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


  Being formally declared legitimate facilitated the full acceptance of the Beauforts into the royal house, removed all barriers to their preferment in the peerage and the Church, and further improved their prospects—literally overnight in the case of the chivalrous John Beaufort: On February 10 the King created him Earl of Somerset, girding him with the sword and placing on his shoulders a cloak of velvet, “a garment of honour.”72 That April, John Beaufort would be made a Knight of the Garter. Formerly, he had borne a shield of blue and white (the Lancastrian livery colors, and now his own too) differenced by the red bend sinister of bastardy charged with the arms of Lancaster; now he took for his arms the quartered leopards and lilies of En gland with a segmented border in blue and white. It was probably at this time too that he adopted the famous portcullis badge that would later feature so prominently in Tudor heraldry.73 Katherine, the herald’s daughter, must have felt wonderfully gratified to see her children legitimized and her son a belted earl. The wits of Richard IIs court, however, derisively referred to the Beauforts as “Fairborn,” an interpretation of their name that was still being used ironically a century later,74 proof that the taint of bastardy still clung to the family. Notwithstanding this, the legitimization of the Beauforts was to have massive implications for the future of the monarchy, and indeed for the history of England itself.

  The next day, February 11, the King licensed John of Gaunt to settle a jointure on Katherine, namely the estates he had received from the Crown in 1372 in exchange for the earldom of Richmond. These lay mainly in Yorkshire, Norfolk, and Sussex, and comprised the honors, castles, and manors of Knaresborough and Tickhill, and the wapentake (hundred) of Staincliffe, all in Yorkshire; the hundreds of North Greenhoe, North and South Erpingham and Smithdon, in Norfolk; 200 marks (£23,601) annual rent from St. Mary’s Abbey, York; the castle, manor, and free chase of the High Peak in Derbyshire; the manors of Gringley and Wheatley in Nottinghamshire, of which Katherine was already in possession; the manors of Willingdon and Maresfield in Sussex, Wighton, Aylsham, Fakenham, and Snettisham in Norfolk, and those of Glatton and Holme in Cambridgeshire; Pevensey Castle and adjoining land in Sussex; Ashdown free chase and the bailiwick of Endlewick in Sussex; the advowsons of St. Robert of Knaresborough and Tickhill; the free chapels of Castleton (High Peak), Maresfield, and Pevensey Castle; and the priories of Wilmington and Withyam, both in Sussex.75

  Katherine was to hold all these properties for the term of her life, to ensure that she was securely provided for in the event of her being left a widow. On her death they would revert to the heirs of the duke’s body, and not therefore to the Beauforts, thus preserving the Lancastrian inheritance intact.

  Furthermore, during this year of 1397, John also arranged for some of that great inheritance to be held jointly by him and Katherine during their lives, a gesture that can only be viewed as a mark of his love and respect for her, and proof that their marriage was more than just a means of legitimizing their children.76

  With her jointure settled, the duchess left court with the duke and traveled north to Pontefract once more. They were there on March 17, 1397, but had returned to London by April 15,77 after perhaps having been present when Henry Beaufort was ordained as a deacon around April 3-7.78 That month, Henry achieved the accolade of being appointed Chancellor of Oxford University.79

  The fortunes of Thomas Beaufort were also advanced at this time. On July 6, 1397, he was retained for life by the King with an annuity of 100 marks (£11,801),80 and by November of that year he had married Margaret, daughter of Sir Thomas Neville of Hornby and niece of Joan Beaufort’s husband, Ralph Neville. She was then living in Katherine’s household with a governess, and considered too young as yet to cohabit with her husband.81

  Some writers assert that Katherine’s daughter, Margaret Swynford, the nun at Barking, had died by 1397, for she is not listed among the sisters who took vows of obedience that year to the new abbess in the presence of the Bishop of London, but she was still very much alive, for in 1419 she herself was elected Abbess of Barking, and in fact she survived until 1433, dying around the ripe age of seventy. Carvings of the names of Henry and Thomas Beaufort (with the date 1430) on surviving fragments of masonry from Barking Abbey recorded in 1720, and a bequest of vestments by Thomas Beaufort in his will proved in 1427, are perhaps further evidence that Margaret, then abbess, was their half sister.82 Her cousin, Elizabeth Chaucer, did swear allegiance to the new abbess in 1397, along with fourteen other wellborn nuns,83 but that is the last surviving reference to her; her date of death is not recorded.

