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


  None of this is conclusive, and against it, of course, we may argue that, had John of Gaunt died of a venereal disease, it would have merited some mention by other chroniclers. Given the private nature of such a disease, however, it may be that the only people who perhaps knew the truth about the duke’s illness were members of his inner circle—Langley may have been present at his deathbed,144 and might possibly have been the “faithful student of theology” who confided in Gascoigne—and that they kept it to themselves until he had been dead for at least thirty years.

  Over in Paris, an anxious Duke Henry was told by one of his knights, Sir John Dymoke, whom he had sent as a messenger to his father, that the duke’s physicians had said he was suffering from such a dangerous disease that he could not live for long. This alarming report dissuaded Henry from visiting the courts of Castile and Portugal, where his sisters were established, and from going on pilgrimage to St. James of Com-postela.145 Who knew when he might enter his inheritance, or even be permitted to return to pay his last respects to his dying parent?

  On New Year’s Day 1399, Katherine presented John with a gold cup, her last gift to him.146 On January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, the duke sent to Lincoln Cathedral the treasures he intended to bequeath to it in his will, instructing that they be exhibited on the high altar.147 Clearly he believed he was laying up treasure in Heaven also.

  At this time, Henry Beaufort was in Oxford, serving on a committee advising the Crown. Since he was to escort his mother south after his father’s death, he may have hastened to Leicester to be with the duke at the end. There is no record of John’s other children being present, so perhaps it was only Katherine and the young bishop who kept vigil by the sickbed.

  On February 3, 1399,148 John of Gaunt had his extremely detailed and meticulously thought- out will drawn up, the complexity of which is evidence that his mental faculties remained acute until the last. He began by commending his soul to God “and to His very sweet mother St. Mary, and to the joys of Heaven,” and directing that his body be buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral “next to my former dear companion Blanche.” He made provision for the eternal celebration of his obit and those of “my very dear former companions, Blanche and Constance, whom God preserve,” and left handsome sums to churches, religious houses, and prisons.

  Then came his lavish bequests to his duchess, which are surely further evidence of his love for her. “I leave to my very dear wife and companion, Katherine, the two best nowches [ouches] which I own, after the nowche which I leave to my esteemed lord and nephew, the King.” An ouche was a brooch or a setting for a precious stone; the word derives from the medieval Latin nusca, meaning an ornament. John also left Katherine “my largest gold chalice,” which the King had given him, “together with all the gold chalices which she herself has previously given to me”—a touching insight, this, into private gifts revealing shared devotional interests. Katherine was also bequeathed “all the sacred images, buckles, rings, diamonds, rubies, and other things which are to be found in a small cypress casket which I have, and to which I myself carry the key. After my death this will be found in the purse which I carry also on my person.” These must have been John’s most cherished and personal possessions.

  “I leave further [to Katherine] a complete vestment of cloth of gold, the bed and the furnishings, with all the copes, carpets for the chamber, cushions, pillows, embroidered cloths for the tomb, and all other pieces belonging thereto, having a red ground diapered with a black trellis and, at each intersection of the diaper, a gold rose, with the letter M149 in black, and black leopards in alternate sections of it. And to her also, I leave my great bed of black velvet embroidered with iron compasses and garters and a turtle dove in the middle of the compasses, together with the carpets and hangings and cushions, etc., belonging to the same bed and chamber.” This must have been one of the couple’s nuptial beds, and its symbols further express their piety: The compass symbolized the Creator measuring out the world; the dove was a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

  John also left Katherine “all the other beds made for me, called in En gland ‘trussing beds’ [portable beds with hangings], with the carpets and other appurtenances, and my best circlet with the fine ruby, and my best collar with the cluster of diamonds, and my second cover of ermine, and two of my best ermine- lined mantles, together with the suits of clothes accompanying them. And to the said most dear companion, I leave all those possessions and castles which she had before our marriage, together with the other property and jewels which I have given to her since the said marriage, and, finally, those possessions and jewels which are in the keeping of my said companion and not listed in the inventory of my possessions.” Later in the will, Katherine was left £2,000 (£758,325)—by far the largest bequest made by the duke.150

  All of this gives a very vivid impression of the luxury in which Katherine had lived as Duchess of Lancaster, but it also paints a picture of a mutually supportive married couple, a generous husband, and an esteemed and loved wife. When John was gone, Katherine would want for nothing, and she would have many reminders of him to cherish: beds they had shared, personal jewels, and rich garments.

