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

  It is often claimed that Philippa de Roët was placed by the Queen in the household of her daughter- in- law, the Countess of Ulster, around August 1355. Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster in her own right and a former ward of the Queen, was then twenty- three and had been married to the King’s second surviving son, the blond giant Lionel of Antwerp, since 1342, he taking the title Earl of Ulster in her right. There was indeed a girl called Philippa in the countess’s service at this time, perhaps engaged to help care for her mistress’s first and only child, yet another Philippa, who was born on August 16, 1355, at Eltham Palace in Kent. This girl’s name was Philippa Pan.

  For a long while historians did entertain doubts as to whether Philippa Pan was Philippa de Roët. These doubts arose from the use of the abbreviated name “Philippa Pan.” in the fragmentary accounts that survive for the countess’s household.60 On July 24, 1356, a payment was made for the making of trimmings for the clothes of “Philippa Pan.;” the following year the countess paid 2s.6d (£37) “for the fashioning of one tunic” for her, and in December 1357 gave a serving boy 12d (£15) to escort Philippa Pan. from a place called “Pullesdone” to Hatfield in Yorkshire, where Earl Lionel and his wife were to keep Christmas. In April 1358, Countess Elizabeth presented Philippa Pan. with a bodice and some furs to wear at the great feast given to mark St. George’s Day. This is the last mention of her in the accounts, which come to an abrupt end in November 1359.

  In recent years several historians have subscribed to the theory that Pan. stands for “Philippa, Paon de Roët’s daughter,” or “Philippa, Panetto’s daughter,” Panetto being the name by which Paon de Roët was familiarly known at court;61 this theory seems rather far- fetched and contrived, especially since the Christian names of women in royal households were almost invariably accompanied by their surnames in accounts, registers, and official documents. So the “evidence” connecting Philippa Pan with the Roëts is slender indeed.

  Who was she, then? It was at one time thought that Pan was short for pandaría, or Mistress of the Pantry, but it was virtually unheard of for such a post to be held by a woman, and there is no other instance of the word panetaria being thus abbreviated. Besides, a woman serving as Mistress of the Pantry would never be provided with furs by her mistress. 62

  Pan. is probably an abbreviation for a surname, and the most convincing theory is that this Philippa was the daughter or kinswoman of a London mercer, William de la Panetrie (who died between 1349 and 1367), who lived in Soper Lane at the east end of Cheapside, in the parish of St. Pancras. The Panetries were acquainted with the prosperous Chaucer family, who lived nearby on Thames Street in the Vintry Ward, and who managed to place a son in Countess Elizabeth’s household; 63 this son was a highly gifted youth who was not only to become famous in his own right, but would also play an important part in the lives of Philippa de Roët and Katherine Swyn-ford. Geoffrey Chaucer, born probably between 1339 and 1346, is renowned today as one of the greatest English poets who ever lived. Finding Philippa Pan in the same household lends weight to the theory that she was a Panetrie by birth and that she had perhaps obtained her place by recommendation. As for her link with “Pullesdone”—a place that cannot conclusively be identified—she could have been performing an official errand for her mistress, visiting relatives prior to Christmas, or accompanying a family member on business there; London merchants had far- flung interests.

  Geoffrey Chaucer was the son of a rich and influential London vintner, and he is first recorded as a page in the household of Countess Elizabeth on April 4, 1357, when she purchased shoes, black and red breeches, and one of those short, revealing jackets called a “paltock” (to which hose and sleeves could be attached) for “Galfridus Chaucer” of London. The following month she gave him two shillings (£30). He is last mentioned in these accounts in December, when he was present at the Christmas gathering at Hatfield and received a grant of 3s.6d (£52) for necessities.

