Festive gifts from Henry of Bolingbroke to Katherine Swynford

In 1382 John of Gaunt formally disavowed himself of his long term mistress Katherine Swynford. They had been in a relationship for ten years and Katherine had given the duke four children. At the time of the Peasants’Revolt the previous year her youngest daughter, Joan, was a babe in arms.

In order to keep Katherine safe, Gaunt issued a quitclaim on 14 February 1382. It was an unusual Valentine as it essentially stated that neither of them owed one another anything – they were separate entities. All accounts between the couple were settled.

So that was that…in public at least. Gaunt continued to send Katherine gifts and to provide for his Beaufort family. It is of course possible that the couple continued their affair in secret. But the thing about a good secret – is that its a secret – and that rather puts a damper on historical evidence.

In the meantime Katherine continued to be a welcome guest in the household of Gaunt’s son Henry of Bolingbroke and his young wife Mary de Bohun. The gifts that Katherine received from Henry were rather impressive – silk gowns trimmed with miniver (unspotted white fur – think squirrels and stoats in winter); lengths of damask (expensive silks with a pattern created by the warp and the wet of the design originated in Damascus) and on one occasion a large diamond set in a gold ring. The gold ring is, of course the advent item in this post!

And being completely shameless, my latest book from Pen and Sword is probably more affordable than any of the items that Henry gifted to his not quite step-mother. Its on special offer from the publisher at the moment but I’m delighted to say its available from all good bookshops as well as the place that shares the same name as a very large South American river.

Julia A Hickey, Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women Who Slept with Kings and Princes, (Pen and Sword, 2022) –


Hunters and gatherers in Cresswell

Engraved bone depicting a horse, Cresswell Crags, http://teachinghistory100.org/objects/about_the_object/engraved_horse, British Museum

Here we are for the History jar advent calendar 2022 – where did the year go? It’s going to be a bit random this year but I will attempt to sneak something festive into each post – ok very tenuously- which is why we’re starting 800,000 years ago during the Ice Age which is well outside the History Jar’s usual remit.

For much of the ice Age, ice sheets several meters thick covered Derbyshire so people could not live in the area. These ice sheets covered much of the northern hemisphere – further south the conditions were more akin to the tundra of Siberia. However, as the ice sheets retreated the conditions became sub-Artic or if you want to call it by the right name periglacial. This resulted in very cold winters but milder summers. Occasional finds of flint hand axes show that people hunted in the area.

Thor’s Cave in the Manifold Valley – which is in Staffordshire rather than Derbyshire yielded stone tools, pots and amber beads when it was excavated by the Victorians and again during the 1920s. These finds are thought to come from the end of the Palaeolithic Period.

Even more spectacular are the limestone caves at Creswell Crags on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border which is believed to be among the most northerly of dwelling places during the last Ice Age. Finds included stone arrowheads, woolly mammoth bones, woolly rhinoceros and giant deer bones – yup- all this for giant deer –

Evidence suggests that hunters moved into the caves before the ice sheets advanced south and that the people who lived there were forced south themselves along with the rhinoceros, horse and bison that they hunted. They returned when the ice sheets retreated. Eventually the woolly mammoth and rhinoceros disappeared as the climate grew milder. Hunters relied on deer for their meat and the tools that archeologists have discovered changed as well.

The earliest British art comes from Cresswell Crags – the British Museum is home to a bone discovered here engraved with a drawing of a horse. The walls of Church Hole Cave contain marks that are deer and bison.

Whitaker, P.D. Early Settlement in Derbyshire

Katherine Swynford – mischievous woman and scandalous duchess in Lincoln Cathedral

Decoration from Vestments depicting the Katherine Wheel – worked by the Lincoln Embroiders Guild to show what these lost treasures may have looked like.

It’s impossible to separate Katherine Swynford from Lincoln Cathedral. I think its one of the reasons that I love the cathedral so much – aside from all the wonderful carvings. The more I look at the choir screen the more fantastic creatures I spot. Anyway, back to John of Gaunt’s mistress. She’s got a chapter in Medieval Royal Mistresses published by Pen and Sword.

John of Gaunt married three times: firstly to Blanche of Lancaster for title and wealth; secondly to Constanza of Castile – to claim the kingdom of Castile and Leon (it wasn’t a successful venture); and thirdly for love to his long time mistress Katherine Swynford.

