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


  Although John always treated the Beauforts as cherished members of his family circle, he was concerned to ensure that his provision for them did not conflict with the interests of his legitimate heirs and would not make inroads into the Lancastrian inheritance. Instead of creating a land base for his bastards, he was to find other forms of income and preferment for them through careful marriages and the Church, and in this way avoided all cause for jealousy between his various offspring. Indeed, there is much evidence to show that the Beauforts were held in great affection and esteem by their half siblings, and by Henry of Derby in particular. And not only by them, for the King himself—anxious to cement his ties with John of Gaunt, and also, it seems, moved by affection—was to show much favor to his Beaufort cousins.

  In January 1390 and January 1391, young Henry Beaufort, who was probably no more than fifteen years old, but was already destined for the Church—a traditional way of providing for bastard sons—was given the respective wealthy prebends of Thame and Sutton in the diocese of Lincoln; in August 1390 he was also assigned the prebend of Riccall in the diocese of York. It was not unheard of for one so young to be granted church offices, and these benefices would have provided for Henry’s maintenance and education. “His father the duke sent him to Oxford” to study civil and canon law,89 and in the academic year 1390-91 he was a scholar at Queen’s College, Oxford, having already undertaken some studies at Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1388-89, when he was only about thirteen. As his later career would prove, he was a precocious child of above average ability and intelligence. The duke took a keen interest in his education, and must have visited him more than once at Queen’s College, as a payment in the college accounts of 30s. (£415) “for wine for the Duke of Lancaster” testifies; he also had wine sent to “Master Henry Beaufort” at Oxford.90 It may have been after his year at Oxford that Henry Beaufort was sent to Aachen in Germany, where he is said to have studied civil and canon law in his youth.91

  In the spring of 1390, seventeen- year- old John Beaufort—”a great favorite with his father”92—was among the thirty English knights who distinguished themselves tilting against the champions of France at the famous international jousts of St. Inglevert near Calais; his father had put his name forward for this the previous November. His half brother Thomas Swyn-ford also took part, and the duke may have nominated him too. They were in company with that passionate jouster Henry of Derby John Holland, and Henry Percy’s heir and namesake, who bore the nickname Hotspur. The English contingent, lauded as “the bravest of all the foreigners,” returned home in early May,93 but only days later Henry of Derby and Thomas Swynford departed for Calais, hell- bent on going to fight the Turks in Tunisia in what was known as the Barbary Crusade. John of Gaunt was in Calais to see them off,94 but refused safe conduct through France, they decided instead to respond to a call for aid from the Teutonic Knights, who were fighting their own crusade against the heathen of Eastern Europe, and raced back to England to take up what they plainly regarded as a worthier cause.

  Katherine, like many medieval mothers, quickly had to accustom herself to her sons going off to fight in foreign parts, for John Beaufort, meanwhile— partly financed by his father95 —had been permitted to travel through France with four knights toward Genoa to join the Barbary Crusade, in which he was to serve under the French Duke of Bourbon; in designating Beaufort leader of the English contingent, Bourbon tacitly acknowledged his high status.96 In December, after the Christian forces failed to take Al- Mahdiya, near Tunis, young John returned to England to be reunited with his family.

  With John of Gaunt in such favor, the fortunes of Geoffrey Chaucer too were in the ascendant. In July 1389, when Richard was urging the duke to return to England, Chaucer had been appointed Clerk of the King’s Works, an important post that gave him overall responsibility for improvements to royal property and the building of new royal residences. By 1390 he was supervising a large workforce employed on the restoration of the royal chapel at Windsor Castle; probably in that year his precocious son Lewis was sent up to Oxford, where he may have kept company with his cousin, Henry Beaufort.

