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


  Of course, Philippa could have died in Lincolnshire and been buried there, perhaps at Kettlethorpe—that is the traditional version—or even in Lincoln Cathedral, to which she was entitled as a member of its confraternity. It has also been suggested that she returned to Hainault and spent the rest of her life there, having inherited property in that region.45 But the most credible theory is that she accompanied Constance to Spain and died there, which would account for there being no record of her death in England and no known tomb. If she did succumb to dysentery in the heat of León, she was probably buried in a pit with other victims, with scant ceremony and no memorial.

  Wherever Philippa died, Katherine had lost her sister, and she must have mourned her sincerely: They had evidently been close in recent years, living often in the same household. There is no record of their mutual bereavement bringing Chaucer and Katherine closer together: Their lives seem hardly to have coincided for a long time afterward. Geoffrey, who never made any reference to his wife’s death in his verse, must have felt regret, but his loss did not diminish his cynicism regarding marriage—far from it, as his later poems show. Nor would he “fall in the trap of wedding” again.

  It was now painfully obvious that John of Gaunt’s long- cherished dream of winning the throne of Castile was never going to come to fruition. Finally accepting this, he agreed to terms with King Juan I, and at Trancoso, in July 1387, a settlement was proposed whereby, in return for a cash payment of £100,000 (£33,470,817) and an annual pension of £6,666 (£2,231,165), John and Constance would relinquish their Castilian claims to their fifteen-year- old daughter Catalina and enter into negotiations for her marriage to Juan’s son Enrique.46

  Just before John of Gaunt concluded the peace with Juan I, he made an emotional promise to the Virgin Mary to amend his way of life, and was seen weeping in repentance for his sins.47 This echoed the public avowal he had made in 1381, and begs the question whether he had lapsed into his old promiscuous ways. But given how ill and weak he was at this time, that is unlikely. Was he referring to Katherine Swynford? Although abroad for over a year, he was perhaps still carrying the proverbial torch for her, and might have maintained contact between them, thereby affronting his wife. If so, that contact can only have been intermittent: That summer there were alarming rumors in England, but they were just that, for even Walsingham had no idea what was actually happening in Spain; it was known that the duke’s army had suffered terrible losses, but some were claiming that the hot weather had “induced deadly plague.”48 We can only imagine what Katherine and her children would have felt if they heard that.

  That same month, a Castilian assassin’s attempt to murder John and Constance by poison left them shaken and demoralized; the man confessed and was burned to death, apparently on the duke’s orders.49 In August, John was well enough to accompany King João to Portugal;50 at Oporto, the next month, after confirming a treaty of friendship with Portugal that still holds good today, and is England’s most ancient alliance, John took leave of his daughter and son- in- law and sailed with Constance to Bayonne. 51 He would never again set eyes on Philippa, and parting from her must have been a wrench, for she had married at the unusually late age of twenty- seven, having remained in her father’s care far longer than most daughters of her caste, and there was obviously a close bond between them.52

  On May 26, 1388, Richard II appointed John King’s Lieutenant in Aquitaine, 53 and for the next eighteen months the duke would remain in the south of France, ruling the duchy. At Bayonne, in 1389, he received Thomas Chaucer into his retinue, retaining him for life at an annual fee of £10 (£5,102), 54 and appointed him Constable of Knaresborough Castle.55 From now on, Thomas Chaucer’s fortunes would be closely linked to those of the House of Lancaster.

  On July 8, 1388, John of Gaunt and Juan I concluded the Treaty of Bay-onne, which confirmed the proposals made at Trancoso, and in September, Catalina—now sixteen, tall, fair, and very beautiful56 —was married to the Infante Enrique, the nine- year- old heir to Castile, at Fuentarrabia; she became Queen of Castile when he succeeded as Enrique III in October 1390.57One of the witnesses to the treaty, unusually, was the duke’s long- serving physician, Lewis Recouchez, whose presence has led several historians to wonder if John was still unwell as a result of the rigors of the campaign.58

  After the wedding, with the crown of Castile irrevocably beyond their reach, and their only child royally married, John and Constance no longer needed each other, and appear to have abandoned all pretense of marital unity. From now on they would effectively live apart. She was of no further political importance to him, and accordingly, there are few further references to her in the chronicles. The duke continued to provide generously for her, but there was to be no more pretense of marital felicity.

