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

  By 1383, John of Gaunt had granted Thomas Swynford the very handsome annuity of £40 (£16,288)—further evidence of his continuing patronage of Katherine’s family. And the duke was to be more generous still—in March, despite his major political preoccupations, he yet found time to grant Thomas a second annuity of 100 marks (£13,573) on his marriage to Jane Crophill of Nottingham. 63 Jane may have been related to the Crophills who were members of the Trinity Guild of St. Mary in that city, to which John of Gaunt, Duchess Constance, and Katherine Swynford also belonged; 64 this important and wealthy guild had its chapel and altar in the north transept of St. Mary’s Church in High Pavement—the present church dates from ca. 1376, and the eighteenth- century Shire Hall now occupies the site of the House of the Trinity Guild, or Trinity House, as it later became known. Katherine’s membership in this guild, like her properties in Boston and Grantham (see below), is perhaps indicative of the extent of her financial interests, or possibly of the willingness of corporate bodies to please John of Gaunt by showing favor to her. Apparently no one questioned the incongruity and dubious moral value of extending membership of the guild to his wife and his former mistress.

  The parentage of Thomas’s bride is unknown, but there are clues. The name Crophill occurs several times in the fourteenth century in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and Leicestershire. The family probably originated at Cropwell Bishop and Cropwell Butler, villages a mile apart, to the east of Nottingham, which in Domesday Book were both known as Crophill or Crophell. In the fourteenth century three Crophills became mayors of Nottingham and were kinsmen of the royal house.65 Given her links with Nottingham, Katherine Swynford must have known the family, and it was probably she who arranged her son’s marriage. Considering the Crophills’ royal connections, and their status too, Katherine had done well for her son.

  Jane must have been very young at the time of her marriage, or perhaps she failed to conceive for a long time or suffered a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, because the couple’s only known son—named Thomas after his father—was not born until about 1406. There was probably a daughter too, the Katherine Swynford who married Sir William Drury of Rougham, Suffolk, before 1428. The estimated date of their nuptials, and the fact that this Katherine died in 1478, suggests that she too was born late in the marriage, and that the elder Katherine Swynford never knew these grandchildren.

  After his wedding Thomas appears to have remained with Henry of Derby; he would be knighted before February 1386.

  In April 1383, John of Gaunt acquiesced in the council’s decision to resolve the differences between England and Castile by peaceful means, and again put his plans on hold, deferring his invasion until the following spring. Still suspicious of his motives, the council secretly instructed the English envoys in Bayonne to prolong matters as long as possible, in order to delay the duke’s departure. As it happened, Juan I refused to abandon his alliance with France, so negotiations broke down.

  John spent much of April at Kenilworth.66 Constance was with him at first, but left for Tutbury before he departed for the St. George’s festivities at Windsor: She evidently still preferred to hold herself aloof from the English court and to remain in seclusion with her ladies. But the duke had maintained great state while she was with him at Kenilworth, and his daily expenditure decreased significantly after she left. Clearly he was still treating her with great respect and deference, deliberately emphasizing her status as the Queen of Castile.

  John’s diplomatic powers were again called into play when he was sent north that summer to negotiate a renewal of the truce with the Scots. On August 1, as he rode back south, his natural daughter, Blanche Morieux, was successfully petitioning the King for the pardon of a murderer.67 This is the last mention of her in the historical record, and sadly we must conclude that she died not long afterward.

  That August, Bishop Despenser’s crusade ended in ignominious failure and an appalling loss of life—for which the bishop would be impeached and stripped of his temporalities. The council now belatedly recognized that John of Gaunt was the only man with the resources and prestige to deal with the French, and accordingly he was appointed King’s Lieutenant in France and asked to prepare for a foray across the Channel to negotiate a truce with the enemy and salvage something of England’s honor.