  There is barely a mention of Katherine in the sources covering the remaining years of her marriage to John of Gaunt. We can only assume that she was living the traditional life of a royal duchess, concerning herself with household matters, charitable enterprises, and pious works; overseeing the Swynford interests, involving herself in the lives of her children, and being a “dearly beloved companion” to her husband. As the mistress of many Lancastrian castles and manors, she would have moved about the country more frequently than in the years of her widowhood, and lived in far greater luxury than ever before. How could she not have made comparisons with how things had been when she was John’s mistress, or in the years of their separation? Now, having achieved the highest position to which she could ever have aspired, and won her man in the process, it seems she was content to keep a low profile and remain a background figure in his life, much as she had done in the past, as his mistress.

  For most of the first eighteen months of her marriage, Katherine was often at court, where she enjoyed a prominent position, but political events were thereafter to overshadow her life with John, leading to tragedies that would deeply affect them both, and put their very lives in danger. Therefore, it is necessary to digress and recount them here, even though Katherine was not directly involved.

  John of Gaunt might have been high in favor with the King, who confirmed him as Duke of Aquitaine for life on July 6, 1397,84 but Richard, in whom resentment had simmered for a decade, was now determined to force a reckoning with the former Lords Appellant. He told John and Edmund of Langley that he had received intelligence from Thomas Mowbray, himself a former appellant, that their brother of Gloucester and the Earls of Arundel and Warwick were plotting to depose and imprison him. Plaintively, he asked for their advice. “Their plan is to separate my queen from me and shut her up in some place of confinement,” he told them, looking as if he were suffering great anguish of heart and sounding very convincing. His uncles did their best to calm him down, saying they would never suffer their brother to harm either him or the Queen, and as Richard had hoped, they consented to the arrests of the plotters.

  In fact, both dukes were reluctant to take sides: Quite simply, “they did not wish to be involved.”85 John’s overriding concern would have been for his son, who had collaborated with Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick back in 1387-88, and thus laid himself forever open to accusations of treason; and he would naturally have been anxious to safeguard the future of the Lancastrian dynasty. Thus, in order to avoid becoming further embroiled in the gathering storm, John and Edmund, with their families, immediately “retired to their own castles, the Duke of Lancaster taking with him his duchess, who had for some time been the companion of the young Queen of England.”86 Thus ended—for a time, at least—Katherine’s close association with Isabella of Valois. Instead she found herself “hunting stags and deer” with her husband. However, both dukes were “bitterly” to regret their decision to leave court at this crucial time, for it deprived them of their last chance to save their brother and avert a disturbing political crisis.87

  “Shortly after the Duke of Lancaster had gone away,” continues Froissart, “the King decided upon a bold and daring move.” Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick were arrested, Richard apprehending his uncle in person. On August 15, John of Gaunt was back at court and present in the House of Lords when the three nobles were accused of committing treason in 1387-88, and later that
month he and his son Henry of Derby were ordered to muster forces for the King.88

  Gloucester had been taken to Calais after his arrest, and was almost certainly murdered there—suffocated in a feather bed—on the orders of the King, before September 15.89 On September 9, in a bid to retain John of Gaunt’s support, Richard created John Beaufort—who was willingly to assist in the prosecution of the appellants—Marquess of Somerset and Dorset. On September 21 the three arrested appellants were called upon to answer for their treason. Gloucester, of course, was not present; Arundel argued that he had been formally pardoned, but he was condemned all the same (with the Duke of Lancaster—as High Steward of England—pronouncing sentence), and beheaded the same day; Warwick, who had pleaded guilty and thrown himself on the King’s mercy, escaped with forfeiture and life imprisonment. Three days later Thomas Mowbray, another former appellant, now Captain of Calais, announced in Parliament that Gloucester was dead.90

  John of Gaunt made no public protest about his brother’s murder, even though, according to Froissart (whose evidence may not be reliable), he and Edmund held the King responsible for it, and planned to meet in London to discuss what action they should take; they had “considerable support,” but instead of speaking out, they made their peace with the King, having heard that he was growing suspicious of John of Gaunt too. Maybe John felt he had no choice, given that he was in fear for his son.91 “But the common view was that they could have prevented the arrest of their brother, had they foreseen it.”92 This sinister episode effectively marks the end of John of Gaunt’s active intervention in affairs of state, and indeed his political influence, and it may have coincided with—or exacerbated—the onset of failing health.

