Tag Archives: Blanche of Lancaster

Katherine Swynford

KatSwynfordKatherine de Roet was probably born about 1350 in Hainault.  As is often the case we have no exact records of her birth.  What we do know about Katherine’s early life is found in the accounts of chronicler Jean Froissart who was also from Hainault.  He talks of Katherine as a ‘Hainaulter’ so its a reasonable assumption to make. 

The family headed by Katherine’s father  Paon de Roet arrived in England as part of Philippa of Hainault’s entourage when she married Edward III in 1328.  Paon served in the royal household. Historians think he died in the early 1350s.  Katherine  and her sister Philippa served in the queen’s household  and received their education there as well as developing links with some of the most important people in the country.  Philippa married the poet Geoffrey Chaucer whilst Katherine found herself looking after the daughters of John of Gaunt and his first wife Blanche of Lancaster; Elizabeth and Philippa.  

Blanche died in 1368, most historians think from the Black Death.  By this time Katherine was married to Sir Hugh Swynford of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. It was considered an advantageous marriage for Katherine at the time. Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt held many estates in the area. Historians tend not to think that Katherine had begun her affair with John of Gaunt before Blanche of Lancaster’s death.  Certainly Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess suggests that the duke deeply mourned the wife that gave him seven children and made him the wealthiest man in the kingdom.

Katherine and Hugh appear to have had three children who survived infancy.  The oldest child was a boy called Thomas, the second was a girl called Blanche presumably named after Blanche of Lancaster.  John of Gaunt was Blanche’s god-father and when the time came for John to make his union with Katherine legal and also to legitimise his children this would cause a degree of problem as the papacy deemed that there was a degree of prohibited relationship on account of John’s role as godfather. Blanche grew up with Elizabeth and Philippa of Lancaster. The third child probably grew up to be a nun.  Her name may have been Margaret. Katherine swore her affair with John of Gaunt did not begin until after Sir Hugh Swynford died but Froissart says differently.

Hugh died in 1372 and Katherine’s first child by John of Gaunt was born the following year. John Beaufort was named after the french castle that Gaunt owned and where John was possibly born.  The  couple went on to have three more children who survived infancy; Henry, Thomas and Joan who had her own dramatic love story.  John had married his second wife Constance of Castile in  1371.  It was a state marriage that gave John a claim to the throne of Castile but the existence of a much loved mistress in John’s life cannot have helped the relationship nor the fact that it is known that during some periods Katherine lived quietly in the home of John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV). During the Peasants Revolt of 1381 the lovers parted company or they became more secretive about their liaison possibly because John was so hated or because John wished to pursue his claim to the Castilian throne.  Not that this prevented Katherine from being made a Lady of the Garter in 1388.

Wife number two died in 1394.  There followed a flurry of letters to the pope and two years later John of Gaunt took the unusual step of marrying his mistress.  They were married on  13 January 1396 at Lincoln Cathedral.  This had the effect of putting rather a lot of noses out of joint. Not only did Katherine become the duchess of Lancaster  but because the king, Richard II, had no queen and John was the next most important man in the country Katherine automatically became the first lady to whom all others had to give way… I should imagine that some very stiff necked ladies muttered rather a lot about that particular turn up for the books. 

John and Katherine’s children were not only legitimised by the pope but also legitimised by Act of Parliament on the command of their cousin Richard II on 9th February 1397.  Later Henry IV would add a note in his own hand to the effect that whilst the Beauforts might be legitimate they couldn’t inherit the throne.  This didn’t stop Henry IV from making effective use of his Beaufort half-siblings.

katherine swynford coat of arms.jpg

Katherine Swynford’s coat of arms – after her marriage to John of Gaunt

Katherine died on the 10th May 1403 having outlived John of Gaunt by four years.  She’d survived a period of plague, seen the Peasants revolt and the Hundred Years War as well as having caused a national scandal.  She and her daughter Joan are buried in Lincoln Cathedral having lived quietly in Lincoln in her final years.  We can still identify her house.

