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


  Although he had his private apartments, John would have taken his meals in the great hall of his palace, at a table set on the dais or in a window embrasure, accompanied by his familia. This word applied not only to his family members, but also to the knights of his retinue, his confessor, and honored guests. The food was prepared by his master cook and an army of helpers, who worked in the various service departments: the kitchen, pantry, buttery, poultry, scullery, and saltery. Dishes served at the ducal table included venison, game, salmon, bream, stockfish, herring, rabbit, poultry, and lampreys. At the great feasts of the year—Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost—the duke’s arrival in the hall was heralded by his trumpeters.74

  There is no way of knowing if the present Savoy Chapel, which is owned by the Queen as Duchess of Lancaster, occupies the site of the original palace chapel, because no plans of the palace survive, and in the early sixteenth century Henry VII “beautifully rebuilt” the Savoy75 as the Hospital of St. John, for the succor of the poor. This tiny gem of a chapel, which was part of Henry VII’s foundation, suffered damage by fire in 1864, and was largely rebuilt in the Perpendicular style the following year by Queen Victoria; since 1937 it has served as the Chapel of the Royal Victorian Order. Interestingly, the Savoy Chapel, like the hospital it served, was originally dedicated to St. John the Baptist, one of John of Gaunt’s own name saints.76

  What was he like, this exalted duke in whose household Katherine lived, and whose amorous interest she would one day ignite? He is known to most people largely through his brief appearance in Shakespeare’s Richard II, in which “old John of Gaunt, time- honor’d Lancaster” features as a dying elder statesman who makes a famously patriotic speech about the kingdom he has loyally served for many decades:

  This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

  This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

  This other Eden, demi- paradise,

  This fortress built by Nature for herself

  Against infection and the hand of war;

  This happy breed of men, this little world,

  This precious stone set in the silver sea …

  This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

  This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings.

  But this is not the sum of the man—far from it, for these sentiments are unlikely to have informed the thinking of the real John of Gaunt, who was a remarkable and complex character, entirely undeserving of the poor reputation cast upon him for centuries by historians and other writers, who mostly followed the calumnies of hostile chroniclers or accepted Sir John Fortes-cue’s fifteenth- century view of John as the oppressive overmighty subject par excellence. For them, he was an unscrupulous and immoral tyrant.77 It was not until 1904, with the appearance of Sydney Armitage- Smith’s monumental biography, that a fairer and more considered view of John of Gaunt emerged.

  For better or worse, John of Gaunt made a tremendous impact on the history of England; even today, oral traditions, legends, and folk memories of him still survive throughout the Lancastrian “countries,” as his domains were called.78 His name is writ large in the annals of the age of chivalry. He was the greatest English nobleman of his time.

  In appearance, even as a young man, John of Gaunt was commanding. In The Boke of the Duchesse, Chaucer gives us a tantalizing glimpse of him at the age of twenty- eight, describing him as “a splendidly looking knight… of noble stature” with a “stately manner.” Traditionally, it has been asserted that John was unusually tall, because from 1625 it was claimed that a suit of armor measuring six feet eight inches in height, which is still preserved in the Tower of London, had been made for him; in 1699 a visitor to the Tower admired its codpiece, “which was almost as big as a poop- lantern, and better worth a lewd lady’s admiration than any piece of antiquity in the Tower”;79 but—sadly for those who relish such “evidence” of the duke’s famed virility—it has now been established that this armor dates only from around 1540, was made in Germany and has nothing to do with John of Gaunt.

  The only other surviving description of John is to be found in the Portuguese chronicle written by Ferñao Lopes, whose account was based on the recollections of people who had known the duke. According to this he was “a man with his limbs well- built and straight;” spare and lean, “he did not seem to have as much flesh as was required by the height of his body,” yet he was vigorous and healthy, as befit a warrior who played a prominent part in no fewer than a dozen military and naval campaigns,80 and had “high majestic features and piercing eyes.” Surviving representations of “this vial full of Edward’s sacred blood”81 depict a hollow- cheeked, bearded man with the angular bone structure and aristocratic aquiline nose of the Plantagenets. In youth, John probably looked young for his years: in 1368, Chaucer thought he was twenty- four, when he was actually twenty- eight, but then he was “not bushy- bearded at this stage.”

