Death stalked Katherine's world in the years 1368—71. Firstly, around 24 July 1368, her older sister, Elizabeth de Roët, died in her convent at Mons. Unless Katherine was in touch with unrecorded relatives in Hainault, she might not for some time have learned of, or been too greatly affected by, the passing of this sister with whom she can barely — if at all — have been acquainted. But the death of Blanche of Lancaster on 12 September 1368 at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire would have had far more impact, and would surely have brought her much grief and distress, for Blanche had held her in 'great affection', and Katherine in return had given her 'good and agreeable service', for which she would in time to come be handsomely rewarded. It also seems to have brought to an end her service in the Lancastrian household.
It was possibly around August 1368 when Blanche bore her last child, a third daughter, baptised Isabella, who shortly afterwards was 'swiftly summoned out of this world to the seat of the angels'.4 Blanche was then twenty-six, and had borne seven children in nine years of marriage. The fact that she died the month after this latest birth suggests that she had suffered complications in labour, or contracted puerperal fever, a major cause of maternal deaths and a common occurrence in an era when the transmission of infection from a midwife's dirty hands, or other unhygienic practices, was not understood. John of Gaunt was with his wife at the end, and that same day he wrote from Tutbury to his 'faithful friend' and neighbour Thomas Appleby, Bishop of Carlisle, bidding him order masses for the salvation of the soul of Blanche, 'who has died'.
'Put a tomb over my heart, for when I remember, I am so melancholy,' mourned Froissart. 'She died young and lovely.' He wrote this the following year, and because of this historians believed until recently that Blanche perished of the plague on 12 September 1369at Bolingbroke Castle. But the date that is clearly stated on the Duke's letter in Bishop Appleby's register makes it clear that Blanche died in 1368.
John of Gaunt was apparently devastated by the loss of his wife. Their love had been enduring, and throughout their nine-year marriage there had been no hint of discord or infidelity, while the frequency of Blanche's pregnancies argues a healthy sex life. Blanche's memory was clearly cherished by John, for he was solemnly to observe the anniversary of her death for the rest of his life, and more than thirty years later would direct in his will that he be buried beside her — the wife who brought him his great inheritance, the mother of his heir, and his first love.
We do not know if Katherine was in attendance at Tutbury when Blanche died, but with the rest of the Duchess's household, she would have been issued with black mourning garments and been summoned to accompany the funeral cortege, which was escorted south by a thousand horsemen. Beside the coffin was carried a seated effigy of the deceased in her robes of state, probably made of wood, and apparently looking very lifelike. Katherine perhaps witnessed the unseemly row between the Abbot of St Albans and the Bishop of Lincoln over who should take precedence in St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, where the Duchess was to lie in state for a requiem mass, just as she would witness a similar row on another tragic occasion just over twenty years later. She may also have been present when her late mistress's body was interred 'on the north side of the quire',9near the high altar, in St Paul's Cathedral in London.
Old St Paul's, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, was the largest building in mediaeval England. It had been completed in 1220, on the site of an earlier church founded around 607 by King Ethelbert of Kent, which was burned down in 1087. The new stone cathedral in the Romanesque style was truly awe-inspring: 'the height of the steeple was 520 foot, and the spire was 260 foot. The length of the whole church is 720 foot. The breadth thereof is 130 foot, and the height of the body of that church is 150 foot.'Thus the building was longer than the present St Paul's Cathedral, and its spire higher than that of Salisbury Cathedral, the highest in England today.
Blanche's was the first royal burial in St Paul's since that of the Saxon King Ethelred II in 1016; in Katherine's day, his massive stone sarcophagus could still be seen in the north quire aisle. The cathedral also housed the magnificent shrine of St Erkenwald, a seventh-century Bishop of London, which stood behind the high altar.
When a royal lady died, her household was usually disbanded, for it was not considered fitting for her female attendants to remain in a widower's establishment. Yet there was a pressing need for someone to take care of the three young children left motherless by Blanche's death, and it has been suggested by several writers that Katherine, who was clearly good with children and highly regarded in the Lancastrian household, stayed on in the nursery. If so, she cannot have been there in any exalted capacity, for it is clear that other ladies were looking after the ducal offspring. In 1369,the Duke appointed his and Blanche's cousin, Alice FitzAlan, Lady Wake to look after Henry, Philippa and Elizabeth; Lady Wake, who was paid £66.13s.4d
(£18,795) in 1369 just for looking after Henry and his household, was still in charge of them, and acting as their governess, in November 1371. Furthermore, in 1370, John of Gaunt rewarded Alyne, the wife of his squire, Edward Gerberge, with a handsome pension of ,£100 (24,779) Perannum for 'the painful diligence and good service she has rendered to our very dear daughter Philippa during the death of our beloved companion'. We can infer from this that eight-year-old Philippa was perhaps with Blanche at the end, that her mother's death affected her very badly, and that Alyne Gerberge played a far more important role in comforting her than Katherine Swynford did, which suggests that Katherine was not at Tutbury when Blanche died. The size of the annuity paid to Alyne is commensurate with her having been appointed to look after Philippa after Blanche's death. Clearly she was a trusted servant, for 'our well-loved damoiselle' Alyne was later appointed by John of Gaunt to serve his second Duchess.
We do know, however, that Katherine's daughter Blanche remained in the ducal household as a damoiselle to Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster until at least September 1369 which seems appropriate in regard to a girl who was the probable godchild of the Duke and Duchess. But as none of John of Gaunt's registers survives for the period 1369-72, we have no way of knowing how long Blanche Swynford remained with the ducal princesses after 1369.
It might be more realistic to suppose that, rather than remaining with the Duke's children, Katherine, who had a growing family of her own, returned to Kettlethorpe to bring them up and attend to her duties as chatelaine and custodian. Her long-term reputation as the Lady of Kettlethorpewould surely not have been so well established had she spent long periods absent from the manor.
Geoffrey Chaucer had been sent to France and Italy on diplomatic business on 17 July 1368, so was not in England when the Duchess died. On his return, before 31 October, he evidently found John of Gaunt paralysed by grief, which spurred him to write his celebrated elegiac memorial for Blanche, The Boke of the Duchesse, as much to comfort her widower and bring him to an acceptance of her death as to commemorate her beauty and virtue — and perhaps to console himself.
In this, his first major poem, Chaucer conjures up a dream sequence of an allegorical royal 'hunting of the hart’ — the pun was intentional — in which he, the narrator, becomes separated from the hunting party and wanders into a forest, where he espies a tragic sight:
I suddenly saw a man in black
Reclining, seated with his back
Against an oak, a giant tree.
'Oh Lord,' I thought, 'who can that be?'...
It was - and Chaucer's readers would have recognised him at once — the grieving Duke of Lancaster; we have already seen how, scattered through the poem, are punning allusions to 'John', 'Lancaster', 'Richmond' and 'Lady White' (for Blanche). Chaucer borrowed his theme from Guillaume de Machaut, but his subject was poignantly close to home.
