katherine de Swynford, Lady of Kettlethorpe … all his rent which he had in Kettlethorpe, Laughterton, and Fenton.”102 By using part of her substantial income to purchase small properties and plots of land in nearby villages, Katherine was prudently extending her holdings at Kettlethorpe and Coleby, and thus conserving and improving her son’s inheritance.

  John was at Kenilworth from October 27 to the
second week in November, doubtless to see how his extensive renovations were progressing; they were evidently causing a lot of disruption, because when the duke came to Kenilworth for Christmas, he and his retinue had to lodge at Kenilworth Priory, where a floor was laid for dancing in the great chamber103—surely an unwelcome intrusion in the monastic regime. During his sojourn at Kenilworth in the autumn, John had ordered the payment of moneys to Geoffrey Chaucer; also, on November 6, he commanded his receiver in Lincolnshire to pay “our dear and well- beloved damoiselle” Philippa Chaucer’s annuity.104These orders may have been prompted by Katherine, who had perhaps accompanied her lover to Kenilworth. John was again at Kettlethorpe with Katherine from November 14 to 16.105 By November 17 he had ridden south to Newarke.106

 
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