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


  Joan herself died on November 13, 1440, at Howden, Yorkshire, at fifty-nine, and was buried with Katherine as she had wished; their two table tombs stood side by side, and Joan’s also had a memorial brass and arms encircled by garters and Lancastrian collars of SS. Her epitaph, engraved on a brass plate, was recorded by Sandford in the seventeenth century; unlike Katherine’s, it depicted its subject in a heroic vein, asserting, “The whole nation mourns her death.”78 After Joan’s interment, when the tomb space was enlarged, an ornamental wrought- iron grille was set up to enclose it, as she had requested.79 As Bishop Beaufort was a supervisor of his sister’s will, he may have been responsible for commissioning her tomb.80

  There is a miniature of Joan and her daughters in the Neville Book of Hours,81 and in it there appears a scroll on which is written the first verse of Psalm 50: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great Mercy.” This echoes the sentiments in Katherine Swynford’s epitaph, and expresses a similar humility, awareness of sin, and penitence. But verse 6 of the Psalm says, “For behold, I was conceived in iniquities: and in my sins did my mother conceive me.” If Joan was responsible for this psalm being quoted in the miniature, which is possible, then Jackie Goodman, the wife of Professor Goodman, may be making a very valid point when she suggests that Joan’s sense of her own sinfulness derived from the circumstances of her birth and her early awareness of her bastardy, and that to some extent she bore the burden of her mother’s guilt, which she attempted to expunge all her life by religious observance and the study of contemplative literature, just as her brother Thomas had sought to occupy the moral high ground.∗ Hence her desire to share Katherine’s sepulchre, honor her memory, and secure for her eternal salvation.82

  We have seen how, by 1450, through advantageous marriages, Joan’s Neville children came to be related to nearly every peer in the realm. But there was greater glory to come. In 1461 her grandson, Edward, Earl of March, deposed Henry VI and seized the throne as Edward IV, first sovereign of the House of York. Henry was briefly restored in 1470 through the machinations of the man who had once been the mainstay of Edward’s throne, Warwick the Kingmaker—another of Joan’s grandsons. When Henry VI was murdered in 1471, the direct line of the royal House of Lancaster, the kings descended from John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, became extinct. In 1483, Edward IV himself died, and yet another of Joan’s grandsons, his brother, Richard III, ascended the throne. Thus did Kather-ine, the herald’s daughter, become the great- grandmother of kings.

  Of course, John of Gaunt had many other descendants; indeed, he could justifiably be termed the “grandfather of Europe.” In the Iberian kingdoms, and among the Burgundian Habsburgs, his memory was long honored as a noble progenitor of dynasties. In 1406 his grandson— Catalina’s son, Juan II—succeeded to the throne of Castile. In 1469, Juan IIs daughter, Isabella, Queen of Castile, would marry Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and thus unite Spain as its joint sovereigns. Their youngest daughter, Catalina of Aragon, born in 1485, was named for her great-grandmother, Catalina of Lancaster (who had died paralyzed in 1418), and became—with her name anglicized as Katherine of Aragon—the first wife of Henry VIII of England, and by him the mother of Mary I. Thus the bloodline of John of Gaunt was continued in the royal families of Spain and, through intermarriage, Austria, and was carried back into the English royal family.

  It flowed in Portugal, too, where Philippa of Lancaster died of plague in 1415. In 1433 her son Duarte I succeeded to the Portuguese throne, and for the next two hundred years her descendants would rule there. Her sister, the spirited Elizabeth of Lancaster, Katherine Swynford’s other erstwhile charge, died in 1426 and was buried in Burford Church, Shropshire, where a fine painted effigy graces her tomb.

  John and Katherine had many descendants in the Beaufort line. John Beaufort’s eldest son, Henry, Earl of Somerset, died young at seventeen in 1418, when he was succeeded by his fourteen- year- old brother John. Their sister, another Joan Beaufort, married James I, King of Scots, in 1424, and thus Katherine’s granddaughter became a queen. Through Queen Joan, the sovereigns of the royal House of Stewart (later Stuart) traced their descent from John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.