  Katherine Swynford, meanwhile, had herself been petitioning the King, for on October 20, 1383, Richard granted a royal license empowering her to enclose and empark three hundred acres of land and woods within the manor of Kettlethorpe.68 Again, the influence—direct or indirect—of John of Gaunt may be perceived, for the duke was the man of the moment, deferred to by the majority, and the King, although increasingly jealous and resentful of him, could hardly gainsay such a request. Nevertheless, the patronage Richard extended to Katherine and her kinsfolk suggests he continued to think highly of her. The enclosing of a deer park usually meant the dispossession of tenant farmers, and often led to ill feeling. To Katherine, however, it meant a further improvement to the manor and her son’s inheritance. As with her failure to drain her stretch of the Fossdyke, self- interest came before the consideration of others. It was an attitude typical of many medieval landowners.

  The duke moved a crucial step closer to his Spanish goal in November 1383 when, following the death of the pro- Castilian King Ferdinand, which plunged Portugal into dynastic war, the Anglophile João I—brother of the late monarch—was elected by a rebel faction to its contested throne. João, needing English help to enforce his sovereignty against the claims of Juan I of Castile (who was married to Ferdinand’s daughter, a lady of doubtful legitimacy), was only too willing to offer his support for John of Gaunt’s claim to Castile.

  John returned from a mission to Scotland at the end of April 1384, and arrived at Salisbury for what turned out to be a tumultuous session of Parliament, for Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, launched a fierce and entirely justified attack on the King and his favorites, provoking Richard publicly to insult him. John of Gaunt tried to pacify both of them, putting Arundel’s concerns in more measured terms to the King, yet angering both Richard and the court party—never before had Richard’s hostility to his uncle been so evident.

  At this juncture a plot was hatched against the duke, obviously with the intention of eliminating him entirely from the political scene. The plot came to light when, in de Veres chamber, a Carmelite friar, John Latimer, was said to have privately warned the King that John of Gaunt had organized a widespread conspiracy and was planning to have him assassinated. With suspicious alacrity, Richard accepted this at face value. He confronted his uncle, lost his temper, accused him of plotting treason, and was ready to have him summarily executed without any investigation of the matter. The duke, with dignified conviction, protested his innocence and accused the King himself of working against his own life. Richard responded with an astonishing about- face, ordering that the friar be put to death summarily, but the Lords in Parliament persuaded him to have the man questioned before proceeding further. It never happened: A band of knights led by the King’s half brother, the hot- headed Sir John Holland, seized Latimer as he was being hauled off to prison and had him tortured to death. Someone, clearly, didn’t want the wretch betraying the origins of the plot.69

  Parliament erupted in fury, so the King hastened to dissolve it. He then had to deal with his youngest uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, who, brandishing his sword, furiously threatened to kill anyone, Richard included, who dared to accuse his brother Lancaster of treason.70 Deprived of the only witness, the case against John collapsed.

  It looks very much as if the King and his favorites, especially Robert de Vere, were behind this attempt to overthrow John of Gaunt. Vere bitterly resented the duke’s influence and had been playing on the King’s jealousy of his uncle’s dominance, urging him to shake it off and rule autonomously. At bottom, of course, Richard needed his uncle. Good relations were soon restored, at least on the surface and for the time being, and in June, John was again mad
e King’s Lieutenant in France and sent there to negotiate a renewal of the truce.

  Katherine Swynford, like most people, would soon have learned what _had happened at Salisbury, and the knowledge that her erstwhile lover and generous patron, the father of her children, had come so close to an ignoble death must have distressed her greatly. But this was not the only unpleasant event to affect Katherine in 1384. On August 17, at Reading, a commission of oyer and terminer was issued following a complaint by her against no less a person than Robert de Saltby, the Mayor of Lincoln, and other named men of that city, including its bailiffs, John Prentyss and John Shipman, for breaking into her close there, taking her goods, and assaulting her servants. On September 20, this time at Westminster, a similar commission was issued after an attack on her close in Grantham by the same men and others.71