  By September 1391, Chaucer had been replaced—for reasons we don’t know—as Clerk of the King’s Works, for at that time we find him serving as deputy forester in the royal park at North Petherton in Somerset (where in 1394-95 his son Thomas was joint petitioner in a lawsuit with his new wife, Maud Burghersh), and probably writing his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, which was almost certainly inspired by the Decameron of Boccaccio (from which some of the tales were lifted) and a pilgrimage Chaucer had made to St Thomas à Becket’s shrine at Canterbury in 1388. Evidently, he had been in financial difficulties for some time, but in 1394 the King granted him a life pension of £20 (£8,750), which eased matters a little, although he was to apply for advances on his income several times until 1399, which suggests that he continued to struggle to make ends meet. Chaucer remained in his post at North Petherton until at least 1398, and living so far away, it is hardly likely that he had much contact with Katherine Swynford, but in the years to come, John of Gaunt and Henry of Derby were to show favor to him and his son, which may have owed more than a little to her influence.

  John of Gaunt accompanied Henry of Derby and Thomas Swynford back to England and said his farewells to them at Hertford Castle. With Mary de Bohun—again pregnant—Henry and his companions rode north to Lincolnshire, where they made offerings in Lincoln Cathedral for the success of their holy venture. It would be surprising if they had not visited, or even lodged with, Katherine Swynford while in Lincoln. Around July 19, 1390, hugely backed by the duke to the tune of £4,000 (£1,607,802), Henry, with Thomas Swynford and a large company of knights, esquires, and servants, took ship from Boston for Prussia and Lithuania.97 Some weeks later Mary de Bohun gave birth to her fourth son, Humphrey, naming him after her father.

  As his son sailed away, John of Gaunt was lavishly entertaining King Richard and Queen Anne to a great hunting party at Leicester Castle, where he strove to bring about a reconciliation between the King and the former Lords Appellant. There is no mention of Katherine or the Beauforts among the many bishops, lords, and ladies described by Knighton as being present, and Christmas that year saw John at Eltham Palace, where the King returned his hospitality.98

  The following year, however, evidence suggests that Katherine and John had rekindled their relationship. The duke’s household check rolls for the year 1391-92 fortunately survive,99 and they show that all four Beauforts were now intermittently in attendance on him and based in his household; John Beaufort was stabling six horses there. The rolls also reveal that Katherine Swynford was stabling twelve horses at the ducal residences at this time, which not only proves that she and John had renewed their acquaintance, but also strongly suggests that she was again occupying a substantially important place in his life. It shows too that she was well- attended whenever she came to visit the duke, as became a lady of high standing. The sum of 12d (£13.82) per day was allocated to her while she was lodging in his household, compared with 6d (£6.91) each for the Beauforts and 4d (£4.61) for Henry of Derby. It is unlikely this was for their own keep, but rather, for that of their horses.

  Not that Katherine was residing with John permanently at this time. She rented the Chancery until at least 1393,100 and her intermittent presence in his establishment must have been in part due to her desire to see her children. She would have recognized that it was greatly to their benefit to live in the household of so great a lord. She had clearly brought them up well, and perhaps it was decided long before that the Beauforts would come to their father on his return from his Castilian venture.

  Considering that John and Constance were now living apart, that he was aged beyond his years though not sufficiently to dampen the old Adam in him, and that they would marry in due course, it is logical to conclude that he and Katherine had grown close again. Constance’s withdrawal left them free to rekindle their relationship, and it is possible th
at they had become lovers once more, although if this was the case, they must have been very discreet about it, for Katherine was openly visiting the duke, attended by an entourage, without attracting adverse comment. Although there is no hint of scandal in the chronicles, it is clear from what Froissart—an eyewitness at the court of Richard II—states, that in 1396 people at court were saying that the duke had married the woman who had been his concubine for a long time, “inside and outside his marriage,” which must mean after it ended in 1394, since we have established that their liaison began after John married Constance. Elsewhere, Froissart says that John loved and maintained Katherine after Constance’s death. This all strongly suggests that a sexual relationship between them was regarded as an established fact, and not only in the distant past. Katherine was now about forty- one, young enough to bear children but old enough to have passed menopause, so pregnancy might not have been a risk.