  “So King Richard was reconciled with his uncles over the death of the Duke of Gloucester, and went on to rule more harshly than before.”93 Apparently, Richard’s ire did not at that time extend to Henry of Derby, who had supported the proceedings against his former colleagues. Naturally, Richard had no wish to alienate John of Gaunt, that stout bulwark of the throne. The King was Henry’s guest during that September, and on September 29, in a mass preferment of peers calculated to reward those who had supported him in the recent proceedings, he created his cousin Duke of Hereford. John of Gaunt’s sons- in- law, John Holland and Ralph Neville, were made Duke of Exeter and Earl of Westmorland, respectively, and John Beaufort was granted eleven of Warwick’s manors;94 on November 20 he would be appointed Constable of Wallingford Castle for life.95

  Richard IIs proceedings against the former appellants mark the beginning of his descent into tyranny. He was done with being told how to govern his kingdom, and determined from now on to rule by divine right as an absolute monarch. In the process, he became obsessed with projecting his own majesty, and introduced increasingly elaborate and rigid ceremonies and protocols at court. He would sit for hours crowned and silent on his high throne at Westminster, “more splendidly and in greater state than any previous king,” and “if he looked on any man, he must kneel.”96

  “He began,” says Walsingham, “to act the tyrant and oppress the people.” Crippled by debt because of his extravagant lifestyle, he imposed forced loans on his subjects, irrevocably alienating them in the process. As his unpopularity increased, he became paranoid about his own security, and instituted a large bodyguard of Cheshire archers to protect his person.97 In his own eyes, he could do no wrong. He was, he told Parliament, “absolute Emperor of his kingdom of England.”98

  But his contemporaries knew him to be arrogant, rapacious, vindictive, cunning, and vain;99 they hated and feared this new imperious Richard. Rumors persisted that Arundel, his head and body miraculously reunited, had been restored to life, so to put paid to them, on October 1, John of Gaunt was assigned the unpleasant task of viewing Arundel’s exhumed body in London;100 he and Katherine were probably staying at Ely Place at this time. By November 1, John had gone north to Hertford with Katherine and his son, the new Duke of Hereford.101 The duke and duchess spent Christmas at Leicester,102 which must have afforded a welcome respite from the political turmoil at Westminster.

  Henry had stayed in London. Sometime in December, while riding to Windsor, he entered into a fateful conversation with Thomas Mowbray. Out of the blue, Mowbray startlingly revealed that four of the King’s most favored lords were plotting to kill Henry and his father when they came to Windsor after Parliament met in the New Year; the King would then seize the Lancastrian domains. It appeared there were also secret moves afoot to reverse the pardon granted posthumously to the duke’s forebear, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who had been executed by Edward II in 1322; if that happened, John of Gaunt would be disinherited. Mowbray feared that he and Henry “were on the point of being undone, in revenge for what was done at Radcot Bridge,” for he believed Richard would not allow their treason as former appellants to go unpunished, and that he could not be trusted to keep his oath.103

  There is some evidence to suggest that Mowbray was not exaggerating the danger. On March 1 and 3, 1398,104 one of Richard’s most favored councillors, Sir William Bagot, MP for Warwickshire, entered into two sinister-sounding recognizances, the first for £1,000, to be forfeit from him should he “in time to come make suit for disherision [disinheriting] of John, Duke of Lancaster, his wife, or any of his children;” the second stated that “if John, Duke of Guienne and Lancaster, his wife, or any of his children shall in time to come be by him [Bagot] slain, upon proof thereof he shall be put to death without other judgment or process.” This looks like evidence of a plot to disinherit and murder not only John of Gaunt, but Katherine and their children, and it appears that Bagot was to be the scapegoat for whoever was behind the plot, should things go wrong.105 In 1399, under a new king, Bagot was to admit in court that he had once intrigued to assassinate the duke,106and there is some later evidence that Bagot, Mowbray, and Richard II himself were the conspirators.107 It is unlikely, however, that Katherine ever discovered how close she herself had come to becoming the victim of an assassination attempt.