  Given the status of the attackers, this was no common assault by petty-minded people on a notorious woman of whose morals they disapproved; it was far more serious than that. And considering that Katherine had been living apart from John of Gaunt for more than three years now, it is highly unlikely that it was an expression of public outrage at her private life. No, these crimes were more likely to have been born out of angry resentment at Katherine’s siding with the clergy in the ongoing conflict between the Bail and the cathedral close over the close’s demand to be placed beyond the jurisdiction of the town authorities, a dispute that had simmered in Lincoln for some years and would not be resolved until John of Gaunt ruled in 1390 and 1392 that the close was to enjoy immunity from the jurisdiction and demands of the mayor and citizens—for which the jubilant canons gave him a gold image of his patron saint, John the Baptist, from the cathedral treasury.72 Katherine’s strong links with the close would have placed her firmly on that side of the divide. The citizens were also resentful of the duke’s perceived encroachment, as constable of the castle, upon their liberties.73 And Katherine’s failure to clear her stretch of the Fossdyke would have ruffled feathers among the burghers of the town; that same year of 1384, John of Gaunt presided over a commission that failed to address the problem effectively. Moreover, the duke was known to be Katherine’s patron still: The canons might have rented the Chancery to Katherine in a bid to win his support, and there were perhaps fears in the Bail that she influenced him unfairly in favor of the close and in respect of the Fossdyke. So these attacks, cunningly timed while he was abroad, were probably intended as a warning to Katherine not to involve herself—or try to prejudice her powerful protector—in the city’s quarrels. Even so, they were an outrageous attack on her property, and a highly provocative intrusion in the cathedral close that did not help the cause of the citizens in the long run.

  We do not know if Katherine was in Lincoln when the Chancery was raided; the presence of her servants might suggest that she was, but she may have left a skeleton staff there in her absence. There or not, the assaults must have shaken her to the core, for if the mayor himself was involved, what support could she look for in Lincoln outside the precincts of the close? It cannot have been pleasant realizing she was so hated. There is no record, however, of what happened to the perpetrators, nor of any further assaults on her property.

  The second commission relating to these offenses contains the only known reference to Katherine having property in Grantham. A close then meant an enclosed piece of land, usually beside a cathedral or other important building, and containing staff housing or offices, such as the Chancery in Lincoln. Thus, her close was probably near St. Wulfram’s, the most important church in the town, and the hub around which it had grown; its soaring 282- foot spire was a landmark for miles around. The house she owned here was almost certainly one of several ancient mansions that once stood in this area, and may have been of equal status to Grantham House in Castlegate, which survives today. Grantham House was originally a stone hall house built around 1380 in what was then a rural area near the church; it still stands in twenty- seven acres of gardens on the banks of the River Witham. Its medieval core is now hidden beneath sixteenth- and eighteenth- century additions and alterations. From the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth century, this house was known as Hall Place, after the wealthy family of merchants that lived there; prior to that, it was apparently owned by the Fitzwilliams. Both Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots, and Cardinal Wolsey stayed there in the sixteenth century. The original Grantham House appears to have been of a similar type to the properties that Kather-ine Swynford leased in Lincoln, and probably exemplifies the kind of house she had in Grantham.74

  These were perilous times. In February 1385, Robert de Vere—with the connivance of the King75 —made a second attempt to bring down John of Gaunt, hatching yet another court plot to kill him at a tournament. On February 24 an outraged John, accompanied by an armed escort and wearing a breastplate, confronted Richard II at Sheen, lecturing him “with some harshness and severity” on the folly of relying on bad counsel. Early the next month, Princess Joan intervened to bring about a public reconciliation, while John’s former adversary, William Courtenay, now Archbishop of Canterbury, censured the King for the way in which he had behaved toward the duke, and condemned his evil advisers—at which Richard had to be restrained from running the archbishop through with his sword and transforming him into a second Thomas à Becket.76 Both John of Gaunt and Courtenay had voiced the increasingly widespread concern about the King’s favorites, and Richard’s reaction shows how unwilling he was to listen to measured criticism. His resentment of his uncle had now reached the boiling point. Yet these days John’s priorities were focused not on maintaining political supremacy in England, but on Castile, as the prospect of a crown there became daily more viable. In April an English force was finally dispatched overseas to the aid of João I, who that month—after prolonged resistance to the forces of Castile—was once more defiantly proclaimed King of Portugal.