The young knight, who 'was wholly clad in black' and displayed 'a complexion green and pale', was hanging his head and sighing, 'and with a deathly mourning cried a rhyme of verse in lamentation to himself, more pitiful and charged with woe than I had ever heard. It seemed remarkable that Nature could suffer any living creature to bear such grief and not be dead.' Seeing him 'in state so grim', the narrator greets him, which prompts an outpouring of woe.The knight wonders why 'his misery had not made him die'; his sorrows were so manifold and sharp, he says, they 'lay upon his heart ice-cold ... He'd almost lost his sanity.' Then, realising he is talking to a total stranger, he pulls himself together and greets him courteously.
Encouraged by the curious narrator, and thanking his 'gentle friend' for his 'kind intent', the knight opens his heart. Speaking kindly and frankly, 'without false style or sense of rank', and seeming approachable, wise and reasonable, he says he wishes he had not been born, that he weeps when he is alone, and that his days and nights are detestable, 'for I am sorrow, and sorrow is I'.
'My bliss is gone, my joy is lost for evermore,' he cries, 'and there exists no happiness.'Without revealing what tragedy has overtaken him, he tells the stranger how he had won the love of his lady, despite being rebuffed several times. He says he had fallen in love at a tender age, and that that love is with him still. He describes, in minute detail, his lady's beauty and virtues. 'I seem to see her evermore,' he declares. 'She was my hap, my heal and all my bliss ... While I live, I'll evermore remember her.' Eventually, the narrator asks, 'Where is she now?' 'She is dead!' comes the bitter reply.
There is no more to be said; 'all was done', and the hunters can be heard approaching. A bell strikes, and the narrator awakens to find it was all a dream. But the outpouring of memories of the cherished one who had gone and the love she shared with the man in black would have been cathartic in itself for John of Gaunt, and hopefully helped him come to terms with his grief, which was surely Chaucer's intention.
The voice in which Chaucer narrates the poem is unusually emotional; clearly the death of the young Duchess had hit him hard too, occasioning genuine sympathy for the bereft widower. The social gulf between the griever, the King's son, and the comforter, the King's esquire, is apparent in the formal, deferential and tentative manner in which the narrator approaches the man in black, but their easy discourse suggests an established rapport between two men who already knew, liked and respected each other. Some commentators have claimed that The Boke of the Duchesse is purely a poem in the French poetic tradition, and does not bear much relation to real events, but that is perhaps too narrow a view, for why should Chaucer have used all those allusions and puns to make it very clear to his readers that 'the man in black' was in fact the grief-stricken Duke of Lancaster?'6Furthermore, in the prologue to a later work of Chaucer's, The Legend of Good Women, reference is made to his having written a poem originally entitled The Death of Blanche the Duchess. What could be clearer than that?
There may have been another reason for the emotional tone of the poem. In it, Chaucer intriguingly - and very obliquely - reveals that for eight years he has suffered a secret and unrequited desire for an unnamed lady. Only she can cure him of his 'malady', but 'that hope is gone'. Therefore he knows, from personal experience, what loss is. 'It must be endured,' he says.
Historians have endlessly speculated who this lady was, some even claiming it was Blanche herself, which was certainly possible in those days when the conventions of courtly love permitted esquires to conceive passions for high-born ladies far above them and beyond their reach; and the reference to his hope being gone might refer to the death of his revered lady. If so, Chaucer had first fallen for her charms around 1360, soon after her marriage to John of Gaunt. Such a theory would account for Chaucer's obscure wording of this passage, since he could never have dared publicly to confess such a love. And it would explain the emotional tone and empathy of the poem. Never again would Chaucer refer to himself in the guise of a lover.
Grief-stricken he might be, but political advantage dictated that John of Gaunt could not be allowed to remain a widower for long. He was too great a prize in the matrimonial market, and Blanche had not been in her grave two months before Edward III and Queen Philippa opened negotiations for a second marriage for their son. In November, John was proposed as a husband for Margaret, heiress to Louis III, Count of Flanders, a match that would have brought him a principality and provided England with a buffer state against the hostility of France. It was an irresistible prospect, and one on which John, however tragic his grief, could not have turned his back. But the Count rejected the offer, preferring to court the French, and in 1369 Margaret was married to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, brother of the French King Charles V.
It has been credibly suggested that Chaucer probably wrote the 1,334 lines of The Boke of the Duchesse before these negotiations were opened, rapidly polishing off his masterpiece in the short weeks between his return from France and an approach being made to Flanders.' The intense immediacy and poignancy of the poem, and its consolatory aspects, suggest that it was indeed composed in the desolate aftermath of Blanche's death. John Stow claims - perhaps basing his information on sources that are now lost to us — that it was written at John of Gaunt's request, which is possible; however, there is no contemporary evidence for this, or any record of the poem being dedicated or presented to the Duke. Claims that it was written for recital at one of the annual memorial services for Blanche may be a little far-fetched, considering its length and the fact that no one ever remarked upon this unusual addition to the ceremonies.
We may, however, be almost certain that the poem was intended for private circulation within the Lancastrian household and even in the court itself, for three copies have survived, which suggests there were more made; furthermore, the reference to the poem in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women indicates that it had attained some fame. It would certainly have been known to the members of Chaucer's own family, and it was possibly thanks to Chaucer's kinship to Katherine Swynford, as much as to his links to the court, that he learned of the magnitude of John's grief. Who else but Katherine would have been so well placed to tell him about it? Unless, of course, it was the Duke himself and the poem is based on a real-life conversation that Chaucer set within a dream sequence to comply with contemporary literary conventions. Chaucer, as Pearsall points out, was a mere esquire at this time; he would surely not have presumed to write this intimate poem dealing with such private matters without some indication that it would be well received by the mighty Duke of Lancaster. The interaction between the two characters in the poem suggests that, whether the Duke commissioned it or not, there was a rapport between him and Chaucer, and an element of patronage involved on his part. Yet whatever the circumstances in which the poem was composed, it does convincingly convey the deep and anguished grief that John of Gaunt undoubtedly suffered for Blanche of Lancaster.
In 1369, there was a third outbreak of the Black Death. It began in March, the same month that Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile, was ambushed and murdered by Enrique of Trastamara at Montiel. Instead of being decently chested and buried, the body was decapitated and left unburied, which outraged Castilian sensibilities; it was several days before the head was sent to Seville for public exhibition and the body interred. Immediately afterwards, Enrique II usurped the throne, ignoring the legitimate rights of Pedro's two surviving daughters — Beatrice had taken the veil and died in1368. Constance, the eldest, now succeeded her father as de jure Queen of Castile, but she and her sister Isabella were still in exile at Bayonne in Gascony as hostages of the Black Prince, and there seemed little prospect of her ever enforcing her claim to the Castilian throne and the crown Pedro had bequeathed to her.
Only a week after Pedro's murder, Charles V of France, having rejected the Treaty of Bretigny, declared war on England. Late in May, the French clawed back all the land held by the English in Ponthieu, and began amassing a great invasion force. In retaliation, in Parliament, an incensed Edward III again assumed the tide King of France. This fresh outbreak of hostilities was to impact hugely on the lives of Katherine, Hugh and John of Gaunt. On 12 June - at a time when the plague had hit London and the court had taken refuge at Windsor — the Duke was appointed King's Captain and Lieutenant in Calais, Guisnes and the surrounding country. This was his first independent command, and on 26 July, he arrived in Calais with an army in which Geoffrey Chaucer and probably Hugh Swynford were serving, and spent August and September campaigning in France.
