Tag Archives: Philippa of Hainault

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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Richard III – evidence in the bones.

Richard_III_of_EnglandIt turns out that someone somewhere has been skulking along the medieval corridors of power  late at night on their way to an assignation– the problem is that we can’t be sure when or even who was encouraging the aforementioned skulk and for the last five hundred years no one – with the obvious exceptions- have been any the wiser. An article published in this month’s edition of Nature has changed that along with the revelation that Richard was a blue-eyed blond or at least a blond baby whose hair darkened with the passage of time.

 

The story begins with Richard III. He’s a chap who’s provided history with more than one mystery and now there’s another to add to the collection.  Most folk are aware of the conflicting theories about the disappearance of Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower of London in the summer of 1483. Was Richard a wicked uncle responsible for the demise of his nephews or has history framed the last Yorkist king for a crime that he didn’t commit? Were King Edward V and Prince Richard done away with as Tudor chroniclers would have us believe and if so who did the deed and who gave the orders? Other scenarios suggest that one or more of the princes were spirited to safety; other folk suggest that the Lancastrians did the terrible deed to ensure their own man’s success. I wouldn’t like to make any definitive suggestions as there’s evidence that can be offered in support of all these options as well as plenty of circumstantial evidence and there are plenty of passionate advocates for the different theories.

This post isn’t about that.   It’s partly about a pleasant trip down memory lane and the way that history isn’t something that’s static – it shifts like quicksand. Richard and the missing princes were the first topic that was covered at my secondary school by way of an introduction to history and the trustworthiness of sources. As I recall there was a folder full of ‘evidence’ that had to be sorted and categorised to try to decide whether Richard did the deed – and that’s before we even advanced to his portrait – was he really as physically repellent as Shakespeare portrayed him? While we now know the answer to his appearance thanks to the work of countless professionals– including the surprising blue eyes and baby blonde hair- we still don’t know about his role as murderous uncle – its certainly not a debate I want to get tangled in; not least because I can never quite make up my mind. What I do recall is that I progressed from the facts to Josephine Tey’s Daughter in Time in the space of an afternoon and at the age of eleven became hooked on historical fiction.

 

What I’m really blogging about this evening are the findings from the Leicester University that were all over the weekend’s papers – the quicksand bit of history.  Something which appeared to be solid turns out to be mired in uncertainty.   Maternal DNA reveals that Richard really was the king under the car park but further analysis reveals that somewhere along the line of the Beaufort family the paternal line was broken – Richard has a rather unusual Y chromosome but the brave souls- Beaufort descendants who offered their own DNA for comparison do not match up to that of the last Yorkist King. Their Y chromosomes are much more pedestrian. Someone somewhere in the family tree between Edward III and Richard III was a bit of a naughty girl on the quiet.

 

One line of thought is that John of Gaunt might not have been the son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. There was a persistent rumour that he was the son of a Flemish butcher….an odd possibility. I mean, I can see how Duchess Cecily Neville (the wife of Richard of York and mother to Edward IV and Richard III) might have fancied a fling with a tall handsome archer (more of that in a moment) but how on earth would a butcher have met, let alone struck up a conversation that progressed to a liaison with the English queen?

 

Generally speaking it has always been assumed to have been a vile slander. John of Gaunt wasn’t popular in England. His palace at the Savoy was destroyed during the Peasant’s Revolt. Folk believed that he wanted the crown for himself even though he was always loyal to his nephew the young Richard II. Apparently the rumour of his supposed parentage made John very, very irritable as depicted in that wonderful fictional evocation of his mistress’s life Katherine by Anya Seyton.

 

It is equally possible that the cuckoo in the nest could have been John Beaufort,  Gaunt’s son by Katherine Swynford – one of history’s love stories… so I really hope not. It would be deeply ironic if the legitimised illegitimate son of the Duke of Lancaster turned out not to belong to the man who claimed him as a son.

 

Another possibility presents itself.  What if Richard was the progeny of a cuckoo in the nest? Or indeed not quite what he seemed. Rumours about Duchess Cecily, his mother, sprang up in relation to Richard’s brother Edward IV. It was suggested that Edward’s father was actually an archer called Blaybourne. There is also contention over the conception dates. Richard, Duke of York was in Pontoise while Cecily was in Rouen. It seems quite difficult to reach a definitive conclusion without the existence of undisputed primary evidence – though that’s only my opinion. Certainly Edward’s baptism at Rouen was very low-key but then again the Duke of York didn’t deny paternity and in Medieval terms that meant Edward was legitimate. The rumour floated to the surface at a time when George, Duke of Clarence took a shine to the crown and its not difficult to see that George might have used gossip for his own ends (supposition again).  When Richard needed a public justification for his claim to the throne in 1483 the rumour was aired again. And as we all know mud sticks and there’s no smoke without fire. I’m sure if I think I can come up with a few more clichés.

