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

  Katherine’s tomb, and that of her daughter Joan, standing side by side, _were described by John Leland in the early sixteenth century,111 and also engraved by Dugdale around 1640.112 Today those tombs stand end- to-end, with Joan’s, the smaller, apparently cut down at some stage, at the foot of Katherine’s. There are matrices where the canopied brasses once lay, and Katherine’s tomb has indents to show where armorial shields were originally displayed. The patterned vault of the heavily restored canopy, its east and west abutments, and the wrought- iron grille on its buttressed stone plinth are all that survive of the chantry chapel that once housed the tombs.113

  The perpetual chantry set up by Countess Joan lasted until the mid-sixteenth century. It was dissolved during the reign of Edward VI, at which time it was valued at £13.6s.8d (£4,203) and contained two chalices, two silver cruets (for holding holy water and communion wine), a silver pax, and a silver sacring bell.114

  In 1644 the tombs were defaced, the brasses ripped off and stolen, and the stonework of the chantry badly damaged during the sacking of Lincoln Cathedral by Cromwellian soldiers in the civil war;115 a “bargeload” of spoils was floated down the River Witham to the sea, and the brasses and other tomb furniture may well have been on it.116 By 1672 the tomb chests had been moved into their present positions and the canopy clumsily restored.117A nineteenth- century plan for a “Gothic” restoration of the monuments was fortunately abandoned.118 Of the tombs of John of Gaunt’s three wives, Katherine’s is the only one to survive. Claims on the Internet that the tombs are empty and the remains of Katherine and Joan were despoiled by the Roundheads are unsubstantiated; there is no record of the bodies being disturbed, and they are probably still in a vault under the pavement beneath the tombs.

  On May 10 each year, Katherine’s name is always included in the obit prayer offered up during Evensong in Lincoln Cathedral. She is worthy of remembrance, and not only because of the famous and illustrious people who have descended from her and John of Gaunt—among them the present Queen Elizabeth II, who is also Duchess of Lancaster; the late Diana, Princess of Wales; nearly every monarch in Europe; six American presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush; Sir Winston Churchill; the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “besides many other potent princes and eminent nobility of foreign parts.”119 Her memory is also honored because she is a unique figure in the annals of medieval England, a royal mistress who became a duchess and the foundress of the Tudor dynasty, and above all a lady, as Chaucer said, so “well deserving” of the fame that is still hers today.

  * I am indebted to Jackie Goodman for sharing her interesting theory concerning Joan Beaufort


  Anya Seton’s Katherine

  In my efforts to discover the truth about Katherine Swynford—or as much of the truth as we can ever know or guess at—I have remained very conscious of the fact that Anya Seton’s novel continues to exert a tremendous influence over many people’s vision of Katherine. I can testify myself to the novel’s popularity: During the course of many events at bookshops and elsewhere, I have frequently been asked what my next project is to be about, and there is invariably a frisson of excitement in the audience when I say, “Katherine Swynford.” Afterward, I can guarantee that several delighted people will come over and say, “I read Katherine…” Even in the solemn stillness of Lincoln Cathedral, the notice by Katherine Swynford’s tomb reads: “This is Katherine, of Anya Seton’s famous historical book.” The Cathedral Library holds annual study days on Katherine, and tickets are in high demand. If you enter “Katherine Swynford” on any Internet search engine, you will get thousands of responses.

  Of course, there have been other fictional portrayals of her—she is the model for Bronwen Morgan in Susan Howatch’s ambitious saga, The Wheel of Fortune, and she also appears prominently in Jean Plaidy’s Passage to Pontefract, a fictionalized life of Richard II. But nowhere is she depicted so vibrantly as in Katherine, which has been called one of the best historical novels ever written, “an all- time classic”1 on a par with the works of Margaret Mitchell, Mary Renault, and Dorothy Dunnett.