When John sailed from England, he left his mother, Queen Philippa, 'dangerously sick' with what was described as a dropsy; she seems to have been seriously ill for some time before then, since her tomb effigy had been ordered prior to January I368. Among those in attendance on her at Windsor was Philippa Chaucer. On 10 March 1369, along with fifteen other damoiselles, Philippa had received furs and cloth for a new gown, but there was little chance to appear in public richly clad, for by July the Queen was bedridden and needing the constant ministrations of her women. She died on 14 August, 'to the infinite misfortune of King Edward, his children and the whole kingdom'. 'I wring my hands, I clap my palms!' wrote an anguished Froissart, recalling also the death of Blanche of Lancaster a year earlier. 'I have lost too many in these two ladies.'
On 1 September, Edward III commanded Henry de Snaith, guardian of ‘our Great Wardrobe', to provide mourning garments for his family and the late Queen's servants. Among these were twelve ells of black cloth and some furs for little Blanche Swynford, who is described as a damoiselle of the daughters of the Duke of Lancaster; she received the same cloth and furs as were allocated to her young mistresses and other high-ranking ladies, which suggests that Queen Philippa had retained an affection for the family of Katherine de Roët, her young compatriot, whom she had brought up and seen well placed and honourably married, and that the King too was fond of Katherine, for Philippa Chaucer, who had been in the Queen's service for some years, received only six ells of cloth, while Chaucer got just three.25 As for Katherine, still perhaps sorrowing over the death of the Duchess Blanche, the loss of her kindly and inspirational guardian, who had acted as a mother to her, must have left her feeling bereft.
The news of the Queen's death hit John of Gaunt hard too, for he loved and honoured both his parents, and would still have been grieving for his late wife. Froissart tells us that 'information of this heavy loss was carried to the English army at Tournehem, which greatly afflicted everyone, more especially her son, John of Gaunt'. Until his death, John cherished 'a gold brooch in the old fashion, with the name of God inscribed on each part of it, which my most honourable lady mother, whom God preserve, gave to me, commanding me to guard it with her blessing'.
On 12 September, the first obit (a service marking the anniversary of a death) for the Duchess Blanche was solemnly observed at St Paul's, in the Duke's absence. Her anniversary would be celebrated every year for the rest of John's lifetime and beyond, further evidence of his love for her and his grief at her loss. Whenever he was unable to attend, the great officers of his household stood proxy for him. By September 1371, a chantry chapel had been established above Blanche's burial place in St Paul's, and soon afterwards an altar was built and two salaried chaplains appointed to celebrate daily masses for the repose of her soul.
In October, thanks to dwindling supplies, plague and the arrival of wintry weather, John of Gaunt was forced to abandon his French offensive. By the end of November, he was back at the Savoy, and Sir Hugh Swynford was probably riding north to Lincolnshire to attend to his estates and be reunited with his family.
John of Gaunt kept the Christmas of 1369 at Langley in Hertfordshire with his father the King; it must have been a sad time for the bereft royal family, with the late Queen still unburied. Philippa of Hainault's magnificent state funeral took place on 29 January1370, six months after her death - such things took time to arrange. Philippa and Geoffrey Chaucer would certainly have been there, and it may not be too fanciful to wonder if Katherine Swynford herself was among the mourners, for she had been brought up by the Queen, and was her countrywoman. After being drawn in procession through streets that had been specially cleared of mud and filth, Philippa's body was interred near the shrine of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, in earth brought to England from the Holy Land; a fine tomb was later built to her memory, with her lifelike effigy by a Netherlandish sculptor, Hennequin of Liege, resting upon it.
After the obsequies were completed, Katherine perhaps returned to Kettlethorpe. As Chaucer remained in service at court, her sister may have gone to live in his family house in London, with their growing family, for there was no place for her in the royal household now that the Queen was dead.
The political events of 1370 were to have a profound effect on Katherine's future, so it is worth leaving her at Kettlethorpe for the time being, and looking at what was happening in the wider world.
After Queen Philippa's death, things went badly for the ageing Edward III. In 1370, Aquitaine came under threat from Charles V, who had allied himself with Enrique II of Castile. The harsh rule of the Black Prince had driven his Gascon subjects to appeal to the French King for aid, and as the Prince's overlord, CharlesV had summoned him to Paris to account for his cruelties, but he was too ill to comply. In retaliation, the French closed in on the Duchy.
Again John of Gaunt raised an army, this time to assist his brother in repelling the invader, and once more Sir Hugh Swynford was summoned to attend his lord. Did Katherine have a presentiment, as she saw him off on his way to join the Duke at Plymouth, that she would never see her husband again? She had perhaps often entertained fears of this kind, for war was a dangerous business, and those who escaped death at the hands of the enemy often perished as a result of the dysentery and disease that could decimate armies.
John of Gaunt's fleet sailed at the end of June, and once again, Geoffrey Chaucer was with it, in company with his brother-in-law, Hugh Swynford.
John would have been shocked at the change in his once-magnificent brother, who was waiting for him at Cognac. The Black Prince was virtually bedridden, suffering from what Froissart calls 'an incurable illness', the malady that had laid him low for three years now, since he had contracted amoebic dysentery in Castile. He could no longer ride a horse, and it was reported to Charles V that he had a dropsy from which he could never recover. Modern medical opinion holds that this was symptomatic of nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys that causes swollen legs, ankles, eyes and genitals, due to a build-up of fluid. The Prince's condition, and the humiliation and frustration engendered by weakness and helplessness, had turned him into an embittered man.
On 24 August, the city of Limoges voluntarily - and treasonably — surrendered to the French. The Black Prince's fury was lethal, his retribution savage. He laid siege to the city, and when the walls were breached on 18 September, ordered it to be sacked, directing that neither man, woman nor child be spared. The carnage went on relentlessly for two days, as the invalid Prince watched from a horse-litter, urging his men to ever-worse atrocities. Soon the ruined streets were piled high with hundreds of corpses and running with blood. Never again would Edward of Woodstock's glorious reputation shine as fair.
John of Gaunt was present at the fall of Limoges, in command of the English forces during the siege, and it was as a result of his brave efforts that the city capitulated. Froissart implies that John supported his brother in inflicting the atrocities that were committed after the siege: 'I do not understand how they [author's italics] could have failed to take pity on people who were too unimportant to have committed treason,' he opined, 'yet they paid for it, and paid more dearly than the leaders who had committed it.' But Froissart may not be correct — he certainly exaggerated by tenfold the number slaughtered — for afterwards, it was thanks to John's intervention that the bishop who had surrendered Limoges to the French was able to escape the Black Prince's vengeance.
After Limoges, the Prince realised he no longer had the strength to govern his principality, and reluctantly decided to relinquish his command to his brother. On 8 October, referring to 'the very great affection and. love' he cherished for John, he created him Lord of Bergerac and Roche-sur-Yon,3' and three days later, surrendered to him the lieutenancy of Aquitaine. His burden laid down, he retired to Bordeaux.