  From 1357 to 1359, Chaucer appears to have served Lionel of Antwerp, possibly as a page. In 1359, having received arms and become a squire—he was never knighted—he served in Edward III’s army against the French, and was captured at the siege of Rheims. The King himself paid his considerable ransom of £16 (£5,489)—which must demonstrate the high regard in which he was already held by the royal family—and he was freed by October 1360, when he brought a letter to England from Lionel of Antwerp, who was at that time in Calais. Chaucer then disappears from the historical record for six years. There has been much learned speculation about what happened to him during this period: that he was perhaps studying at Oxford (as his son Lewis later did) or Cambridge, or at the Inner Temple, a theory suggested by his signing himself “attorney” in the 1390s—his writings reveal that he had a good knowledge of the law. Chaucer may have transferred to John of Gaunt’s household,64 although there is no record of this, yet he was certainly on familiar terms with John of Gaunt by 1368, and John did later award him a life annuity. Most likely, when Lionel of Antwerp went to Ireland to serve as the King’s Lieutenant there in September 1361,65 taking his wife and daughter with him, Geoffrey Chaucer went with them. Lionel was created Duke of Clarence in 1362. Tragically, Elizabeth de Burgh died in Dublin on December 10, 1363.

  Geoffrey Chaucer possibly returned to England in 1364, perhaps as a member of the party escorting little Philippa of Clarence to her grandmother’s household, where she would be brought up. On his return he may have begun a period of study at university or the Inns of Court.66It is possible too that he was sponsored by a member of the royal family, possibly John of Gaunt, who is known to have maintained several students at Oxford.67

  So if Philippa de Roët was not the Philippa Pan recorded in the Countess of Ulster’s household in 1356-58, where was she? The likeliest place was the Queen’s own household, with the probability that she was brought up there with her sister; by 1366, she had been appointed a damoiselle of the Queen’s Chamber, where her duties would increasingly have involved nursing her ailing mistress: After a riding accident in 1360, in which Queen Philippa possibly suffered internal injuries that were never treated, her health declined and her enforced immobility caused her legs to swell, which her contemporaries diagnosed as “dropsy.”

  By 1366, Katherine de Roët had left the Queen’s household; it may have been as early as 1360 that she was placed by Philippa in the chamber of the latter’s daughter- in- law, Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, Katherine’s former playmate, now the wife of John of Gaunt. And within two to three years of joining the duchess’s establishment, Katherine was probably married to Sir Hugh Swynford, one of John of Gaunt’s knights.


  The Magnificent Lord

  During her childhood Katherine had benefited from the tutelage and example of Queen Philippa; now she was to come under the admirable influence of another great lady, the new Duchess of Lancaster, who was about eight years her senior and one of her former companions in the Queen’s household.

  The exquisite Blanche of Lancaster was the daughter of the King’s cousin, the “valiant” and “well- respected” Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster.1 While Edward III was the grandson of Edward I, Duke Henry was the grandson of Edward I’s younger brother, Edmund Crouchback, who had been created Earl of Lancaster in 1267 and died in 1296. Earl Edmund’s eldest son, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, had been executed for treason in 1322 by Edward II, but his younger brother, blind Henry, was restored to the earldom two years later; Duke Henry was his son. He succeeded his father as Earl of Lancaster in 1345 and was created Duke in 1351, the second man in the realm ever to be raised to ducal rank, the first being the Black Prince, who had been created Duke of Cornwall in 1337.

  Henry of Grosmont, who could have doubled for Chaucer’s “perfect, gentle knight,” was the greatest nobleman in the kingdom. Not only was he Duke of Lancaster, but also Earl of Derby, Earl of Leicester, Earl of Lincoln, and Lord of Beaufort and Nogent in France. Consequently, his landed interests were vast. He was the gr
eatest of the magnates, an experienced and masterly general, and utterly loyal to the King, who thought very highly of him and treated him as a valued friend. The duke was a tall and imposing figure, genial and suave. He liked the fine things in life: good food and wine, luxurious and tasteful surroundings, and the robust charms of common women.2 Yet he was also temperate, pious, and charitable, the founder of many religious houses, churches, and hospitals.

