It was quite common in the earlier part of the Middle Ages for a parent to dedicate a baby or a young child to holy orders. These children were called oblates because the child was offered to God with an altar cloth wrapped around their right hand – an oblation or offering.
Prior to the invasion of 1066 William, duke of Normandy, and his wife Matilda sent their daughter Cecilia into the noviciate at the abbey of Holy Trinity in Caen. The date is significant – 18 June 1066. She didn’t become a fully professed nun until 1075 when she was about nineteen or twenty.
It’s easy to speculate that Cecilia was offered in exchange for a successful invasion. Equally many parents gave their child as an offering in hope of heavenly brownie points. It should also be added that if you were a man with many daughters and insufficient lands you might be tempted to palm the plainest or least marriageable daughter off on the Church to avoid all the expenditure that accompanied nuptial arrangements. Until the rule of Innocent III (1198-1215) children who were given to the Church had no power to quit the religious life once they grew up. This could lead to unfortunate incidences of runaway or pregnant nuns not to mention nuns like Chaucer’s abbess who dressed well and kept pets.
Katherine Swynford’s eldest daughter Margaret along with her cousin Elizabeth Chaucer entered the nunnery at Barking when they were children. It is possible that Katherine Swynford and Philippa Chaucer were following family tradition in dedicating a daughter to the Church because evidence suggests that the pair had an older sister (probably a half sibling) called Elizabeth or possibly Isabelle who entered the nunnery of St Wandru in Mons in 1349.
Elizabeth Chaucer entered the nunnery in 1381 following nomination by Richard II – demonstrating the influence of Katherine by this time. Elizabeth had previously been lodged in the convent of St Helens in Bishopgate. We know that John of Gaunt paid her admission fee – in lieu of a dowry. It was a large sum- £51 8s 2d. This in its turn has given rise to the rumour that Philippa may have had an affair with the duke of Lancaster and that Elizabeth was his daughter. As Weir points out, Gaunt acknowledged his other illegitimate children and provided for them handsomely so why would he be furtive about Elizabeth, if she was indeed his?.She also notes that the care given by Gaunt to members of his household was generous so there should be no raised eyebrows about the gift, although of course Auntie Katherine may have had a hand in it so that her own daughter would have, at least, had the company of a cousin. Margaret went on to become the abbess of Barking in 1419.
The abbess of Barking had the legal status of a baron- a reminder that for women the Church was more or less the only way to wield power in your own right so long as you made it to the top of the job ladder. Margaret Swynford is recorded as dying in 1433.
Its not much information about the two girls but it’s all there is!
Weir speculates as to whether Sir Hugh and Katherine Swynford might have had other children. She notes that there was a Katherine Swynford at Stixwold Priory in 1377. However, other than the name and the fact that it is just possible that the traditionally accepted marriage date for Hugh and Katherine is wrong there is no evidence that this particular Katherine was a member of our Katherine Swynford’s immediate family. Also Barking was a prestigious location. It would be here that Jasper and Edmund Tudor were sent after their mother’s death. By contrast Stixwold was rather impoverished.
Lucraft, Jeannette. (2006) Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress. Stroud: Sutton Publishing
Weir, Alison. (2007) Katherine Swynford:The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess. London: Random House
‘Houses of Benedictine nuns: Abbey of Barking’, in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2, ed. William Page and J Horace Round (London, 1907), pp. 115-122. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol2/pp115-122 [accessed 7 September 2017].