  There are several surviving images that enable us to gain some idea of what John of Gaunt looked like. The earliest known contemporary picture of him was in a mural depicting Edward III, his family, and St. George adoring the Virgin. This once adorned a wall at the eastern end of St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster, and was painted after 1355, since Thomas of Woodstock, the King’s youngest son, who was born that year, is included. In no sense were these portraits. Like his father and brothers, John appears in armor, kneeling. Although the faces of each of the eighteen- inch-high figures are all different, John’s is a blank, for the paint had perished before the picture was copied.82 This mural, hidden under paneling for centuries, was discovered in 1800, only to be covered up again almost immediately and then destroyed in the fire that burned down the palace in 1834. It is known only through colored drawings made from tracings in 1800, which were engraved by Richard Smirke for the Society of Antiquaries of London.

  John also appeared in armor on his tomb effigy, but the only surviving drawings of his lost tomb depict the effigy that replaced the original in the sixteenth century.83 His seal as King of Castile and León shows him enthroned, bearded, and wearing a coronet over his chin- length hair. This is a conventional image of a king rather than a portrait.84

  There is a contemporary colored miniature of John of Gaunt in the Liber Benefactorum of St. Albans Abbey, which dates from ca. 1380. It shows him at prayer, wearing a long gold and pink robe embroidered in red, with a gold collar, four large buttons down the front, red undersleeves, and red boots; he sports wavy reddish- brown hair—again chin length—crowned by a gold coronet, wears a fashionable forked beard, and has somewhat florid features, the delineation of which suggests that the artist, a lay illuminator named Alan Strayler, knew what his subject looked like. John was about forty at this time.85

  There are posthumous stained- glass portraits of John of Gaunt in the chapel of All Souls College, Oxford, executed in 1437, and in the St. Cuth-bert memorial window in York Minster, which dates from ca. 1440.86 Parts of the head in the All Souls glass were replaced in the seventeenth century, but in both windows he is portrayed with the same forked beard as in the St. Albans miniature and bears a remarkable resemblance to his father, Edward III, as he appears in the effigy on his tomb in Westminster Abbey. The small statue of John as a weeper on that tomb, which dates from the same period as the St. Albans miniature, also shows him with a forked beard and long gown. The beard would have been kept trimmed by the duke’s barber, Godfrey.87

  A panel portrait in oils of John of Gaunt, wearing armor and helm, in which his finely chiseled facial features bear a striking similarity to those in other representations of him, is in the collection of his descendant, the Duke of Beaufort, at Badminton. Once thought to have been painted from life in 1390, we now know it was executed between 1600 and 1650. It is ascribed to a Dutch artist, Luca Cornelli, of whom nothing more has been discovered; it was once claimed erroneously that he was a court painter to Henry VIII. There is a possibility that this vivid portrait is based on a lost original; int
erestingly, John is identified by his arms as King of Castile and León, and by the heraldic symbols of those kingdoms—a castle and three lions. As he renounced his claims to Castile and León in 1388, one would expect any later portrait to refer to him simply as Duke of Lancaster, so this portrait might possibly be a copy of one executed from life before 1388. Richard II, in whose reign such an original would have been painted, pioneered the novel art of royal portraiture in England, commissioning, in ca. 1395 or later, the Wilton Diptych and the commanding full- length portrait of himself enthroned that is now in Westminster Abbey. There may well have been other portraits of the King that did not survive, so it is not beyond the bounds of belief that an artist working in England under his patronage might also have painted John of Gaunt, the foremost lord in the realm, and that the Cornelli is a copy of that lost original. Alternatively, since the pose is more typical of the seventeenth than the fourteenth century, the artist could have used John’s funeral effigy in St. Paul’s as a model.