  For Constance, the abandonment of her cherished hopes must have been hard to bear. In October she went to visit her daughter and new son- in- law in Castile, where she had her father’s remains exhumed from the field of Montiel and honorably reburied with his ancestors. She tried to persuade King Juan to use his influence to end the Great Schism, which had left one Pope in Avignon and another in Rome, and also worked to foster good relations between her husband the duke and the House of Trastamara.59

  Constance would not return to England until the following year, and then would live mainly at Tutbury, dissociating herself once more from the Lancastrian household and the court, and surrounding herself with her Castilian ladies and gentlemen.60 Her withdrawal would leave the way clear for the relationship between the duke and Katherine Swynford to flourish once more.

  Meanwhile, England had descended into political turmoil. Those magnates who opposed the rule of Richard II—who styled themselves the “Lords Appellant”—had finally had their way and purged the royal household of his favorites, reminding the King that he was still a minor and forcing him to accept councillors of their own choosing. Richard retaliated by having Parliament declare their actions unlawful and treasonable, but he was no match for the might of the lords. In November 1387, three of the appellants—Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and the Earls of Arundel and Warwick—angrily accused Robert de Vere and the King’s other favorites of treason, and on December 20, Henry of Derby, who with Thomas Mowbray had lately joined the appellants, defeated de Vere in a skirmish at Radcot Bridge and was hailed as a hero. Afterward, de Vere fled into exile, never to return. (In 1392 he was fatally savaged by a boar while hunting at Louvain.) By this point matters had reached such a crisis that for a few days in late December, Richard II, now a captive in the Tower, was effectively deposed.

  It was against this background—and possibly as a result of the duke and duchess going their separate ways in the autumn—that at Christmas 1387, Katherine Swynford and her daughter Joan Beaufort were invited to stay in Mary de Bohun’s household. Mary and her husband had finally been assigned their own establishment and begun cohabiting in November 1385, and in August or September 1387, at Monmouth Castle (which John of Gaunt had placed at their disposal), Mary had given birth to their first surviving son, named Henry, after his father. Again Katherine was invited to attend Mary after the birth of a child, which suggests that Mary and her husband placed much confidence in the older woman’s capabilities; it might also be that the young Derbys were acquiescing to a request made by the duke that Katherine come to her, or they might have invited her to please him. Even so, she would not have been admitted to their household unless Henry of Derby regarded her as fit company for his wife;61 he seems to have long cherished an affection and regard for Katherine, and perhaps felt that her exceptional qualities more than outweighed her tarnished reputation; and there is evidence that he liked her children too. Henry may have shared with his father a sentimental appreciation of Katherine’s links with Blanche of Lancaster;62 she had probably been more of a stepmother to him than Constance ever had, and in later years, as will be seen, he was to refer to her as his mother. 63

  Henry of Derby was now twenty, a squa
t and powerfully built young man, always richly and elegantly garbed, and handsome,64 with russet- red hair and beard, as were seen when his tomb was opened in 1831. People were impressed by his courtesy, chivalry, and affability.65 Fearless and brave, he was conventional in outlook, staunch and orthodox in his religious views, and had wide- based interests embracing jousting, crusading, literature, poetry, and music. Ambitious and restless, he had a thirst for adventure, but he could be a devious and calculating opportunist, who was also indecisive and thick- skinned. On the positive side, he was careful, cautious, serious, even-tempered, and generous. The duke was exceptionally proud of his son, delighted in his military prowess, and demonstrated great affection toward him. Obviously there was a strong bond between them.