Evidence that Katherine was married to Sir Hugh Swynford by 1365 can be found in the register of Lincoln Cathedral which was kept by the Lincoln Cathedral Chapter to record the gifts it received between 1304 and 1386. Katherine was probably 15 at most when she married Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe. He was some fifteen years older than his bride and part of John of Gaunt’s retinue. He was often absent on campaign. In 1366 he was sent to Gascony.

The Christmas, Katherine was with her mistress, Blanche of Lancaster, who was John of Gaunt’s first wife, in Bolingbroke for the festivities but in the new year she left Blanche who was pregnant with Gaunt’s son, Henry, to travel to Lincoln where she rented a house in the Cathedral Close. Katherine gave birth to Hugh’s heir, Thomas, at the end of February 1367. He was baptised at the Church of St Margaret of 25 February.

Hugh Swynford died five years later while absent on campaign. Katherine was still very young, perhaps only 21 years of age, but she was responsible for three young children. Fortunately she was able to secure her dower rights to Kettlethorpe and one third of the manor of Coleby. John of Gaunt made the family a gift of £10. The gift was the first of many recorded in his accounts. In time Katherine would be described as ‘very dear and beloved’. For now though she continued to divide her time between running her estates and working in the household of John of Gaunt’s second wife Constanza of Castile, Blanche having died in 1368. She is best remembered however for her role as governess in the household of Gaunt’s eldest daughter’s Elizabeth and Philippa. She also looked after Gaunt’s son Henry until he reached the age of six and was sent into the household of Lady Wake to continue his education.

By the end of 1372 Katherine and John of Gaunt were involved in an affair. Their eldest son John Beaufort was born the following year. By 1381 the affair was of ten years standing (or there abouts) and Katherine had given Gaunt four healthy children. her youngest child, Joan, was a babe in arms at the time of the Peasants Revolt which saw Katherine disappear from the written record. In the aftermath of the rebellion John renounced his mistress. The quitclaim of 1382 was an unusual Valentine’s gift but it distanced Katherine and her children from Gaunt.

Katherine returned to Lincoln. She rented a house in the Cathedral Close but left on occasion to visit John’s son Henry of Bolingbroke and his wife Mary de Bohun. Her son by Sir Hugh was part of Henry’s household. She continued to run her estates – she was fined in 1375 for not maintaining the Fossdyke at Kettlethorpe – and to be a part of the extended royal family. She was invited to become a Lady of the Garter by Richard II in April 1387 and was part of the congregation the previous month when the king and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, visited Lincoln Cathedral.

Katherine Swynford’s house – Pottergate, Lincoln

In 1386, Katherine’s sister Philippa Chaucer, Henry of Bolingbroke, Thomas Swynford, John Beaufort and Robert Ferrers who was shortly to become Joan Beaufort’s husband were admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral (Turner: p.125)

Constanza died in 1394. Lancaster was 56 years of age. On 13 January 1396 he married Katherine at Lincoln Cathedral having gained the necessary consent from the papacy to do so. Soon afterwards Katherine’s Beaufort children were legitimised by the papacy and by their cousin King Richard II by means of Letters Patent read out in Parliament.

Katherine, the daughter of a knight from Hainault, was the First Lady of the land and a scandalous one at that. But Lancaster’s health began to fail and his son, who was one of the Lords Appellants who sought to curb the power of Richard II’s favourites, was banished.

On 14 July 1398 Katherine’s son Henry was consecrated Bishop of Lincoln. He was translated to Winchester in 1404.

After Gaunt’s death, Henry returned from exile and claimed Richard’s throne for himself. As King Henry IV he granted Katherine 1,000 marks a years from the Duchy of Lancaster. She had retired to Lincoln where she maintained her close association with the cathedral. She gave them red velvet chasubles and orphreys decorated with golden leopards.

Katherine died on 10 May 1403. She was buried in the cathedral near the high altar. John of Gaunt was buried in Old St Paul’s next to his first wife Blanche of Lancaster. In November 1440 Katherine’s daughter Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland was buried near her mother. She was married Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Her eldest son Richard Neville, the 5th Earl of Salisbury would father another Richard – the so-called Kingmaker. His youngest daughter Anne was Richard III’s queen.

Before he died John of Gaunt arranged, in 1398, for a chantry to be built in the cathedral so that masses could be said for himself and for Katherine. Gaunt’s own links with Lincoln were of longstanding and dated from his first wedding to Blanche of Lancaster in 1362.