There was a brass of the dowager duchess but it was destroyed or certainly very badly treaded by the Roundheads in 1644 so we have no certain primary source image of the woman who stole the heart of the most powerful man in England despite the fact that there is now a brass over Katherine’s tomb it is not the original and she’s wearing a widow’s veil which doesn’t help matters but it is an effective way of the engraver dealing with the fact he didn’t know what the duchess looked like.  Froissart describes her as young and pretty in his chronicles. The image at the start of this post comes from a fifteenth century edition of Chaucer’s work and it shows the key people of Richard II’s reign. John of Gaunt is identifiable.  It’s possible that the girl in blue is Katherine.

Weir, Alison.(2007) Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess. London: Jonathan Cape

 

 

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To be king…or not to be king…

You’d have thought, from history lessons at school, that inheriting the throne in the medieval period would have been fairly straight forward – i.e. the number one son.  However, from Norman times onwards it was rarely as simple as that; occasionally it involved imprisonment or death – sometimes both.  GraduHenry IVally, however, Parliament became involved with the process of identifying the order in which monarchs would ascend the throne.
In 1406 an act of the so-called Long Parliament which went on most of the year and seemed to deal largely with sorting out Henry IV’s account book decided who would inherit the crown in the event of Prince Henry (who would become Henry V) pre-deceasing his father without producing ‘an heir of his body’.  Many historians have identified this as Henry IV seeking to restrict the number of people who could make a claim to the throne in an attempt to bolster his line which descended from the third surviving son of Edward III and which only had its grubby mitts on the crown because Henry IV had usurped the crown from his cousin Richard II (imprisonment and death).  In June 1406 an act identified Henry IV’s sons in age order and their male heirs but in December this act was replaced by an earlier law (1404) restoring the succession to the king’s sons and their heirs. The term heirs means male and female children. Neither of Henry IV’s daughters were mentioned – Blanche who had been married in 1402 to Louis III, Elector Palatine and Philippa who was queen of most of Scandinavia:

…it is ordained and established, that the inheritance of the crown, and of the realms of England and France, and of all the other dominions of our said lord the king beyond the sea, with all the appurtenances, shall be settled and remain in the person of the same our lord the king, and in the heirs of his body begotten; and especially at the request and of the assent aforesaid, it is ordained and established, pronounced, decreed, and declared, that the lord the prince Henry eldest son to our said lord the king, be heir apparent to the same our lord the king,to succeed him in the said crown, realms and dominions, to have them with all the appurtenances after the decease of the same our lord the king, to him and his heirs of his body begotten; and if he die without heir of his body begotten, then all the said crown, realms and dominions, with all the appurtenances, shall remain to the Lord Thomas, second son of our said lord the king, and to the heirs of his body begotten; and if he die without issue of his body, that then ail the said crown, realms and dominions, with all the appurtenances, shall remain to the Lord John, the third son of our said lord the king, and to the heirs of his body begotten; and if he die without heir of his body begotten, that then all the foresaid crown, realms and dominions, with all the appurtenances, shall remain to the Lord Humphrey,the fourth son of our said lord the king, and the heirs of his body begotten.

 

300_2511351As it happened none of Henry IV’s children did much in the way of begetting.  Thomas, Duke of Clarence was killed at the Battle of Bauge in 1421.   Henry V married Katherine of Valois and had one son who became Henry VI by the time he was nine months old in 1422.  John, Duke of Bedford was married twice.  His second wife was Jacquetta of Luxembourg who went on to marry one of John’s household knights and have a large family including her daughter Elizabeth Woodville.  John of Bedford, on the other hand, had no legitimate children. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was initially married to Jacqueline of Hainault but the marriage was annulled without surviving issue.  Humphrey then went on to marry his mistress Eleanor Cobham who was ultimately found guilty of witchcraft and imprisoned.  He didn’t have legitimate children either.    Given that Henry IV had six children who survived to adulthood he possibly didn’t anticipate that his line would prove quite so unprolific when he arranged for Parliament to pass the 1406 Act of Succession.

