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


  When the close wall was built, around 1316-28, a strong three- storied stone tower with its own spiral staircase, octagonal chimney shaft, and embattled parapet was built into it, linking it with the north side of the hall of the Priory, and forming part of the house. The parliamentary survey describes how the stone stairs led up to “two lodging rooms,” which may have been guest chambers or accommodation for household officers. The contemporary chimney shaft, rare in such houses, suggests an unusual degree of comfort and privacy for its time, while a small extension to the east side of the tower, which has traces of medieval windows, may have housed latrines. The ground- floor room, which has mullioned windows, was probably used as a buttery and pantry. There is now no fireplace in the first- floor chamber (now the music room), but this was clearly an important room because it still boasts windows surmounted by ogee arches on both sides, which would have been there when Katherine leased the property. It may be that all trace of the original hearth has been lost. The second- floor room has one window with an ogee arch, and a fireplace with a chamfered stone lintel that was uncovered in 1966.

  In those days, a long range of buildings abutted the close wall between the gatehouse and the Priory itself, but all that survives are a row of corbels. In the seventeenth century these comprised a brewhouse, stable, and hayloft; they may have served as stables in Katherine’s time. The surveyors mention “an orchard and garden adjoining on the south side of the said dwelling, walled about with stone walls,” which occupied about two acres, and yards of a similar size.

  The Priory was largely rebuilt around 1670, when the staircase in the tower was replaced, and new windows and a porch were added in Victorian times.9

  Its proportions and architectural features show that, in the fourteenth century, the Priory had clearly been a house of some distinction, and after Katherine filled it with the sumptuous beds, furnishings, and treasures left to her by John of Gaunt, it would have been splendid indeed, and a fitting residence for the dowager Duchess of Lancaster.

  That Katherine enjoyed good relations with the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln during her widowhood is strongly suggested by her decision to live among them, the rich gifts she made to the cathedral, and the fact that one canon, John Dalton, left her a silver cup in his will.10

  • ••

  There are all too few references to Katherine during the period of her widowhood. She lived out a quiet existence in Lincoln, taking no part in public life and playing no role in the cataclysmic events that were to take place later in 1399. She seems to have retained an interest in Kettlethorpe, and it may have been she who, in the absence of Thomas Swynford, provided a new rector there, William Wylingham, on July 16 of that year. Professor Goodman suggests that Kettlethorpe, with its frequently flooded meadow, may have been too damp for comfort for the middle- aged Katherine,11 so she may not have been there often.

  Her sons, however, were to become increasingly involved in the political life of the kingdom. When Richard II went campaigning in Ireland in June, Henry Beaufort was in his train, looking after his nephew, Henry of Mon-mouth. John Beaufort, meanwhile, was raising a force to take to Aquitaine, but he would soon be deploying it in England instead,12 for in seizing the Lancastrian inheritance, Richard had made a fatal blunder, spurring an outraged Henry, Duke of Lancaster, to vigorous action.

  With a small force of retainers, Henry left Paris and sailed for England, landing at Ravenspur on the Humber estuary on July 4, intent on recovering what was rightfully his and unseating the tyrannical king. He advanced unopposed through the Lancastrian lands in the North, took York, and rallied Joan Beaufort’s husband, Ralph Neville, to his cause. John Beaufort, on the other hand, while secretly writing to Henry to declare his support,13 publicly declared for Richard and joined the army that Edmund of Langley raised to defend the King. But Henry swept all before him, and at the end of July, Richard’s forces surrendered to the conqueror.

  At that point an alarmed Richard returned from Ireland, but his cause was already lost. On August 19 he was captured at Conway and taken as prisoner to the Tower. The first thing the victorious Henry of Lancaster did when he arrived in London was pay his respects at his father’s tomb in St. Paul’s.

  Henry and Thomas Beaufort, Ralph Neville, and Thomas Swynford all hastened to declare their allegiance to Henry. On September 29, Richard was forced to abdicate, and the next day, standing before his father’s seat in Westminster Hall, Henry challenged the realm of England and was proclaimed King, the first sovereign of the House of Lancaster. Technically he was a usurper, but the heir nearest in blood to the throne, Edmund Mortimer, a descendant of Lionel of Antwerp, was a child of only eight, so there was no viable alternative.