Hickey , Julia A., Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Princes and Kings

Turner, Marian, Chaucer a European Life

History’s lens –

Slaves waiting for sale, Eyre Crowe, 1861

There are lots of different ways of looking at history: social, political and economic to name but three. if you study medieval political history it will inevitably seem to be dominated by men. It’s only in more recent times that the lens of social history has altered some of the viewpoints that were a given in the past.

We also all apply our own filters to everything around us, so inevitably we do the same to historical events. We approach them from our own viewpoint and our own time.

And if you want, you can look at an event through a range of different lenses including historical significance; primary evidence and interpretation; continuity and change; cause and consequence; historical perspective; science; and ethical judgment Applying the lenses produces a deeper and, perhaps more accurate, understanding of the event. Only when a lens is changed do we realise that the old focus could have been improved – and inevitably looking through multiple lenses can be confusing at times, especially if the information is conflicting or just plain new. Seeing things through different perspectives isn’t always easy and there are limits to some lenses because of the lack of primary source material.

Oh yes – and this is just a short list of possible lenses – I’ve not started talking about the Marxist view of history! Or indeed a feminist view of history.

And that brings me to the image at the top of the post. Only when you know that the image is of the slave market at Richmond, Virginia do you realise that the neatly dressed men, women and children are waiting to be sold; its impossible to know if a family group waiting together, if they’ll continue their lives with one another or whether they’ll be sold separately; will the mothers be allowed to stay with their children? Nor can we know the circumstances in which the work was made until we read Crowe’s recollections:

On rough benches were sitting, huddled close to- gether, neatly dressed in grey, young negro girls with white collars fastened by scarlet bows, and in white aprons. The form of a woman clasping her infant, ever touching, seemed the more so here. There was a muscular field-labourer sitting apart; a rusty old stove filled up another space. Having rapidly sketched these features, I had not time to put my outline away before the whole group of buyers and dealers were in the compartment. I thought the best plan was to go on unconcernedly; but, perceiving me so engaged, no one would bid. The auctioneer, who had mounted his table, came down and asked me whether, “if I had a business store, and someone came in and interrupted my trading, I should like it.” This was unanswerable; I got up with the intention of leaving quietly, but, feeling this would savour of flight, I turned round to the now evidently angry crowd of dealers, and said, “You may turn me away, but I can recollect all I have seen.”

And its only on reading another account, social and economic, that it becomes clear that men selling slaves dressed their ‘merchandise’ well in order to draw their buyers’ eyes – and in dressing everyone similarly it was possibly to disguise men and women who might be unwell or sickly. In either event, it reduced people to objects – and that isn’t what any modern viewer sees when they first look at the picture – it’s only when the other lens are applied that the full horror of the image being depicted becomes apparent.

Crowe didn’t paint this as a historical painting – it was a social comment on the America he was visiting with Anthony Trollope. It would have to be said though that there are very few images from the period depicting black history (unless you count the images created by the abolitionists designed specifically to arouse sympathy) – demonstrating that even in the more recent past history’s lens becomes unfocused and fragmentary because some very important parts of the jigsaw are missing – to mix my metaphors.

And don’t forget that the stories we see are snapshots. The image above is an etic snapshot – it’s of Crowe looking in and making his observations His account of the way he came to make his image is an emic snapshot – it’s his internal viewpoint. Etic and emic are more usually associated with the social sciences rather than history.

Medieval Mistresses – mischievous women

Look what was on my doorstep when I arrive home this afternoon! Once again I am very excited. I love the cover.

It can be purchased from the Pen and Sword website and I’ve also featured in their blog this week. Why not follow the link to find out more about Alice Perrers and Jane Shore who were both accused of witchcraft.


Caxton meets Edward IV and his family…

Daniel Maclise, 1851, Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster: With Edward are his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and their children,Elizabeth, Edward, and Richard.

As interpretations of history painting changed their content drew more than ever from artistic interpretation. This image by Daniel Maclise, the Cork born painter of Scottish descent, depicts William Caxton showing his first print run to Edward IV and his family. Its all very nuclear with Elizabeth Woodville snuggled up against Edward’s shoulder – her eldest daughter Elizabeth of York by her side. In front of the king stands his heir Edward and younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury. The illustration can be found in Cassell’s History of England. But is it history?

