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


  Henry IV remarried in 1402: His bride was Joan of Navarre, and John Beaufort was present at the proxy wedding that took place on April 3 at Eltham. In June, John was entrusted with escorting the King’s daughter, Princess Blanche, to Germany for her marriage to Rupert, Duke of Bavaria and King of the Romans.44

  That month, John Leventhorpe, the King’s trusted Receiver- General of the Duchy of Lancaster, traveled to Lincoln to speak with Katherine.45 We do not know the nature of their business, and it was not unusual for Leven-thorpe to leave his office in London and travel about the duchy estates in the course of his work. It is possible that Katherine realized that her health was beginning to fail and that she wished to put some of her affairs in order.

  Thomas Beaufort received his first military command as Captain of Ludlow Castle on the Welsh Marches in August 1402;46 that year, Henry IV confirmed John of Gaunt’s bequest of an annuity to him. In November, however, the King refused to accede to a parliamentary petition that John Beaufort be restored to his former rank of marquess; both Henry and indeed John Beaufort himself felt that particular title was “alien,” too closely associated with Richard II and with Robert de Vere, for whom it had been created.47 John was sent to Brittany that month to escort Queen Joan to England; their party docked at Falmouth in February 1403, and on February 7, Bishop Beaufort officiated at the royal wedding in Winchester Cathedral.48 There is no record of Katherine attending, nor does she seem to have been present at the new queen’s coronation on February 26, which suggests that her health did not permit her to travel far, for these were great state occasions for most of the nobility, and as dowager Duchess of Lancaster she would have occupied a position of honor at them.

  At the end of February, Henry Beaufort was appointed to the high office of Chancellor of England, a post he would hold under three successive sovereigns. The following month John Beaufort was sent to take up his command in Calais, where he seems to have remained until June.49 That March, work on John of Gaunt’s new chantry in St. Paul’s was completed—the chantry priests were established there in July—and on March 8, Henry IV granted license to his late father’s executors to found the chantry for Constance, for which the late duke had made provision in his will.

  The next reference to Katherine is ominous. At Eltham, on April 12, 1403, in response to a petition by her, the King granted that two of the four tuns of wine received by her each year could be sent instead to Thomas Swynford and his wife.50 Because this petition was made so close to her death, it is more than possible that Katherine was ill and knew she would no longer need so much wine for her household, and so asked for half of it to be given to her son.

  In May we find Thomas Beaufort still serving as Captain of Ludlow. Sadly, neither he nor his brother John, abroad in Calais, would ever see their mother again. She died, perhaps unexpectedly soon, probably in the solar wing of the Priory, on May 10, 1403, at the age of about fifty- three. 51

  She was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, in the Angel Choir, on the south side of the sanctuary, in the western arch of the two bays near the high altar. As Duchess of Lancaster, she was entitled to such an honorable burial place, and no doubt her son, Bishop Beaufort, saw that she got it; he probably officiated at the funeral—for which no information survives—and may well have commissioned his mother’s table tomb, or carried out instructions she had left for it in her will. Harvey makes a good case for its being designed by Thomas Prentys, a master sculptor from Chollaston in Northamptonshire, for Katherine’s tomb has similarities to others he is known to have designed. 52 Silva- Vigier romantically suggests that Katherine’s heart was buried with John of Gaunt in St. Paul’s, but that is highly unlikely, since heart burial had become virtually obsolete in England by that time.

  Katherine’s fine tomb chest of Purbeck marble, with its molded plinth and lid, had armorial shields encircled by garters along each side; it was surmounted by a canopied brass depicting Katherine in her widow’s weeds and bearing her arms impaled with those of John of Gaunt, while above it was raised a vaulted canopy with trefoiled arches, cusped lozenges, and miniature rose bosses. The canopy and associated stonework would have been painted in bright colors. Her epitaph, recorded by Lancaster Herald, Francis Thynne, around 1600, was as follows:

  lci gist dame Katherine Duchesse de Lancastre

  jadis feme de le tresnoble et tresgracious prince John Duk

  de Lancastre fils a tresnoble roy Edward le tierce, la quelle

  Katherine mourust le X jour de May Van du grace MCCCC

  tiers de quelle alme dieu eyt merci et pitiee. Amen.53

  This translates as:

  Here lies Dame Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster,

  once the wife of the very noble and very gracious Prince,

  John, Duke of Lancaster, son to the very noble King

  Edward III, the which Katherine died the 10th day of

  May in the year of grace 1403, on whose soul

  God have mercy and pity. Amen.