In January 1371, the Prince's physicians urged him to return to his native air of England without delay, if he wished to preserve his life. His misery was compounded, that same month, by the death of his five-year-old heir, Edward of Angouleme, at Bordeaux. Yet so ill was the Prince that the bereaved parents dared not let even their terrible grief delay their departure. Leaving John of Gaunt to arrange their child's burial, the Prince and Princess returned to England with their surviving son Richard at the end of January. When they made land in Devon, they were obliged to rest for five weeks before the Prince could face the journey to Berkhamsted Castle, and when they arrived there, he took to his bed. From that time, he was a broken man.
For the next six months, John of Gaunt ruled Aquitaine, holding it successfully against the French. Then, in July, in accordance with the terms of his office, he relinquished his command and handed over his authority to Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch. The Duke now had his sights on a richer prize than Aquitaine. The daughters of Pedro the Cruel, Queen Constance and her sister Isabella, had remained in exile under the protection of first the Black Prince and then John of Gaunt, consigned to a humble existence in a village near Bayonne. Their position was an invidious one, for although royal, they were outcasts from their homeland, dependent on the charity of the English, whom their father had betrayed, and surrounded only by a few of their own people. 'The girls had suffered considerably, on account of which they were the objects of great pity.' Now all that was to change.
On 10 August, John of Gaunt took up residence at Bordeaux, the capital of the Duchy. English princes sojourning in Bordeaux resided in the ancient Ombriere Palace, in which the royal apartments were located beyond the Porte Cailhau in a tall keep known as 'the Crossbowman', which was surrounded by courtyards with tiled fountains and beautiful semi-tropical gardens. Once settled in this beautiful place, John gave some thought as to what should become of Constance and Isabella, with whom he must have had a passing acquaintance over the years. He was well aware that Constance had been willed the throne of Castile by her father, King Pedro, and was regarded as its legitimate queen by his followers. All she lacked was someone to take up her cause, and John knew that for the man who could successfully do so, there would be rich prizes indeed.
Some time during that sun-drenched summer of 1371, Guichard d'Angle, Marshal of Aquitaine and a trusted friend, diplomat and member of the Duke's council, who had been held prisoner by Enrique of Trastamara for two years, made the suggestion that John of Gaunt himself marry Constance and claim the crown of Castile in her right, a suggestion he would surely not have made without knowing that the idea was already in John's mind, and perhaps in Edward III's too. The Gascon barons backed the proposal. Such a union made good political sense: not only would it bring John a throne and a kingdom, which he had perhaps long desired, but it would also break the alliance between Castile and France, an alliance that was posing a very real threat to England and her chances of winning the war. The proposal 'pleased [the Duke] so well that he sent without delay four of his knights for the young ladies'.37
For Constance, regaining her throne and laying King Pedro's bones properly to rest in his native earth appear to have been sacred duties, for she cherished the memory of her father. Her strong loyalty is perhaps reflected in Chaucer's generous portrayal of Pedro in 'The Monk's Tale', and we may suppose that the poet was used to hearing all about the murdered king's virtues and death from his wife Philippa, who in turn must have heard it again and again from Constance, whom she was to serve for years. Thus, ignoring the more brutal realities of Pedro's rule and character, Chaucer could write:
O noble, O worthy Pedro, glory of Spain, Whom Fortune held so high in majesty, Well ought men thy piteous death complain!
Mindful that her father had long desired his daughters to be married to sons of Edward III, Constance accepted the Duke of Lancaster's proposal with alacrity, confident that such a great prince would be successful in helping her achieve her cherished aims. Realistically, though, that was a remote prospect, for with the backing of France, Enrique of Trastamara had become even more entrenched in Castile.
Constance was in every way an ideal choice of royal bride: she was young, beautiful and devout, and she brought to the marriage the promise of a kingdom. Her tragic plight appealed to John's sense of chivalry: Guichard d'Angle had played on that when he pointed out that marrying her 'would offer comfort and aid to these girls, daughters of a King, who are forced by circumstances to live in their present state'. It was these words that had 'softened the heart of the Duke'. Yet Constance was no stereotypical maiden in distress: for all her youth — she was seventeen — she had her father's pride, his singularity of purpose and tenacity, and the passionate, grieving love that only an exile can feel for his or her native land.
We have only two surviving manuscript pictures of Constance: one is in a late-fifteenth-century manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, and shows her with John of Gaunt at the surrender of Compostela in 1386. The other appears in a genealogy executed between 1493 and 1519showing the descent of the royal House of Portugal, which includes members of the family of John of Gaunt: Constance wears a red velvet gown with a full skirt and blue kirtle typical of Castilian dress of that later period, and an anachronistic horned headdress. Her hair is black, parted and looped either side of the face in the style that would be favoured by Queen Isabella of Castile, and her features are florid, with a long nose. This illustration may have been based on one in an older manuscript that has been lost, for the headdress is partly of the fourteenth century.
Constance and John were married on 21 September 1371 at Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, a small town nestling on terraces on the side of a rocky outcrop near Mont-de-Marsan in the Aveyron, just south of Bordeaux; since the first century BC, the distinctive Roquefort cheese had been produced there and matured in the local caves. John's wedding gift to Constance was a gold cup 'fashioned in the manner of a double rose with a pedestal and lid, with a white dove on the lid', while Constance gave him the finest gold cup he ever possessed.43 It would be no exaggeration to say that from the day of their marriage, the conquest of Castile would be the major preoccupation of John's life.
On 25 September, after some brief celebrations in Bordeaux, the Duke and his new Duchess arrived at the port of La Rochelle, and there requisitioned a salt ship bound for England, obliging the master to offload his cargo to make room for their retinue and chattels.45 John was attended by a train of Castilian knights wearing the Lancastrian livery, and Constance by a bevy of Castilian ladies. They docked at Fowey, near Plymouth, on 4 November, and rested at Plympton Priory from 10 to 14 November. Two days later, the Duke and Duchess had moved on to Exeter, where they offered 20s. £335) in the cathedral. John then left Constance and rode to London to make ready for her arrival; he was in residence at the Savoy, and reunited with his three children, by the end of the month, when he went 'to report to the King'. Then in December, after paying his respects at Blanche's tomb in St Paul's, he travelled down to Kingston Lacy in Dorset, where he and his bride kept Christmas, feasting on venison and rabbits.
John was back at the Savoy by 22 January, having arranged for Constance to journey up to London at her leisure. Her long sojourn in the West Country had perhaps been necessitated by her suffering the discomforts and sickness of early pregnancy.
Hugh Swynford had not accompanied his lord back to England. He died 'beyond seas' in Aquitaine on the Thursday after St Martin', 13 November 1371. The fact that he did not follow the Duke north in September argues that he was already too ill to do so. The news of his death would have taken some weeks to reach Katherine, but probably arrived in time for her to spend a dismal Christmas facing up to early widowhood and the prospect of bringing up her children alone on a pittance, for Hugh's finances and affairs had been left in little better shape than they had been when she married him.
The mediaeval church at Kettlethorpe has long since largely disappeared, and with it any fourteenth-century tombs and memorials, so there is no way of knowing whether Hugh's body was brought back to England and interred there, but given his parlous financial state, he may well have been buried in Aquitaine.52 Whether he was laid to rest in Kettlethorpe Church or not, a requiem mass would surely have been held there for him, with Katherine in attendance.