  Of course, this may be putting too modern an interpretation on their relationship: John had twice publicly repented of his former life, and promised to God the complete amendment of his ways; and Katherine had not only accepted his renunciation of their love, but had perhaps bought herself a papal indulgence by donating funds to his “crusade.” This suggests a sincere degree of repentance on both sides. Each of them may have been reluctant to prejudice the state of grace they had reached by backsliding into immorality and they might well have considered the effect that discovery of a sexual affair might have on their maturing children and their wider families. On the other hand, aristocratic society took a lenient view of extramarital affairs, so any evidence that the duke and Katherine Swynford were once again lovers would probably have been accepted with tolerance in courtly circles. And privately, within the family—and even by the King, whose treatment of Katherine proves he was aware that she was more than the average royal mistress—it may have been known that if the opportunity ever arose, John intended to marry Katherine.

  It may also be that the horror John had clearly felt in the aftermath of the Peasants Revolt was now a distant memory. He and Katherine were both heart- free and no longer young. Maybe they decided to seize the chance of happiness while they could. And, so long as discretion was maintained, who could have blamed them?

  In the spring of 1391 the duke was probably at Lincoln—he dated a letter there on March 5, omitting the year, to the ruler of Lithuania, asking him to release two of Henry’s knights,101 so the letter almost certainly belongs to 1391. That same month, he arranged for Gascon wine to be sent to Katherine in Lincoln by cart from London.102 Perhaps he had visited her at the Chancery and wished to reward her hospitality; perhaps there was more to it than that. He was back at Westminster when Henry of Derby and Thomas Swynford returned from their crusading adventure (and a winter spent enjoying the hospitality of the Teutonic Knights) around April 30; John Beaufort was there to greet them when they disembarked at Hull.103 It was probably after their return that the duke invited Thomas Swynford to serve him as one of his chamber knights; Thomas’s presence in the duke’s household is attested to by the surviving check rolls.104 On May 12, 1393, as a signal mark of royal favor, Richard II would grant an annuity of 100 marks (£15,179) to Thomas and his wife Jane.105

  As we have seen, John of Gaunt was well aware of the pressing need to make suitable provision for his bastard children, and in December 1390 the King licensed him, along with Sir Thomas Percy and the Lancastrian receiver in Northamptonshire, to grant the manors of Overstone, Maxey, Eydon, and a half share in Brampton Parva106 —together worth £88 (£35,372) a year—to John Beaufort, with reversion to Thomas and Joan Beaufort. Henry Beaufort’s name is missing from the reversions because he was already earmarked for a career in the Church.107

  John of Gaunt spent the Christmas of 1391 at Hertford, bringing his minstrels with him.108 Katherine and their daughter Joan were among the guests, as were Henry of Derby and his family; and at New Year, Henry gave gifts to Katherine and Joan. Katherine received a gold ring set with a diamond, and Joan “a pair of paternosters” (rosary beads) of coral and gold.109Joan was soon to marry Sir Robert Ferrers, who at nineteen was about four years her senior; the date of their wedding is not known, but it certainly took place by September 30, 1394, and is likely to have been celebrated in 1392, because their daughter Elizabeth is described as being eighteen years old and more in 1411: She had thus been born in 1393 at the latest. Joan also had another daughter, Mary,110 probably named in honor of Mary de Bohun, whose patronage Joan had long enjoyed. After their wedding, Joan and her husband remained in John of Gaunt’s household.111

  In the spring of 1392, John of Gaunt was at Amiens negotiating with the French king, Charles VI,112 who hailed him as the most revered knight in Christendom.113 The duke “took the view that the war had lasted long enough and that a good peace would benefit the whole of Christendom,”114but all he could secure was a year’s truce. While he was away, Mary de Bohun bore a daughter, Blanche, at Henry of Derby’s manor house at Peterborough, a residence she seems to have favored.115 The duke returned to England in April, and before June, thanks to his influence, John Beaufort was appointed one of the King’s household knights, with an income of 100 marks (£13,903) per annum—an acknowledgment of the younger John’s proven military expertise.116 Soon afterward, Henry of Derby departed on another crusade, to Prussia this time,117 and Henry Beaufort returned to Queen’s College, Oxford, where he would complete a degree in theology in the summer of 1393.118 On November 23, 1392, Constance’s pleasure- loving sister, Isabella, Duchess of York, died;119 she was “buried by the King’s command at his manor of Langley, in the friars’ church,”120 where Richard II himself would one day be temporarily laid to rest.

