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


  Inwardly, she might have worried about John, for he was no longer young. Ferñao Lopes, whose description of him as he appeared in Portugal in 1386-87 may derive from the reminiscences of Philippa of Lancaster and other contemporaries, says he was still tall, lean, and upright, but estimated him to be “about sixty years old, with fewer white hairs than is normal for one of his age”—unsurprisingly, as he was still only forty- six. It does appear, though, that a lifetime of care and campaigning had prematurely aged him, and his experiences in Spain would doubtless leave their mark as well.

  The duke spent the months prior to his departure putting his affairs in order, and his provision extended to Katherine’s family. He took Thomas Chaucer into his service.2 He betrothed nine- year- old Joan Beaufort to Sir Robert Ferrers of Willisham, heir through his mother to the Boteler estates in Wem.3 And on February 19, the day after the standard of the Cross was raised in St. Paul’s Cathedral and his Castilian venture was preached as a crusade, he was in Lincoln.

  John was there to attend an impressive ceremony in the chapter house of Lincoln Cathedral, in which, in the presence of nine canons, “the Lord Henry, Earl of Derby, son of the Lord John, the most high Prince, King of Castile and Duke of Lancaster” was to be admitted by Bishop Buckingham to the cathedral’s confraternity, just as John himself had been admitted at the age of three. Alongside Henry, John Beaufort, now about thirteen and already knighted; Sir Thomas Swynford; Philippa Chaucer; and Sir Robert Ferrers were also made members.4 Sir Thomas Swynford, in company with another Lincolnshire knight, Sir William Hauley, was officially in attendance on the duke that day.5 The inclusion of Katherine’s sons, her sister, and her future son- in- law in this important Lancastrian ceremony demonstrates how highly regarded, and how important, she and her family were within the duke’s closest circle.

  Admission to the cathedral’s “order of the brotherhood”—which it claimed had been founded “when the Bible was written,”6 but which in fact dated from ca. 11857—was a socially prestigious privilege that enabled members of the laity to benefit from the prayers of the clergy in perpetuity and to be buried in the cathedral; in return, it was piously hoped, they would be generous benefactors and patrons.8 The duke no doubt felt that he and those dear to him needed such intercessions at this crucial time. His visit to Lincoln Cathedral would have afforded him the opportunity to pray at the three altars where his name saints were worshipped, and to the Holy Virgin, to whom the church was dedicated.9

  After the ceremony, wine and comfits were served, then the company repaired to the castle for a feast hosted by the duke.10 Professor Goodman is probably correct in suggesting that John made this auspicious day the occasion for a farewell gathering prior to his departure. And with the focus on two of her sons, her sister, her former charge, and her patron, there can be little doubt that Katherine Swynford, whose house was nearby, was also pres ent with her other children. Nor that her long association with the cathedral, and the omission of her name from the list of new members of its confraternity, suggest that she herself already belonged to it, and perhaps had for some years, for Sir Hugh Swynford may also have been a member.11

  Philippa Chaucer’s admission suggests that she was still resident in Lincolnshire at this time and living apart from her husband. She was probably preparing to go to Castile in the train of Duchess Constance: After all, her son Thomas was going with the duke, and with her daughter in a convent and her husband living apart from her, there was little to keep her in En gland.

  John of Gaunt returned to London immediately after the ceremony; his duchess was then away on a pilgrimage to various shrines, praying for the success of her husband’s great enterprise. She can hardly be blamed for not attending the ceremony in Lincoln, at which the Swynford connections were so prominent.12 Instead, she was received into the confraternity of St. Al-bans Abbey, home of the chronicler Walsingham,13 a place where she was much admired for her piety, which might account in part for Walsingham’s past hostility toward the duke.

  On March 8, Richard II formally recognized John of Gaunt as King of Castile, placing him next to himself at the council table.14 At Easter the Pope again proclaimed the enterprise a crusade, and sent John a holy banner.15 By then the duke had begun assembling his fleet, and there was a ceremony of farewell at court, with the King and Queen solemnly placing golden diadems on the heads of John and Constance. After that, John departed on his own pilgrimage to various shrines in the West Country.16 On April 8, as King of Castile, he agreed to a treaty of perpetual friendship with Richard II, and on April 20 the King ordered the impressing of every ship in the realm for John’s fleet.

