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


  All this was to change, however, just before Katherine was born. In 1348-49 the Black Death, a particularly virulent form of bubonic plague, scythed its way across Europe, killing between two- fifths and three- quarters of the population. In his Decameron (1358), Giovanni Boccaccio described the dreaded symptoms: “It first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumors in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as an apple, after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh.” Both the tumors and the spots were “infallible tokens of approaching death” that could overtake the victim within hours. The English chronicler Henry Knighton wrote that, spread by rats, “the fearful mortality rolled on, following the course of the sun into every part of the kingdom.” Few souls remained untouched by it.

  The Black Death left the world a very different place. Its impact was felt in every walk of life. Because it was seen as the judgment of God on a sinful universe, religious hysteria and fanaticism flourished and people began to question the old certainties of the universal faith preached by the Roman Catholic Church. Yet while acts of sacrilege became more commonplace, mysticism—with its emphasis on man’s striving to attain unity with God— began to thrive as people sought to find some meaning to the horrific mortality and a deeper understanding of the mysteries of faith. When Margery Kempe—an English mystic who was once the guest of Katherine’s daughter, Joan Beaufort—had a vision of the suffering Christ “all rent and torn with scourges, rivers of blood flowing out plenteously from every limb, she fell down and cried, twisting and turning her body amazingly, and could not keep herself from crying because of the fire of love that burned so fervently in her soul with pure pity and compassion.”

  This obsession with death and suffering revealed itself in literature, poetry, art, and particularly in sculpture, with the appearance of cadaver tombs with an effigy of the deceased in life above, and another depicting his or her rotting corpse below—a grisly reminder of the end of all flesh. This was the cultural atmosphere in which the young Katherine spent her growing years.

  Decomposing bodies must have been a common sight during the plague years, for often there was no one left alive to bury the dead. According to the Rochester chronicler William Dene, “the plague carried off so vast a multitude of people that nobody could be found who would bear the corpses to the grave. Men and women carried their dead children and threw them into the common burial pits, the stench from which was so appalling that scarcely anyone dared to walk beside them.” Sometimes there was no one to perform the funerary rites, since so many priests had died. Whole villages succumbed to the pestilence, their buildings left to decay and disappear. Law enforcement collapsed and there was a sharp decline in public morality, as many poor mortals—aware that death was stalking them—made the most of the time left to them, committing theft, murder, and fornication un checked by state or Church.

  Never again would the social hierarchy be as stable. In the years following the Black Death, it became clear that feudalism was crumbling. A severe shortage of manpower on the manors and farms meant that the services of the remaining peasants were in high demand by the landed classes, and that they could demand good wages for those services. This sounded the death knell of feudalism, for no man wanted to remain in bond to his lord when he could benefit from the free market the plague had created, and lords found they had little choice but to release their serfs from villeinage and pay for their services, knowing they would otherwise just abscond and sell their labor elsewhere. In England, Parliament intervened to reverse this trend, passing in 1351 the Statute of Laborers, which tried to impose maximum wages and minimum prices. “Many workmen and servants,” it complained, “will not serve unless they receive excessive wages, and some are rather willing to beg in idleness than labor to get their living.” Hence every villein “shall serve the master requiring him or her.” But it was too late—the tide of change had turned too far, and the law proved unenforceable. “The world goeth from bad to worse,” grumbled the poet John Gower in 1375. “Labor is now at so high a price that he who will order his business aright must pay five or six shillings now for what cost two in former times.” The late fourteenth century witnessed the emergence of the hired hand and the yeoman farmer who owned his own land. Of course, this did not happen overnight, but it was prevalent throughout Katherine Swynford’s lifetime and beyond.

  As capitalism gradually replaced feudalism, trade expanded and the middle classes came to enjoy ever greater prosperity and influence. Katherine’s own sister married into a rich merchant family, and that sister’s son rose to great political and social prominence, while her granddaughter became a duchess. In Parliament, founded in the thirteenth century in the aftermath of the wars between Crown and barons, the Commons increasingly made their voices heard, much to the dismay of conservative lords like John of Gaunt, who were determined to resist the relentless changes brought about by the new social order.