Katherine was only about twenty-one when she was widowed, yet custom required her to put on nun-like mourning garments consisting of a black gown and cloak and a white wimple; the constricting barbe that covered the chin and spread like a cape across the shoulders mercifully had not yet come into fashion. She would wear these weeds until the expiration of her first year of widowhood, after which she might remarry with propriety.
It would appear that John of Gaunt came to her rescue, and that, learning of her plight, and doubtless recalling her good service to Blanche, he invited her to serve his second Duchess in a similar capacity. Philippa Chaucer, likewise redundant because of the death of a royal mistress, was also appointed to serve Constance as one of her many married damoiselles; on 30 August 1372, at Sandwich, John of Gaunt awarded her an annuity of £10 (£3,347) 'by our especial grace for the good and agreeable service that our well-beloved damoiselle Philippa Chaucer has done, and will do in the future, for our very dear and well-loved companion the Queen'.
There is no record of Katherine being in Constance's household until March 1373, but given the fact that the King and John of Gaunt were helping her financially in the spring of 1372, and her being in attendance when Constance bore a child probably in the summer of that year, it is likely that she was engaged with her sister when the Duchess's establishment was set up between January and April. Katherine's former experience as a long-term, much-loved member of the Duchess Blanche's household would have left her uniquely qualified to serve the young Constance, and the fact that she was chosen to convey news of the birth of Constance's child to the King suggests that her position was of some prominence.
Philippa Chaucer's appointment to the Lancastrian menage while her husband remained in royal service, and the fact that she was now to be often resident at Hertford Castle or Tutbury Castle, and would remain with the Duchess for some years to come, meant that henceforth she and Geoffrey would see much less of each other. This may be a further indication that their marriage was unhappy and also that Philippa had done with child-bearing. Having spent most of her life at court, she probably preferred the social cachet conferred on her by her return to royal service to living in obscurity as the wife of a royal esquire; she had perhaps not liked living in London, where foreigners were regarded with suspicion and even hostility. Chaucer himself may have welcomed this new arrangement with amicable resignation, seeing his wife when their duties permitted and agreeing to pool their financial resources; from 1374, he went in person to collect Philippa's pension from the Exchequer."
On 30 January, Edward Ill's council formally recognised John of Gaunt as King of Castile and Leon; from henceforth, John would be known as 'Monseigneur d'Espaigne' rather than 'Monseigneur de Lancaster'; he would sign his letters in regal Castilian style as Nos el Roy ('We, the King') and his seal would bear the royal arms of Castile and Leon impaling those of England. John would now be deferred to as if he were a reigning sovereign, and the etiquette observed at his court would have reflected this.
John's zeal for winning a foreign kingdom for himself was to cost him much trust and popularity in England, where people suspected him of disloyalty to the Crown and speculated that his ambitions might not be satisfied with the throne of Castile. Unlike him, many lacked the foresight to see that with an English king reigning in a friendly Castile, France would lose a valuable ally, Castilian naval raids would cease, and England's chances of achieving some success in the war would be vastly improved. Furthermore, for many years to come, John was to subordinate his dynastic ambitions in order to give priority to prosecuting the war with France on England's behalf, and not only because there was no money to pay for an offensive against Castile. Only time would prove that his loyalty to the English Crown was never in doubt, but to many of the xenophobic and increasingly nationalistic commons, to whom all foreigners were 'strangers' and therefore suspect, he was at best pursuing personal aggrandisement, and at worst a traitor.
This would not have mattered so much had not John become the chief influence over the King. Because of Edward Ill's escalating physical and mental decline, the Black Prince's infirmity and the death of Lionel of Antwerp in 1368, John was now the most important and powerful man in the realm. It was to him that men looked for political leadership, at a time when England's great victories against the French were long past and the war was going disastrously. There were frequent enemy raids on the south coast and consequently disruptions to trade, while a population ravaged by plague was increasingly burdened with the crippling taxes that were needed to pay for the war. At the same time, Edward Ill's once-brilliant court was degenerating into corruption. It would not be long before both lords and commons looked about them for a scapegoat and pointed a finger at John of Gaunt. Hence he would become widely hated throughout the kingdom, and that would ultimately have repercussions for Katherine herself.
John's unpopularity was unfairly linked in the public mind to that of the King's mistress, Alice Perrers, the married daughter of a Hertfordshire knight, who was now queening it over the court. Edward had first taken her to his bed perhaps as early as 1364, when she was one of Queen Philippa'sdamoiselles and soon, despite her not being beautiful and lacking a good figure, 'Alice had been preferred in the King's love before the Queen'. Since Philippa's death, Alice had gained ascendancy over her royal lover, who was now descending into a child-like dotage and was rarely seen in public; claims that his decline resulted from the gonorrhoea with which she had infected him have never been substantiated. She bore her royal lover a son and two daughters, and over the years wheedled out of him jewellery worth at least £375 (£105,723), an annuity of £100 (£28,193),twenty-two manors, land in seventeen counties and a London townhouse. It is not surprising therefore that she has been seen as the model for the acquisitive and corrupt Lady Meed in William Langland's poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman:
I ... was ware of a woman, wonderfully clad,
Her robe fur-edged, the finest on Earth,
Crowned with a crown, the King hath no better,
Fairly her fingers were fretted with rings,
And in the rings red rubies, as red as a furnace,
And diamonds of dearest price, and double sapphires,
Sapphires and beryls, poison to destroy.
Her rich robe of scarlet dye,
Her ribbons set with gold, red gold, rare stones;
Her array ravished me: such riches saw I never.
By 1372, Alice's reputation was notorious; she was shameless, rapacious and ruthless, and exploited to the full her dominance over the senile King. She persuaded him to let her wear the queen consort's jewels, presided with him over a tournament in Smithfield, decked out as the 'Lady of the Sun', controlled the flow of royal patronage to the benefit of her favourites, and caused outrage by overseeing the proceedings at the Court of King's Bench in Westminster Hall from the sovereign's marble throne, intervening to secure favourable judgements for her friends. 'This Lady Alice de Perrers had such power and eminence that no one dared prosecute a claim against her.'The public were scandalised, and some accused Alice of using witchcraft to achieve her aims, as they were one day to accuse Katherine Swynford. 'It is not fitting or safe that all the keys should hang from the belt of one woman,' fulminated Thomas Brinton, Bishop of Rochester, while Thomas Walsingham castigated Alice as 'a shameless doxy','an infamous whore' and 'a thoroughly bad influence'. Alice's career illustrates just how influential — and ruinous to a prince's reputation — a royal mistress could be, a salutary lesson from which Katherine Swynford's conduct when she herself came to be a royal mistress suggests she had learned much.
Before Alice Perrers, the mistresses of English kings had made only fleeting appearances in history. Their names are more often than not the stuff of legend or passing references in official documents, and none was particularly influential. Even fair Rosamund de Clifford, for whom Henry II planned to divorce Eleanor of Aquitaine in the twelfth century, played a passive role. Prior to the fourteenth century, such women lived obscure lives, enjoying brief liaisons with monarchs, bearing royal bastards and occasionally meriting a mention in a chronicle.
