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


  The year 1394 was to witness the tragic deaths of three royal ladies in quick succession, although “the grief of all these deaths by no means equaled that of the King,” for on June 7, at Sheen, Queen Anne died of the plague, plunging Richard II—who had loved her “even to madness”4—into such all-consuming grief that he was to order that the wing of the palace in which she had breathed her last be razed to the ground.5 Then, on July 4,6 just ten days after John of Gaunt’s return to England, and a month after she had borne her seventh child—a daughter called Philippa—Mary de Bohun passed away at Peterborough, at only twenty- six, possibly a victim of puerperal fever. Katherine Swynford may have been in attendance on her during her last weeks, and the loss of her young patroness must have caused her considerable grief.

  Meanwhile, John of Gaunt had traveled north to Leicester to attend Constance’s burial before the high altar in the collegiate church of St. Mary in the Newarke at Leicester, and a hasty decision was made to have Mary interred there the next day in the choir,7 while all the mourners were gathered; these obsequies took place with great ceremony, and at staggering expense, totaling £584.5s.9d (£255,621),8 on July 5 and 6, just days after Mary had died.9

  It has been suggested that Constance was buried at Leicester because the duke neither wanted her to lie beside him for eternity nor considered that she merited a great state funeral; yet he did not choose to be buried with his beloved Katherine Swynford either, while the cost of Constance’s obsequies and her interment in the established mausoleum of the House of Lancaster strongly suggests that John wanted every honor paid to the memory of the woman who—whatever tensions had lain between them—had been his duchess for twenty- two years.

  Having received two salutary reminders of the frailty of human life, John of Gaunt soon afterward ordered alabaster effigies of himself and Blanche of Lancaster for their tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and he was to raise “a tomb of marble with an image of brass like a queen on it” for his “dear companion, Dame Constance.”10 He also, in his will of 1399, arranged for an obit to be celebrated every year on the anniversary of her death in perpetuity, for the safety of her soul.11 In 1413, Henry V commissioned an effigy of his mother, Mary de Bohun, from a London coppersmith, which would lie on her marble tomb.12

  The third royal funeral was somewhat more dramatic. At the end of July, when Queen Anne was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey, the Earl of Arundel, still smarting after his forced apology to John of Gaunt, had the insolence to turn up late, provoking an outraged Richard II to strike him in the face and draw blood, thereby desecrating the sanctity of the church, which had to be reconsecrated before the funeral could continue. Arundel was committed to the Tower for several weeks, then made to swear an oath guaranteeing his future loyalty and pay the King a large indemnity.13

  John of Gaunt prudently went north; on August 24 he was with his grieving family at Pontefract, and the following day, having heard to his dismay that there were people at court questioning his own loyalty to the King—and mindful that Richard’s temper was on a short fuse—he wrote him a letter protesting his loyalty.14 This evidently paid off for in September the King confirmed him as Duke of Aquitaine, which meant that John would have to go there without delay, in order to enforce the royal authority and look after his interests in the duchy. Immediately he began assembling his retinue at Leicester, prior to sailing from Plymouth early in October.

  John Beaufort was going with him15 —it is possible that, around this time, the duke planned to create a new fief for the young man in Aquitaine, although this was not to remain a viable prospect for long16 —and Katherine was no doubt bracing herself for another prolonged parting from John, and from their son. Silva- Vigier suggests that she actually accompanied the duke to Aquitaine on this occasion, but there is no evidence or comment in the chronicles or official records to support this theory, which there surely would have been had she gone. The fact that the Chancery was not leased to the new chancellor until after 1396, and that alternative accommodation had to be found in 1391-92, strongly suggests that Katherine was still living there during the duke’s absence in 1394-95.