  Katherine lived in an England that was largely rural, with a population of perhaps three million and an economy based on farming, wool, and overseas trade. It was not an industrial society—that came centuries later—and most people lived in tight communities, in villages or on manors, in crude wattle- and- daub cottages. Katherine herself spent many years as a lady of the manor, responsible for a farming community. Commerce was centered upon the towns, which were far smaller than they are today: London had around 23,000 inhabitants in 1377, although it boasted a hundred churches. Even York, the second most important city and the virtual capital of the North, had a population of only 7,500 at most. Towns were where prosperous burgesses lived and guilds of craftsmen controlled trade, but they were often crowded and dirty, with buildings and people crammed into narrow streets with overjutting upper stories, and within walls that prevented expansion. In 1419, City of London authorities ordered that each citizen “shall make clean of filth the front of his house under penalty of half a mark” (£73) and that “no one shall throw dung into the King’s highway or before the house of his neighbor.” In an age of poor sanitation, in which people relied on horses as the fastest and most efficient form of travel, the nuisance of dung and human waste was an ever- recurring concern.

  In the towns, one could find all kinds of commodities on sale in the shops. When the poet John Lydgate walked through London in the early fifteenth century, he was offered “hot peascods [peas in the pod] and sheep’s feet, strawberries ripe,” spices, pepper, velvet, silk, lawn, mackerel, green rushes to strew on the floor, a hood, “ribs of beef and many a pie,” pewter pots, harps, pipes, and plenty of “stolen goods.” It was hardly surprising that towns and cities needed to expand, and with the country largely at peace, suburbs were beginning to emerge, as people built houses beyond the safety of the walls, with gardens and orchards. Katherine Swynford had strong links with the important city of Lincoln—population 3,400—and was fortunate enough to rent, at different times, two very imposing houses in its exclusive cathedral close.

  Outside the towns and cities, the countryside was quiet and peaceful. The land was mostly fertile, but farming was still based on the three- field system, with crops rotated and one field left fallow each year. Farm animals were regularly slaughtered in the autumn, and their meat salted down or smoked for winter consumption. Any surplus farm produce was sold locally or taken to the markets held regularly, by royal charter, in the cities and towns.

  “The riches of England,” wrote an Italian traveler in the fifteenth century, “are greater than those of any other country in Europe. This is owing in the first place to the great fertility of the soil, which is such that, with the exception of wine, they import nothing from abroad for their subsistence.” Other foreigners waxed lyrical about the beauty of rural England, its lush green pastures, rolling hills, pretty stone or timbered dwellings, towering castles, and moated manor houses. The contents of a well- set- up knightly household—as listed in a will of 1410—might comprise a canop
ied or “tester” bed, “covers, blankets, linens, coverlets, mattresses, painted cloths, rugs, napkins, towels, washbasins, candelabra of bronze, marble and silver gilt, bronze pots and pans, twelve silver spoons, spits, poles, iron pots, vessels of silver gilt and lead for beer, silver- gilt salt cellars, three iron braziers, trestles and boards for tables.” Furniture itself was sparse, and might also have included cupboards, buffets, and stools. Katherine Swynford would have owned such household goods for much of her married life.

  England was known as “the ringing isle” because of the constant pealing of bells from numerous parish churches and abbeys. In the cities, the spires of the great cathedrals soared heavenward, drawing the focus of humanity toward God, who was an ever- constant presence in people’s lives.

  The power and influence of the medieval Church was all- encompassing. Today, in our materialistic and secular society, it is hard for us to comprehend how large a part religion played in the lives of medieval men and women. Religion underpinned all aspects of political life. The sacraments of the Church marked every human rite of passage from birth to death. The rituals of the mass and the divine offices set the timetable for daily life. Holidays were the holy days of the Church, the great feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and numerous saints’ or feast days. If people made long journeys—which was not always easy, as the roads were generally poor and often badly maintained—it was usually to go on pilgrimage to the many saints’ shrines, such as St. Thomas of Canterbury or Our Lady of Walsing-ham; a few even got as far as Rome, Compostela, or Jerusalem. “People long to go on pilgrimages, and palmers long to seek the stranger strands of far- off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,” Chaucer observed in The Canterbury Tales.