 

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In 1460 during the reign of Henry VI which history remembers largely for the Wars of the Roses,  Parliament repealed the act of 1406 at the behest of Richard, Duke of York who said that the whole thing was decidedly dodgy and reflected the fact that Henry IV was trying to shore up his line having usurped the crown from Richard II and his rightful heirs who were, of course, Richard of York’s immediate ancestors. The Act of Accord passed in October 1460 allowed Henry VI to keep the crown but identified Richard of York as his heir by-passing Henry VI’s own son Prince Edward. Richard was dead by the end of the year, killed at the Battle of Wakefield.

 

Richard of York, it should be added, made no comment about the note added in 1407 to the document that legitimised Henry IV’s half siblings by Katherine Swynford. Henry IV wrote on it himself ‘excepta dignitate regali’ . Those three words meant that although the Beauforts were legal they could not claim the throne. Henry IV’s marginal amendment did not go through the legal process. Parliament did not ratify his endeavours to influence who might or might not become king making Henry IV’s bar on them decidedly dubious.

 

Of course, Henry IV was not the last king to try and ensure the succession from beyond the grave. Henry VIII had more Acts of Succession than were healthy for any one king– the first one was passed by Parliament in 1533 (Actually March 1534) replaced Princess Mary, having bastardised her, with the Princess Elizabeth. The second of these acts made Elizabeth illegitimate whilst the third Act of Succession in 1543 legalised both princesses and stipulated the order in which Henry VIII’s children beginning with his son Edward were to inherit the throne. Henry VIII backed this act up with his will which also laid out the order in which his offspring were to inherit the kingdom.  The last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth I, not only by-passed marriage and the begetting of heirs but also refused to name her successor outright much to the irritation of her council and her parliaments.

 

By 1701 Parliament had gained sufficient clout to prevent kings (and queens) they didn’t like from inheriting the kingdom. They mainly didn’t like Catholic Stuart kings – the 1701 Act of Settlement, identified the first available non-Catholic heir by tracing back up the Stuart family tree to Elizabeth of Bohemia (the so-called Winter Queen) who was the daughter of James VI of Scotland/ James I of England. Her daughter was Sophia of Hanover. Parliament very politely invited her to accept the crown in the event of Queen Anne, who clearly wasn’t going to have an heir of her own, dying. Sadly for Sophia, Queen Anne outlived her by nearly three months, necessitating a further Act of Settlement that invited Sophia’s Protestant son George of Hanover to take the crown in 1714.

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Elizabeth of Lancaster and Sir John Holland

elizabeth_of_lancasterI’ve found a new author – well, she might not be new but she’s new to me- Anne O Brien.  I’ve just guzzled ‘The King’s Sister’ a novel about Elizabeth of Lancaster, the third child of Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt.

Her story is an everyday tale of the Plantagenets – so there’re two arranged marriages, treachery and a spot of skulduggery for starters.

John of Gaunt arranged a marriage between Elizabeth and John Hasting’s the third Earl of Pembroke in 1380.  She was seventeen, he was eight and got on, in the novel at least, very well with Elizabeth’s little brother Henry of whom more anon.  It isn’t perhaps surprising that she was more attracted to John Holland a son of Princess Joan and her first husband (the one she married when she was twelve before her family married her off to a second more important husband but that’s a different story) who had been married for a third time to the Black Prince and was mother to King Richard II.  John Holland had a reputation as a ladies man and a champion jouster – or in other words a knight errant- as well as gaining a reputation as a soldier in the field in both Scotland and Spain.  Apparently, according to the records of the time, he was smitten with Elizabeth of Lancaster’s great beauty.  He followed her day and night…so what would you do if you were a hormone ridden teenager – remain loyal to the child to whom your father has married you off to or run away with the handsome half brother of the king?   Elizabeth’s marriage to the young Earl of Pembroke was annulled.