  Seton spent several years researching Katherine, and her book has been repeatedly commended for its historical accuracy. It has even been listed in the bibliographies of works of historical nonfiction, which is no mean achievement. On the debit side, this has resulted in it achieving more credibility for accuracy than it deserves: Jeannette Lucraft, in her recent academic study of Katherine Swynford, has asserted that I myself quoted details from it as facts in my book Lancaster and York; actually (and apologies are hopefully in order), they came from F. George Kay’s Lady of the Sun, a biography of Alice Perrers published in 1966, and it may be that Kay, in his day, relied more heavily on Katherine than he should have, as Lucraft is correct in asserting that those details are not to be found in any contemporary source. It is important to note that Katherine is essentially a novel, and although its author made impressive and commendable efforts to get her facts right, there are three good reasons why we should not accept hers as a valid portrayal of the historical Katherine Swynford.

  First, Katherine is essentially of its own time. Seton’s John of Gaunt is derived partly from nineteenth- century perceptions of him2 and partly from Clark Gables portrayal of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind:3 one Internet reviewer described John of Gaunt, as depicted in the novel, as the “sexiest hero since Rhett Butler.” Then, by her own admission, Seton applies Freudian psychology in determining reasons for her characters’ behavior. Above all, the morality that informs Katherine is essentially that of the 1950s, not the 1300s: The heroine agonizes over her illicit love in the manner of an early nineteenth-century romantic, and when it comes to sex, she is a passive partner, leaving her man to initiate it. Also, she believes that a marriage based on love is a normal aim for any woman, a concept quite foreign to the fourteenth- century mind.

  Second, Katherine is as much about Anya Seton as it is about Katherine Swynford. Anya Seton was born Ann Seton in 1906,4 the only child of two highly successful, eccentric, and fame- hungry writers.5 Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) was born in Durham, England, but later emigrated to Canada and the United States and wrote more than fifty celebrated books on wildlife and anthropology, while his highly independent wife, Grace Gallatin (1872-1959), published seven popular books about her own exotic travels. Both of Ann Seton’s parents journeyed widely in order to research their books, and she inherited their restless spirit, wanderlust, and thirst for fame and fortune. Like her heroine, Katherine Swynford, she grew up to be stunningly beautiful, and although clever and extremely knowledgeable, was essentially a socialite and a style icon who was feted by the high society of New York and Greenwich, Connecticut. A thousand guests attended her first wedding.

  By the age of seventeen Ann had abandoned her former ambitions to be a doctor or an opera singer; she now dreamed of becoming a writer. She was already keeping journals that reveal her adolescent obsession with her appearance and her early amorous adventures. In 1923, after a passionate courtship, she married a young Rhodes scholar, Hamilton Cottier, and then spent two very interesting and enjoyable years living with him in England at Oxford before moving to the duller academic world of Princeton, New Jersey, where her husband was based from 1925. By 1928 she was the mother of two children, Pamela and Seton, and feeling restless and suffocated by boredom. A highly publicized divorce in Reno, Nevada, was quickly followed by a second marriage in 1929, to an investment counselor named Hamilton Chase, by whom Ann had another daughter, Clemencie.

  In the 1930s, Ann began writing in earnest, selling articles on homemaking to magazines. She published her first short story in 1938, and in 1941, her debut novel, My Theodosia, immediately hit the best- seller lists, bringing Anya Seton—as she was now calling herself—fame, fortune, and legions of fans. In 1946 alone her earnings from her books totaled a staggering $9
4,000. Nine more hugely successful novels were to follow; all were Book of the Month Club choices, and two were made into Hollywood films. In 1954 there were calls for Katherine to be made into a movie starring Charlton Hes -ton and Susan Hayward, but in the moral climate of 1950s America—in which one critic branded the book as “obscene and evil”6 —it never happened, because it would have been impossible to show two adulterous lovers living openly in sin, producing four bastard children and then enjoying a happy ending without incurring any penalties for their immorality.7 In some ways the novel mirrors Seton’s own colorful private life, which was the subject of extensive media interest. And her sympathetic portrayal of Katherine Swynford must reflect her own views on adultery and illicit sex. It is on record that she at first found the accusations of immorality amusing, then offensive, then simply tedious.