  A good Christian was expected to go to confession at least three times a year, and would regularly pray to the Virgin Mary or to his or her favorite saints to intercede on his behalf with a stern, loving, but sometimes vengeful deity; people talked about the saints as familiarly as if they were members of their own circle. The Church was also the final arbiter of public morals, and contravening its doctrines or decrees could lead to charges of heresy, which was interpreted as anything that deviated from or challenged the divinely appointed order of Christendom and the tenets of the Roman Church.

  Medieval English churches were much more colorful places than they appear today; much of their decoration, stained glass, and statuary was destroyed during the Reformation of the sixteenth century. In Katherine’s day, brilliant paintings adorned the walls, ceilings, and pillars in churches, put there to instruct a largely illiterate populace in biblical stories or the lives of the saints; and such visual aids to spiritual understanding were often necessary, since all services were conducted in Latin, the language of the universal Church. Many churches had a doom painting, depicting Christ in majesty judging souls and sending the righteous to Heaven and the sinful to Hell, the latter depicted in stark, gruesome detail in order to bring the wicked to repentance. Besides paintings, there were statues of the saints as aids to devotion, and invariably a rood—a large wooden carving of Christ on the Cross—hung high on a screen at the entrance to the chancel.

  Many men and women, including Katherine’s sister and daughter, devoted their lives to God. They entered the priesthood, or withdrew from the world into monasteries or convents, where they carried out the opus Dei— the work of the Lord—through prayer, manual labor, and the preservation of written knowledge and works of faith, history, and literature in illuminated manuscripts.

  The religious houses, of which there were nearly seven hundred in En gland, also provided practical services for the community at large: They ran schools, hospitals, or infirmaries, and guest houses for travelers. They offered work for laypeople. They succored the aged, the infirm, and the destitute, providing food and shelter for beggars and the homeless. Wealthy people with pious aspirations would endow abbeys and priories with money, annuities, and gifts, or found chantries or colleges of priests, so their souls could be prayed for after death and their passage through Purgatory—that hellish preparation for Heaven in which venial sins were expurgated—could be eased. Katherine Swynford lies today in the chantry chapel founded for the salvation of her soul.

  Of course, many of the Church’s practices were open to abuse. The sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, the worldly luxury of many clergy and religious houses, the perceived immorality of those in holy orders—all were commonplace during the fourteenth century and the focus of increasing concern on the part of a growing number of radical free- thinkers. The poet William Langland, in The Vision of Piers Plowman (ca. 1376) wrote of hermits on their way to Walsingham “with their wenches following after,” friars “preaching to the people for what they could get, interpreting the Scriptures to suit themselves and their patrons,” doctors of divinity “dressing as handsomely as they please, now that Charity has gone into business,” priests who sought to “traffic in masses and chime their voices to the sweet jingling of silver,” pardoners “claiming to have power to absolve all the people from vows of every kind,” and bishops who shut their ears to what was going on around them. Above all, the “Babylonish captivity” of the Papacy from 1309 at “the sinful city of Avignon,” a papacy in thrall to the powerful kings of France, brought the Roman Catholic Church into disrepute throughout Christendom and weakened its moral authority. Not for nothing was John Wycliffe—a courageous and highly controversial priest who spoke out against the corruption in the Church and who enjoyed John of Gaunt’s patronage—called “the morning star of the Reformation.”

  Alongside the Church, the state—in the form of the king, the lords in council, Parliament, and the administration—governed the lives of the population. The king, whose sovereignty had the almost supernatural authority of a crowned priest, was responsible for maintaining the peace of his realm, defending it from invasion, and administering justice to all in the form of good laws.

  In the fourteenth century, England was ruled by the Plantagenets, a dynasty of generally vigorous and able monarchs who had kept a largely unbroken grip on their realm since 1154, when the dynamic Henry II succeeded to the throne. The name Plantagenet derives from the nickname given to Henry IIs father, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, who habitually wore a broom flower—planta genista—in his hat. The name was not actually used as a royal surname until the fifteenth century.