  Henry’s duchess was Isabella de Beaumont; sadly, they had no son to succeed to his great inheritance. Instead, there were two daughters, Matilda and Blanche. Matilda of Lancaster was probably born in 1340; after a brief first marriage to Ralph de Stafford, which saw her widowed by the age of ten, she was married in 1352 in the King’s Chapel at Westminster to William, Duke of Bavaria,3 who became Count of Holland in 1354 and Count of Hainault in 1356, on the death of his mother, Countess Margaret; he was the son with whom the countess had been briefly at war prior to this marriage, and it was on his account that she fled to England in 1351, bringing Paon de Roët with her.

  After their wedding, Matilda went to Hainault to live with her husband, but in 1357 the insanity that was to render William incapable of ruling became alarmingly evident, and there were unfounded rumors attributing his madness to an attempt to poison him while he was in England. By 1358 he was being kept in confinement at The Hague, and later was moved to the fortress of Quesnoy, where he remained shut up until his death thirty- one years later.4 There were no children born of his marriage to Matilda.

  Blanche of Lancaster, the younger of Duke Henry’s daughters, had probably been born on March 25, 1342.5 She spent some of her formative years at court in the care of Queen Philippa, and came to know the royal family well. As we have seen, Katherine and Philippa de Roët were among her younger companions.

  Edward III, needing to provide for his rapidly expanding family, was vigorously pursuing his successful policy of marrying his sons to English heiresses, and thus consolidating his own interests and binding nobles and Crown closer together. Blanche was the greatest unmarried heiress in En gland, and Edward was determined to marry her to his third surviving son, John of Gaunt, and secure for John her share of the rich Lancaster patrimony. On June 7, 1358, the King petitioned Pope Innocent VI for a dispensation allowing the young couple to wed—they were within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity—which was granted on January 8, 1359.6

  It was in honor of the memory of “Blanche the Fair” that Geoffrey Chaucer later wrote his dream poem, The Boke of the Duchesse.7 Allusions in the text make this clear: Chaucer uses the word “Duchess” in the title, and there was only one duchess in England at the time; he makes a play on Blanche’s name, calling her “my Lady White,” or “good, fair White;” and he refers to “a long castle” (Lancaster), St. John (the duke’s name saint), and “a rich mount” (a pun for Richmond, John’s earldom). The context of the poem will be discussed in Chapter 4, but it contains a eulogistic description of Blanche, whom Chaucer calls “the flower of English womanhood”: “Gay and glad she was, fresh and sportive, sweet, simple [i.e., straightforward] and of humble semblance, the fair lady whom men call Blanche.”

  Chaucer’s description reveals that, like her father, Blanche was intelligent, well- mannered, self- controlled and moderate in behavior, “not too grave and not too gay.” Her speech was “low- toned and gentle,” friendly and eloquent, and her character “inclined to good.” She was no flatterer, but was truthful, “devoid of malice,” and never voiced a criticism. Happy and carefree in her demeanor, she was “like a torch so bright that everyone could take its light.” Froissart echoes Chaucer’s praise of Blanche, calling her “gay, sociable, gentle, of humble semblance,” and above all “good.”

  There is a corbel head said to be Blanche at Edington Priory in Wiltshire, and a statue of a girl holding a pet monkey, whom some have identified as her, on Queen Philippa’s tomb in Westminster Abbey; but these are in no sense portraits, nor can we glean any idea of what she looked like from drawings of her tomb effigy, because the effigy depicted is not the original, which was sculpted in the fourteenth century. So it is to Chaucer that we must turn for a detailed description of Blanche. Her hair, he says, was “glittering golden,” her eyes “gentle and good, steadfast yet glad, not set too wide.” She did not “shyly glance aside,” but gazed openly with a “candid mien” that was “free of artfulness” and in no way wanton. Here, one suspects, was a young woman who knew her own worth, for although her look “made men smart” with desire, she affected not to notice: “well she guarded her good name.” Her lovely face was “pink and white, fresh, lively- hued, [the] highest example of Nature’s work;” her neck was graceful, her shoulders lovely, her breasts rounded, her skin unblemished. She was tall and straight- backed, with “well- broad” hips, and her arms and legs were “well- clothed in flesh,” suggesting a degree of plumpness fashionable in the fourteenth century.