But Alice Perrers broke the mould. With Edward III's blessing and the backing of her allies, William, Lord Latimer, John, Lord Neville of Raby and the powerful London financier, Richard Lyons, she controlled not only access to the King, but also the flow of royal patronage, and thus secured for herself a position of the greatest influence. John of Gaunt may not have liked her, but along with many other eminent figures of the day, including the Pope himself, he respected her abilities and tolerated her for his father's sake - indeed, he was later to protest that he was powerless in the face of her hold over the King — and in May 1373 we find her serving the Duchess Constance alongside Philippa Chaucer at the Savoy, and receiving gifts from the Duke.’8
On 10 February 1372, Constance made her state entry into London and was formally welcomed as Queen of Castile by the Black Prince, who had risen from his sickbed and struggled onto a horse for the occasion.
He was accompanied by 'several lords and knights, the Mayor of London and a great number of the commons, well-dressed and nobly mounted', who conducted the new Duchess 'through London in a great and solemn procession. In Cheapside were assembled manygentlemen with their wives and daughters to look at the beauty of the young lady' This statement suggests that Constance's physical charms were already renowned.59 'The procession passed in good order along to the Savoy', where John of Gaunt was waiting to greet his wife. The Black Prince's welcome gift to his sister-in-law was a golden brooch or pendant depicting St George, adorned with sapphires, diamonds and pearls, while the King presented her with a golden crown set with diamonds and pearls.
Soon afterwards, Constance took up residence at Hertford Castle, where her three Lancastrian stepchildren were sent to join her; in 1372, they shared a common chamber, or household, for which their father allocated 300 marks (£33,471) annually to cover their expenditure. Henceforth, they would be attended and attired as befitted the children of a king. The appointment of Alyne Gerberge as a damoiselle to Constance suggests that she was still looking after Philippa of Lancaster. By now, Katherine Swynford and Philippa Chaucer were probably also part of the Duchess's household, and both are likely to have had their children with them. Once again, Katherine's duties probably involved helping to care for the ducal children, who must have known her well, and had perhaps welcomed her back warmly.
In March and April 1372, John of Gaunt made a generous settlement on his wife, assigning her 1,000 marks (£11,569) per annum for the expenses of her wardrobe and chamber. He also presented her with costly gifts: rich furs, lengths of cloth of gold, nearly four thousand loose pearls (probably for embellishing her gowns and making buttons), a small circlet of gold encrusted with emeralds and balas rubies, a golden filet set with four balas rubies, and twenty-one pearls set in gold rubies. All were delivered by the Clerk of the Wardrobe to Alyne Gerberge.
This was no more than any royal duke would be expected to do for his bride. But John's generosity might have been prompted by his conscience, for despite his recent marriage, he had taken a mistress: on 1 May 1372, at the Savoy, he gave Katherine Swynford the handsome sum of £10£3.347), his first recorded gift to her. This and other evidence strongly suggests that the love affair that was to change the course of English history had begun.
We do not know for certain when John and Katherine became lovers, but their affair had certainly begun by the late spring of 1372. In determining the date of the birth of John Beaufort, the first of the children born to them, we may also discover the likeliest date for the commencement of their relationship. According to the grant of an annuity made to him by Richard II on 7 June 1392, John Beaufort was then in his twenty-first year; thus he was supposedly born between June 1371 and June 1372. But the dates are problematical. John of Gaunt went to Aquitaine in late June 1370,and did not return until November 1371. To have been born within the stated period, John Beaufort would have to have been conceived between September 1370 and September 1371; however, his father was abroad for the whole of that period, and in September 1371 he married Constance of Castile.
It could be conjectured that Katherine had joined Hugh Swynford overseas, once it was known that he expected to be in Aquitaine for some time, and that the attraction between her and John of Gaunt flourished in the south of France. But that is an unlikely scenario. The wives of soldiers rarely accompanied them abroad; only laundresses and prostitutes followed armies, and any other woman who did so was putting her reputation at risk. And Katherine was the wife of a landed knight, however poor; her task during his absence was to oversee his estates in England and rear their young family.
Even if Katherine had been in Aquitaine with Hugh, there is virtually watertight evidence that her affair with John did not begin until after she was widowed. In John and Katherine's petition to the Pope of 1 September 1396, they asserted that some time after John had stood godfather to Katherine's daughter, 'the same Duke John adulterously knew the same Katherine, she being free of wedlock [author's italics], but with marriage still existing between the same Duke John and [his wife] Constance, and begot offspring of her'.68 The compelling reasons for accepting the statements in this letter as the truth have been previously stated, and therefore we must accept that Katherine was no longer married to Hugh when she became John's mistress and conceived a child by him, although he was already married to Constance.
That means that they could not have become lovers until November 13 71 at the earliest, and it makes a nonsense of claims that they had begun their affair in the lifetime of the Duchess Blanche, and of Froissart's assertions that Katherine 'had been mistress of the Duke both before and after his marriage with the Princess Constance' and while Hugh Swynford was alive. 'Both during and after the knight's lifetime [he claims] Duke John of Lancaster had always loved and maintained this Lady Katherine.' Since Froissart incorrectly states in the same passage that John and Katherine had three children, not four, his sources can hardly have been reliable. He was, after all, writing long after these events.
John and Katherine's statement to the Pope also exposes as blatant propaganda Richard Ill's proclamation of 1485, which was designed to impugn the claim to the throne of his rival, Henry Tudor, who was descended from John of Gaunt through John Beaufort: Richard asserted that Henry 'was descended of bastard blood both of the father's side and of the mother's side ... His mother was daughter unto John [Beaufort], Duke of Somerset, son unto John [Beaufort], Earl of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of her in double [author's italics] adultery begotten, whereby it evidently appeareth that no tide can or may be in him.' Richard conveniently ignored the fact that he himself was descended from John of Gaunt through Katherine Swynford.
It is very unlikely that Katherine was at the Savoy when John returned there in November 1371. It is more probable that she came to his remembrance when he heard of the death of Hugh Swynford, which was perhaps what prompted him to find a place for her in his new wife's household. It was quite possible for the news of Hugh's death to have reached England in little over two weeks — in 1386, it took John of Gaunt sixteen days to sail from England to Spain.The Duke must have heard of it by late January, when he was back at the Savoy and probably engaged in assembling a household for his wife, ready for her arrival in London. Since Hugh was his retainer and vassal, John would have naturally taken an interest in his widow and dependants, and the disposal of his estates, and it would have been quite legitimate for Katherine to inform him of the dire financial straits in which she now found herself, and appeal to him for aid.
He had probably not seen Katherine for about three years, and maturity and vulnerability may have made her appear more beautiful and alluring; she must, for him, have had too those indefinable qualities known as charm and sex appeal. Was it her fair Hainaulter beauty that appealed to him? Did it remind him of the 'full feminine visage' of his mother, Queen Philippa, or the white-blonde rounded loveliness of his late wife Blanche, or the charms of Marie de St Hilaire, another Hainaulter? If these are indicative of John's taste in women, then the theory that Katherine herself was fair and voluptuous appears even more credible. Certainly for John, Katherine's extraordinary beauty eclipsed the charms of Constance. But even if the first attraction was physical, the enduring nature of his love for her must have been rooted in far more than beauty and sex, for she was intelligent, cultivated and accomplished, and could thus share in his sophisticated tastes and interests. Theirs must have been what Shakespeare later called 'a marriage of true minds'.