  Henry II had married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the greatest heiress in Europe, and through her acquired the rich Duchy of Aquitaine and the County of Poitou; he already held the Duchy of Normandy, which he had inherited from his great- grandfather, William the Conqueror, who had established his Norman dynasty in England in 1066; and he was Count of Anjou, which he had inherited from his father. Thus, he was master of all the land from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. But Henry’s great empire did not long survive him. The ineptitude of his son, King John, and the aggressive determination of successive French monarchs to gain control of the Plantagenet dominions, resulted in the loss of Normandy and Anjou, and by the fourteenth century England’s territory in France consisted of a couple of northern towns and a much reduced Duchy of Aquitaine that centered largely upon Bordeaux, Gascony, and parts of the Dordogne region.

  As we will see, it was Edward III, who succeeded to the throne in 1327 and to whose court Katherine came nearly thirty years later, who had the audacity to claim the throne of France itself, which he insisted was his because of his mother, Isabella, the sister of the last surviving kings of the House of Capet. But the French had no desire to see an Englishman on their throne, for En gland and France had long been traditional enemies, and they chose a member of the royal House of Valois as their monarch. Thus began a war that famously was to last for a hundred years, a war that would have a profound effect not only in western Europe, but also on the life of Katherine Swynford herself.

  • • •

  By May 1355, as has been noted, Katherine’s brother, Walter de Roët, had joined the Black Prince’s household as
a yeoman of the Chamber. 54 This was a brilliant opportunity for a young man, as the prince enjoyed an international reputation as a chivalric hero and warrior who was second to none. He was the “comfort of England,” the “flower of chivalry of all the world,”55 and “for as long as he lived and flourished, his good fortune in battle, like that of a second Hector, was feared by all races.”56 Already, at twenty- five, he was a legend.

  Born in 1330, the sixteen- year- old Edward of Woodstock had won his spurs in 1346 at the Battle of Crécy, in which he “magnificently performed” astounding feats of arms.57 He was “fair, lusty and well- formed,” brave, intelligent, charismatic, and inspirational. His sixteenth- century nickname—it is not known to have been used earlier—probably derived from the black armor it is said he wore, but it could equally well have described his vicious and much feared temper. He could be—it has to be said—impatient, arrogant, and capable of great cruelty.

  The prince’s household provided an environment in which any aspiring young man would have been gratified to be placed. He spent lavishly on his residences, notably his palace at Kennington in Surrey, and lived in great splendor and luxury. He loved tournaments, hunting, gambling, and women, and fathered at least four bastards. His admiring contemporaries, whose priorities were those of the fourteenth century and not the twenty- first, regarded him as the epitome of knighthood.

  Before May 9, 1355, the Black Prince arranged for two of his retainers— Walter de Roët and Sir Eustace d’Aubrécicourt—to deliver letters to his aunt, Countess Margaret, in Hainault, and to one of her clerks, Stephen Maulyons, provost of the church of Mons. Maulyons owed the prince £40, but Edward ordered him to divide it equally and pay it “as a gift” to Walter and Sir Eustace; £20 was a munificent sum—today it would be worth £7,800—so Walter was clearly highly regarded by his employer. The prince gave Walter forty shillings (about £780) for his traveling expenses on May 10, so either a long trip was anticipated—you could never be sure how long a Channel crossing might take—or Walter was to travel in some comfort. By September he had returned from his mission, for that month he accompanied the Black Prince, now King’s Lieutenant in Aquitaine, on a military expedition to the duchy,58 and he may well have fought under the prince in 1356 when Edward won a great victory over the French at the Battle of Poitiers and captured John II, King of France, himself, thus further enhancing his dazzling reputation. It is possible that Walter was killed at Poitiers, because no more is heard of him. In 1411, Katherine’s son, Sir Thomas Swynford, laid claim to lands in Hainault that he had inherited from his mother on her death in 1403; had Walter de Roët been alive in 1403, those lands would have passed to him, not to the heirs of his sisters.59

 
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