  On June 27, 1403, annuities amounting to £1,300 (£416,705) that had been paid to Katherine out of the issues of the Duchy of Lancaster were transferred to Queen Joan.54 The late duchess’s passing had apparently occurred virtually unnoticed, for no chronicler comments on it, and there is no record of court mourning. She died as she had lived during those sad years of her widowhood, quietly and without any stir, almost as a private person. Certainly the wording of her epitaph does not reflect the grandeur of her own position, but rather emphasizes her husband’s rank and lineage and her need for divine mercy; this emphasis on humility and an awareness of the innate sinfulness of human nature, as well as specific sins, was typical of the age and probably derived from the aging Katherine’s own feelings about herself and her life.

  Lucraft has pertinently pointed out that we would know more about the latter if Katherine’s will had survived, but there is no trace of it, either in Lincoln or in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury records.55 We know that a will was made because not long after her death the Lincoln Chapter’s Clerk of the Common rode to Liddington in Wiltshire to discuss the proving of her testament with Bishop Beaufort;56 and in her own will of 1440, Joan Beaufort bequeathed to her eldest son a psalter willed to her by “the illustrious lady and my mother, Lady Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster,” which she directed should go to each of her sons in turn, clearly intending it to be an important family heirloom.57 Of the will’s other provisions, there is the likelihood that Katherine bequeathed Gisors Hall in Boston to Thomas Beaufort.

  On May 19, 1403, sixteen days after Katherine died, the Priory was leased to Canon Richard of Chesterfield, but he withdrew from the agreement on June 29 “on account of fear of the Queen;” it seems that Joan of Navarre, with the King’s consent, had promised the house to Elizabeth Grey, the widow of Philip, Lord Darcy, who lived in a house nearby. Katherine had probably known her, given their close proximity and the fact that Elizabeth Grey’s daughter- in- law, Margaret Grey, the present Lady Darcy, later became Sir Thomas Swynford’s second wife; Elizabeth Grey could well have been a friend of Katherine’s; indeed, Katherine may even have asked Queen Joan to arrange for Lady Darcy to lease the Priory after her death. Be this as it may, the King did grant it to her.58

  Plans for the foundation of the chantry chapel at Lincoln for which John of Gaunt had obtained a license in 1398 were shelved: Three times, in 1400, 1402, and 1413, the duke’s executors acknowledged their failure to carry out his wishes.59 Not until 1437 do we hear that an altar had been set up, but even then no formal foundation had apparently been made. 60

  Katherine’s chief legacy to history was her Beaufort children. John ^Beaufort continued to serve as Captain of Calais until 1404 or 1405, when Sir Thomas Swynford was acting as his deputy. In 1407, John Beaufort asked Henry IV to clarify his status and that of his siblings, and on February 10 the King confirmed the statute of 1397 that legitimized them, but added the words excepta dignitate regali (excepting the royal dignity) in his Letters Patent, denying them the r
ight of succession to the Crown, 61 an act of dubious legality that would be called into question in the years to come, for it was never approved by Parliament, and the original act had been left unamended. There has been speculation that Henry IV had always privately feared the implications of the Beauforts being legitimized, and while he himself had four strapping sons and must have known that John Beaufort’s loyalty—and that of his siblings—was beyond question, he could not rely on the fealty of subsequent generations; so this clause probably reflects his determination to preempt any future threat to the senior Lancastrian line.