  By the time he left for Aquitaine, John had probably made up his mind to marry Katherine Swynford. The text of a letter from Pope Boniface IX dated September 1, 1396, makes it clear that “when Constance, of blessed memory, had come to the end of her life, Duke John and Katherine, desiring to marry,” had applied for a dispensation, which was necessary because of the compaternity created by John long ago acting as godfather to Katherine’s daughter.17 This reads as if the approach to the Pope had been made as soon after the death of the duchess as was decent, and also suggests that John had already resolved to marry Katherine as soon as he was free to do so; this would in part explain the esteem in which she had been held by his family and the King, and may also have been why Katherine had never remarried. Armitage- Smith thought that the duke may have inquired even before Constance died if there were impediments to his marrying Katherine, although that is unlikely, as Constance’s death seems to have been rather sudden. Any inquiries were probably made after her demise.

  According to Pope Boniface, the couple, “being not unaware that John had lifted from the font a daughter of the same Katherine, begotten by another man, and that later the same Duke John adulterously knew the same Katherine, she being free of wedlock, but with marriage still existing between the same Duke John and the aforesaid Constance, and begot offspring of her; and believing that marriage between them was now allowable because, the impediment of the aforesaid compaternity not being notorious but rather occult,” sent a petitioner (whose name is unknown) to the Holy See to obtain the necessary dispensation. The Pope obligingly delivered to this petitioner a brief, “signed by our own hand, and containing therein a dec laration of our having given our consent in this matter by word of mouth.”18Because the impediment was not notorious, Boniface had felt it necessary to give only an oral dispensation. The “credential brief” in which it was enshrined does not survive, and there is no record of the date when it was issued. Given the time it would have taken for the petitioner to travel from England to Rome, where the legitimist Papacy was now based, the delays that may have been encountered in obtaining the brief (although the Pope would not have wished to inconvenience his staunch supporter, the Duke of Lancaster, too greatly), and the fact that the marriage did not take place until January 1396, the dispensation might not have been applied for until a year had elapsed since Constance’s death, and the marriage been further delayed by John setting his affairs in order in Aquitaine: he did not return to En gland until December 1395. This is not to say that marrying Katherine was not a priority with John, just that before he could proceed he had to wait for a decent interval to pass after Constance’s death, for the Pope to act, and to meet his own obligations.

  It was virtually unheard of at that time for a royal duke to marry his mistress, especially one who was the daughter of a humble foreign knight, and John could have been in no doubt that the union would prove highly controversial. Twice he had entered into wedlock for political reasons: once successfully, the other time far less so. Even now, at fifty- five, and old by contemporary standards, he was an eligible prize in the European marriage market, and could easily have made a political alliance that favored his cherished peace process with France, or an advantageous union with an heiress that would have handsomely augmented the Lancastrian domains. That he did not pursue such alliances speaks volumes. Instead, he was resolved to make the unusual, highly unconventional, and indeed brave choice of marrying for love. There can be little doubt that his feelings for Katherine played a large part in his decision—Froissart says he “had always loved and maintained this Lady Katherine,” and the settlements that he was to make on her during their marriage are ample evidence of his feelings for her.

  But there was more to it than that. “From affection to [their] children, the duke married their mother,” Froissart adds, making it seem as if Katheri
ne did not come into the equation, although the chronicler may have drawn this conclusion himself, unable, along with many other people, to comprehend that the mighty Duke of Lancaster had so far forgotten himself as to marry for love. Yet love for Katherine aside, John’s desire to see the Beauforts legitimized was surely a powerful enough motive for marrying her, and perhaps just as important to the duke. They were now growing up and proving themselves able and gifted, and he must have wanted them to enjoy the high offices of Church and state for which their royal blood befit them and hed had them educated; and he perhaps also had a view to forging advantageous noble alliances through them. Also, in the wake of that series of tragic deaths, he may have felt the hand of time upon him; fifty- four and—as we have seen—aged beyond his years, although he must have been reasonably fit because he was contemplating going crusading against the Turks in distant lands. Nevertheless, he perhaps felt an impulsion to seize whatever happiness he could while he could still enjoy life, and secure his children’s future before he died. These things, Katherine and the children, were clearly so important to him that he was prepared to brave public opinion to have his desire.