  John dressed stylishly and elegantly, even magnificently, but there was an element of well- bred restraint about his clothes, unusual in that age of brash display. “His garments were not full wide,” observed Thomas Hoccleve, but they did reflect his elevated status; like most aristocrats of the period, he loved ceremony, ritual, and the outward trappings of rank.

  John was reserved and dignified in character, a proud man who was ever conscious of the gravitas of his high estate. According to the laudatory Chan-dos Herald, he “had many virtues.” Courteous and charming, he “spoke well, very measured, temperately and with good judgment, being self- controlled and good- humored.”88 Skilled in logic and rhetoric, he was a powerful orator and accomplished at debating; Froissart calls him “wise and imaginative,” and the author of the Anonimalle Chronicle describes him arguing his point in Parliament “in good form, as if he was a man of law.” Edward III himself paid tribute to the “probity, activity, and excelling wisdom of his dearest son John.” A great traditionalist, the duke was conventional in his tastes and outlook, and reactionary in his views. Rarely did he abuse his power. Instead, he was liberal, generous, prudent, thoughtful, and above all possessed of a strong sense of honor and firm principles. He never shirked his obligations or responsibilities, nor failed in his duty. He was applauded for his sense of fair play, and once won golden opinions when he threatened to hang a cheating duelist as a traitor.89 For him, the laws of chivalry were sacrosanct, and he tried all his life to remain true to his knightly oath while modestly protesting, “I am no great knight myself.” Yet, he added, “My greatest delight is hearing of gallant deeds of arms.”90

  The duke did not take kindly to criticism or to being contradicted. When provoked, he was quick to explode with anger or act on impulse, being “jealous of honor, sudden and quick in quarrel.” He was capable of using “great harsh words” in Parliament,91 and could be peremptory when giving orders: “Get this done without any slip- up,” he once commanded, or “Make sure this is done in such a manner, understanding that, if it is disrupted, we would not wish to impute the blame to you; and do not neglect this, as you wish to avoid upsetting us.”92 His grand manner often made him appear haughty, autocratic, aloof, and even intimidating, which did not endear him to his envious contemporaries, and alienated a number of his fellow nobles. But he cared little for that—public opinion was rarely of concern to him. Because of his wealth and power, he had no need to court favor or heed resentment.

  Chaucer, however, found John to be a “wonder and well- faring knight” who was “so treatable, right wonder skillful, and reasonable” that he put the poet at his ease “and got me acquaint with him.”93

  How kindly spoke this knight,

  Without false style or sense of rank;

  … I felt that he was too frank,

  And found him most approachable,

  And very wise and reasonable.

  This suggests that John was more relaxed and outgoing among those he knew well. He could be engagingly self- deprecating, candidly confessing to his own faults, such as having “a head and memory feeble at remembering.”94And he was willing to be flexible, and to heed advice that ran contrary to his own inclinations.95

  John was undoubtedly ambitious. His birth, connections, wealth, and landed status made him an important player, not only on the English political stage, but in the arena of European politics, where he was to carve out for himself a major role. Later, ill- informed people in England, misled by his overbearing hauteur and distrustful of his vast power and wealth, would often express suspicion of John’s ambition and where it might lead him, but abroad it was a different story, for these very characteristics made him widely admired throughout Europe. The distrust was misplaced, for his loyalty to the Crown and his patriotism were astonishingly unshakable, and for all his life he was a mighty champion and defender of royal authority and prestige. “The King had no more faithful servant than himself, and he would follow wherever he would lead.”96

  John’s loyalty and steadfastness extended to his friends and was evident even when such friendships compromised his reputation, as was the case with John Wycliffe. He was true and decent to his family too, and set much store by “the natural ties of kinship.” He clearly held his parents and siblings in deep affection and respect; he became a devoted and caring father, and was to prove steadfast in love for many years to two women in turn. He was generous to them and to those close to him: Much of the money in his privy purse was spent on personal gifts carefully chosen by himself.