  In 1443 the younger John Beaufort was created Duke of Somerset by Henry VI, the second of Katherine’s descendants to achieve ducal rank. That year, his wife, Margaret Beauchamp, bore their only child, a daughter, the Lady Margaret Beaufort. John Beaufort did not long enjoy his dukedom. He died, perhaps by his own hand, on May 27, 1444, and was buried in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, leaving his daughter as his heiress. In 1450 the young Lady Margaret was the unwitting focus of a plot by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk (the husband of Alice Chaucer), to marry her to his son and make her Queen of England upon the murder of Henry VI—a treasonable plan that cost the duke his head. Yet it was proof enough that a Beaufort claimant to the throne was a viable prospect to some.

  In October 1455, Margaret Beaufort, at the age of twelve, was married to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the twenty- five- year- old son of Henry V’s widow, Katherine of Valois, by Owen Tudor, with whom she had formed a misalliance—some say a marriage, although there is no proof of that—in the late 1420s and 1430s. Margaret’s marriage did not last long, for Edmund died in November 1456, leaving his young wife pregnant. Their son, Henry Tudor, was born on January 28, 1457. After the deposition of Henry VI in 1461, Henry Tudor was deprived of the earldom of Richmond and forced to spend most of his youth in exile.

  From the 1450s on, the Beauforts were prominent in public life. John Beaufort’s brother Edmund succeeded to the dukedom of Somerset and was a mainstay of Henry VI—and one of the chief rivals of Richard, Duke of York—at the onset of the Wars of the Roses, before his death in 1455 at the Battle of St. Albans. His son, Henry Beaufort, the third duke, another prominent Lancastrian, was executed in 1464, and his brother Edmund lost his head in 1471, after fighting for Henry VI at the Battle of Tewkesbury; another brother, John, fell in the battle. Thus, the male line of the Beauforts died out. Henry, the last duke, had never married, but he left a bastard son, Charles Somerset, born around 1460. He later became Earl of Worcester, and died in 1526, in the reign of Henry VIII. The present Duke of Beaufort, whose dukedom was created in 1682 by Charles II—in recognition of his “most notable descent from King Edward III by John de Beaufort, eldest son of John of Gaunt by Katherine Swynford”—is descended from him. There is an amusing but apocryphal story of how Henry Charles FitzRoy, eighth Duke of Beaufort, showed Queen Victoria documents containing proof that John of Gaunt had married Katherine and fathered John Beaufort before the birth of Henry IV, thus rendering spurious the claims of every English sovereign after 1399; Victoria is said to have thanked him for bringing the papers to her attention, then promptly threw them into the fire.83

  From the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, the possibility that the Beau-forts might have a claim to the throne was taken more seriously. Henry IV had barred them from ever succeeding, but on dubious legal grounds, a matter that exercised not a few legal minds. In the 1470s the exiled Henry Tudor clearly regarded himself as Henry VI’s heir and the rightful Lancastrian claimant to the throne, and when Richard III usurped the throne in 1483, after having almost certainly eliminated Edward IVs sons—the so- called Princes in the Tower—Henry Tudor vowed to marry the Princes’ sister, Elizabeth of York, and take the English throne. In retaliation, Richard III publicly asserted that Henry had no true claim to it because the Beauforts had been “gotten in double adultery,”84 an assertion that was only half true but has been accepted by many as a fact. We have seen, however, that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Katherine Swynford was a widow when she became the mistress of the married John of Gaunt.

  In August 1485, Henry Tudor invaded England and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, where the latter was killed. In October the victor was crowned Henry VII, first sovereign of the House of Tudor, and in January 1486 he married Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the Houses of
Lancaster and York. Henry and Elizabeth were both Katherine Swynford’s great-great- grandchildren. In 1485, in Henry VII’s first Parliament, Richard IIs statute of 1397, which removed the stigma of bastardy from the Beauforts, was reenacted.