One of Caxton’s friends and patron in England was Elizabeth’s brother Anthony, 2nd Earl Rivers. Anthony translated works that Caxton printed and some of the printers works found their way into the future Edward V’s library at Ludlow where Lord Rivers was responsible for his nephew’s education.

Rivers was not the only contact Caxton had with the royal family. He had found patronage in Europe in the person of Margaret of Burgundy – Edward IV’s sister. Caxton probably printed his first book in England in 1474. Two years later he moved into the Almonry in Westminster – where Maclise situated his painting – Caxton was under the Abbot of Westminster’s patronage at that time.

We become part of the audience watching the king and queen’s response and are drawn to the centre of the picture which has a ‘spot light’ of brightness. Even Caxton’s dog gets in on the act creating a very domestic scene. it’s all very cosy – no wonder the children’s uncle was in receipt of a bad press after Edward’s death!

The New World history painting meets the Old World – Benjamin West

Benjamin West – the Death of General Wolf.

When I was at school history was divided into the study of Old World History and the New World – as in The Americas – when I was a child nothing much happened there before 1492 in the new world, apart from the occasional episode relating to bloodthirsty Aztecs. Africa, Europe and Asia came under the Old World heading as those continents had been known since antiquity. Of course, the truth is that the continents all the same age, it was simply that when Columbus turned up, if we discount the Vikings, the Americas were new to the explorers.

In time the inhabitants of the so called New World started to interpret events in the Old World. Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania but eventually settled in London when two wealthy families paid for him to travel to Europe. In time he would teach a generation of American artists who travelled to London and then returned to America.

He learned to make paints from a group of Indigenous Americans when he was a child and between 1746 and 1759, having taught himself how to paint, worked on portraits. From there he travelled to Europe and studied the works of the great Italian artists. Finally in 1772 King George III (yes the mad one) appointed him as the court historical painter – demonstrating if nothing else that the Victorians didn’t invent the genre despite appearances to the contrary.

Remember at this time history painting is effectively Biblical or mythological – the stories come from the classical past and the style is Neo-classical.

West was commissioned to depict the life of King Edward III for Windsor Castle but in the end he painted about sixty works for the Crown – they include portraits, interpretations of Biblical tales and works relating to England’s history. His work is still part of the royal collection. Why not search the collection here:


Then in 1770 created the painting depicting the death of General Wolfe which was exhibited in 1771. Wolfe died in 1759 – so not set in the mists of time. Other artists were horrified by the idea. it just wasn’t the done thing. West wanted to paint something real…except of course because it was a narrative piece there was quite a lot of dramatic licence. And the most famous dead person in art was Christ – so that’s who Wolfe is modelled on – well, on the artistic renderings of Christ that West was familiar with. The depiction turned him into a military saint and, as a result, our understanding of the event and its history was well and truly skewed.

It was very popular, although more by way of current affairs at the time as were his depictions of the French and Indian Wars – which Churchill described as the first true world war. In 1806 he produced the Death of Nelson in the same mould as the death of General Wolfe. In 1818 he painted Robert Clive and Emperor Shared Alam signing the Treaty of Allahabad. Today of course, to us they are historical paintings.

And, of course because he was the first, prolific and well paid, West set the rules for historical painting in America.

Interpreting King John – Painting History.

Buchel, Charles A.; Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917), as King John in ‘King John’ by William Shakespeare; Theatre Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/herbert-beerbohm-tree-18521917-as-king-john-in-king-john-by-william-shakespeare-30514

History paintings first became popular in the 17th century but they were associated with classical history, the Bible and mythology rather than British history or more recent subjects. Gradually the genre expanded – inevitably scenes of battles began to become popular.

History paintings usually tell a story so they could also be described as narrative art. There’s also a degree of theatricality about many depictions of history – perhaps it’s inevitable given Shakespeare’s impact on popular interpretations of history.

So, today, meet King John – well meet Herbert Beerbohm Tree a Shakespearian actor portrayed by Charles Buchel. He certainly looks the part – wealthy and rather troubled…or possibly decidedly shifty. It’s entirely up to you.

Tree was also a manager and the man who employed Buchel for sixteen years providing him with illustrations for various aspects of theatrical advertising. King John was performed in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre 1899-1900. Apparently the production was noted for its rather spectacular scenery and costumes. Some circuits thought that it was too elaborate (I wonder what they would make of modern film productions). It was also the point at which fictional interpretations of history moved from stage and page to film – it can be viewed on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfkNLho2GYM

The question is, how do Shakespeare’s plays and their interpretation impact on our understanding of historical events and people? After all, it’s not just a retelling of history -or even educating us about the past- there is a much more emotive response.