  To the King, John bequeathed, among other things, “my best covered gold chalice, which my dearest Lady Katherine gave to me on New Year’s Day.” There were generous bequests to his elder children: hangings, beds, armor, plate, and jewels to Henry; a circlet and a chalice for Philippa; a covered gold chalice for Catalina; a bed, carpets, and an ouche for Elizabeth. As for the Beauforts: “I leave to my very dear son, John Beaufort, Marquess of Dorset, two dozen plates and two dozen saucers, two goblets of silver for wine, a silver chalice engraved, two basins and two ewers of silver,” plus £1,000 (£379,163). “To the reverend Father in God and my beloved son, the Bishop of Lincoln [who was to be a supervisor of the will], a dozen plates and a dozen saucers, two silver goblets for wine, a silver chalice engraved, with a basin and one silver ewer, and my entire vestment of velvet with the things belonging to it, and also my missal and my psalter, which belonged to my lord and brother, the Prince of Wales, whom God preserve. I leave to my very dear son, Thomas Beaufort, their brother, a dozen plates and a dozen saucers, two silver goblets for wine, and six silver cups,” and 1,000 marks (£126,388). “I leave to my very dear daughter, their sister, the Countess of Westmorland and Lady Neville, a bed of silk and a covered gold chalice, also a ewer.”

  The will also reveals that the duke generously left “my very dear chevalier Sir Thomas Swynford” 100 marks (£12,639). He also directed that a chantry be founded at Leicester for the repose of his soul and that of “my former very dear wife Constance.” In a codicil to the will, added after it had been sealed, he granted Katherine “some portion” of “diverse seigneuries, manors, lands, building, rent, services, possessions, or benefices from churches” that he had purchased “before the marriage between myself and my very dear companion, Katherine, was celebrated;” she was to hold these for life, and “some portion” of their revenues was to “remain completely hers … in her hands.” The rest was to go to John Beaufort, for himself and his heirs, while revenues from other property held by Katherine but not part of this grant were to be paid to Thomas Beaufort.151

  John of Gaunt died later that day, February 3, 1399, at Leicester Castle, at the age of fifty- eight. 152 The fact that he left the drawing up of his long will until what proved to be his last day on earth, and in it mentioned the possible eventuality of his dying outside London, suggests that he expected to live longer and even recover sufficiently to be able to return to that city, and that the end came after he took a sudden turn for the worse. His death ended one of the greatest and most poignant love affairs in English history. It left his son Henry—now Duke of Lancaster, Earl of Leicester, Lincoln, and Derby—in possession of a landed inheritance worth more than £43 billion in modern terms, and Katherine a widow for the second time. At forty-nine, she now donned once more the robes of widowhood, in which she is depicted on her tomb b
rass, robes similar to those worn by her sister- in- law, Eleanor de Bohun, on her brass in Westminster Abbey. They comprised a long flowing gown, a barbe, a wimple, and a veil. By this date it had become de rigueur for royal and noble widows from the rank of baroness upward to wear the pleated barbe above the chin, and ladies of knightly rank or lower obliged to wear it below. Katherine, as a dowager duchess, would have worn it covering her chin, with the nunlike wimple falling over her shoulders. On public occasions she may have worn a ducal coronet on top of the wimple. Noble widows such as Katherine usually wore this garb until they died or remarried.153

  In his will, John had left instructions that, like Job, “my body should remain on the earth for forty days,” uninterred.154 This was not only an exercise in humility and penitence typical of its time, but also gave the executors time in which to arrange the obsequies. The embalmed body would have been placed in a coffin in the castle chapel, where Katherine would surely have regularly kept vigil beside it: Again we may recall Froissart saying that she showed her love for the duke in death.

