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


  In the middle of March 1398, near Kelso, John of Gaunt appointed deputies to serve on the northern Marches, then rode south, unaware that he had just completed his last diplomatic mission—appropriately in the interests of peace.115 From that time on, he was to play little part in public life, a clear indication that his health was failing fast, along with the sudden cessation of his witnessing royal charters in July 1398.116 Worry about his son must have been a contributing factor.

  The quarrel between Henry and Mowbray was still unresolved, and for Richard II a godsent opportunity to press home his advantage, for he had come to see the House of Lancaster, with its enormous power and vast wealth, as a threat to himself and his throne, and was indeed resolved to neutralize it. On March 19 the two protagonists again appeared before the King at Bristol, and since honor had to be satisfied and neither party was willing to be reconciled, the case was referred to the Court of Chivalry to consider a “wager of battle.” John of Gaunt, “greatly upset,” according to Froissart, went to Westminster with Henry on March 25, but he and Katherine had retired to Leicester by April 14, and so John was consequently spared the ordeal of witnessing Richard II, on March 29 at Windsor, ordering that, since there were no witnesses to the fateful conversation, the issues between Henry and Mowbray be settled by judicial combat between the protagonists117—an outdated but still legal (until 1819) process whereby guilt was apportioned to the man left dead or disabled, or the one who ended the fight by crying “Craven!” In this case “the duel was to be a matter of life and death.”118

  Henry raced north to break the news to his father and to hone his skills for the coming fight. John of Gaunt now faced the terrible prospect of his beloved son and heir being killed and branded a traitor, but on the other hand, Henry was an expert swordsman and jouster, and his father may have been optimistic as to the outcome. For all that, the duke “was much annoyed and disturbed” by the King’s actions, although he did not wish to say a word against Richard because Henry’s honor was involved, as was his own.119 A sense of disaster threatening may well have overshadowed the family’s time at Pontefract, where they resided from at least June 9 until July 14 before moving to Rothwell.120 It would appear that Richard was unaware of his uncle’s increasing frailty, for at the beginning of July he renewed his commission as Lieutenant of the Marches.121

  Early in August, Henry received word that the trial by combat would take place on September 16. Richard may have been trying to lull John of Gaunt into a false sense of security when, on September 8, he confirmed and extended his powers in the palatinate of Chester, upgraded the earldom of Chester to a principality, and appointed the duke its hereditary constable.122But this was to be the last public office ever granted to John, whose relin-quishment of the Duchy of Aquitaine that year suggests an awareness that he was no longer able to bear the responsibilities that possession of that turbulent domain entailed. In his place, at the end of August, the ever upwardly mobile John Beaufort was appointed King’s Lieutenant in Aquitaine for seven years.123

  At last September 16 dawned, the day everyone concerned had been awaiting or dreading, and the two protagonists faced each other at Gosford Green, Coventry, with the King (who was lodging at Sir William Bagot’s house), the young queen, the Duke and Duchess of Lancaster, the whole court, and vast crowds of sightseers looking on. But as the contestants sat there on their steeds, poised to charge, the King threw down his staff and forbade them to proceed. Instead, they were summoned to kneel before him, and without further preliminaries he sentenced Henry to ten years’ banishment and Mowbray to exile for life. Both were commanded to leave England by October 20.124 At a stroke, Richard had rid himself of the two remaining appellants.

  “The whole court was in a state of turmoil.”125 The summary sentences— handed down without any charges being made or any form of trial— stunned everyone and provoked much criticism of the King, not the least because Henry was “extraordinarily popular” in England.126 At last Richard had revealed his hand, showing that he had meant all along to have his revenge on every one of the former appellants. On the plea of John of Gaunt, he did immediately reduce the term of Henry’s banishment to six years, but he was otherwise implacable. Banishing Henry and Mowbray was a clever move on his part, for he must have been aware by now that the duke did not have much longer to live, and with Henry abroad at the time his father died it would be far easier for the King to appropriate the vast Lancastrian estates.

  For John of Gaunt and his son, however, it was a tragedy, for it meant that Henry had to leave his father, with whom he had always enjoyed a touchingly warm relationship, at a time when the latter’s health was failing fast and it must have been obvious that the prospect of their meeting again in this life was remote indeed. John may have made this point, to no purpose, in his plea to the King. More than that, the future security of the Lancastrian patrimony, which for over thirty years the duke had preserved and enriched as the inheritance he would leave his son and the heirs of his dynasty, was now clearly under threat. Many historians have observed that he made no public protest; Froissart says that he “was very angry and felt that the King should not have reacted as he had… And the more sensible of the barons agreed with him.” Nevertheless, while he “deplored the matter in private, [he] was too proud to approach Richard II, since his son’s honor was involved.” That is understandable, but given the King’s unpredictable humor, he probably did not dare to protest for fear that it would only worsen the situation, and because so much was at stake. After all, he had pleaded with the King in private and failed to soften his resolve.