  By June 14 the duke had arrived in Plymouth; four days later his fleet was finally assembled. Preoccupied as he was with the myriad aspects of his venture, he yet had to find time to deal with the unseemly conduct of his strong-willed17 daughter, Elizabeth of Lancaster. Bored with her child husband, who was still only fourteen to her twenty- three years, Elizabeth had willingly allowed herself to be seduced by the King’s half brother, Sir John Holland,18 a volatile schemer who in 1384 had been involved in the plot hatched against John of Gaunt at the Salisbury Parliament; it was he who in 1385 had caused outrage—and grief to his mother, Princess Joan—by killing Stafford’s son, as a result of which he had been forced to flee to sanctuary until the King’s wrath abated. Holland was licentious too, and around 1380 reputedly enjoyed a torrid affair with the flirtatious Isabella of Castile, Constance’s sister and the wife of Edmund of Langley.19 Now, Higden says, he had been “struck down passionately” by his love for Elizabeth of Lancaster, “so that day and night he sought her out.”

  When John of Gaunt learned that Elizabeth was pregnant by Holland, he arranged for her unconsummated marriage to Pembroke to be annulled; that unfortunate boy was to remarry, but he would die horribly, pierced through his genitals, in a jousting accident at Christmas 1389.20 On June 24, 1386, Elizabeth and Holland were hastily wed21 in or near Plymouth, narrowly averting a scandal and effecting his complete rehabilitation. The duke was to show great favor to this son- in- law, so obviously the scoundrel had charm and ability. The couple’s daughter Constance was born the following year, and four other children—the eldest named John, after the duke— would follow.

  Clearly the headstrong Elizabeth had inherited her father’s sensual nature; it may have seemed to her that there was no harm in following the example set by her former governess, Katherine Swynford, in giving herself outside marriage to the man she loved. But Katherine was not a princess of the blood—Elizabeth was, and the corruption of her virtue was a more serious matter. It seems that Katherine had failed, by precedent or precept, to impress upon Elizabeth the need for a girl in her position to conduct herself virtuously. Fortunately, her father had dealt with her leniently and advantageously, and her marriage turned out to be successful.

  In July 1386 the duke’s retinues began to embark. Having appointed his son Henry to serve as Warden of the Palatinate of Lancaster during his absence, John entertained him at a farewell dinner on board his flagship on July 8. The following day a fair wind sprang up; father and son bade each other a hasty farewell, and the fleet set sail on its glorious venture.22 With it went the duke’s three daughters; his sons- in- law John Holland, who had been appointed constable of his army, and Sir Thomas Morieux, serving as marshal; Thomas Chaucer, and probably his mother Philippa; and Duchess Constance, now in high hopes of occupying her father’s throne and continuing his dynasty.

  Constance was possibly pregnant at this time, with a child doubtless conceived primarily for dynastic purposes. The arrival of a male heir on Castilian soil would signify divine approval of her cause and inspire the loyalty of her subjects. It would also serve to proclaim that she and her husband were fully reconciled, and go some way toward obliterating the scandal of his former life. Alas, the child—if there was a child at all—was not of the desired sex: The contemporary chronicler Monk of St. Denis says that the duchess was delivered of a dau
ghter soon after she and the duke disembarked at Corunna on July 25.23 No further mention is made of the infant, so either she did not live or the monk’s information was inaccurate and she never existed.