  The new king was crowned on October 13 in Westminster Abbey. With his accession, the great Duchy of Lancaster became vested in the Crown (and remains so today), and almost immediately afterward Henry confirmed John of Gaunt’s bequests to Katherine Swynford.14 There had always been a deep affection between the former Henry of Derby and his stepmother; Katherine long played a maternal role in Henry’s life, and is known to have referred to him as her “son,”15 while he now began officially calling her “the King’s mother”—a term he was under no obligation to use—as is evidenced in a grant he made to her on November 9 of four barrels of wine a year for life.16

  The affection in which Henry held Katherine and her family is evident in his generosity toward them. In 1398, Geoffrey Chaucer had resigned his office of forester and returned to London; now he and his son Thomas immediately made known their loyalty to the new king. Of course, Henry and Geoffrey were old acquaintances, friends even—only five years earlier Henry had given the poet money and a scarlet gown lined with fur. He evidently thought so highly of him that on the very day of his coronation he doubled his pension—a mark of high favor perhaps prompted by Chaucer’s humorous A Complaint to his Purse,” a plaintive, tongue- in- cheek plea of penury. The King also confirmed a grant made to Chaucer by Richard II in October 1398, of an annual tun of wine. On October 14, Henry IV also confirmed John of Gaunt’s 1383 annuity to Sir Thomas and Lady Swynford, and on October 31 granted Thomas custody of Somerton Castle in Lincolnshire.17

  Thomas Chaucer was appointed Constable of Wallingford Castle on 16 October, and made Sheriff of Oxfordshire in 1400. His impressive career in public life owed much to Lancastrian patronage and to the connection of his aunt, Katherine Swynford, with John of Gaunt. He served as Chief Butler to four monarchs—Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI—being reappointed by Henry IV in 1402. Between 1401 and 1431 he would sit as MP for Oxfordshire in fourteen Parliaments, and he was speaker four times between 1407 and 1414. A justice of the peace, diplomat, successful vintner, landowner, and shrewd investor, he became “immensely rich” and greatly respected.

  Of his brother Lewis, far less is known. He is last recorded in 1403 as serving as a member of the garrison at Carmarthen Castle with Thomas Chaucer.18

  Late in October the former King Richard was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, and soon afterward was taken to Pontefract Castle, spending a night en route at Katherine’s castle of Knaresborough. At Pontefract, Sir Thomas Swynford, Henry IV’s highly trusted former comrade- inarms, was one of his guardians. John Holland, who had remained loyal to his half brother Richard was deprived of the dukedom of Exeter, and on November 3, John Beaufort, who had also publicly supported the former king, was deprived of the marquessate of Somerset, being relegated to the rank of earl.19 There were calls for his execution, but Henry produced the private letters that John had sent him, expressing his fidelity, and on November 7 made him his chamberlain during his pleasure, “trusting in his loyalty and prudence,” and admitted him to the royal council.20 On November 18, Thomas Beaufort was granted three manors by the King,21 and in 1400 he would be made a Knight of the Garter. Under Henry IV, the Beauforts— to whom the King would officially refer as his brothers and sister22—would rise to ever greater heights and prosper accordingly.

/>   Joan Beaufort and her husband Ralph Neville were always on good terms with Henry. In 1400, Joan bore her first child, the Richard Neville who would grow up to be the famous Earl of Salisbury and the father of Warwick the Kingmaker, his namesake. Fourteen other children were born of the marriage, the eldest daughter named Katherine, and by 1450, through a successful series of alliances, the Nevilles—and the Beauforts too—would be linked by blood or marriage to every noble family in England.