  Notwithstanding this, the Tudor sovereigns made very little of their descent from Katherine Swynford, which is perhaps understandable; her notoriety had not dimmed—witness Richard III’s libel, which clearly presupposed that people would know what he was talking about and that her ancestry left something to be desired. It may be for this reason that Katherine merits barely a mention in Tudor chronicles. Much as he had glossed over scandal in an epitaph for his grandmother, Katherine of Valois, when it came to providing a new inscription for John of Gaunt’s tomb in St. Paul’s, Henry VII laid emphasis on Katherine’s beauty rather than her virtues, as has been noted. It is unlikely that his fourth daughter, Katherine, born at the Tower a century after Katherine Swynford’s death, was named after her, as some have suggested;85 probably she was named after the Queen’s sister, Katherine of York, or Katherine of Valois.

  In the reign of Henry VIII, who succeeded his father in 1509, Katherine was still discreetly omitted from the royal pedigree. In a pageant given at Leadenhall in 1520 to honor the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, an actor representing John of Gaunt sat at the foot of a tree, from which rose many branches representing all the kings and queens who could claim lineage from him. Some were sprung from Katherine too, but she was not alluded to. Again, in plans drawn up for Henry VIII’s funeral by the Garter King of Arms, reference is made tantalizingly to a “banner of Lancaster with the marriage,” which probably refers to the union of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York rather than that of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.86 Thus, Katherine was virtually erased from history, and the fleeting references made to her by historians over the centuries usually referred disparagingly to her immorality or made brief mention of her being the ancestress of the Tudors. Until 1954, that is, when Anya Seton’s Katherine was published, and people began taking a more sympathetic and romantic view of its heroine.

  After Katherine died, the Swynfords lived on at Kettlethorpe, and for a time her son Sir Thomas continued his career in royal service, being involved in 1404-1406 in peace negotiations with France and Flanders.87 From 1406 he was retained by his half brother, Thomas Beaufort, and there is no further record that he was employed by the Crown. He does not appear to have fallen from favor, though, for in 1411, when Thomas was having problems laying claim to “diverse inheritances in the county of Hainault” that had “lately descended” to him “from the most renowned lady Katherine de Roelt, deceased, late Duchess of Lancaster, his mother,” Henry IV stepped in to assist “our beloved and truly trusted knight.” And Thomas was in need of such help, having recently been declared an outlaw because of his debts to a London draper.88

  We do not know who was then in possession of those lands in Hainault, which Katherine had clearly owned—it was possibly Roët relatives who entrenched themselves thinking their tenure would not be disturbed by their English kinsfolk. But whoever it was, “certain persons in those parts” were determined not to be ousted: They had expressed their doubts that Sir Thomas Swynford “was begotten in lawful matrimony,” and had “not permitted the said Thomas to possess the said inheritance or to receive the farms, rents, or issues thereof.” The implication was surely that Thomas was Katherine’s bastard son by John of Gaunt, their affair having become notorious on the Continent as well as in England. But Henry IV was quick to set the matter straight: In October 1411 he issued a mandate under his Great Seal firmly attesting to Sir Thomas’s legitimacy:

  Be it known unto you all that the aforesaid Thomas is son and heir of the aforesaid Katherine, begotten and born in lawful wedlock, and that a certain writing of the said Thomas, to these our present letters annexed, sealed with his seal of arms, is his deed; and that he and his father, and all his paternal ancestors, have in times past borne the said arms and used the like seal.89

  We hear no more of the matter, or whether Thomas was successful in his claim. Possibly, his absence from royal service can be accounted for by his need to visit Hainault to pursue it and perhaps set his affairs there in order. In 1426-27 there is a record of him reclaiming Kettlethorpe;90 perhaps he needed to lease or mortgage it to finance himself while living abroad.

  Thomas’s wife, Jane Crophill, died between 1416 and 1421. She had borne him two known children: his heir, Thomas, around 1406 (he was twenty- six when his father died in 1432),91 who spent his youth in the service of his uncle, Thomas Beaufort;92 and a daughter, named Katherine after her grandmother. This Katherine had married William Drury of Rougham, Suffolk, by 1428, and bore him six children before dying in 1478.93 By 1427, Cardinal Beaufort had secured an heiress, Elizabeth, daughter of William Beauchamp of Powick, as a bride for young Thomas Swynford.94