Much of what Katherine saw in John is obvious: he was royal, authoritative and powerful, a heady and sexy combination, especially when combined with aristocratic good looks, a tall, lean and muscular body, a cultivated mind and an attractive personality. More than that, he was a man who knew about love, and who had been brought up to treat women chivalrously and with respect.
John had not found love with his bride. There is no way of knowing whether they were incompatible from the start, or if Katherine's appearance in John's life so early in the marriage put paid to any chance of him growing closer to Constance. For despite its auspicious beginnings, John's second marriage appears never to have been particularly happy. There is no evidence of any real love or affection between him and his wife, just mutual courtesy and respect, and although Constance was beautiful, she does not seem to have inspired any passion in her husband. In fact, the young Duchess, far from dwelling on thoughts of love, was more probably consumed with a deep hatred for the usurper who had murdered her father and seized his throne, and apparently saw her husband chiefly as a means of regaining it. She does not seem to have made much attempt to integrate in England, and was rarely at court; in her youth, she had led a narrow, miserable existence, and even after her marriage, although she kept regal state, she preferred to live in seclusion with her Castilian ladies in the Spanish manner, residing mainly at the Duke's magnificent castles at Hertford and Tutbury,7’ biding her time until she could return to her native Castile. Perhaps she found the English climate uncongenial, or the people strange and unintelligible. Communication with her husband was probably inhibited by the fact that she spoke little English and he only limited Castilian: seventeen years after their marriage, he had difficulty in following an oration in that language. Not that they would have had much in common, apart from Castile, for unlike Katherine, Constance was more pious than accomplished. All John seems to have shared with her was a burning ambition to regain her throne, and thus he would often defer to her judgement when it came to Castilian affairs. In every other respect, he belonged to Katherine Swynford.
Katherine, by contrast, had a shared history with the Duke; having lived in his household for many years, in attendance on his wife and children, she probably knew him quite well, and she had witnessed his devotion to Blanche, whom she herself seems to have loved and revered. Possibly the recall of those happy times created a shared bond between Katherine and John; each had memories to treasure, and the poignant remembrance of grief. But it was now more than three years since Blanche's death, long enough for her widower to have recovered sufficiently to love again.
John's early experience of love and his happy first marriage would have awakened him to the joy to be found in sharing his private fife with a responsive woman, and we may see his need for Katherine as a tribute to Blanche, and perhaps an attempt to recreate the idyllic domestic joys of his youth. And the fact that Katherine was a Hainaulter, and possibly a distant relative, was probably an added bond: John himself was half-Hainaulter through his mother, and throughout his life was to demonstrate that affinity by showing friendship to the Low Countries.
The most probable theory is that Katherine and John became lovers soon after she moved into Constance's household in the spring of 1372, when he was thirty-two and she about ten years younger, and helping to look after his children. In this context, Armitage-Smith's delightfully Edwardian suggestion that the Duke's visits to the nursery facilitated a rapidly growing intimacy may be accurate. The speed with which the supposedly grieving widow fell into John's bed suggests that her marriage had never been much more than a convenient arrangement, and that her sorrow for Hugh did not run deep. After all, she had not seen him during the sixteen months before his death, during which time she may well have grown used to living without him. And we might also wonder if Katherine had for yean cherished a secret, unvoiced desire for John.
After his grant of 1 May 1372, there is further evidence of John's interest in 'our very dear damoiselle Katherine de Swynford', and his concern for her financial problems, a concern that was far in excess of the usual consideration shown by an overlord to the widow of one of his knights. On15 May 1372, again at the Savoy, he generously increased her permanent annuity from the Duchy of Lancaster (which originally must have been awarded during or after her years in Blanche's household) from twenty marks(£2,231) to fifty (£5,578), on account of 'the good and agreeable service she has given to our dear companion [Blanche], whom God pardon, and for the very great affection that our said companion had for the said Katherine'.
When a vassal died leaving an under-aged heir and a widow provided with a dower, his estates and property were normally taken into the hands of his overlord, who would then administer them as he thought fit until the heir attained his majority; the wardship of that heir was assigned or sold to the person designated to raise him, and such arrangements could be very profitable for all concerned. Sir Hugh Swynford's estates had therefore reverted for the time being to the King and the Duke of Lancaster, but — unusually — both now broke with custom and acted swiftly to ameliorate Katherine's financial plight.
On 8 June, Edward III stepped in, doubtless at John's behest, and ordered his escheator to assign Katherine her dower, on condition she swore an oath not to marry without the King's licence; that dower was formally assigned on 26 June, after she had taken that oath. By this means, she gained control of Kettlethorpe during the minority of her son. On 20 June, at the Savoy, again on account of the 'good and agreeable service' she had rendered to Blanche, John granted 'our well-loved Lady Katherine' wardship of all the lands and tenements that her late husband had held of the Honour of Richmond in Lincolnshire, 'which is now held of us because of the minority of Thomas, son and heir of the said Sir Hugh'. Katherine was 'to have and hold' these lands 'with all the profits appertaining to them from us and our heirs till the full age of the said heir, with nothing to render to us or our heirs'. The only exceptions were the marriage fee due when Thomas took a wife, and 'what is due to the Church', which refers to Hugh's two advowsons, the right to appoint priests to the churches of Kettlethorpe and Coleby. Thus Katherine gained control of one third of the manor of Coleby.
On 23 June, John made Katherine a further gift of three bucks, which he had probably killed himself whilst hunting near Hertford, and on 28 June he ordered that she be provided with oaks from his estates, presumably so that she could undertake building repairs and improvements atKettlethorpe.
The Inquisition Post Mortem on Sir Hugh Swynford was taken soon after 25 April 1372 at Navenby, nine miles south of Lincoln, and on 24 June in Lincoln itself. Thomas Swynford, 'aged four years and more', was recognised as his father's heir, but Kettlethorpeand Coleby were still in a poor state and worth little or nothing. Again, Edward III and John of Gaunt came to Katherine's rescue. On 12 September 1372, in return for a fee of £20 (£6.694) to be paid at the Exchequer, the King granted Katherine the remaining two thirds of the manor of Coleby, and the marriage of her son until such time as he reached twenty-one.
Thanks to his influence over his father the King, and through his own generosity, John had provided handsomely for Katherine, ensuring her rights to the control of Hugh's estates and the disposition and upbringing of her son, and by granting her a substantial annuity. The bountiful care and consideration shown to Katherine by John of Gaunt and the King, and the speed with which her affairs were settled, is proof that she was very highly regarded in royal circles, and is also indicative of her being in regular contact with the Duke, as a member of his household and, indeed, probably much more than that. Ever a man to take his responsibilities seriously, John had done his best to ensure that she and her children did not suffer want, but there was more to his generosity than this: by the summer of 1372, Katherine was almost certainly expecting his child, and he no doubt wished to provide handsomely for them both.