  Katherine Swynford was probably living quietly in Lincolnshire when John went away—she was still renting the Chancery in 1386-87, for at that time she was having repairs done to the house.24 Perhaps she went to the cathedral and offered up prayers for the success of the duke’s enterprise, as Bishop Buckingham requested of his flock on July 28.25 There is later evidence to suggest that she and John were in touch while he was abroad, so probably at some stage she and her Beaufort children received word of his arrival in Compostela and his decision to winter in Galicia before attempting to take Castile. In his absence, she busied herself with domestic matters and continued to administer her son’s lands. In 1386, Henry de Fenton granted Katherine tenements in Kettlethorpe, further improving the Swynford inheritance.26

  Katherine cannot have seen much of her brother- in- law, Geoffrey Chaucer, these days; maybe, with Philippa possibly gone overseas, they now had little to say to each other. Chaucer did not fare well after the duke’s departure. In 1386 he was a man of substance and status, and in the summer of that year he was nominated to sit in Parliament as Knight of the Shire for Kent, taking his seat in October. But toward the end of the year, he either resigned from or was deprived of his lucrative controllerships, and he gave up—or was evicted from—his house in Aldgate. He possibly took lodgings in Greenwich or Deptford,27 but his only income now was his royal pension, which he continued to collect himself twice a year from the Exchequer.

  The loss of his house and offices coming only months after John of Gaunt’s departure argues that they had indeed been granted to him through the duke’s influence. But the absent John was now persona non grata in En gland, for the King was relieved to be rid of his too powerful and intimidating uncle, and his favorite, Robert de Vere, now reigned triumphant at court. This might explain why Chaucer—whose wife was sister to the duke’s former mistress—had lost his offices and would not regain favor until Richard realized just how much he needed John of Gaunt’s support.

  Meanwhile, the duke had met up with his ally, João I of Portugal, and both were trying to enforce John’s claims through diplomacy before resorting to war. To cement their friendship, Philippa of Lancaster was given in marriage to King João in February 1387 in Oporto Cathedral.

  Philippa was to prove a model—and much- loved—queen consort. She was devoted and obedient to her husband, bore him eight children (two were named after her parents; another was the great explorer prince, Henry the Navigator), had them well- educated, and set a deeply pious and charitable example.28 In every way she was a credit to her father, and also to Kather-ine Swynford, who had been in overall charge of her from the time Philippa was thirteen, and who evidently succeeded with her where she had failed with her sister. And it was perhaps Philippa’s fondness for Katherine and the Beauforts that led her to treat her husband’s bastard children with kindness and tolerance.29

  It was probably before his departure that Katherine loaned John a substantial sum of money. The Pope had promised special remission of sins to those who helped finance the duke’s “crusade,” so Katherine, mindful of her former life, was perhaps laying up treasure in Heaven. The fact that she had such funds to lend is further testimony to her financial acumen—it will be remembered that John himself had entrusted her with large sums of money for the maintenance of his daughters, and we know she was careful with her income, and prudent in providing for the future. But when the duke was in need, she did not hesitate to assist him liberally, showing herself selflessly sympathetic to his cause, even though it took him away from her. John did not forget her generosity, and on February 16, 1387,30 he sent instructions to his receiver in Yorkshire to repay £100 (£33,471) in part repayment of the 500 marks (£41,058) she had loaned him “in his great necessity.”31 We might infer from this that he and Katherine were maintaining some kind of contact while he was abroad: The interests of their children alone would surely have necessitated it.

  In the spring of 1387, diplomatic solutions having failed, the duke took Galicia, and at the end of March he and King João invaded León, a kingdom ruled by Juan I of Castile. But things did not go well—there were complaints that the duke’s womenfolk slowed down the march; his son- in- law, Sir Thomas Morieux, died, worn out by fighting;32 and the Castilians had laid waste to the land, so that countless men and horses died of starvation, dysentery, and heat exhaustion. “These are the fortunes of war,” observed Froissart. “The duke was at his wits’ end, and weighed down by anxiety. He saw his men exhausted and ill and taking to their beds, while he himself felt so weary that he lay in his bed without moving.” John nearly died too, but forced himself to get up and look cheerful, for the sake of maintaining morale among his men. Nevertheless, there was much muttering about his leadership of the campaign,33 even though the Count of Foix thought John had “conducted himself valiantly and wisely in this war,” and soon King João began urging him to abandon the fighting in favor of a return to diplomacy.34But the duke refused.

