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


  When Paon left England in 1352, he probably took his teenage son Walter back to Hainault with him and left his tiny daughters in the care of the kindly Queen Philippa. It was then customary for gently born children to be placed in noble households with patrons who could provide an appropriate education and advance their prospects of preferment and an advantageous marriage, but these little girls were mere infants then, both too young to serve the Queen in any way. Paon placing them with her so young suggests that they were already motherless, their mother perhaps having died in childbirth. The likelihood is that Philippa offered or agreed to make them her wards, educate them, and find them husbands, and that a relieved Paon left them with her, secure in the knowledge that the Queen’s patronage would be to his daughters’ lasting benefit.

  This early placement of Katherine de Roët in the Queen’s household is corroborated by Froissart’s statement that she was continuously brought up from her youth in princely courts, and by a reference in John of Gaunt’s Register to Katherine’s nurse, Agnes Bonsergeant, who doubtless was appointed by the Queen to care for her.

  Early in 1355 we find Walter de Roët in the service of Countess Margaret at Mons; by May he was in England, having been appointed a Yeoman of the Chamber to the Black Prince, Queen Philippa’s eldest son. We might infer from this that Paon had died early in 1355, and that the countess at once sent Walter to Queen Philippa, who was caring for his sisters and quickly arranged for him to join her son’s household. Had the girls’ mother still been alive in 1352, they would probably have returned to Hainault with their father, in which case there would have been no reason for Countess Margaret to send all three children to England; she had, after all, placed their elder sister, Elizabeth, in a convent in Mons, and could surely have made provision for the three younger siblings herself Thus, the evidence suggests that their mother was dead by 1352, and that Katherine and Philippa were placed with the Queen that year and were already in England in 1355, when their father probably died. If so, Katherine would hardly have known her father, still less her mother.

  Katherine and Philippa were fortunate indeed to be taken into the care of the motherly Philippa of Hainault, a “full noble and good woman”44 who had borne twelve children of her own—the youngest, Thomas of Woodstock, had been born as recently as January 1355—and had undertaken the upbringing of several other nobly or royally born children. The Queen was now about forty- four, a tall, plump, kindly lady who was wonderfully generous, wise, “gladsome, humbly pious,” and greatly loved and respected.45 She was interested in education, art, and literature, and her charities were legion. At the same time, she was inordinately fond of rich adornment—”blessed be the memory of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, his Queen, who first invented clothes,” observed one chronicler caustically—and she maintained a large and very costly household. As a result, her income did not meet the demands made on it, which resulted in complaints in Parliament about her frequently getting into debt, and ultimately obliged the King to amalgamate her establishment with his own. Yet Philippa made a great contribution to the stability and success of the monarchy, with her genius for fostering a degree of family unity and closeness unique in the history of the Plantagenet dynasty. Her large brood all adored her, as did her husband, the King (whose pet name for her was “mine biddiny”) and those children fortunate enough to be fostered by her. Jean Froissart, Philippa’s countryman, called her “the good Queen, that so many good deeds had done in her time, and so many knights succoured, and ladies and damsels comforted.”

  Although it was the normal practice for well- born little girls to spend some of their formative years in a convent, where they received an education of sorts and were taught good behavior and household skills,46 there is no evidence that Katherine was ever in a convent; on the contrary, we have Froissart’s evidence that she was continuously brought up from her youth in princely courts—starting, of course, in the Queen’s household. The fact that Philippa spoke Dutch as well as French—two languages with which the young Katherine and her sister would surely have been familiar—must initially have been a great help to both girls. Doubtless, Katherine quickly learned to speak Norman French, the official language of the English court, a much corrupted version of the Norman dialect spoken by William the Conqueror and his companions, and somewhat different from the French spoken on the Continent. However, in her own lifetime Katherine would see Norman French overtaken by English as the language of the law courts (1362), Parliament (1363), and fashionable literary circles, although it remained in use by the nobility for letters and everyday converse until well into the first half of the fifteenth century.

  Katherine herself must have learned English too; her long tenure as lady of the manor of Kettlethorpe, and the fact that her brother- in- law, Chaucer, wrote his great works in the vernacular, make this more than likely.

  In the Queen’s Chamber (i.e., her household), Katherine and her sister would not have lacked for company of their own age. The younger princesses—Mary, born in 1344, and Margaret, born in 1346—would have been among their companions. Margaret married in 1359, Mary in 1361, but both sadly died in the winter of 1361-62. The other surviving princes and princesses—Edward, the Black Prince, born 1330; Isabella of Woodstock, born 1332; Lionel of Antwerp, born 1338; John of Gaunt, born 1340; and Edmund of Langley, born 1341—were much older and had long left the nursery. Froissart says that Katherine was “brought up in her youth” with Blanche of Lancaster, a cousin of the King and the future wife of John of Gaunt. Blanche was eight years older than Katherine, and did spend some of her formative years in the care of Queen Philippa;47 there is later evidence to show that she and Katherine came to be fond of each other. Living in the Queen’s household, Katherine would have come to know all the members of the royal family well, including John of Gaunt, who had an affair with Marie de St. Hilaire, one of his mother’s ladies, probably in the mid to late 1350s,48and later on doubtless came frequently to the Queen’s apartments to pay court to Blanche, his future bride.