  It has often been asserted that Chaucer’s The Boke of the Duchesse is not intended as a realistic portrayal of Blanche; undoubtedly, the poem was conceived as a dream sequence, and it was inspired by several well- known works: those of Ovid and Froissart, the popular medieval romance poem, Le Roman de la Rose, and the innovative verse of the avant- garde French writer and composer, Guillaume de Machaut.8 Yet although Chaucer’s laudatory and idealized description of Blanche conforms to the literary conventions of the age, it does convey an impression of a real person. After all, this poem would have been circulated at court and among the duke’s circle, so its portrayal of Blanche and her relationship with John of Gaunt would have had to be recognizable and convincing to those who had known her well. And Blanche may well have been lucky enough to have had the kind of looks that were fashionable in that period. Furthermore, Chaucer himself was a member of the royal household when he wrote the poem; he knew John of Gaunt and the rest of the royal family. So what he wrote must to a degree have been drawn from life.

  John of Gaunt was probably born in March (certainly by May 28) 1340 at St. Bavon’s Abbey in Ghent, Flanders9—hence his appellation, “Gaunt” being an English corruption of “Ghent.” He was always to demonstrate a sense of affiliation with the country of his birth and with Hainault, his mother’s birthplace.10 This affinity might partly explain why he would be attracted to Katherine Swynford, herself a Hainaulter.

  His early years were spent in the care of a nurse, Isolda Newman, under the supervision of his mother, Queen Philippa. The “Lord John” was created Earl of Richmond on November 20, 1342; the King himself solemnly girding the two- year- old child with the sword of his earldom, which had been held by the Dukes of Brittany since the Norman Conquest, and was vacant on account of the death of the last duke, whose infant heir had been passed over.11 This earldom brought young John an income of 2,000 marks (£303,882) per annum. At the age of three, with his father and his elder brothers, he was accepted into the confraternity of Lincoln Cathedral, thus forging the first of his close links and attachment to Lincoln, its cathedral chapter,12 and the social orbit of the Swynford family.

  John’s nurse was pensioned off in February 1346,13 at which time he would have been assigned a male governor to oversee his education and his training in the knightly arts. We know little about his childhood, but all the evidence suggests that he was fond of his parents—he was especially close to his mother14—and his siblings, and grew up in a happy, stable family, which was not always the case where royal princes were concerned.

  Above all, John would have grown up to the heady awareness that his father, the King, was winning great victories over the French and international renown, and that his glorious brother, the Black Prince, ten years his senior, had assisted most nobly in achieving those victories. It was an era of growing national confidence and pride, and the young John’s world was surely dominated by triumphal heroes.

  One man whose influence on him was paramount was Henry, Duke of Lancaster, the man who, next to his father and eldest brother, he seems to have revered most. In
Duke Henry he had the example of a great lord who was honorable, trustworthy, and pious, and doubtless the young John thrilled to tales of the duke’s youthful crusading adventures and his distinguished victories over the Scots and the French. John seems to have spent his life trying to emulate Henry of Lancaster, from his military successes and diplomatic achievements to his charitable enterprises and elegant mode of living.

  On August 29, 1350, when he was only ten years old, John first saw active service in the war with France, when he accompanied his father and the Black Prince on a naval expedition that ended in a dramatic victory over enemy ships off Winchelsea, with the King capturing twenty vessels. John was too young to take part, but Froissart says his father took him along “because he much loved him.” And that decision nearly proved fatal, for the ship carrying the King and his sons was rammed by an enemy vessel and began to sink; they were saved only through the courageous intervention of Duke Henry, who brought his ship alongside that of the aggressor, boarded it and heroically rescued them. For John, it was a salutary initiation into the realities of warfare, and another reason for hero worship of the duke.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]