  John Beaufort died on Palm Sunday, March 16, 1410, at only thirty-seven, in the Hospital of St Katherine- by- the- Tower, a royal charity founded in 1148 by Matilda of Boulogne, the wife of King Stephen, to offer spiritual comfort and alms to the poor; given the fact that its patrons had always been royal ladies, that John Beaufort died there, and that John of Gaunt had founded a chantry in the hospital—as well as its connection with her name saint—it is highly likely that the hospital had been under Kather-ine’s patronage when she was Duchess of Lancaster. 62John was buried in St. Michael’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, near his uncle the Black Prince and the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket, a resting place probably chosen for him by Henry IV, who was himself buried nearby in 1413.63

  John was succeeded as Earl of Somerset by his eight- year- old son, Henry. His widow, Margaret Holland, became the wife of Henry IV s third son, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, and in due course she and her second husband were interred in the same tomb as John Beaufort, with the effigy of Margaret recumbent between those of her two spouses. The latter are similar, but John’s effigy is shorter; his face, distinguished by its Plantagenet nose and heavy- lidded eyes, may well be an attempt at a likeness.

  Henry Beaufort was the most dynamic of Katherine’s sons. In 1404 he was translated from the See of Lincoln to that of Winchester. He stood high in the counsels of Henry IV, and his son, Henry V (who succeeded his father in 1413), was one of the mainstays of the House of Lancaster, and played a prominent role in the history of England during the first half of the fifteenth century, becoming enormously rich and influential in the process; it has been said that he was probably the greatest royal creditor of the age.64 In 1418 he narrowly missed being elected Pope. Three years later he was nominated godfather to Henry V’s only son, and when that infant became Henry VI in 1422, he was entrusted to the care of Henry and Thomas Beaufort. During the minority of Henry VI, Bishop Beaufort was a leading figure on the regency council, and in 1426 was made a cardinal, achieving one of the highest accolades the Church could bestow. In 1431 he was one of the judges who condemned Joan of Arc to be burned at the stake. He died at Wolvesey Palace, Winchester, in the spring of 1447, at seventy-two, and was buried in the chantry he had founded in Winchester Cathedral; his parents were among those for whom he had requested that perpetual prayers be said there.65 He had one bastard child, a daughter, Joan. It has often been stated that her mother was Eleanor FitzAlan, daughter of the Earl of Arundel,66 but there is no evidence to support that claim.67

  There is a fine effigy of Cardinal Beaufort, wearing his red robes and wide- brimmed hat, on his tomb, and a stone head of him at Bishop’s Waltham Palace, Hampshire. It has recently been suggested that a portrait of a cardinal by the celebrated Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck may also portray him. The sitter was once thought to have been Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, but his well- fleshed appearance and fur- trimmed robe does not comport with what we know of the ascetic Albergati. Henry Beaufort was in Ghent in 1432, at the time this portrait is thought to have been painted, and clearly the sitter was an important man.68 Could this cardinal, with his closely shaven face, large nose, keen brown eyes, and pleasant, playful smile, have been the son of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt?

  • • •

  The very able Thomas Beaufort also had a distinguished career in royal service. In 1403, soon after his mother’s death, he was made Admiral of the Northern Fleet,69 and on July 21 fought under the future Henry V at the Battle of Shrewsbury. He again served as admiral in 1408-49, and in 1410 reached the pinnacle of his career when he was appointed Chancellor of England, as well as Captain of Calais. He resigned the chancellorship in 1412, the year he became Earl of Dorset and also saw military service in France; Henry V had abandoned the peace policy of his grandfather, John of Gaunt, and resurrected England’s ancient claim to the French throne. Thomas was the King’s Lieutenant in Aquitaine in 1413, and in 1415, with his cousin Thomas Chaucer, fought for Henry V in the French campaign that ended with the jubilant English victory at Agincourt. The town of Harfleur was also taken, and Thomas Beaufort made its captain. He was appointed Lieutenant of Normandy in 1416, and created Duke of Exeter on November 18 of that year.70 Two years later he took an active part in Henry V’s ruthless push to conquer Normandy, and was created Count of Harcourt on July 1.

  Thomas was widely renowned for his highly developed sense of chivalry, his moral rectitude, his Christian piety, and his charity to the poor and to travelers. He was impervious to corruption, refusing all gifts and rewards, and he forbade swearing, tale- bearing, and lying in his household.71 It is tempting to wonder if he had been deeply humiliated by the irregularity of his birth and his former bastardy, and if his stiff propriety was a subconscious attempt to compensate for those stigmas.