  Katherine grew up to be “a woman of such bringing up and honorable demeanor,” and in this the influence of Queen Philippa can easily be detected. Although Katherine was a gentlewoman, she had not been born into the highest echelons of society, but the education she received in the Queen’s household formed her into a lady of many accomplishments who was able to mingle seamlessly with the elite of the kingdom. She must have been well-educated and sophisticated; the fact that, at the age of only about twenty-three, she would be appointed governess to John of Gaunt’s two eldest daughters, who grew up to be highly cultivated and charming women, testifies to this, as do the intellectual interests of at least two of her own children, Henry and Joan Beaufort. Katherine’s upbringing in the Queen’s household would have qualified her uniquely for the post of governess.

  From an early age, Katherine displayed a certain piety, which was perhaps in part due to Queen Philippa’s early training. The Queen was also a practical woman, and it was doubtless from her that Katherine learned the skills of household management that prepared her efficiently to run the knightly estates entrusted to her care, and to understand the functioning of the ducal establishments of John of Gaunt. And she must have learned from Philippa of Hainault the generosity of heart and tactful diplomacy that later enabled her to draw together the diverse strands of what otherwise might have proved a highly dysfunctional family.

  Katherine’s character and outlook on life would have been shaped by the formative years she spent in the privileged world of the English court. It was a brilliant but itinerant court, and she would find herself moving from place to place, lodging in turn at Windsor Castle, Westminster Palace, Woodstock Palace, Havering- atte- Bower, and a number of other luxurious residences of the King and Queen. The court attracted people of rank, intellect, and sophisticated tastes, and was a center of learning and culture. Its members were wealthy, privileged, and overwhelmingly preoccupied with securing patronage and acquiring of material lux
uries. Display was what mattered: They dined in style on rich and novel cuisine, drank to excess, and dressed in extravagantly fashionable and colourful clothes; women’s necklines were very low and often left the shoulders and breasts half bared, while young men wore such clinging hose beneath their short jackets (paltocks) that little was left to the imagination. Elaborate headgear, shoes with long pointed toes, trailing sleeves, and belts clasped seductively low on the hips completed these ensembles for both sexes, and a profusion of jewelery was de rigueur. Unsurprisingly, these pampered, gaudily attired courtiers shocked the King’s more sober subjects, not only by their revealing dress but also by their sometimes licentious conduct. All, however, could be redeemed by the exercise of good manners.

  Katherine would have learned early on the strict codes of protocol and formal courtesy that were observed by royalty and the aristocracy: Froissart tells us that “she had a perfect knowledge of court etiquette, because she had been brought up in it continually since her youth.” Doubtless she was also taught something of the accomplishments deemed desirable in a court into which Queen Philippa had introduced many more women than had graced it in previous reigns, and hence injected a somewhat civilizing influence on what was essentially a male- dominated, militaristic society. Katherine would have learned dancing, embroidery, riding, hunting, hawking, and social skills. That she was a competent horsewoman is evident from the fact that she would one day ride beside John of Gaunt through his estates, and later still kept a dozen of her horses in his stables.49

  She would have become familiar with the parlor games so beloved of courtiers, the songs and music performed by the King’s musicians, and with the cult of courtly love, which informed and underpinned sexual relationships within the rarefied world of castle or palace; its idealized code permitted bachelors of usually inferior rank to pay their passionate addresses to great ladies who were often married and theoretically unattainable. In practice, this code facilitated adulterous relationships. Yet its emphasis on the lover posing as a devoted servant to his mistress, or wearing her favor at a tournament, or languishing hopelessly in the face of her disdain, set the tone for social interaction between men and women, and its influence on sexual behavior in the western world is still evident today. Needless to say, courtly love had little to do with the hardheaded medieval approach to marriage, which among the landed classes was essentially a business contract made for material, political, or dynastic advantage, gave full control of a wife to her husband, and took no account of love or personal inclinations.

  But it was of love that the courtiers talked, sang, and composed verse— love and martial exploits. The latter were a favorite topic of discussion in a court predominantly inhabited by a martial aristocracy and a multitude of knights. For the ladies, however, love was of paramount interest. Manuscripts of romances and love poems were always in circulation in female circles at court, and Katherine, under the guidance of her royal patroness, would surely have been taught to read, if not to write, so she could participate fully in the social milieu of which she was to be a part for so much of her life. Her daughter, Joan Beaufort, and both her future royal charges were literate, as were many of the women in her social circle, so it is inconceivable that Katherine herself was unable to read, if not write.