  Seton became renowned for her meticulous research—she refused to compromise historical accuracy in the interests of telling a good story, and she traveled widely in search of information, feeling that she could not put her subjects in authentic settings unless she visited the places where they had lived. She spent four years researching Katherine, and journeyed all around England; even today, people remember her hard at work in Lincoln Cathedral Library. She hated it when her books were described as “historical romances,” preferring to call them “biographical novels.” She might have said “autobiographical,” for she invested them with many of the moral, emotional, psychological, and cultural aspects of her own life.

  Anya Seton was divorced from her second husband in 1968, and published her last book, Smouldering Fires, in 1975. Although her journals reveal that she remained obsessed with her “love life” well into her seventh decade, her declining years were overshadowed by an advancing illness that prevented her from writing. She died in 1990, her fame long forgotten.

  The third reason we should be cautious in accepting Anya Seton’s portrayal of Katherine Swynford as historically accurate is that Katherine is essentially a romantic novel in the classic sense. Not just an old- fashioned love story, it is an emotional assertion of the self and a vivid exploration of the individual experience of its heroine. It is progressive in that it champions the beauty of sexual freedom and in its implied condemnation of conservative morality, yet it also captures a sense of the spiritual with its theme of love and redemption. Threaded through it are the classic romantic clichés of remembered childhood, unrequited love, cruel conflict, and lonely exile. It is an intense book, a romantic novel in the widest sense: Passion and the sublime are at its core. And Katherine herself is the perfect romantic heroine: beautiful, sensuous, and loving.

  Despite its substance, and Seton’s own objections, Katherine was more often than not regarded as a lightweight “romance novel,” and frequently displayed in this category in bookshops and libraries. Hence, when bodice-rippers became the fashion in the 1970s, Katherine, with its few discreetly erotic sex scenes, appeared outdated and fell from favor, as did Anya Seton’s other novels. Yet for many readers, clearly, it remained a favorite book, and recent years have seen its reappearance in print, both in Britain and the United States, where an edition featuring the full original text (which was never printed in Britain) is now available. There can be no doubt that this book, with its lovely but flawed heroine, is held in deep affection by a large number of people. Once again, it is important to remember, however, that although— as Anya Seton herself stated—it is based on history, it is a work of fiction.















  1 Wylie

  2 Brook; Lejeune. See Genealogical Table 1, which is compiled from numerous sources.

  3 Gilles Rigaud de Roeulx, who died in 1308, was a grandson of Eustace IV, Sire de Roeulx, and nephew of Eustace V. By his marriage to Isabeau de Ligne, Lady of Mon-treuil, he was the father of seven children, including Eustace VI, Fastre, and Gilles. It has been suggested that this second Gilles may have been Katherine’s grandfather, who was baptized Gilles but usually bore the nickname Paon. This is unlikely, because the arms of the lords of Roeulx—and thereby Gilles’s eldest son, Eustace VI de Roeulx— were “or, three lions gules,” and as a younger son, Paon would have borne the same arms differenced, which he did not. Cook, “Chaucerian Papers;” Perry, “Judy Perry’s Kather-ine Swynford Coat of Arms;” www.geocities.com; The Wijnbergen Armorial. Turton (Plantagenet Ancestry) failed to find genealogical evidence to link Paon with the lords of Roeulx.

  4 His name is spelled Paon in the Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut and by Froissart. Jean Froissart, one of the greatest of medieval chroniclers, was born in Hainault and came to England in 1361, where he was “brought up in the court of the noble King Edward the Third, and of Queen Philippa his wife, and among their children.” In 1362 he was appointed one of the clerks of the chamber to the Queen, his countrywoman. He left England in 1366 and accompanied the Black Prince on a campaign in Gascony. Although he remained nominally in Queen Philippa’s service until 1369, he did not return to the English court until 1395, when he met Richard II. He would have known John of Gaunt, and probably also Katherine Swynford, whom he would have found interesting because she too was a Hainaulter. Froissart’s chronicles are vividly written, but although they make for entertaining reading, especially in their repetition of court gossip, their accuracy cannot be relied upon, chiefly because he wrote mainly from memory, or relied on hearsay, and has been proved wrong in several instances.