  Although he was not violent by nature—unlike his brother the Black Prince—John was a courageous, dedicated, and energetic soldier. “His campaigns were always physically arduous to himself,” wrote Froissart. He was also a competent and prudent commander who was at his best when laying siege to a town. But for various reasons, not all his fault, military success continually eluded him, and he was to prove far more fortunate and productive in the fields of diplomacy and politics than as a military leader, for he possessed “admirable judgment” and “a brilliant mind.”97 Nonetheless, Froissart ranked him with Edward III, the Black Prince, and Duke Henry among the “valiant chevaliers” of the age.

  “The pious Duke,” as the admiring Knighton calls him, was a devout Catholic with orthodox views and as conventional in his observance of religion as he was in all other things. He evinced a deep devotion to his patron saint, St. John the Baptist, as well as St. Cuthbert and the Virgin Mary.98A hugely generous benefactor, he endowed monastic houses, collegiate churches, and friaries—the Carmelites were especially favored by him, and he chose all his confessors from their order.99 He was also a munificent patron of St. Albans Abbey, and in its Liber Benefactorum it is recorded that “this Prince had an extreme love and affection for our monastery and Abbot, and greatly enriched the church with his magnificent and oft- repeated oblations.”100 He sent food and firewood to poor parish priests in his domains, rebuilt their churches and parsonages, and ensured they were kept in repair. However, his concern about abuses within the Church and his resentment of the corrupt power of wealthy ecclesiastics led him to adopt an anticlerical stance that was to prove controversial.

  In his leisure hours John loved above all to go hunting; he owned numerous chases, forests, and parks, and took great pains to keep them well maintained, and his itinerary was usually tailored to availing himself of their sport at the appropriate season.101 He was equally passionate about falconry, and his mews, stocked with costly birds, were renowned throughout Europe.102

  Where indoor pursuits were concerned, he enjoyed games of dice and, like Blanche, had literary interests. He was indeed an intelligent, cultivated, and accomplished man with refined and sophisticated tastes. In youth, Chaucer tells us, he had studied “science, art, and letters.”103 He shared an interest in astronomy with Chaucer himself and with Joan of Kent, and in 1386, Nicholas of Lynn dedicated his Kalendarium to John.104

  The duke patronized artists, funded poor scholars at the universities,
was an active patron of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and appointed masters to grammar schools.105 He loved music and employed talented choristers, musicians, and minstrels in his chapel and household. To judge by their names, his company of minstrels were of Flemish or Hainaulter origin. His musicians played on the pipes, clarions, and “nakers,” an early form of kettledrum, with drumsticks of silver.106 According to Chaucer, John, in his youth, wrote songs that he himself admitted “fell short.”107

  He spoke Norman French on a daily basis, read French with ease, had a good grasp of English—in 1363 he became the first person ever to open Parliament in that language—and must have learned some Flemish from his mother, but he was also apparently well- tutored in Latin, and enjoyed reading the classics as well as contemporary romance literature;108 we have seen that he kept a library at the Savoy, although there is no surviving record of its contents. He is not known to have directly patronized Chaucer, but would have been familiar with his works—for reasons that will shortly become clear— and Chaucer probably wrote The Boke of the Duchesse with him in mind, knowing that John and his circle would appreciate its literary significance and understand its allegorical and mythological allusions. Chaucer later addressed a short poem entitled “Fortune” to “three or two” princes—probably John and his brothers Edmund of Langley and Thomas of Woodstock—in the knowledge that they would know who he was talking about when he referred to Socrates; and it was claimed in the fifteenth century, by the copyist John Shirley, that John himself had commissioned another of Chaucer’s poems, “The Complaint of Mars,”109 although this cannot be substantiated.

 
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