  The game and play of love was all very well, but it would have been drummed into growing girls like Katherine that they must wait to be addressed before speaking, keep their eyes modestly lowered and their hands folded, and avoid being overfamiliar with men if they wanted to avoid scandal. But the court was a licentious place where promiscuity was rampant, since so many young men could not afford to marry, and frank, bawdy tales—such as those of Giovanni Boccaccio and, later, Geoffrey Chaucer—were very popular; Chaucer, in “The Squire’s Tale,” speaks of the revels, jollity, and “dancings” that provided opportunities for erotic intrigue, “when each person fully experiences the being of another.” In such an environment, young people could hardly have grown up ignorant of the facts of life, or its temptations.

  The social and moral tone of the English court was set by King Edward III himself, who could be described as the archetypal medieval monarch: chivalrous, warlike, and accomplished in statecraft and diplomacy. Born in 1312, Edward had succeeded to the throne in 1327. His contemporaries admired him immensely: “This King Edward was of infinite goodness and glorious among all the great ones of the world. He was great- hearted, clement and benign, familiar and gentle to all men; affable and gentle in courtesy of speech, and profuse in largesse. His body was comely, and his face like the face of a god. He was liberal in giving and lavish in spending.”50 Like his wife, he dressed lavishly, ever the showman.

  By the time Katherine came to court, Edward’s subjects “thought that a new sun was rising over England, with peace abounding, the wealth of possessions and the glory of victory.” 51 In prosecuting his claim to the French throne, the King had inflicted resounding defeats on England’s ancient enemy at Sluys in 1340, Crécy in 1346, and Calais in 1347, and won high renown, a substantial foothold in France, and international prestige for his kingdom. “He was the flower of this world’s knighthood, for whom to do battle was to reign, to contend was to triumph,” observed the chronicler Henry Knighton admiringly.

  Edward had created a lavish and extravagant court that was a center of chivalry and culture. In 1348 he founded the celebrated Order of the Garter in honor of England’s patron saint, St. George, and in emulation of King Arthur and his legendary knights. The annual feast of St. George, celebrated each April at Windsor, was one of the greatest social occasions of the year, ranked with the Easter and Christmas festivities. Edward also established a pattern of court ceremonial that underlined his majesty, proclaimed his magnificence, and provided his courtiers and subjects with an endless procession of fascinating spectacles.

  King Edward was devoted to Queen Philippa, and they were to enjoy a long and happy marriage. Yet he was not faithful to her: Indeed, he was often “passionately smitten” 52 with the charms of other ladies, and there was even an unsubstantiated tale that he took what he wanted by force. 53 At the dances, hunts, tournaments, and feasts that were a regular feature of court life, he was often to be found “entertaining ladies.” In other respects he was a loving husband, and a good and affectionate father who was clearly indulgent toward his large brood. By marrying his sons to English heiresses, he secured lands and titles for them without impoverishing himself, and in the process identified the interests of the nobility with those of the royal family. The remarkable harmony within that family was due to this careful policy of the King and the warmly unifying influence of the Queen. Thus, Edward III could count on his sons’ unquestioning loyalty and support, which was rare in the history of the medieval English monarchy.

  Katherine grew up in the rarefied and privileged enclave of the court, but a wider world also played its part in shaping her. She lived in a society that faced similar problems to those we face today, a postimperial world in which people were fast losing faith in an authoritarian government that seemed unable or unwilling to deal effectively with the practical problems it faced, and insisted on pursuing victory at all costs in a war that could never be won. A world suffering from the effects of rampant monetary inflation, a terrible increase in lawlessness, a decline in morality, and the rise of muscular mercantile organizations whose power was equal to that of today’s multinational corporations. A world in which people suffered under unjust increases in taxation; in which the rich experienced the breaking up of great estates, and the working classes increasingly flexed their political muscles. A world in which religious fundamentalism was challenged by a society grown disillusioned with organized religion. And a world that, at the same time, witnessed an improvement in standards of living and the unprecedented growth of a consumer culture.

  Yet in many other respects Katherine’s world would be largely unrecognizable to us today In the second half of the fourteenth century England was still essentially a feud
al society with a social hierarchy that represented medieval man’s preoccupation with the divinely appointed order of civilization. At the very top of this pyramid was the king; next came his tenants- in- chief the great barons; then the knightly classes and the gentry—the class to which Katherine belonged; then the freemen and rising merchant classes; and at the very bottom of the pyramid, the villeins or serfs, peasants who were tied to their manors and worked the land for their lords and themselves.

  Feudalism had evolved in the Dark Ages in the insecure landscape of western Europe, when territorial borders were constantly changing or under threat, wars were endemic, and kings had to rely on a military aristocracy to supply them with armies, while peasants needed the protection that only an overlord—with his strong castle or fortified manor, and his train of knights—could provide. However, in England, by the thirteenth century, a strong centralized government and increasing material prosperity had led to the growth of towns, trade, and commerce, and a population boom.

 
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