  Henry reported this alarming exchange to John of Gaunt, who thought it best to tell the King about it. Naturally, given the nature of the conversation they had had, both Henry and Mowbray—who was outraged at his confidences being reported to Richard—wished to portray themselves in the best possible light, and each ended up accusing the other of treason before Richard. Adam of Usk claims that Mowbray himself—who had been implicated in the death of Gloucester, and perhaps believed that Henry’s complaint was prompted by his father in reprisal for that, with a view to bringing Mowbray to grief108—began plotting to murder John of Gaunt when the duke traveled to Shrewsbury for the coming Parliament, but that the latter was warned and managed to escape the snare.

  The strain told on John. At the beginning of February, after Parliament rose, he was suffering from a high fever and obliged to retire with Katherine to nearby Lilleshall Abbey for a couple of days to recuperate.109 By this time he was, as he confided to the King in a letter, suffering from a recurrent illness that proved intermittently incapacitating, and this was probably one such attack.110 Lilleshall Abbey, where John rested with Katherine, was a remote but imposing Norman house of red sandstone founded by Arroasian (later Augustinian) canons in 1148 and extended in the thirteenth century. Extensive ruins remain today, and the west front is especially magnificent.

  Confronted with the prospect of his own mortality, John had to face the possibility that Richard II had designs on the Lancastrian inheritance, and Katherine would certainly have shared her husband’s anxieties on that score, and indeed been concerned for him too. The King had already moved against three Lords Appellant, so what was there to keep him from proceeding against the other two? Even if he stopped short of indicting Henry for treason, he might yet use devious means to seize the duchy for the Crown. As soon as he was well enough, John sought from Richard an assurance that he would not use the forfeiture of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, in 1322 as an excuse to appropriate the duchy’s lands, a req
uest Richard readily granted.111

  So far, then, there had been no tangible evidence that the King was entertaining any sinister intentions toward the House of Lancaster. On February 5 he again showed generosity to John Beaufort, appointing him to the prestigious offices of Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle, the key defensive fortress of the realm, and on May 9, Beaufort would be named Admiral of the North and West.112 In granting these offices, Richard was acknowledging John Beaufort to be one of the leading lords in the kingdom, a worthy son of his father.

  John of Gaunt was evidently in better health by February 5, for on that day the King again commissioned him to treat for peace with the Scots, and on February 20 he was at Pontefract again, on his way north.113 He may have left Katherine there to await his return, for it is unlikely she accompanied him to Scotland, in view of the lawlessness of the border regions.

  There was much adverse comment when, on February 27, 1398, Henry Beaufort, a proud and ambitious young man of just twenty- one, was named Bishop of Lincoln by the King. He had been provided to the See by a bull of Pope Boniface IX, who was ever eager to gratify the wishes of the influential Duke of Lancaster, the duke having shamelessly canvassed for the appointment; normally thirty was the minimum age for bishops. Even for the son of the mighty John of Gaunt, this was too rapid a promotion, and a flagrant abuse of the power of the Papacy. Evidently, the aged Bishop Buckingham thought so too, because, rather than meekly submit to being translated to the less prestigious See of Coventry and Lichfield—ostensibly for the benefit of his health, but in reality to make way for his successor—he insisted on continuing with his episcopal duties in Lincoln up until July 12 that year. By then he was too infirm to carry on anywhere, and was sent to live out his days in Canterbury, where he died on March 10, 1399. On July 14, 1398, having resigned as Chancellor of Oxford and renounced most of his other offices in order to focus on his episcopate, Henry Beaufort was consecrated Bishop of Lincoln, receiving his temporalities five days later at Tutbury.114 He was to prove a typical career bishop, busy and competent in all his affairs, who would enjoy power within the state as well as the Church, and whose interests embraced both the secular and the sacred, yet who saw himself, before all else, as a Lancastrian prince. With his preferment, Katherine found herself the mother of a marquess, a countess, and a bishop—attainments she could never at one time have dreamed of for her bastard children.

 
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