  The prospect of death was undoubtedly in John’s mind at this time, for on September 17, only one day after Richard pronounced his terrible judgment, the duke obtained from him a license to found a chantry for himself and Katherine in Lincoln Cathedral, where their souls could be prayed for in perpetuity by two chaplains.127 When his time came, John would be buried in the double tomb he had built for himself and Blanche in St. Paul’s, but he desired to retain a spiritual affinity in death with Katherine, who must already have decided that she would be laid to rest in Lincoln Cathedral, a place with which she had long enjoyed a close association, and where she and John were married. That she had the right to burial there is perhaps further evidence that she was a member of the cathedral’s confraternity, although her long residence in the close might have qualified her for the privilege, as well as her royal status.

  After their marriage John and Katherine had forged even closer links with Lincoln Cathedral. They bestowed rich gifts. In his will, John left a gold chalice graven with a crucifix and an image of Christ, a gold table, large gold chandeliers, and a stone altar he called “Domesday” that was encrusted with sapphires, diamonds, pearls, and rubies, all of which were from his own chapel, as well as new vestments of red cloth of gold adorned with gold falcons, and an altar cloth with the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the twelve Apostles embroidered in gold thread.

  During her marriage and widowhood, Katherine also gave beautiful vestments, some from her own chapel; these comprised “a chasuble of red baudekin [rich silk] with orphreys [ornamental bands or borders] of gold with leopards powdered [sprinkled] with black trefoils, and two tunicles and two albs of the same suite;” twenty “fair copes,” each having “three wheels of silver in the hoods … a chasuble of red velvet with Katherine wheels of gold, with two tunicles and three albs, with all the apparel of the same suite … five copes of red velvet with Katherine wheels of gold, of the which three hath orphreys of black cloth of gold, and the other two hath orphreys with images of Katherine wheels and stars.” There were also four other copes “in red satin figured with Katherine wheels of gold, with orphreys having images, staffs, and Katherine wheels,” and “two cloths of red velvet embroidered with Katherine wheels of gold of diverse lengths and diverse breadths.” All were “of the gift of the Duchess of Lancaster,” and they were recorded in an inventory taken in 1536, when they were still proudl
y numbered among the cathedral’s treasures. These descriptions give some indication of the splendor in which the duke and duchess worshipped, while the proliferation of Katherine wheels testifies to the duchess’s desire to be identified with her patron saint.128

  Immediately after obtaining his license from the King, John rode with Katherine to Leicester Castle. To show that he bore the duke no ill will for the misdeeds of his son, Richard visited them there from September 20 to 24,129 and on the last day of his stay he granted Mowbray’s lordship of Castle Acre in Norfolk to Thomas Beaufort.130 Were these sops to lull John into believing that Richard planned no further moves against the House of Lancaster?

  During his visit Richard must have seen a deterioration in John of Gaunt’s health. For some time, says Froissart, John was “low spirited on account of the banishment of his son,” and he was clearly not a well man. Although on October 3, Richard was apparently anticipating that his uncle might undertake another trip to Scotland in 1399, this was perhaps a ploy to make people believe he thought the duke would live to see his son return from exile, in order to deflect any suspicions that he had his eye on their lands, for on that same day he went so far as to issue letters authorizing Henry to receive his inheritance in the event of John’s early demise.131

  Katherine was probably present with John at Eltham Palace that month to witness Henry taking his leave of the King. Their own sad farewells were made soon afterward, and on March 13, Henry, riding through vast crowds of people “weeping and crying after him,” left London for Dover, where he was to board a ship bound for France.132 On his father’s advice he had arranged to spend his exile in Paris, at the French court,133 near enough to England for him to be able to speedily return if necessary.

  John of Gaunt, now overtaken “by a sudden languor, both for old age and heaviness [depression],”134 and “gravely desolated” by the absence of his son and the prospect of never seeing him again,135 rode north with his beloved Katherine to Leicester Castle, arriving there by October 24.136 He would not leave this long- favored residence alive.137 As Silva- Vigier and Goodman point out, the greater part of his short married life with Katherine had been darkly overshadowed by Richard IIs tyranny and then the duke’s sickness—and there was to be no happy ending. In November his health deteriorated further, and at Christmas, according to Froissart, he became very ill. It may have been at this time that he took to “his chamber bed, travailed in that infirmity.”138 This was by far the worst manifestation of the illness he had suffered from intermittently for at least a year, a malady that some believed had been brought on or exacerbated by the strain of recent events.139

  The nature of that illness cannot be determined for certain, but there are possible clues. The following “indecent tale” was deemed so disgusting by the duke’s Edwardian biographer, Armitage- Smith, that he had the whole text, and his own dismissive observations, printed in Latin; later historians, such as Pearsall and Bevan, have also cast doubt on its credibility. But were they right to do so? A closer look at the evidence is required.