 

Whatever the truth about Plantagenet goings-on in the bedroom department, the very informative University of Leicester website reveals that false paternity is to be expected – apparently it runs at 1-2% per generation which if you’re a family historian should make for disturbing thoughts about your own ancestry.

 

Ultimately, the fact that someone passed off the child of their lover as legitimate makes no difference whatsoever to the events of the Wars of the Roses or the monarchy thereafter but what it does do is add another fascinating layer to a story that already has many complex twists and turns. Who needs soap opera  or even Cleudo when we’ve got the Plantagenets?

 

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King Harold’s children

womanfleeingHarold Godwinson became King of England on 6th January 1066.  He was married to Edith, the daughter of Earl Alfgar of Mercia.

Edith didn’t have much luck with husbands.  Her first one was a welsh king who died in 1063.  Three years later she married Harold in March 1066.  Nine months after that a bouncing baby boy was born in Chester – Harold of Chester.  Other sources say he was born early the following year.  In either event Edith and Harold sought shelter in Ireland before heading to Europe in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.  Nothing further is known of them although there is some suggestion that they may have been given sanctuary in Norway. It is also possible that Edith went to the nunnery at St Omer where his mother and one of his daughters fled after an abortive uprising against the Conqueror. History once again provides tantalising hints but not the full story.

Edith was possibly the mother of Ulf, another  of Harold’s sons – although it is equally likely that rather than twins Uf was the son of Harold’s lover Edith Swan-neck.  It has been suggested that the unknown woman on the Bayeux Tapestry fleeing with a child from a burning building could be Edith swan-neck and Ulf.  The pair could just as likely be representative of the innocent citizens of Hastings who found their buildings burning around their ears.  Somehow or other Ulf  found himself safely secured in Normandy.  History doesn’t say what happened to him although he was alive according to Weir (Britain’s Royal Families) in 1087.

Harold’s lover, Edith Swan-neck was the woman who searched the battle field for his body in the aftermath of Hastings. It was she who’d provided Harold with at least five children who were, in 1066, a threat to William’s quiet enjoyment of his new kingdom.

King Harold’s mother, Gytha held out against the Norman invaders in Exeter.  She chose 1067 when William returned to Normandy to make her presence felt.  Exeter fell after eighteen days but their determination gave Harold’s mother, his sister Gunnhild and his daughter Gytha time to escape to the Island of Flatholme in the Bristol Channel before following in the sails of other English refugees to the continent and the nunnery at St Omer which was in the domain of Count Baldwin VI of Flanders.  Harold’s mother and sister remained there for the rest of their lives.

Harold’s daughter Gytha on the other hand married, through Swedish diplomacy, the Russian Prince of Smolensk, Vladimir II.  He went on to become the Grand Prince of Kiev and she mothered somewhere in the region of eight sons and three daughters.  Her descendants became kings of other nations and one of her descendants was a Queen of England  – Edward III’s wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault- which means somewhat bizarrely that the blood of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England flowed in the veins of the Plantagenets and indeed of every monarch since: an unexpected twist to the tale that we don’t learn at school.

Harold’s sons Godwin, Edmund and Magnus went to Dublin after the Conquest.  They returned in 1068 with their swords in their hands and a force of Norse mercenaries from the Kingdom of Dublin. They weren’t warmly received in Bristol so made for Taunton – by sea- where they were seen off by a Saxon who’d submitted to William and who no doubt knew which side his bread was buttered.  The unfortunate Saxon,Eadnoth, died during the ensuing battle but so possibly did Harold’s son Magnus.

Then again may be Magnus didn’t die.  There is a curved inscription in the church of St John in Lewis, Sussex that details the presence of a Prince Magnus of Danish royal stock who became an anchorite there.  Could the Danish reference be a red herring to hide Magnus?

Of Godwin and Edmund more is known.  Although defeated in 1068 they were back the following year with sixty ships.  They attempted to take Exeter but were seen off by the Norman  garrison in their shiny new motte and bailey castle so they settled on causing trouble in the South West but were seen off once more.  They are last heard of in the court of King Swein of Denmark.

Another of King Harold’s daughter, Gunnhild, was a nun at Wilton or at least a woman seeking shelter from the Normans in the nunnery where she’d received her education.  Alan the Red, Earl of Richmond, made off with Gunnhild in August 1093 and that is the subject of a previous blog as well as a topic of Norman Scandal since she refused point blank to take herself back to Wilton when the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that she should do so.

 

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