  Katherine’s lease on the Chancery is known to have run until at least 1393, and she may not have vacated the property until 1396.121 There is no evidence of her role in the duke’s busy life at this time, nor that she was a guest in the Lancastrian household at Christmas 1392. References to her children are rare, but all were comfortably settled by 1393: John in the royal household, Henry at university, Joan married, and Thomas with his father. Further evidence of family solidarity emerged in December of that year, when Henry of Derby—just back from his crusade and a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land—ordered new suits of armor to be sent to Hertford Castle for the use of himself and Thomas Beaufort in the jousts he planned to hold there. The duke joined his family at Hertford for the Christmas festivities of 1393, and this time Katherine Swynford was among the company. Henry presented his wife and “Dame Katherine Swynford” with four lengths of luxurious white damask silk, at 78s.4d (£1,778) each.122 That she was given the same gift—and costly material—as the countess strongly suggests that Katherine was now a very prominent member of the duke’s circle.

  In January 1394, Henry hastened to London to take part in yet another tournament; in the midst of the excitement, he remembered to send a hamper of fish delicacies to Hertford for Mary,123 who was pregnant for the seventh time. Katherine also said farewell to John Beaufort, who departed early in 1394 on another crusade in Lithuania and Hungary, during which he is thought to have fought with the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lettow Katherine was living in Lincoln or at Kettlethorpe for at least part of 1394: On February 27, in order to lay claim to his inheritance, Thomas Swynford was required to present proof of age at Lincoln, and Katherine was ordered to be present; she was there one Friday when he and his many witnesses turned up with their evidence, which was sometime between June 22, 1394, and June 22, 1395.124 After this, Sir Thomas apparently took possession of his manors and established himself at Kettlethorpe; his mother Katherine would nevertheless remain in control there, for Thomas was often absent in the service of the House of Lancaster.

  In the Hilary Parliament of 1394, John of Gaunt found himself the object of vitriolic criticism by the abrasive Earl of Arundel, who was jealous of his influence with the King. It was contrary to the King’s honor for him to be often seen walking arm in arm with
the duke, Arundel complained, and to wear the Lancastrian livery collar; furthermore, he said, the duke had so intimidated the lords with “rough and bitter words” that they were now afraid to speak up in council or Parliament; and the King should not have alienated Aquitaine from his uncle nor given him money to invade Castile. Arundel had hoped to play on the King’s vanity by implying that the monarch was the duke’s client, but a “grieved and displeased” Richard spoke up vigorously for his uncle and forced Arundel to apologize publicly to him—after which Parliament declared the duke free from any cause for blame, and Arundel, who had received no support from the other nobles, retired to sulk in private.125Afterward, John of Gaunt, clearly fearing that his integrity and loyalty had been impugned, wrote to the King: “I dare to call God to witness, and all loyal men, that never have I imagined, or tried to do, anything against your most honorable estate.”126

  Following his sons’ departure, John also left England that spring: In March 1394 he went to France, where, on March 27, he concluded a four-year truce with the French.127 He was therefore out of the country when Duchess Constance died on March 24 at Leicester Castle,128 leaving him a free man.

  NINE

  My Dearest Lady Katherine

  It is unlikely that John of Gaunt had gone to France earlier in the month knowing that his wife was dying. There is no indication that Constance suffered a long illness—she was at a hunting party and festive gathering at Much Hadham in July 13931—and in those days even a virus could prove fatal.2 Moreover, her funeral was delayed until July so the duke could attend it; after signing a peace treaty at Leulighen on March 24,3 the day of her death, he was obliged to remain in France until late June.

 
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