  Before July 1421, Sir Thomas Swynford had married a second time, to Margaret Grey, daughter of Henry, Lord Grey de Wilton, and widow of John, Baron Darcy.95 There was one son of this marriage, William Swynford, to whom Cardinal Beaufort left £400 (£181,426) and some silver plate in his will.96 Sir Thomas died on April 2, 1432, and was probably buried in Kettlethorpe Church, although there is no proof of that, since the church has long been rebuilt and there are no records of the medieval memorials. His widow, Margaret, survived until 1454. Having enfeoffed his estates to trustees, he died effectively landless.97

  His son, the younger Sir Thomas, did not long outlive him: He was dead by January 8, 1440, when his heir, Thomas Swynford III, was four or five years old. In 1468 this latter Thomas conveyed Kettlethorpe and Coleby to his uncle, William Swynford, the son of the first Sir Thomas by his second wife; William passed away before 1483, having willed those properties back to his nephew.98 When Thomas Swynford III died childless on May 3, 1498, the male line of Hugh and Katherine Swynford’s descendants came to an end, and Kettlethorpe and Coleby passed to the heirs of Thomas’s daughter Margaret, the wife of Thomas Pauncefote.99

  Kettlethorpe descended in turn to the Beaumonts, the Meryngs, and others before coming into the possession of the Amcotts family in the eighteenth century. Their arms are still displayed above the front door. The brick walls that still encircle the gardens were built in the mid- seventeenth century, while the hall itself was largely remodeled in 1713, at which time the fourteenth- century gatehouse was probably reconstructed. A drawing by J. Claude Nattes of the refurbished house, then called Kettlethorpe Park, survives from 1793, and depicts a large but undistinguished residence. In the early nineteenth century the hall was allowed to fall into a decline; in 1857, Weston Cracroft- Amcotts had it demolished and built a plain red- brick Victorian house, into which was incorporated some of the medieval fabric surviving from Katherine’s time.

  That is the house that stands today, on seventeen acres of grounds. Traces of Katherine Swynford’s deer park also survive. In 1983, Kettlethorpe was purchased by the Rt. Hon. Douglas Hogg, QC, MP, Viscount Hailsham, whose coat of arms, like that of the Swynfords who once inhabited the manor, bears three boars’ heads.100

  In the second half of the fifteenth century, during the Wars of the Roses, the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster was defaced and the original painted alabaster effigies destroyed.101 In the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, John and Katherine’s descendant, Henry VII, had the tomb restored and a new epitaph set up to the “illustrious Prince John, named Plantagenet, King of Castile and Léon, Duke of Lancaster, Lieutenant of Aquitaine, Grand Seneschal of England.” This is the epitaph that incorrectly states that it was Constance, and not Blanche, who was buried with the duke, and in which Katherine’s beauty rather than her virtue was emphasized: “His third wife was Katherine, of a knightly family, and an extraordinarily beautiful and feminine woman; they had numerous offspring, and from these came the maternal family of King Henry VII.”102 The chief function of the epitaph was to publicize the duke’s illustrious descendants and connections. New effi
gies, wearing Tudor costume and armor—the duke in a surcoat emblazoned with his arms, the duchess in an ermine-trimmed mantle—with hands clasped in prayer, were placed on the tomb, probably in the 1530s, since Blanche’s headdress is of that date; an earlier headdress would have had longer lappets.

  During the Reformation, the chantry founded for the souls of John and Blanche was dissolved and its endowments appropriated by the Crown.103 It appears that little damage was done to the tomb itself, which was described in 1614 as “a most stately monument.”104 A drawing of it was made in ca. 1610;105 Wenceslaus Hollar did an engraving,106 as did Sir William Dugdale, Garter King of Arms,107 then Richard Gaywood (around 1664-65) for the royal genealogist Francis Sandford.108 These pictures show an arcaded tomb chest with trefoil motifs and a fine triple- arched canopy with a tabernacle screen, on which the duke’s armorial achievements—his lance, cap of maintenance, and shield—were displayed. The canopy or tabernacle was defaced during the civil war and never repaired.

  On September 4, 1666, when Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed during the Great Fire of London, John of Gaunt’s tomb “suffered the violence of the late conflagration” and was irrevocably lost, “burnt to ashes.”109 It is unlikely, therefore, that the corpses of John and Blanche were among those dragged from the ruins and propped up in Convocation House Yard for passersby to gawp at.110

 
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