  Early in March the duke’s corpse was brought south to London in solemn procession. Katherine, as chief mourner, was escorted by her son, Bishop Beaufort, and Robert Braybrooke, Bishop of London, an old friend of her husband. On March 12 the body was to rest overnight at St. Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, but when the cortège arrived, the abbot refused to admit anyone, or assign lodgings to any of the mourners, because of Beaufort’s presence, fearing that if the latter were allowed to officiate at the Requiem Mass, the abbey’s cherished exemption from his episcopal jurisdiction might be compromised. An undignified row ensued, and was only resolved when, at Braybrooke’s urging, the outraged bishop undertook to indemnify the abbey against any derogation of its immunities. Only then would the abbot admit everyone and himself insist on celebrating the Requiem Mass with the two bishops. The following day, Bishop Beaufort graciously—and diplomatically—confirmed the abbey’s privileges. But it took the gift of a precious reliquary, presented on his next visitation, to mollify him. 155

  On the evening of March 13 the duke’s body rested in the abbey’s chapel of St. John at Barnet,156 and the following day it was carried to London and—according to his wish—brought to the church of the Carmelites, his favored order of friars, south of Fleet Street, “to have exequies sung that same night and Requiem Mass the following morning.” Today, an inn, the Old Cheshire Cheese in Wine Office Court, stands on the site of the White-friars’ guesthouse where Katherine probably lodged, unless nearby Ely Place had been made ready for her.

  On March 15 the hearse was borne to St. Paul’s for a final nocturnal vigil. Then, forty days after his death, on Passion Sunday, March 16, in the presence of the King and all the nobility, and following a final Requiem Mass, John of Gaunt was laid to rest with great honors beside his once- beloved Blanche in the “incomparable sepulchre” Henry Yevele had built for them near the high altar 157 At the committal, twenty- five large candles were grouped symbolically around the coffin: ten for the Ten Commandments, seven for the Seven Works of Charity, five for the Five Wounds of Christ, and three for the Holy Trinity.158 The chantry chapel in which the tomb was housed was finally completed by March 1403, and the chantry formally founded on December 20, 1411. 159 The chapel was sumptuously appointed with vestments, altar cloths, and hangings left by the duke, and a silver and enameled cross “of renowned beauty” presented by Bishop Beaufort.160

  The duke’s grandson, eleven- year- old Henry of Monmouth, the future Henry V, may have represented his exiled father, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, at the funeral—he and his siblings were all issued with black mourning robes161—but it is just possible that Duke Henry, who had immediately put his Parisian household into mourning,162 had covertly hastened back from Paris to attend it himself, in disguise, for three warrants issued under his privy seal were dated in London on March 17, 18, and 20. 163

  TEN

  The Kings Mother

  With all the preparations for the duke’s obsequies and the sorting out of affairs following his death, Katherine can have had little time to mourn. Now, with the funeral behind her, she faced life alone without the man she had loved for more than thirty years.

  Before she could make any decisions about her future, she had to look to her financial affairs. Immediately following the duke’s death, the royal es-cheators had wrongfully taken into custody her dower lands along with the Lancastrian estates, so Katherine had to petition Richard II to restore them to her, which he did promptly on March 9. He also confirmed an annuity of £1,000 (£379,163) charged upon the duchy lands,1 which had been granted to her by John. But on March 18 the King did what had no doubt been in his mind for some time: Without any legal pretext, he extended Henry’s exile for the term of his life, and declared the Lancastrian inheritance forfeit, annexing the duchy to the Crown and distributing its lands among his favorites.2 It was a shocking turn of events, and one of the grossest examples of Richard’s tyrannical rule.

