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

  John was always close to his eldest brother, whom he obviously looked up to and tried—apparently without jealousy—to emulate, and from at least March 1, 1350, until May 20, 1355, he lived in the Black Prince’s household, residing with him mainly at Berkhamsted Castle and the manor of Byfleet in Surrey. The prince acted as a mentor to the boy and supervised his training in arms; according to Froissart, he was “very fond” of John and always referred to him as his “very dear and well- beloved brother.”15

  In July 1355 the fifteen- year- old John received the accolade of knighthood, whose chivalrous tenets he was to follow to the best of his ability all his life. That year, he served on a campaign in France under Duke Henry, and in the winter of 1355-56 was in Scotland with the King, forcing a stand- down by the Scots that became known as “Burnt Candlemas.” He was a witness to their surrender of Berwick on January 13, 1356. The young man’s qualities evidently impressed the Scots, because in 1357 they proposed naming him as the successor to their childless King David II, a plan that—sadly for John—came to nothing. John was to retain a special understanding and respect for the Scots throughout his career and would achieve significant diplomatic successes with them in future years.

  In The Boke of the Duchesse, Chaucer, who must have come to know John of Gaunt fairly well, and observed him on many occasions, has him say that from his youth he had “most faithfully paid tribute as a devotee to love, most unrestrainedly, and joyfully become his thrall, with willing body, heart and all,” and that he had carried on in this fashion “for ages, many and many a year,” with “lightness” and “wayward thoughts.” But his only recorded early love affair was with Marie de St. Hilaire (or Hilary), one of his mother’s damoiselles, who, like Katherine Swynford, came from Hainault.16 According to Froissart, this youthful indiscretion, which almost certainly occurred when John was in his teens, resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child— the only one, apart from the Beauforts, that John ever acknowledged. Her name was Blanche,17 and it’s likely she was born well before his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster, probably in the later 1350s. Certainly no hostile chronicler mentioned the affair later on, nor attempted to make political capital out of it, which supports the theory that it happened before John came to political prominence.

  In 1360, Edward III granted Marie an annuity of £20 (£5,779) per annum,18 the same amount as that given in 1359-60 to Joan de St. Hilary (who was surely Marie’s sister), and in 1367 to Elizabeth Chandos, two of Marie’s fellow damoiselles. This parity suggests that the annuity, handsome as it was, and more than the other damoiselles ever received, was awarded as much for exceptional service to the Queen as to support the mother of the Queen’s bastard granddaughter. Marie remained in Philippa’s service until 1369, and was still alive in 1399, when she was in receipt of a pension from John of Gaunt “for the good and agreeable service she has rendered for a long time to our honored lady and mother, Philippa, late Queen of England.”19Thus, in his characteristically honorable fashion, John provided for Marie and—as will be seen—their daughter all their lives.

  John of Gaunt would surely have known Blanche of Lancaster well. Their fathers were cousins and staunch friends, and she was a frequent presence in the Queen’s household. Given that they were close in age—she was the younger by two years—John and Blanche may have been childhood playmates from infancy.

  At Christmas 1357 and New Year 1358, John was a guest of his brother Lionel of Antwerp, Earl of Ulster, and Countess Elizabeth at the Queen’s manor of Hatfield, near Doncaster in Yorkshire.20 Young Geoffrey Chaucer was also present at the gathering, perhaps the occasion at which the talented Chaucer first came to John’s notice.

  Blanche of Lancaster may also have been present at Hatfield,21 and if so, John may have taken the opportunity to pay court to her. It was six months later that Edward III applied for a dispensation for the young couple to marry.

  Chaucer, in The Boke of the Duchesse, recalled John telling him that he was first taken with Blanche’s charms after being struck by how vividly she stood out among a group of fair ladies:

  In beauty, courtesy and grace,

  In radiant modesty of face,

  Fine bearing, virtue, every way,

  It was my sweet, her right true self—

  Demeanour steadfast, calm and free,

  And poise imbued with dignity.

  He watched her dancing gracefully, singing and laughing, and noticed that her eyes were gracious, her voice “warm with kindliness.” To him, she appeared “a treasure house of utter bliss”: “that flower of womanhood was life and joy,” the chief source of his “well- being.” But when he embarked on his “mighty quest” to win her love, he initially met with cool rejection. Blanche “gave no false encouragement; she spurned such petty artifice.” Her ardent swain composed songs that, while “not well done,” were written “in passion for my heart’s delight,” but he held back from confessing to her how much pain he was suffering on her account, fearing lest she might take offense at his presumption. Yet in the end, “I had to tell her, or die.” Quaking in dread, he declared his love and devotion, swore “to guard her honor evermore,” and begged for mercy, not daring to look Blanche in the eye. Afterward, he could not recall exactly what her response had been, but “the gist of it was simply ‘No.’”

  Thus rejected, John stole away and hid his sorrow for many days. But his desire was such that he determined to persist in his suit, intent on overcoming all resistance, and in the end, after many months, he joyfully won the heart of his lady. “To seal the gift, she gave a ring,” which to him was “the utmost precious thing;” he felt as if he had been “from death to life upcast.”