  No doubt with this aim in mind, John made provision for his eldest son by Katherine, and for the Chaucers, probably before he went abroad. It was possibly in 1394, and certainly before September 28, 1397, that John Beaufort was married to Margaret Holland, daughter of Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, the son of the late Princess Joan by her first husband; Margaret was therefore a niece of the King, and she had been born about 1381-85. By 1395, in order to provide for the young couple, the duke had purchased for John Beaufort the reversion of the manors of Curry Rivel, Langport, and Martock in Somerset.19

  Around the same time, John made a gift of 20 marks (£2,917) to Thomas Chaucer, doubled his pension to £20 (£8,750), and paid £100 (£43,749) to secure his marriage to a wealthy heiress, Maud, the daughter of Sir John Burghersh of Ewelme; she came from a respected baronial family and brought him large estates in Surrey and Oxfordshire.20 Such lavish generosity toward Katherine’s nephew indicates not only a desire to please her, but also a genuine appreciation of Thomas Chaucer’s worth. Nor was Thomas’s father Geoffrey, still ensconced in the wilds of Somerset, forgotten, for it was during this year of 1394-95 that Henry of Derby sent him a grant of money and a fur- lined scarlet robe.

  Summoned by the King, who wanted the duke’s support for the French ‘marriage alliance that Thomas of Woodstock was so hotly opposing, John of Gaunt,21 armed with the Pope’s brief, returned to England in December 1395. He was no longer feeling in the best of health, and the crossing from Calais to Kent must have been disagreeable for him, even painful: for when, late in November, he had visited Brittany and opened ultimately unsuccessful negotiations for a marriage between his grandson, Henry of Monmouth, and Duke John de Montfort’s daughter, he declined an invitation to attend the wedding, as “it will be very hard- going and very uncomfortable to him to sail.”22 This suggests he was suffering some bodily infirmity at this time, possibly the recurrent malady to which he was to refer in 1398, which may be one reason why he made a short pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury upon returning to England, no doubt to give thanks for his safe return home, pray for relief for his complaint, and ask the saint’s blessing on his coming marriage.

  John was still in Canterbury at the beginning of January 1396; his son Henry sent him nineteen ells of velvet there as a New Year gift.23 He left soon afterward for Langley, Hertfordshire, to pay his respects to Richard II and seek his permission to marry Katherine Swynford. More than twenty years later, Walsingham claimed that the marriage came as a surprise to the King, but as his foremost subject, it is hardly likely that John of Gaunt, that great traditionalist and pillar of the monarchy, would have omitted his feudal obligation to obtain royal sanction for the marriage to go ahead. It is also doubtful that the duke’s request came as a surprise to Richard, who apparently readily gave his consent.24 His manner toward his uncle, however, although cordial, was noticeably cool and, some said, “without love.”25 He wanted John’s backing, it was true, but he did not want him dominating political affairs as before. This change in Richard marked the beginning of the end of John’s political influence, which would now slowly but steadily decline; his health, of course, could also have been a factor. Nevertheless, John was to maintain a constant presence at court in the coming years, and would witness every royal charter up till July 1398.26

  Katherine herself must have been in Lincolnshire at this time, probably living at the Chancery, although she was still exercising authority as the Lady of Kettlethorpe—on December 4 she presented a new rector to the parish church there. This was none other than John Huntman, Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, who had to seek alternative accommodation in 1391-92 because Katherine was in possession of his official residence, the Chancery. In appointing him Rector of Kettlethorpe, was Katherine attempting to compensate in some way for the inconvenience she had caused?

  John did not delay long at court. Having obtained the King’s permission to depart, he set off north to Lincolnshire, to Katherine, to make her his wife without further delay. They “publicly contracted marriage”27 very soon after the Octave of the Epiphany,28 which fell on January 13, 1396—possibly their wedding took place the next day,29 or even as late as February,30 though this is far less likely. The ceremony in Lincoln Cathedral was probably conducted before the splendid chancel screen by the aging Bishop Buckingham, who is known to have been in Lincoln later that month.31 Evidently, John’s health had improved, for, as he and Katherine later confided to the Pope, their marriage was consummated “by carnal copulation.”32 There can be no doubt that they were lovers once more.