  On Christmas Eve 1399, Katherine’s brother- in- law, Geoffrey Chaucer, now nearing sixty, took a fifty- three- year lease on a house within the precincts of Westminster Abbey, overlooking the garden of the Lady Chapel.23 The length of this lease suggests he must have been in apparent good health and expected to live for some time yet to enjoy his new home, which he got rent- free, thanks to the generosity of the King. But on February 21, 1400, he was to collect his pension in person for the last time, and in June the final payment of it was delivered to his representative. It seems he had fallen ill and was unable to go to the Exchequer himself He died at Westminster, with only twenty- three of the planned 160 Canterbury Tales completed, probably on October 25, 1400, and, as a tenant of the abbey, was buried in the south transept of the church near the entrance to St. Benedict’s Chapel; a leaden plate bearing his Latin epitaph was hung on a pillar nearby. The elaborate tomb erected by the poet Nicholas Brigham to Chaucer’s memory near his burial place, in what was to become Poets’ Corner, was not built until 1555-56.24

  Early in 1400 the disaffected John Holland was found to have been involved in a plot to assassinate Henry IV and restore Richard II, and soon afterward was captured by the Countess of Hereford at Pleshy, Essex, and beheaded there on her orders. His widow, Elizabeth of Lancaster, had remarried by December 12; her third husband was the gallant John Cornwall, Baron Fanhope, who had dazzled her with his performance in a tournament at York that July. Rumor had it that the amorous Elizabeth had not only gone to bed with him before the wedding, but also failed to obtain the King’s license for their marriage. Yet Henry IV indulgently forgave his wayward sister and thus avoided yet another public scandal; in 1404 he even allowed her a dower from Holland’s forfeited estates.25

  It is probably no coincidence that Richard II, whom Holland had sought to restore, died soon afterward, in February 1400, in Pontefract Castle— deliberately starved, it is thought, by his jailers on the orders of the King. Adam of Usk says he perished “miserably … as he lay in chains … tormented by Sir N. Swynford with starving fare,” but this must be a reference to Sir Thomas Swynford, who was one of the former King’s custodians.26Swynford, says Usk, was “the chief agent” of Richard’s death. This grim insight reveals the darker side of Sir Thomas’s character and how zealous he was in the service of Henry IV Further evidence to suggest Sir Thomas’s involvement in the probable murder is to be found in a payment made by the Exchequer “to a valet of Sir Thomas Swynford, coming from Pontefract to London, to certify to the King’s council of certain matters which concern the King’s advantage, including the hire of one horse for speed.”27 We have no means of knowing whether Katherine ever learned that her son was responsible for Richard’s death, but she must have known of his role as jailer at Pontefract, and like everyone else, she would have heard the news of the former king’s timely demise, so she may have speculated, or been suspicious, as to what had taken place.

  Whether he was to any degree responsible for the former king’s murder, Sir Thomas Swynford prospered under Henry IV: In 1401 he was made Sheriff of Lincolnshire, and by May 15 of that year he had been granted the stewardship of the Lancastrian honor of Tickhill, while in 1402, Henry IV chose him as one of his chamber knights,28 a position that brought him into close personal contact with the King.

  On February 12, 1400, Henry IV granted Katherine the manor of Laughton- en- le- Morthen near Tickhill in Yorkshire to augment her dower.29 He also, around this time, assigned her £200 (£74,495) a year from duchy lands in Huntingdonshire and 700 marks (£86,911) per annum from those in Lincolnshire,30 and confirmed her allowance of £1,000 from her late husband. Katherine was now enjoying an income of at least half a million pounds in modern terms, without even taking into account the issues from the dower properties that John of Gaunt had left her. That made her a substantially wealthy woman. Yet apart from living in some state at the Priory, there is no evidence that she used her wealth to finance a lavish lifestyle, or that she traveled outside Lincoln and its environs, or that her hospitality became renowned; all these factors may suggest that she was in poor or declining health during her widowhood, or so devastated by the loss of the duke that she became reclusive and lost interest in material things. The only other reference to her during the year 1400 concerns a grant that was made to her at Kettlethorpe on October 13, so evidently she was still capable at that time of looking after her son’s manors in his absence.