  All this had little relevance to the realities of royal matchmaking but everything to do with the game of courtly love, and no doubt the young and ardent John of Gaunt took full advantage of the opportunities afforded by that convention, though his was essentially an arranged marriage. From what Chaucer tells us, we may infer that he set himself to win Blanche’s heart as well as her hand. For him, she would always be “my lady bright, whom I have loved with all my might.”

  There is other testimony besides Chaucer’s to support the claim that John fell in love with Blanche: His apparent faithfulness to her through all their years of marriage, his inconsolable grief at her passing, his enduring homage to her memory, and his desire to be buried beside her. Of course, that could equally have been inspired by a wish to be laid to rest beside the woman from whom he had derived his title and wealth, and who was the mother of his heir. But taken with all the other evidence, it would appear to have been motivated by deep affection and tender memories too. And given that this was a love match, it is feasible that John’s ardor for his lady was well established by the time he spent that Christmas at Hatfield, for Chaucer tells us that Blanche kept him at bay for a year. This combination of true love and political and dynastic desirability was most unusual in that era of arranged marriages—but John of Gaunt was more than once to prove unconventional when it came to love and marriage.

  • • •

  John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster were married on Sunday, May 19, 1359, in a lavish ceremony in the Queen’s Chapel at Reading Abbey, one of the foremost Benedictine monasteries in the realm.22 He was nineteen, she seventeen. Thomas de Chynham, clerk of Queen’s Chapel, officiated,23 and Robert Wyvil, Bishop of Salisbury, pronounced the benediction.24 John’s wedding gift to Blanche was a gold ring with a great diamond set in pearls.25

  Two weeks of festivities followed the wedding. There were feasts, boat races, and three days of jousting in the meadows on the banks of the Thames. Then the royal family and their guests rode to London, where tournaments were held over a further three days at Smithfield before huge crowds. Here, the King, his four eldest sons, and nineteen of his lords disguised themselves as the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London, acquitted themselves with great honor in the lists, then revealed their true identity, to the lyrical delight of the spectators. Alongside
the captive kings of France and Scotland, the Queen was watching, as well as her daughters and her ladies, and it is more than likely that the Roët sisters were present too.

  If Chaucer is to be believed, John’s love for Blanche deepened after marriage and he was convinced he could not have chosen a better wife, for she was good, loyal, and true, the “queen of all my body.” Throughout their marriage, he “belonged to her entire”: there is no record of him dishonoring his marriage vows, and no breath of scandal tainted his name, in sharp contrast to the reputation he would gain during his second marriage. Chaucer has John declare:

  “Our joy was ever fresh and new,

  Our hearts were so in harmony

  That neither was ever contrary

  To the other heart when sorrows came.”

  In truth, they bore all things the same

  Whatever joy or grief they had.

  Alike, they were both glad or sad;

  “Assured in union we were,

  And thus we lived for many a year,

  So well, I cannot tell you how.”

  Although Blanche was younger than John and sworn to obedience and subservience to him, Chaucer implies that he always deferred to her. For:

  When I was wrong and she was right,

  Always in generosity

  [She] forgave me most becomingly.

  In every youthful circumstance

  She took me in her governance.

  Always her counsel was so true.

  It is worthy of notice that, in his idyllic portrayal of the married love between John and Blanche, Chaucer made a dramatic departure from contemporary literary practice, in which marriage is often seen as sounding the death knell to love, which can only truly flourish in an illicit or courtly context. This striking departure suggests that the conjugal relationship between John and Blanche was unusually close and tender.

  It is tempting to speculate on the kind of sexual relationship those two shared. Chaucer makes it clear that Blanche had a degree of worldly knowledge and an understanding of good and evil, but says her self- esteem was such that she would not permit any diminution of respect toward her person. One would imagine that the young John, with his well- bred ideals of love and chivalry, treated his wife with deference, and even reverence, in bed. A later assertion by the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, that John brought prostitutes to share in bedtime romps with his understandably distressed wife, is almost certainly malicious and groundless, and invented purely for the purposes of character assassination.

  Devoted as she was, Blanche, unlike the Queen, did not accompany her husband on his frequent expeditions overseas.26 First, John was usually sent abroad on military campaigns in which there was no place for women; and second, Blanche was frequently pregnant.

  The young couple were both pious, and took their spiritual life very seriously. They were joint founder members of St. Mary’s College next to St. David’s Cathedral in Wales;27 they petitioned the Pope for the right to choose or change their confessors, for permission for themselves and members of their households to have portable altars, and for “plenary remission [of sins] at the hour of death.”28 Like most aristocratic ladies, Blanche undertook charitable works, and in 1367 successfully pleaded with the King to pardon a condemned murderer.29

  As we have seen, Blanche won high praise from Chaucer and Froissart, both of whom knew her personally. She could read and write, had literary interests and enjoyed poetry,30 so she may have been their patron. Thomas Speght, in his 1602 edition of Chaucer’s works, claims that one of the poet’s earliest poems, “An ABC,” was “made, as some say, at the request of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, as a prayer for her private use, being a woman in her religion very devout.” Speght may have had access to sources that are lost to us, and his claim cannot be proved because there are no perceptible allusions to Blanche in An ABC.”31

  Blanche conceived her first child by the end of June 1359, and was four months pregnant when her husband left England on October 28 to accompany the King on a new military expedition to France, Edward III being determined to have himself crowned at Rheims. It was on this campaign that Geoffrey Chaucer was captured by the French and had to be ransomed.