  On March 26-27, 1387, Richard II and Anne of Bohemia visited Lincoln, to be admitted to the confraternity of the cathedral. It is hard to conceive that Katherine, probably a member herself, was not among the congregation that witnessed this ceremony. Richard II thought highly of her, and may well have singled her out on that day, because the following month he appointed “Lady Katherine de Swynford” a Lady of the Garter (or, more correctly, a “Lady of the Fraternity of St. George and of the Society of the Garter”),35 the highest English honor to which a woman might aspire. Her formal robes of scarlet wool embroidered with blue taffeta garters in gold, with the motto Honi soit qui mal y pense in blue silk, and a matching hood, were paid for by the King the following August.36

  In 1387, Katherine would have gone to the glittering court at Windsor, donned her robes, participated in the Garter ceremonies with the other ten ladies of the order, and attended the great feast hosted by the King on St. George’s Day. Doubtless, she met up with many people she had known during her glory days with the duke, but Katherine could now hold her head up at court in the knowledge that she was there in an honorable and legitimate capacity. Even so, her admission to the most prestigious order of knighthood in Europe was probably a tacit acknowledgment by the King of her special relationship with John of Gaunt, and of her influence with him. It might also indicate that the scandal surrounding their affair had died down and that people knew they were no longer lovers.

  Edward III had begun the practice of appointing “Dames of the Fraternity” with Queen Philippa and his eldest daughter Isabella, but since the beginning of his reign, Richard II was assiduous in admitting ladies to the order, notably his mother, Joan of Kent; Duchess Constance; her sister Isabella; and Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster in 1378-79; and Queen Anne, Catalina of Lancaster, Eleanor de Bohun, and Lady Mohun in 1384. So Katherine Swynford was in august company. But there was an ulterior motive for her advancement. By 1387, Richard was engaged in a bitter struggle with those lords who resented his reliance on worthless favorites like Robert de Vere and his former tutor, Sir Simon Burley, and were demanding a new push to win the war with France: Richard had never yet led an army into the field—an abrogation of his duty, in the eyes of his martially minded magnates—and was essentially inclined to peace. That summer Parliament itself was to demand that he remove his offensive counselors. Richard had therefore come to a belated realization of how loyally John of Gaunt had supported him; he knew how much John cared for Katherine, and making her a Lady of the Garter was one way in which he could show favor to his uncle and solicit his support; this would not be the first time he promoted ladies to the order to forge useful alliances with his nobles.37 It is probably no coincidence too that Chaucer’s fortunes now began to improve: In July he was sent to Calais on the King’s service, and in August he was acting as a justice of the pea
ce at Dartford in Kent38—more sops to the duke perhaps.

  But John had far more pressing matters on his mind. His campaign in León ended cruelly in dysentery, mass desertions, and disaster, he had failed to rally sufficient Iberian backing for his cause, and he now saw that there was no prospect of him ever taking Castile.39 His army, encamped on an open plain in the burning sun, was decimated by the bloody flux. “You must believe that the Duke of Lancaster was not without trouble night or day, for he was sorely ill, and his valiant knights dead. He sorrowed for them and cried (if one can say so) every day, and took everything to heart.”40 To make matters worse, King João fell seriously ill and nearly died, as a result of which his distraught bride, Philippa of Lancaster, suffered a miscarriage. Their recovery was seen as little more than a miracle.41

  One of those who perished of dysentery in Léon may have been Philippa Chaucer. On June 18, 1387, Geoffrey collected her annuity as usual from the Exchequer, but on November 7, when the next installment was due, he fetched only his own pension. Nor did he ever pick up any more payments to Philippa.42 Since the usual reason for disappearing from these records was death, it must be assumed that she died between June 18 and November 17, 1387.43

  It has been suggested that a stone effigy of a medieval lady that was discovered in the nineteenth century beneath the floor of the church of St. Mary the Virgin at Old Worldham in Hampshire is that of Philippa Chaucer. This claim is based on the evidence of a brooch, or “fermail,” on the breast of the figure, which is said to display a Roët wheel. However, the design bears very little resemblance to that emblem, and in fact is common to such brooches. The costume, moreover, is that of the first half of the thirteenth century (when the church was built), not the last quarter of the fourteenth.44

 
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