This article investigates why, as the Mediaeval Warm Period drew to a close, Britain (and particularly England) developed differently to many nations of Southern Europe.
Sandbrook mentions two major cultural factors: the tradition of salting bacon because ham could not be dry-cured and the evolution of the wool trade through the systematic elimination of the flock’s only natural predator – the wolf – through a hunting campaign led by Peter Corbet, from a Shropshire family, under Edward I. Corbet, who fought at Falkirk, may even have given his name to this.
Sheep could now safely be domesticated and their numbers greatly expanded. In Florence, the Medici saw the banking system develop as a result. In England, the best evidence is all around us. Whilst the Woolsack (left) has been a dominant feature of the House of Lords for centuries, the wealth generated
by the wool and cloth trade is reflected in properties throughout the country, but particularly in East Anglia, the region generally closest to the European mainland and the other territories of the Hanseatic League. In particular, Lavenham (below), Hadleigh and Woodbridge still have many such distinctive timber-framed houses, the former having been regarded as a town in the late mediaeval and Early Modern eras.
As Sandbrook goes on to explain, in his review of Robert Winder’s “The last Wolf”, writers from Chaucer (who married into the de la Pole family of wool barons) to Eliot and Orwell wrote of the traditions of the wool trade. It continued long after Corbet’s 1281-90 campaign and was to benefit from the technological developments of later centuries.
The above painting by William Bell Scott depicts Chaucer reading to an aging John of Gaunt. The ladies are the two men’s wives, Philippa and Katherine, born de Roët.
Everyone knows that John of Gaunt (1340-1399) had three wives, the last of whom was Katherine Swynford (nee de Roët, 1350-1403), who had been his children’s governess. She then became his mistress (during his second marriage to Costanza of Castile) and finally, in 1396, his third duchess. The last move, was very unpopular at the time, for it was felt Gaunt, a king’s son, had demeaned himself by marrying well below his station…and that she had reached up well above hers.
Katherine, married at twelve to a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford, had a sister, Philippa (c. 1346–c. 1387) who was a damoiselle of the queen, and who by the end of 1366 had been married to Geoffrey Chaucer. Yes, the Geoffrey Chaucer, who was a very close friend of John of Gaunt. Was the Chaucer marriage a love match? After all, at the time he was a mere squire, whereas she was relatively highborn, the daughter of a prominent Hainault family of rich landowners, or so I understand the de Roët sisters’ background to be. The Chaucer union is subject to a lot of speculation.
Let us go back before 1366, before Philippa became Geoffrey’s bride. John of Gaunt is renowned for his interesting private life, as described above, and seems to have been a Plantagenet charmer par excellence. By inheriting the huge wealth and status of the Duchy of Lancaster (through his first wife, Blanche) he was the richest, most influential man in England, especially when his father, Edward III, began to descend into senility. Gaunt had an eye for a beautiful woman, and the suggestion is that the de Roët sisters were both beautiful. I don’t know if they warranted the description, but I doubt very much that they were plain, stodgy dumplings. Men like Gaunt are not drawn to the nondescript.
So, Katherine Swynford was governess to his daughters. At this time her sister Philippa was unmarried, and also the queen’s lady. The queen, another Philippa, was from Hainault too, so I imagine this was a very good reason to have Philippa de Roët close to her. And then there was John of Gaunt, master seducer. The suspicion is that his eye fell upon Philippa first. It wasn’t the done thing to deflower unmarried ladies, and maybe this precluded such an affair in his eyes, except that there are suspicious signs that he broke the rule.
He was not a dishonourable man, and took his responsibilities seriously. Dates fit for him to have bedded Philippa and got her in the family way. In September 1366, before leaving for a campaign in Spain, Gaunt granted Philippa a lifetime annuity. It was very generous, and surely he had no reason for doing such a thing. Some present-day thinking is that Gaunt protected her by paying his good friend Chaucer a great deal to marry her. She was to give birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, the appropriate number of months later. Elizabeth would become a nun and enter the prestigious royal Abbey of Barking.