  Although they had the use of Monmouth Castle and a London house in Bishopsgate, the young couple may have been staying at this time at Kenil-worth, which John of Gaunt had also made available to them. By Christmas, Mary had prevailed on Katherine and Joan to join her household, and during the festival she presented them both with gowns of silk in her livery colors of red and white, edged with miniver.66 Again it may be that Mary was acting on John of Gaunt’s instructions; she must have known that he would approve of her receiving Katherine into her chamber.

  Thus, Katherine came to occupy a place of honor in another royal household. Her duties, as with Blanche of Lancaster, probably involved attending upon the young countess and helping to look after her rapidly growing family, starting with the infant Henry of Monmouth; yet, given her experience in running a large establishment, she may have enjoyed a more managerial role. Ten- year- old Joan would probably have helped with the Derbys’ children, and benefited intellectually and socially from being placed in a lordly household; she grew up literate, cultivated, and pious, and must therefore have received a good education that befit her to move with confidence in courtly circles. It is clear, though, that Katherine—like her sister Philippa and other damoiselles in royal households—divided her time between waiting on her young mistress and her personal and family commitments in Lincolnshire, where she continued to rent the Chancery and look after the Swynford holdings.

  Katherine and Joan’s presence in Mary de Bohun’s household testifies to their continuing inclusion in the Lancastrian inner circle. When Mary was appointed a Lady of the Garter in April 1388, Katherine was again provided with Garter robes and once more traveled to Windsor for the St. George’s Day solemnities and feasting. Mary was then pregnant again, and in September 1388 she bore a second son, Thomas, who was speedily followed by a third, John, in June 1389—Henry of Derby did not spare his young wife. However, their marriage appears to have been happy, with the couple sharing a love of chess, dogs, parrots, and music (Mary, who came from a cultivated family, played the harp and cithar, Henry the recorder), and he was conspicuously faithful67 and assiduous in sending gifts of food to satisfy his wife’s cravings during pregnancy.68 Theirs must have been a happy and lively household, and Katherine is again recorded in it at Christmas 1388,69 further evidence of her enduring association with the Derbys.

  In February 1388, in what became known as the “Merciless Parliament,” the Lords Appellant had five of the King’s remaining favorites tried and convicted, and his beloved Simon Burley executed. For more than a year afterward Richard endured in humiliating tutelage to the appellants, until in May 1389, now twenty- two, he belatedly declared himself of full age, dismissed them, and asserted his regal authority. In September, Henry of Derby—ostensibly forgiven—was restored to the council: Richard knew he needed the support of John of Gaunt, who had remained in Aquitaine to conclude a new truce with the French. That year, 1389, Richard had again issued Katherine Swynford with Garter robes; he also created the duke’s son-in- law, John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, and appointed him Chamberlain of England, Admiral of the Western Fleet, and a privy councillor. Richard now wanted—needed—his powerful uncle in England. After more than three years abroad, John of Gaunt had begun making plans for his return home,70 but on October 30 the impatient king—who had already sent funds for his voyage71—formally summoned him back.72

  The ship carrying the duke docked at Plymouth on November 19, 1389.73 He came home far wealthier than before, “with an immense sum of gold treasure,”74 but prematurely aged—a French councillor referred to him at this time as “an old black boar”—and probably in poorer health. From Devon he journeyed eastward, obeying the royal summons, and in December, paying his uncle a great honor, the King rode out two miles from Reading to greet him and gave him the kiss of peace with enthusiastic warmth. He even removed John’s Lancastrian livery collar of linked S’s and placed it about his own neck, symbolizing his intention to be a good lord to the duke and “the good love heartfully felt between them.”75 In return, John would have the King’s white hart badge incorporated into his SS collars.76

  With past differences forgotten, an atmosphere of conciliation pervaded the council meeting the duke attended at Reading on December 10;77 two days later he was at Westminster, where he received an unexpectedly warm welcome from the Mayor and Corporation of London, before attending services of thanksgiving for his return in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral,78 where he no doubt paid his respects at Blanche’s tomb. By Christmas he was back at Hertford Castle.79

  On January 21, 1390, John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock were finally appointed to the council.80 John’s return to the political scene in En gland ushered in an era of greater political stability and order. The King was now happy to place great trust and confidence in him, and anxious to work with him to promote peace with France. He promised his uncle he would listen to good counsel and bestow his patronage more wisely than in the past. For his part, the duke proved moderate and staunchly loyal, acting as a peace broker between the King and the former appellants, and as a buttress to the throne he so honored, slipping effortlessly into the role of elder statesman, “the most sufficient person in the realm.”81 No longer was he so hated by the people, for time had proved their fears of his ambitions groundless. Even Walsingham had nothing but praise for him.