  Katherine was now the Duchess of Lancaster, and in the absence of a queen, the first lady in the land—a position she could not expect to enjoy for long, because the coming spring would see the signing of a new peace with France that was to be cemented by the marriage of Richard II to Charles VI’s six- year- old daughter, Isabella.

  Katherine’s feelings at this time may only be imagined. They must have encompassed love and gratitude with regard to the man who was now her husband, and perhaps a sense of relief that the long years of self- denial, steadfastness, waiting, and uncertainty were over—not to mention triumph and elation at having come to a safe harbor at last, and at making such a spectacular marriage in the process, something no other royal mistress of that age—and only a privileged few in other periods—would ever achieve. She was set up for life, and would never again have to worry about financial security.33 There was also the comforting knowledge that the way was now clear for her Beaufort children to be formally legitimized, and that their futures were secure—as indeed were those of Thomas Swynford and Katherine’s Chaucer relatives.

  But Katherine must also have been aware that society at large might not view her as the most suitable wife for the duke. Notoriety and a tarnished reputation had never been desirable qualities in royal wives; moreover, John was a prince of the highest rank and renown, and could have advantageously made a grand marriage for profit or policy; that he should stoop to marry a woman of far lower degree, however highly regarded she was by his family, was unthinkable. But he had defied convention and done so, and now here she was, exalted above all other women in the realm.

  In order to emphasize her royal status, and perhaps at the same time hopefully to obliterate memories of her immoral past, Katherine assumed as her coat of arms the three gold wheels of St. Katherine, her patron saint, who was strongly associated with royalty, virtue, and erudition in the popular imagination. These wheels were blazoned on a red shield, and they would have been prominently displayed on hangings, trappings, furnishings, clothing, and livery badges. They appeared in profusion on the vestments she was to give to Lincoln Cathedral, and also adorned her tomb there,34 while the image of St. Katherine appears in the Beaufort Hours, a manuscript commissioned after 1401 by John Beaufort, who clearly wanted to honor his
mother and associate her memory with the saint.35 The conversion of the silver Roët wheels into gold Katherine wheels suggests both a deep devotion to her name saint and a conscious effort on the part of the new duchess to construct a far more respectable public image for herself.36

  It is highly likely that the duke was also involved in this medieval version of “spin doctoring,” or was even the inspiration behind it. After all, he had a vested interest in the heraldic emblems of the Lancastrian inheritance and in the way people regarded his wife, whose character and demeanor reflected on his own nobility and honor; at the very least, Katherine would have had to consult him on this matter and seek his approval—married women in the Middle Ages enjoyed little autonomy, even if they had become used to making their own decisions during a long widowhood, as Katherine clearly had. One may infer from the sources quoted in this chapter, however, that John was a loving husband eager to make his lady happy. It may be that it was he who, after their marriage, arranged for the reburial of her father in St. Paul’s Cathedral, or for the erection of a memorial tablet on Sir Paon de Roët’s existing grave there.

  It was to Katherine’s advantage that “she had a perfect knowledge of court etiquette, because she had been brought up in princely courts continually since her youth;” this made her eminently well- qualified for her new rank,37 and it would have given her confidence as she came to grips with the realities of her new status.

  The newly wedded duke and duchess made a short trip up north together before facing the court; possibly John wished to test the water by taking Katherine on a tour of his domains. By January 23 they were lodging at Pontefract, a place that might have held bitter but long- exorcised memories for them, but clearly became a favored retreat during their marriage. High on its escarpment, the castle enjoyed commanding views of the River Aire; the royal lodgings were in the turreted trefoil- shaped donjon, which the duke had heightened twenty years earlier so it dwarfed all the other towers. Here, he and Katherine would have resided in great comfort and luxury, for he had lavished huge sums of money on the place.38

 
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