  The King had shed no tears for his late uncle, and had even communicated his passing to Charles VI “with a sort of joy.”3 Yet his affection for Katherine and her family is evident in the measures he took to mitigate the impact of the forfeiture on them. He allowed Katherine to keep the lands left to her for her dower, and when in May his escheators—whose zeal far exceeded their competence—seized lands in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, and Norfolk that she had held before her marriage to the duke, he ordered that these lands be released to her.4 Thereafter, she made no known protest about the forfeiture of the Lancastrian inheritance, kept very much to herself, and thus managed to remain on good terms with the King.

  On March 20, Richard confirmed the annuity of 100 marks that John of Gaunt had granted in 1383 to Thomas Swynford and his wife,5 and the same day he compensated Thomas Chaucer for the loss of the offices granted him by the late duke. John Beaufort was scheduled to go to Aquitaine at the beginning of April, but the King postponed his departure and kept him in attendance at court; on April 16 he was one of the witnesses of Richard’s will.6 Perhaps John took advantage of the respite to help his mother settle her affairs, or to be a moral support to her at this time of mourning. In April, Richard provided Garter robes for Joan Beaufort and Jane Crophill, Thomas Swynford’s wife. Katherine was not among those for whom such robes were provided—she would not have been expected to attend the Garter ceremonies so early in her widowhood.

  Katherine did not choose to reside at any of her dower properties. She probably visited them rarely, if at all, for there is little or no trace of her at any of them, and of course she only held them for a short time; their function was chiefly to provide her with an income from rents and feudal dues. Instead, she went back to the cathedral close in Lincoln, where she had sought refuge during that earlier parting from John, and which had evidently come to represent home to her. In absenting herself from London and the court, she removed herself from the turmoil of political life that had engulfed her last years with John, and hopefully in so doing found a kind of peace.

  Having arranged for Thomas Swynford to take over the running of Ket-tlethorpe and Coleby, she leased one of the most desirable houses in Minster Yard, the one known today as the Priory. The exact date on which she took up residence there is not recorded, but it must have been early on in her widowhood; she was certainly renting the house in 1400-1401, and held it until she died.7 She did not pay the rent of 46s.8d (£869) per annum, but opted instead to make repairs to the house, which may have given her something on which to focus during her widowhood.

  The Priory is now a private school, and it was not known by that name until the early nineteenth century, when it housed an earlier school for young ladies, which was established by 1824; however, it will henceforth be referred to as the Priory for ease of reference. The present house is set back from the street and somewhat isolated from the other houses, standing against the fortified wall that was built around the cathedral close in the early fourteenth c
entury, and lying to the north of the Chancery, farther along Pottergate. In Katherine’s day the New Gate of the close stood outside the house, next to which was the Priory’s own, smaller gatehouse, long since demolished; the cathedral’s octagonal Chapter House is opposite.

  As with the Chancery, a parliamentary survey, drawn up in 1649, exists for the Priory, providing us with many valuable details about the property leased by Katherine. The Priory’s largely Victorian exterior conceals the core of the thirteenth- century house lived in by Katherine, which was once a canon’s residence; there had been a tenement on the site since the twelfth century. The remains of the “fair hall 40 feet long and 22 feet broad”8 with walls between two and three feet thick, which dates from the late thirteenth century, are incorporated in the present house, along with sections of its walls and two of its original entrance doorways, while at the screens end there survives between two pointed- arch doors an imposing stone buffet delicately sculpted with ball flowers and a frieze of quatrefoils, built into the stone wall. There is also a carved basin for the washing of hands. The survey records “a buttery or cellar at the lower end of the hall, and at the upper end a fair parlor wainscoted, 28 feet long and 21 feet broad, with a closet adjoining.” This parlor probably occupied Katherine’s original solar wing at the south end of the hall, where she would have had her private chambers. Like that in the Chancery, the hall would have been open to the roof beams in the fourteenth century, with a louver to let out smoke from the central hearth. In this wing there was also, in 1649, “one other beer cellar there with pantry and buttery,” and among the rooms on the second floor, above the parlor, was a “chapel chamber,” which probably dated from at least Katherine’s day, for a household oratory had been licensed in 1259.

 
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