  Richard IIs desire to retain his uncle’s goodwill is evident in the honors he bestowed on him soon after his return: On February 16, 1390, he entailed palatinate powers with the Duchy of Lancaster on John and his heirs in perpetuity,82 whereas Edward III had granted these powers for life only. And in March, in the face of heated opposition to the duchy being alienated from the Crown, he created John Duke of Aquitaine (or Guienne) for life,83 the King and Queen themselves ceremonially bestowing the ducal circlets on John and Constance. From now on John would be known as “Monseigneur de Guienne.”

  With his return to political prominence in England, the duke now sought a London residence of his own. The ruins of the Savoy still lay blackened and stark on the Strand, a reminder to all of what he had lost, and he had no plans to rebuild it. But by 1391, thanks no doubt to the good offices of his friend John Fordham, Bishop of Ely since 1388,84 he leased Ely Place in the fashionable suburb of Holborn, a property that Katherine Swynford would come to know well, for it was to remain John’s London house for the rest of his life.

  Since 1286, Ely Place—or the Bishop of Ely’s Inn,85 as it was known— had been the London residence of the Bishops of Ely. It occupied the area between Leather Lane, Charterhouse Street, and what is now Holborn Circus, and thus traversed modern Hatton Garden; it was therefore very conveniently situated for Westminster and the City of London. There had been a building on the site since the sixth century, and parts of the walls that survive today date from the 1100s, being eight feet thick. To the north of the palace site is Bleeding Heart Yard, the name of which has nothing to do with John of Gaunt but commemorates a murder in 1626; and to the west is Ely Court, where lies the Mitre Tavern, founded in 1546. In 1327, John of Gaunt’s mother, Philippa of Hainault, had lodged at Ely Place upon her arrival in England.

  Rebuilt by Bishop Thomas Arundel between 1373 and 1388 above the remains of the older
house, the property leased by John of Gaunt was a large and imposing palace with “commodious rooms;” it was set in extensive gardens that were famous in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for their roses and strawberries, the latter mentioned in Shakespeare’s Richard III; there was also a vineyard. A massive stone gatehouse adorned with the bishop’s arms fronted the street.

  Within the palace complex (and now adjoining Bleeding Heart Yard) was the bishops’ magnificent private chapel, dedicated to the Saxon St. Etheldreda, founded in 1251 and completed around 1300; a Catholic church since the 1870s, it was extensively rebuilt both before and after suffering severe bomb damage during the Second World War, but the crypt, with its massive walls and pillars, stone floor, and original twelfth- century black-beamed ceiling, survives from John of Gaunt’s time, as do the east and west thirteenth- century windows, although their glass is modern; it was here that the duke and his household—and Katherine, in time—worshipped. This is all that is left of the great palace.86

  Opposite Ely Place, in Chancery Lane, was the town house of John Buckingham, Bishop of Lincoln, who knew John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford well. In 1391 the signatures of the duke and the bishop headed a petition by local residents demanding that Parliament put a stop to the slaughtering of animals and the dumping of offal near their houses.87 John’s brothers, the Dukes of York and Gloucester, visited him at Ely Place in October 1392, when all three received gifts of money from the citizens of London.88

  Katherine herself is absent from the records dating from the period immediately following John’s return to England. She was still renting the Chancery in 1391-92, and remained responsible for Kettlethorpe and Coleby, so we must presume that she was mainly resident in Lincolnshire at this time. But there is plenty of evidence that the duke was now busying himself with planning the futures of their children, and it would not be surprising if he were in contact with Katherine in this respect at least.

 
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