The relationship between Elizabeth and John Holland is a tempestuous one in Anne O’Brien’s novel but the historical reality is not without its ironies.  John’s half brother was Richard II.  Elizabeth’s brother was Henry Bolingbroke a.k.a. Henry IV.  I should imagine that the family get together after Henry deposed and imprisoned Elizabeth’s brother-in-law was a tense one.  Although John gave his fealty to the new king he remained loyal to Richard in Pontefract – and despite Richard’s notorious temperamental streak – he’d been good to his half-brother and wife.  John Holland had been created First Duke of Exeter and been rewarded with other posts and estates.

In 1400 he was involved in the so-called ‘Epiphany Plot,’ also known as ‘the Three Earls Plot’ which sought to overthrow Henry, kill him and his sons, and return Richard II to the throne.  The plot was betrayed and John fled but was captured at Pleshy Castle in Essex.  He was fortunate to get so far.  Twenty-nine of the conspirators were executed at Oxford.  John was  was executed by Joan Fitzallan, the Countess of Hereford who had a grudge against Elizabeth’s husband.  Holland had executed her brother (the Earl of Arundel) several years before without going through the niceties of an entirely fair trial.

Henry IV used attainder to impoverish his sister and his nieces and nephews in the short term.  So not what you might call a terribly happy-ever-after for the couple although there is more to Elizabeth’s story and her children because they remained close to the crown and eventually regained their titles if not all of their estates.  As for Richard II, well he apparently starved himself to death very soon after the failed uprising in January 1400.  The chroniclers didn’t believe it either!

As for me I’m pleased to report that there are five other novels by Anne O Brien…as well as a list of places for me to visit that are associated with the Plantagenet princess who broke the rules and ran off with her handsome knight only to find herself embroiled in deadly family politics.

 

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Henry Bolingbroke

Henry IVYoung Henry Bolingbroke was just eleven years old when he carried the ceremonial sword at his cousin Richard II’s coronation. The king was a year younger than Henry.

Henry, named after one of his father’s (John of Gaunt) Lincolnshire castles was also known as Henry of Lancaster. His mother was Blanche of Lancaster and as his father’s heir the title is one that makes sense. However, just to confused things he was also created the Earl of Derby and upon his marriage to Mary Bohun he was created Earl of Hereford – oh yes, then he deposed his cousin and became known as King Henry IV.

 

Henry’s variety of names is confusing enough but his familial relations look like spaghetti rather than a tree. Henry’s grandfather was King Edward III, his father John of Gaunt and his mother Blanche of Lancaster. So, far so good. However, when Henry married Mary Bohun, who was just eleven at the time and remained at home with her widowed mother after the wedding, Henry’s aunt became his sister-in-law! Edward III’s youngest son Thomas of Woodstock was already married to Mary’s older sister Eleanor. They were the co-heiresses of the Earl of Hereford. Henry’s mother-in-law was the widow of the earl and the daughter of Richard FitzAlan third Earl of Arundel.

 

As Richard II grew to manhood he became convinced about the authority of kings. It was this king who introduced the terms ‘Majesty’ and ‘Highness’. It was this king who demanded that anyone entering his presence should bow three times before they approached him. This high handed attitude, not to mention failure to go to war with France, didn’t win him friends within his family. Nor did his preference for ‘new men’ such as his chancellor Michael de La Pole help matters very much.

 

Inevitably there were plots. Eventually in 1387 the Lords Appellant, as they became known, forced Richard to tow the line. He spent some time in the Tower – possibly on the naughty step. Amongst the Lords Appellant were Thomas of Woodstock (Henry’s uncle and brother-in-law) and Richard Fitzalan, the fourth Earl of Arundel (Henry’s uncle-in-law), Thomas Beauchamp (Earl of Warwick), Thomas Mowbray (Earl of Nottingham) and Henry himself.