  In the 1440s, Thomas Gascoigne, Chancellor of Oxford University, claimed in his treatise, Loci e Libro Veritatum (Passages from a Book of Truths), that John of Gaunt “died of putrefaction of his genitals and body, caused by the frequenting of women, for he was a great fornicator.” According to Gascoigne, Richard II visited John of Gaunt as he was “lying thus diseased in bed,” and the duke “showed this same putrefaction” to the King, laying bare his corrupted genitals and other parts. Gascoigne, who attributed this illness to “the exercise of carnal intercourse with women,” and who says he got his information from “a faithful student of theology who knew these things and told them to me,” wrote this passage to illustrate his typically clerical theory that excessive sexual intercourse had dire consequences for men; yet it seems strange that the private shame of the Duke of Lancaster, the great- grandfather of the then- reigning king and the progenitor of his dynasty, should be chosen as an exemplar and thus exposed. Surely Gascoigne would have had to be sure of his facts before writing something so injurious to the duke’s posthumous reputation?140

  Armitage- Smith observed that Gascoigne, a respected and honest preacher who was vehement in his opposition to Lollards, was biased against the duke, who had once been notorious for his support of Wycliffe. But there is some evidence that may corroborate his allegations. Richard II was in the Midlands in January 1399,141 so it is possible that he did visit his uncle. One source asserts that not only did Richard visit John at this time, but that John raged at him for exiling his son, while the Scottish chronicler, Andrew Wyntoun, writing two decades later, has Richard speaking courteously to him with “pleasant words of comfort,” the effect of which was promptly spoiled when he threw unpaid bills on the duke’s deathbed.142

  If Gascoigne’s story is true, there were enormous implications for Kather-ine. First, we know that her marriage had been consummated in 1396, so there is the possibility that she herself had been infected with the venereal disease contracted by her husband. The fact that she outlived John by only four years, mostly in retirement, may be significant. Second, the worsening symptoms of John’s illness would have put paid to any lovemaking between them. Third, there was the emotional impact on Katherine, who would have had to come to terms with the ghastly consequences of her husband’s earlier promiscuity, a constant reminder that he had not been faithful to her in former years. Maybe, though, she had long since reconciled herself to that, and forgiven it, as it was her Christian duty to do. But watching her dearly beloved lord die in agony can only have been painful in the extreme.

  Yet what of any corroborating evidence? That may perhaps be found in the great St. Cuthbert window in the south choir aisle of York Minster, which was gifted between ca. 1430 and 1445 by the duke’s former clerk, favored protégé, and executor, Thomas Langley, Bishop of Durham and Dean of York, who owed his early advancement in the Church largely to John’s patronage, knew him very well, was much respected by his son and grandson, and was Lord Chancellor under three Lancastrian kings. John of Gaunt had been a devotee of St. Cuthbert, and he appears in this window, kneeling at a prayer desk. On it is a book displaying the Latin text of the first line of Psalm 38: “O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy wrath, neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure.”

  Of course, it might be that Langley wished purely to emphasize the devout—and conventional—contrition of his former patron for any sins he had committed, but a reading of the entire psalm may reveal Langley’s inside knowledge of what the duke had really suffered. In particular, verse 3: “There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine anger, nor is there any rest in my bones because of my sin;” verse 5, “My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness;” verse 7 “For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease: there is no soundness in my flesh;” verse 8, “I am feeble and sore broken;” and verse 10, “My heart panteth, my strength faileth me: as for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me”—had John indeed gone blind toward the end? The psalm also refers to his enemies laying snares for him and saying mischievous things, which could well refer to the events of 1397-98. Saddest of all, perhaps, in this context, is verse 11: “My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my sore; and my kinsmen stand afar off.”143Does this, with its specific reference to “lovers,” suggest that Katherine herself could not bear to go too near John in his extremity? Probably not, for Froissart says of Katherine, “She loved the Duke of Lancaster … and she showed it, in life and in death.”

  Langley must have known the words of this psalm well, as would many other clerics and educated people; why else would he—normally a man of discretion, and utterly loyal to the House of Lancaster—have used it, with all its references to a physical rather than spiritual malaise, unless he knew it to be especially apt? And why, if the duke had not had such a disease, did Langley choose to draw attention to this particular text?

  Given that John of Gaunt may have died of a venereal disease, what could it hav
e been? The only symptoms described or perhaps alluded to were intermittent attacks of illness in the late 1390s, putrefying genitals, and blindness. Syphilis was then unknown in Europe; it is thought to have been introduced from the Americas in the late fifteenth century. Gonorrhea, however, had been known from ancient times, as had other sexually transmitted diseases such as nonspecific urethritis and chlamydia. John is likeliest to have contracted such an illness in the years prior to 1381, when he reached forty- one, and in many cases symptoms do not appear for some years. When they do appear, men can suffer painful urination, swollen testicles, a whitish discharge from the penis, infection and reddening of its opening, genital itching, and infertility—it may be significant that the duke fathered no more children after 1385. His children need not necessarily have inherited the disease, because their mothers were probably not infected—at least not at the time they gave birth. Moreover, John seems, however, to have been a generally fit man up until his fifties, apart from nearly dying of dysentery in Spain in 1387. In later life, however, untreated venereal diseases can cause arthritis, rheumatism, prostatitis, heart problems, meningitis, paralysis, and/or blindness.

 
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