  One of the properties that formed part of Katherine’s jointure was the town of Aylsham in Norfolk, which had been granted to John of Gaunt by Edward III in 1372; John rebuilt its parish church around 1380. Like Katherine’s other dower properties, Aylsham was to revert to the Crown on her death. Curiously, in the eighteenth century the antiquarian Francis Blomefield, in his monumental history of Norfolk,31 refers to Aylsham— without citing his source—held at this time by “Katherine, wife of John Leeches [sic],” which has led some writers, notably Walter Rye in the 1920s, to conclude that during her second widowhood Katherine married a third time, to a member of the Leech family, who were prominent in local society and (according to Rye) were tenants of the Duchy of Lancaster and bore arms. This supposition cannot be correct, for had Katherine remarried, she would have had to surrender her substantial jointure, which in fact did not revert to the Crown until her death. The few references we have concerning her in the years of her widowhood all show her based in the vicinity of Lincoln.

  Furthermore, the use of the style “Dame Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster” in Katherine’s tomb inscription suggests that she had become a “vowess” in widowhood, that is, taken a vow of perpetual chastity before a priest or bishop.32 Vowesses were not nuns: They remained in the world and could dispose of their property. If Katherine had taken such vows, she was following a fashionably pious trend that had emerged in the last quarter of the fourteenth century and would not die out until the Reformation. Both her daughter, Joan Beaufort (who bequeathed to her son a gold ring “with which I was sworn to God”),33 and her famous descendant, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, became vowesses, Margaret while still married to her fourth husband, with his permission.

  Katherine owned a number of other dower lands and properties in Norfolk, and also a house in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) called Wesenham Place, which had been granted to her by John of Gaunt at an unspecified date; he purchased it from John Wesenham, a wealthy Lynn merchant, financier and oft- elected mayor who had strong links with the court.34 The grant is known only through an entry on the Duchy of Lancaster enrollment book for the period October 1399 to September 1405, and the reference indicates occupancy of the house by Katherine at some time, although given no other evidence for her being there, she is unlikely to have stayed there often. Unfortunately, there is no surviving evidence as to where the house stood or what it looked like.

  The fact that Katherine possessed houses in Lincoln, Boston, Gran -tham, and King’s Lynn, all flourishing ports, and is known to have had dealings with merchants from some of those towns, suggests that she had long had mercantile interests—possibly in the wool trade—that have gone unrecorded. We know she inherited from her father some property in Hain-ault, which was perhaps managed by stewards who assisted her in her business ventures, for Hainault was a major wool- trading center. Investing money in such enterprises may have been one way in which, prior to her marriage to John of Gaunt, she sought to expand the Swynford inheritance.

  • • •

  It is unlikely that—with the exception of Bishop Beaufort, who wa
s based at Lincoln Cathedral, a stone’s throw from the Priory—the widowed Katherine saw much of her sons. In the summer of 1400, John and Thomas Beaufort accompanied Henry IV on a military expedition to Scotland,35 and after the King came south in September, John Beaufort accompanied him on a tour of North Wales,36 while Thomas was appointed Sheriff of Oxfordshire. John was granted the lands of the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower in November,37 and he was in London in December for a council meeting and to prepare for the coming visit of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II. At this time Katherine was again looking after affairs at Kettlethorpe: In a deed dated there on October 13, Thomas Aylemere of Kettlethorpe confirmed to her, as Duchess of Lancaster and Lady of Kettlethorpe, the grant or purchase of a small garden plot.38

  In 1401, John Beaufort was appointed Captain of Calais, an office he would hold until his death,39 and that same year he was chosen to escort Richard IIs grieving young widow, Queen Isabella, back to France.40 Later he was in Calais negotiating a truce with the French. On November 26, 1401, the King gave further evidence of holding John in high favor by standing godfather to his eldest son, who was named Henry in his honor, and by granting the infant a generous annuity of 1,000 marks (£121,492).41

  It is unlikely, with all this going on, that John Beaufort had much leisure to visit his mother, and from Michaelmas 1401, Katherine was even more isolated because Henry Beaufort was at Oxford for most of the academic year.42 Then, in May 1402, he went to court, where—thanks to his royal blood and his clever brain—he soon became one of the chief statesmen of the realm. In the month of his arrival there, he and his brother Thomas witnessed the appointment of proctors for the proposed marriages of Henry of Monmouth, now Prince of Wales, and his sister Philippa,43 and in the autumn Bishop Beaufort was appointed to the King’s council.

 
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