  When the King’s brother, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, was defeated and killed at the Battle of Beaugé in 1421, Thomas Beaufort was taken prisoner by the French; he was released the following year. Soon afterward, Henry V died, having entrusted the guardianship of his heir, the infant Henry VI, to his “dear and true Duke of Exeter, full of all worthyhood,”72 whereupon Thomas returned to England to share responsibility for the upbringing of his nephew with his brother, Bishop Beaufort. From 1424, their cousin, Thomas Chaucer, was also a member of the regency council.

  Thomas Beaufort died on December 31, 1426, and was buried in the Lady Chapel of the abbey of Bury St. Edmund’s in Suffolk. He left no heir, his only son Henry having died young. In his will, he made provision for masses to be celebrated for the souls of his parents, and left a silver- gilt cup to his half brother, Sir Thomas Swynford.73 His tomb was lost when the Lady Chapel was pulled down in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1772 a lead coffin thought to be Thomas Beaufort’s was found by workmen on the supposed site of its altar. The remains it contained, well- preserved in cerecloth, were reburied in a wooden casket near the northeast crossing pier.74

  Thomas Chaucer, who had turned down a knighthood, died on March 14, 1434, and was buried at Ewelme. His only daughter Alice married William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, and thus became a duchess, the highest rank to which a woman could aspire outside the royal family. Her son, John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was to marry Edward IV’s sister Elizabeth of York, and their son, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was acknowledged as heir to the throne by Richard III after the latter’s son died in 1484. Thus, the descendants of Geoffrey Chaucer, the son of a London vintner, were raised to the highest echelons of the nobility and, but for a turn of fate, might have become kings of England—all largely due to Geoffrey’s sister- in- law having become the mistress and later wife of the mighty Duke of Lancaster.

  Joan Beaufort proved to be a strong- willed, formidable lady, with wide literary interests—she liked pious works, romances, and histories, and the poet Thomas Hoccleve dedicated a book to her.75 Yet she also demonstrated a deep religious piety that embraced the mysticism of Margery Kempe, the holy woman of Lynn. In 1404, Joan’s husband, Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, conscious of his lady’s royal connections and dynastic importance, disinherited his legitimate son by his first wife in favor of Joan’s children, provoking a legal wrangle that would drag on for years, but in which the ruthlessly determined Joan would ultimately triumph.

  In 1424, Joan’s daughter, Cecily Neville, married Ralph Neville’s ward, Richard, Duke of York. York was the grandson of Edmund of Langley, fift
h son of Edward III and younger brother of John of Gaunt, and he was also descended, through Philippa of Clarence and the Mortimers, from Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III’s second surviving son. He thus had a strong claim to the throne, which he would assert in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses, insisting that he had a better right to rule than Henry VI. York was killed that same year at the Battle of Wakefield, but his claim was inherited by his son, Edward, Earl of March, the eldest of the fourteen children born of his marriage to Cecily Neville.

  Ralph Neville died in 1425, and was buried in Staindrop Church, County Durham, beside his first wife. His effigy may be seen there today, lying between those of both his ladies, but although Joan founded a chantry at Staindrop for herself and her husband in 1437, she was never to be buried with him. Either she disdained to lie for eternity near his first wife, or she wanted to be with her mother: In her will, dated May 10, 1440, the thirty-seventh anniversary of Katherine’s death, Joan asked if the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln would enlarge her tomb enclosure so that she could be interred “in the same altar where the body of Lady Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster, my mother, is buried.”76 On November 28, 1437, she had obtained a royal license for her second foundation, a perpetual chantry in Lincoln Cathedral for the souls of both her parents, finally fulfilling their wishes almost forty years after John of Gaunt obtained license to found such a chantry “for the good estate of himself and Katherine his wife.” The foundation, which dated from July 16, 1439, was to be formally called the “Chantry of Katherine, late Duchess of Lancaster, in the cathedral church of Lincoln.” Two chaplains were appointed to celebrate mass each morning at seven at the altar beside the tomb, and Joan made provision for prayers to be offered for Henry IV, Henry V, and her late husband, Ralph Neville, as well.77

 
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