And yes, for those of you who know me well, I can’t actually think of the historical persona of King John without summoning this version of him to mind… I apologise – I know it shouldn’t but it just pops into my head perhaps because it was my first encounter with the youngest son of King Henry II. It’s a thought – how many of you have an image of a historical persona in your mind that is not drawn from primary sources but from a fictional rendering? And how does it impact on the way you perceive that persons’s actions and impact on history?


Daniel Maclise and Aoife of Leinster

Daniel was born in Cork but lived most of his life in England where ehe made his living as an artist and illustrator. He illustrated several of Charles Dickens’ Christmas books for instance. In 1858 he was commissioned to make two paintings; one depicting Wellington, the second Nelson. He was chosen because of his picture in 1854 of the marriage of Strongbow to Aoife of Leinster. His works were huge and very detailed. His health suffered and he died on 25 April 1870.

Maclise would have been able to refer to Gerald of Wales for information about the wedding as it provides an account of the Siege of Waterford which took place before the wedding. To all intents and purposes the images looks like a monumental depiction in a neoclassical tradition using all of the theatricality which can be associated with Victorian history paintings. The light falls upon Aoife, an innocent, about to marry Strongbow fully armed and clad in black armour. There’s a reason why the old westerns placed white hats upon the goodies and black ones upon the heads of the baddies! it would be rather unexpected for a parliamentary painter descended from Scottish ancestors to start expressing Nationalist sympathies but there must be a reason why Strongbow also has his foot on top of a fallen Celtic cross.

For a closer look at the painting and to make your own mind up about whether Maclise was simply presenting us with a table from Irish history or using all the theatricality of his art to express sympathy for the Irish cause why not head across to the National Gallery of Ireland: https://www.nationalgallery.ie/explore-and-learn/conservation-and-research-projects/strongbow-aoife/symbols

Abergavenny – St Mary’s Priory Church

St Mary’s was founded in 1087 for a prior and twelve monks. There’s not much left of the Norman building but it is now apparently one of the largest parish churches in Wales. Most folk go to the church to look at the huge wooden carving of Jesse – who should lay at the base of a Jesse tree depicting the lineage of Christ. He’s the only wooden figure like this left in England or Wales – whether there were many more is a matter of debate. Suffice to say that the bonfires of the reformation probably carried several works off in smoke and ash. Usually we think of Jesse windows in stained glass – What Thomas Cromwell’s thugs didn’t carry out his three times great nephew Oliver’s men completed. A new Jesse window now looks resplendent above the carving of Jesse.

The Herbert Chapel (its the St Benedict Chapel now) is packed with alabaster effigies the most important of which is William ap Thomas and his wife Gwladys – who are the ancestors of the Herbert Earls of Pembroke. However, my favourite effigy is of Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas and I couldn’t even see the original part of the carving that I think is so wonderful. His feet are resting on a lion – the head pokes around the corner of the niche that Sir Richard fits very neatly into with an ornate canopy over his head – but under is left foot is a monk telling his beads. Just a reminder that in the pre-reformation world the wealthy paid for prayers to be said for their souls to speed them from Purgatory to Heaven. Sir Robert is the illegitimate son of the 1st Earl of Pembroke.

The 1st Earl of Pembroke who was Edward IV’s friend William Herbert isn’t in Abergavenny – he fell foul of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick having come to prominence in Wales after the Battle of Towton in 1461. It was he, who having fought by Edward’s side at Mortimer’s Cross, who was given custody of Henry Tudor and Jasper Tudor’s Earldom of Pembroke. Herbert planned to marry his ward to his own daughter Maud but before that could happen Warwick, who was keen to get his hands on some of Herbert’s estates and administrative roles, rebelled against Edward. The Battle of Edgecote Moor on 24 July 1469 was not a good day for Edward IV or the Herbert family. Having lost the battle and fled Herbert and his brother Richard were captured and executed on Warwick’s orders.

The bodies of the 1st Earl and his brother were being transported home when the Cistercians of Tintern Abbey hijacked them and buried them in their abbey…the things some monks would do to ensure extra patronage!