 

Of course, Richard didn’t take kindly to being told what to do by the nobility even if he was related to most of them. Eventually he regained his power and had Thomas of Woodstock sent to Calais where he ordered his royal uncle to be murdered. The man who organized this was another of Thomas’s nephews ….it’s always nice to see a happy extended family, isn’t it?

Henry’s uncle-in-law, Arundel, was given a show trial and executed. The Earl of Warwick must have heaved a huge sigh of relief when he found himself on a slow boat to the Isle of Man with instructions not to come back. The king seized the estates of all three of these Lords Appellent. Henry and Mowbray seemed, at least for the time being, to have escaped Richard’s wrath.

 

However, Mowbray suggested that the king would do to him and Henry what he’d done to the other three lords. The conversation was not a particularly private one and inevitably word got back to the king that Mowbray was plotting again. Henry denounced Mowbray before he could be accused of being involved.  He went on to challenge Mowbray to trial by combat. The two men were to have met at Coventry on the 16th September 1398. They were just about to attack one another when Richard banned the combat and exiled its combatants: Mowbray for life, Henry for ten years – demonstrating that Mowbray had been right all along.

 

Then John of Gaunt died. Richard changed Henry’s exile to life and claimed Lancaster’s estates as his own.

 

Henry landed at Ravenspur in July 1399. Men flocked to his banner. Richard, who was in Ireland at the time, hurried to meet his cousin but by the time he reached Conway Castle it was evident that Richard had lost his kingdom to his cousin.

 

Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV by popular acclaim. If Richard’s abdication was real rather than forced – and the deposed king was to die very soon afterwards in Pontefract Castle.  The next rightful heir was eight-year-old Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March- and no one wanted another child on the throne.   Henry however, did not claim his right to rule exclusively from his grandfather. He claimed his right to rule through his mother Blanche of Lancaster. Blanche was descended from Edmund Crouchback, the second surviving son of Henry III. Henry IV allowed it to be known that rather than being the second born, Edmund Crouchback was actually the first born child but had been set aside in favour of his brother Edward (King Edward I) on account of his ‘crouchback’.   Given that crouchback meant cross-back it was probably a reference to his crusading zeal rather than any physical deformity.

 

Henry did not have a peaceful reign. Owen Glendower rose with the Welsh in rebellion and the Earl of Northumberland joined in with his son ‘Hotspur’. Hotspur was the husband of Ann Mortimer and therefore uncle to Edmund Mortimer (the child with a better claim to the throne than Henry). It would be nice to think that he was outraged that his nephews Edmund and Roger Mortimer were being imprisoned simply because of their ancestry but it is much more likely that he, together with his father Northumberland, was furious that they hadn’t received what they perceived to be their dues for supporting Henry when he arrived at Ravenspur. They were also expected to guard the border with Scotland more efficiently now that Henry was on the throne.

 

In any event, Henry had to quell rebellions, assassination attempts, deal with financial difficulties, his own heir’s apparent waywardness and his poor health. It was widely reported that he became a leper- he certainly suffered from an unpleasant skin disease of some description. He had difficulty walking and had a fit whilst praying in Westminster Abbey before dying on the 20 March 1413.

 

He left a warrior son to become King Henry V. Unfortunately for England, King Henry died when his own son by Katherine of Valois was an infant.

The Mortimers had not forgotten their claim to the throne (though Edmund and Roger died without children- their sister Ann had married and had children).  Their claim to the throne was  better than baby Henry VI’s. The stage was set for The Cousins War or as we know it, thanks to Sir Walter Scott, the Wars of the Roses – which strange though it may seem given that I’ve cantered through the reigns of both Richard II and his cousin Henry IV,  is what I’m warming up for with this post.

 

 

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