  5 For Paon’s descent, see Brook.

  6 Ibid. The lion was the heraldic lion of Hainault.

  7 Speght; Rietstrap; “The Visitation of the County of Warwick”

  8 “Inventories of Plate, Vestments, etc.”

  9 Howard

  10 Galway, “Philippa Pan, Philippa Chaucer.” “Paonnet” is not a diminutive form—that would be “Paoncel” or “Paonciel”—and may be just an affectionately extended nickname.

  11 Notably Froissart

  12 Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut

  13 Perry

  14 Galway, “Philippa Pan, Philippa Chaucer”

  15 Calendar of Patent Rolls

  16 Cook, “Chaucerian Papers”

  17 Galway, “Philippa Pan, Philippa Chaucer;” Hardy

  18 Several genealogical sites on the Internet give names for Paon’s wife (a few even ludicrously calling her “Mrs. de Roët”!), but none cites any contemporary source to substantiate their claims. Some identify her as “Chenerailles Bonneuil (1315-72),” but these are names of places rather than people: There are four places called Chenerailles or Chenerilles in France, and seven places called Bonneuil. “Chenerailles” does appear as a name in French genealogies, but without specific sources being cited, it is impossible to pursue this claim further. See, for example, www.goldrush.com

  19 See, for example, Turton; www.childsfamily.com; dannyreagan.com; www.rootsweb.com

  20 Some Internet Web sites state that Katherine’s mother was Katherine d’Avesnes, a sister of William III, Count of Hainault (ca. 1286-1337), father of Queen Philippa, and therefore a daughter of John II d’Avesnes, Count of Hainault (1247-1304) by Philippine, daughter of Henry II, Count of Luxembourg. There are two problems with this claim: First, Katherine is nowhere listed with William III’s known sisters, Margaret, Alice, Isabella, Jeanne, Marie, and Matilda; and second, if she was born at the latest by 1304, the year her father died, she is hardly likely to have borne a child, Katherine, around 1350. Others assert that Katherine d’Avesnes was the daughter, not the sister, of Count William III. That would make her Quee
n Philippa’s sister, and Katherine Swynford the Queen’s niece, something disapproving chroniclers would surely have commented on, because such a relationship would have placed Katherine and John of Gaunt—Philippa’s son—firmly within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity—as would also have been the case if Katherine’s mother was the Queen’s aunt. When applying for a dispensation to marry Katherine, John of Gaunt did not cite such an impediment. Furthermore, William III is recorded as having had six or seven daughters—Sybilla, Margaret, Philippa, Joan, Agnes, Isabella, and perhaps Elizabeth, who in 1375 died a nun at St. Leonard’s Abbey, Bromley, Middlesex (see Manly, Some New Light on Chaucer).

  21 It has recently been suggested that Paon married Jeanne de Lens. There is a record of Simon Lalaing, Lord of Quievrain and Hordaing, and Bailiff of Hainault, 1358-60, marrying the daughter of Gilles de Roeulx, Lord of Écaussines by Jeanne de Lens, who was possibly a relative of the Lord of Ligne. In 1414, Jacqueline, daughter of a lord of Lalaing, was made a prebendary of the Abbey of St. Waudru in Mons, like Paon’s own daughter Elizabeth more than half a century earlier. There is nothing conclusive here. The arms of Simon Lalaing do not incorporate those of Rouelx or Roët, and there were at this time several members of the Roeulx family called Gilles; genealogical records are incomplete, and any one of them could have married a Jeanne de Lens; Gilles Rigaud de Roeulx married Alice de Ligne, and his son married Isabeau de Ligne. Nor is Paon anywhere referred to, especially by the knowledgeable Froissart, as the Lord of Écaussines. The St. Waudru “connection” is probably purely coincidental: One would expect to find daughters of these local lords and gentlefolk entering this prestigious abbey. See Perry, “Katherine Swynford” (katherineswynford.blogspot.com).

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