Katherine was not the only woman who was to bear the Duke an infant: the Duchess Constance was also pregnant, and on 6 June, at the Savoy, her husband sent orders to Sir William de Chiselden, his receiver of Leicester, to send for 'Elyot the wise woman' ('wise woman' being a common term for a midwife) to attend 'our well-loved companion the Queen' at Hertford Castle 'with all the haste that in any manner you can'.85 Elyot had delivered one or more of Blanche of Lancaster's babies - John mentions in 1372 that she had attended 'our dearly loved companion, whom God keep in His command'; his reference to 'our well-beloved Elyot, midwife of Leicester', and the payment of an annuity to 'Eleyne, midwife' (who must be the same person) out of the revenues of Leicester in1377-8 suggest he had enduring confidence in her, for she was also to assist at at least one of Katherine Swynford's confinements.
John had sent to Chiselden his 'well-loved esquire' John Raynald, 'who will inform you fully of this matter' and who was to accompany Elyot to Hertford. Considerately, John stipulated that Chiselden was to order for her journey 'a chariot or a horse or any other manner that seems best to you for her ease'. The urgency implied in the Duke's commands suggests that the birth of Constance's child was reasonably imminent -he would have had to allow a week or more for his orders to reach Leicester and for Elyot to travel to Hertford — and that this pregnancy had resulted from the bride conceiving soon after her marriage in September, which would account for her remaining in Devon and Dorset from November to February, at that stage of pregnancy when morning sickness and debility are at their most troublesome. The date of her child's birth is not recorded, and since it was not until 31 March 1373 that Edward III rewarded Katherine Swynford with 20 marks (£2,231) for bringing news of it to him, several historians are of the opinion that the birth occurred nearer to that date. However, given the other circumstances, the fact that months could elapse before royal rewards were actually paid or recorded, and the delay in payment perhaps being accounted for by Katherine herself being absent from the Lancastrian household for some time due to her own pregnancy, it is more likely that Constance's child was born in the summer of 1372 at HertfordCastle. Gifts of wine were sent to Hertford that summer, and the Duke was there on 7 July, probably to see his new child.
Disappointingly — for the royal parents were doubtless anxious for a boy to inherit the crown that John meant to wrest from Enrique of Trastamara — the baby was a girl. She was named Katherine — or Catalina, as her mother called her, and as she would one day be known in Castile — and styled Katherine d'Espaigne. Her Christian name had never been used by the Castilian royal family, and was rare in the House of Plantagenet, so one is tempted to wonder if John of Gaunt chose it, and why. Was the choice prompted by Katherine Swynford, out of devotion to St Katherine?
Or was John himself so entranced with Katherine that he was blind to the implications of using her beloved name for the child his wife had borne him? Of course, the choice of name may have sprung from some other association entirely: St Katherine may have been one of Constance's favourite saints, as well as John's.
Katherine's conveyance of the news of Catalina's birth to the King suggests that she had been in attendance; having borne at least four children of her own at a young age, she would have been able to reassure and support Constance through her ordeal. But as soon as her own pregnancy became obvious, a pregnancy that could not have been her husband's doing, she would have been obliged to resign her post and return to Kettlethorpe.
The war with France was not going well at this time. The French were making inroads into Aquitaine and attacking Brittany. In June, at Hertford, in order to retain the friendship of a valuable ally against France, John surrendered the earldom of Richmond to John de Montfort, Duke of Brittany, in whose family it had previously been for centuries, receiving other lands in exchange. That same month, Edward III resolved on a naval offensive against France, whereupon, on 1 July, John undertook to serve overseas for a year.
John was probably at Wallingford Castle on 11 July, attending the marriage of his younger brother, Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge, to Constance's younger sister, Isabella of Castile, an alliance that had been arranged by John of Gaunt to bolster England's links with the future monarchy of Castile and to 'save [Isabella] from her enemies'. It was also seen as a way of preserving England's claims to Castile should Constance die in childbirth.
On the same day as the wedding of Edmund and Isabella, John of Gaunt summoned all his retainers to attend him on the coming campaign, and then went north for a few weeks' hunting in Leicester Forest before joining his army at Sandwich before 18 August. It was there, on 30 August, that he granted the annuity to Philippa Chaucer in recognition of her past and future services to the Duchess Constance. We might conclude that Philippa had been instrumental in helping her young mistress to settle in a strange land, and had perhaps assisted her during her pregnancy and confinement, and was helping to look after her baby; and we might wonder if John's grant to Philippa Chaucer was at Katherine's behest.
On 31 August, John sailed for Gascony with his father the King and the Black Prince. For Edward III and the Prince, this would be their last military adventure, and for Katherine and John, the first of many partings occasioned by the war. The expedition was a disaster, with ships smashed or blown off course by contrary winds and gales and many lives lost, and after two hellish storm-tossed months in the Channel, the remains of the fleet limped home, having accomplished nothing.
During John's absence, Katherine would have been preparing for her coming confinement. Her baby probably arrived in the winter of 13 72-3 ; by this reckoning, John Beaufort's age, as given in Richard II's grant of 1392, must be inaccurate. In which case, if Constance had given birth in the summer of 1372, Katherine's pregnancy would not then have been apparent; she had probably left the Duchess's household soon afterwards and returned to Kettlethorpe. Her child was perhaps born there: the delivery of oaks in June1372, on the Duke's orders, might have been intended for the refurbishment of the manor house, to make it a fit place in which Katherine could bear or rear his child; if the calculations above are correct, it would have been around June when her pregnancy became a certainty. It is possible though that Katherinc actually gave birth to this son in Lincoln, and that he was the child for whose baptism in February 1373 rich cloths were provided.
In childbed, Katherine had succeeded where Constance had failed, for she had borne a son, a boy who would be known as John Beaufort of Lancaster; he was named John for his father, with whom he was always to be 'a great favourite', and Beaufort after the lordship of Beaufort in Champagne, which had once been held by the Duke as part of his Lancastrian inheritance. In 1369, John of Gaunt had lost Beaufort to the French through the treachery of one of his vassals,99 thus it was a safe name to give to his bastard son by Katherine Swynford: it was a name associated with the Duke, yet the lordship was no longer part of, and could not therefore prejudice, the inheritance he would leave his lawful heir. It used often to be claimed that John's children by Katherine Swynford were born at Beaufort Castle, but that would not have been possible, for he had sold it years before, and had never visited it anyway.
John Beaufort's early years were probably spent at Kettlethorpe. The pattern of John's grants to Katherine, some of them concerning its refurbishment, some of them handsome gifts, may indicate the dates of birth of their other children, and certainly suggests that the manor was being made a fit place for them to be brought up in. Kettlethorpe was a remote village with a tiny population, an ideal setting for discreet confinements and the raising of royal bastards whose existence was better kept secret -at least for the present.
Certainly the lovers were discreet, at least to begin with — had they not been, the world would soon have known of their affair, and we would not have to rely on inference and speculation in determining the circumstances in which it began. Costain argues that it was Katherine who insisted on secrecy in the early years of the liaison — she was, after all, newly widowed - but there were political imperatives to be considered too: John would not have wished to openly dishonour his new wife when all his hopes were centred on claiming the crown of Castile in her right. Thus the need for discretion was probably mutual, and it ensured that for some years to come, his affair with Katherine was conducted in secrecy and with great circumspection.