  John spent the summer accompanying Richard II on a lackluster invasion of Scotland, having first lavishly entertained the King and Queen at Leicester Castle.77 During this campaign, John’s brothers, Edmund and Thomas, were created Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester, respectively. While they were all up north, tidings came of the death of Princess Joan on August 8 at Wallingford. Her end was perhaps hastened by the news that her son the King intended to proceed against his half brother, Sir John Holland, for the murder of the heir of the Earl of Stafford,78 but Walsingham tells us that the princess, who had spent a life “devoted to pleasure,” was “so fat from eating that she could scarcely walk;” it may be that her obesity, as well as stress, had predisposed her to a heart attack. Joan was buried beside her first husband, Sir Thomas Holland, in the church of the Grey Friars at Stamford, some five months after her passing, in the presence of the King; Chaucer was a mourner, having received black cloth for the occasion from the royal wardrobe,79 while John of Gaunt must have sincerely mourned the loss of this dear sister- in- law who had been such a stalwart friend to him.

  At the end of August 1385, as he returned to his estates in the Midlands, John received the most exciting and encouraging news: King João, his army boosted by English troops, had won a magnificent victory over his enemies at Aljubarrotta on August 14 and was now the unchallenged sovereign of Portugal. The duke was jubilant,80 for the way was at last clear for João to offer him the support he needed for his Castilian venture. Late in November 1385, John appealed to Parliament to vote the necessary funds for an invasion of Castile by means of “the way of Portugal,” and Parliament—in which his son Henry was sitting for the first time—at last responded favorably.

  There is evidence that John of Gaunt was in contact with Katherine Swynford at this time, the first on record since he had sent her wine in 1382. During the November Parliament, the duke petitioned for the removal of Sir John Stanley from the manors of Lathom and Knowsley in Lancashire. Sir John had recently married Isabel, the daughter of Sir Thomas Lathom; upon Lathom’s death in 1370, those manors had passed to his heir, another Sir Thomas, who died underage i
n 1383. Because Thomas had been a minor, John of Gaunt, as his feudal lord, took him and his manors into wardship, and although Isabel was her brother’s heiress, her husband had taken possession of Lathom and Knowsley on Thomas’s death without first establishing his right to do so in the duke’s palatine chancery. There was, of course, more to this than met the eye: Sir John Stanley, who became Robert de Vere’s deputy in Ireland the following year, appears to have been a client of the favorite, and almost certainly de Vere was behind this slight to the duke and upheld Stanley’s possession of the manors in Parliament.

  But the law was on the duke’s side. After John of Gaunt complained that Stanley had been in “grave contempt” of his ducal rights, Parliament decreed that Stanley’s entry into the manors had been illegal and ordered him to vacate them and to lodge his claim in the palatine chancery. In the end John of Gaunt was just. He had vindicated his right to the manors, but he was aware that they should pass to Stanley in right of his wife. So he granted them to Katherine Swynford, who in turn, at his behest, sold them to Stanley. The duke even returned to Stanley a substantial part of the price.81 Thus we have evidence that John and Katherine were in contact—indeed, in collaboration—at this time, and that she was willing to support him in such matters.

  The King, eager to get rid of his troublesome uncle, now loaned him money for his Castilian venture,82 and from January 1386, preparations for the great invasion went ahead.

  * I am indebted to Joan Potton for pointing this out.


  The Lady of Kettlethorpe

  Nearly five years after the end of their affair, Katherine could perhaps view the prospect of John leaving England for a long period with equanimity. After all, it would not be forever—there is some evidence to suggest that he never intended to take up permanent residence in Castile, but anticipated that England would remain his chief base.1Thus, their children would not be permanently deprived of a father, nor Katherine of the occasional contact with him.

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