  Blanche’s baby, named Philippa in honor of the Queen (who was probably her godmother), was born on March 31, 1360.32 Out of “the concern that we feel for her condition,” Edward III had arranged for Blanche to stay with the Queen for the last months before her confinement,33 but her child was actually born at Leicester Castle: On May 21, Philippa paid the expenses of the ceremony to mark her daughter- in- law’s “uprising” (or “churching”) at Leicester.34 The midwife in attendance had perhaps been “our well- beloved Elyot, midwife of Leicester,” who later attended John’s second wife and Katherine Swynford, and was rewarded for her services in both cases.35

  Blanche had her own household, separate from that of her husband, with her own staff of officers, ladies, and servants. There is no record of Katherine de Roët being in that household before January 24, 1365—when she is referred to as Blanche’s cmcille (maidservant)36 —but the registers of John of Gaunt for this period have not survived, so it is quite possible that Katherine was serving the countess considerably earlier than that and had been placed by the Queen in Blanche’s nursery in 1360 to help care for the new baby, possibly as a rocker, a job often assigned to a young girl of Kather-ine’s age; she was then about ten. Froissart just says that “in her youth, she had been of the household of the Duchess Blanche of Lancaster,” but he doesn’t specify how old she was at the time.

  The female attendants of noblewomen were routinely required to help care for their mistress’s offspring, and given Katherine’s later appointment as governess, and her evident rapport with the young, it would appear that she had early on gained experience in looking after children and demonstrated a talent for it, thus earning the confidence of her employers. It may be that Katherine’s placement with Blanche came about as a result of arrangements made by the Queen when the pregnant Blanche was staying with her, and that Katherine was one of those who traveled with the countess to Leicester.

  Leicester Castle, the principal seat of the Earls of Leicester, was to become one of John of Gaunt’s favorite residences, probably because of its associations with Duke Henry; John “especially loved to be with his household” here,37 keeping great state, entertaining lavishly, and hunting in nearby Leicester Forest, where he had a substantial hunting box called— delightfully—Bird’s Nest.38 And he was popular in Leicester, for thanks to his frequent presence in their midst, the townsfolk enjoyed greater prosperity than they had ever known.

  Over the years, Katherine would probably stay in Leicester Castle on many occasions. It had been built in 1068-88 and extended in the middle of the twelfth century, when the great aisled hall of stone that John and Katherine knew, with its lofty roof of braced beams, was put up; below, there were cellars or dungeons. Inside the castle was the ancient Saxon church of St. Mary de Castro, rebuilt in the twelfth century by the earls of Leicester; its slender spire was added in the fourteenth century.39

  In the outer ward of the castle was the Hospital of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, founded by Henry, Earl of Lancaster, in 1331 for the care of the poor and infirm of Leicester. This foundation was extended by his son, Duke Henry, in the 1350s to house a precious relic, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, and it was at that time the small but “exceeding fair”40 collegiate church of St. Mary was built beside it, with cloisters and pretty houses for the prebendaries. The whole area of four acres, which was enclosed by the thick castle wall and accessed by a stately triple- arched and vaulted gateway, became known as the novum opus, or the new work, which was soon colloquially referred to as the Newarke,41 a name still in use today.

  Whether Katherine was in Blanche’s household sooner rather than later, she had again been exceedingly fortunate in being placed with a kind and affectionate mistress. Blanche’s many qualities would have made her an easy person to serve,
and her piety and literary interests were bound to make some impression upon a young and intelligent girl of Katherine’s age. In Blanche, Katherine could profit from the example of a lady who conducted herself with dignity and honor, who was moderate in all her doings, with an effortless grace and serene demeanor, and who expected and received the respect that was her due, not just as a duchess but as a woman. The young and impressionable Katherine would have observed too the great love that lay between the duke and his lady, and perhaps hoped that she herself, in due course, would find such unusual happiness in marriage.

  Katherine spent her youth, indeed her life, in the shadow of the Hundred Years War, but in 1360 that war was going well for England. Having failed to assert his claim to the Crown of France, Edward III had resorted to diplomacy, and on May 8 concluded the Treaty of Brétigny, which ceded to him all the lands he had won by conquest as well as an extended Duchy of Aquitaine in full sovereignty. On May 18 the King and his sons returned home to England in triumph, John having the added joy of greeting his new daughter. On May 20, doubtless in recognition of his son’s good service in France, the King granted John the honor and castle of Hertford and other property.42

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