For the rest of his life, Gaunt was especially kind to Elizabeth, who might well have been his daughter. His particular favour to her suggests he knew she was. There were also more gifts, opportunities and annuities to the Chaucers.
Was Gaunt Katherine Swynford’s lover at the same time he was bedding Philippa? That we’ll never know, just as we will never know the truth about his dealings with the latter. All those gifts and favours are suspicious though. Why would Gaunt bestow such bounty upon Philippa? Why continue to be so concerned about her? She was by then a married women. Did the affair continue after she became Chaucer’s wife? Was Chaucer a complacent husband, paid well enough to say nothing and just let his wife get on with it?
Or, as some of you will no doubt tell me, Gaunt did no such thing. The Chaucer marriage was a love match and Gaunt was merely a generous lord. Possibly. Possibly, too, Elizabeth Chaucer was of royal blood.
These days, any mention of Melusine might conjure thoughts of Jacquetta of Luxemburg, Elizabeth Woodville, witchcraft and the like. But the story of Melusine was around before then.
On browsing through John Gardner’s Life and Times of Chaucer, I came upon the following anecdote, which begins with Gardner’s rather precise description of Edward himself:
“He was a handsome, fair man with a curly brown beard, gentle eyes and mouth, the eyes just perceptibly slanted like the eyes of all his sons. He was no ordinary mortal, one could see at a glance, and he liked to support the impression with a story…
“…Some hour hundred years ago, Edward III told his friends, the founder of his line, Count Fulke the Black, ruler of Anjou [Fulke III, 970–1040, ancestor of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou] traveled to a distant land and returned with a bride whose beauty was unsurpassed in all the world. The four children she bore him were brilliant and handsome, like all Plantagenet sons and daughters after them, but they carried also a darker heritage. She kept it secret for many years, living a life more secluded than a nun’s. Then one day the count demanded that his wife accompany him to Mass, a thing she’d repeatedly refused to do. She did so this time, pale and trembling. When the priest raised the Host, the countess let out an unearthly shriek, rose into the air, flew out of the chapel window, and was never seen again. The truth was out. She was Melusine, daughter of the Devil!…
“…By the time Chaucer knew him, Edward III at least half believed the story…”
A quick look on the internet soon reveals this story to be widespread, although not necessarily in connection with Edward. Our House of Plantagenet was descended from the children Melusine left behind. Or so Edward III apparently believed.
Two things arouse my interest. Firstly that Edward liked to repeat the devilish tale to his friends, and secondly that he and his sons had perceptibly slanting eyes. Are we to think the eyes came from the Devil, via Melusine? I for one have never heard of this trait in Edward and his sons. Has anyone else? Although, on reflection, there is one monarch who fits this bill, Edward’s grandson, Richard II.
In a beautiful, sleepy Oxfordshire village stands the church of St Mary the Virgin. Once this village was a much busier place, with ornate Almhouses known as ‘God’s House’ (now partly a school) and a lavish manor house that was near enough a palace. Other than a wall of the old dairy, not one trace of the manor now remains above ground, but in the 15th century this was the home of Alice de la Pole, wife of William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk.
Alice was the grand daughter of one of the most famous English writers of all time, Geoffrey Chaucer of Canterbury Tales fame.Her father was Thomas Chaucer and her mother Maud or Matilda Burghersh who are both buried in the church in an altar tomb set with fine brasses and covered in the wheel symbol of the de Roets and the leopards of the Plantagenets. Alice was married three times, first to Sir John Philip, then Thomas Montagu Earl of Salisbury, and finally to William de la Pole. Her son, John de la Pole, married Elizabeth of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, and John’s son, Alice’s grandson, was John Earl of Lincoln, whom Richard III made his heir after the death of Edward of Middleham.
Alice’s husband William was murdered when his ship was intercepted by a huge royal warship called ‘Nicholas of the Tower’ while crossing the Channel as he went into exile. Immediately he knew doom had befallen him; he had been told years before by the astrologer Stacey that he must ‘beware the Tower.’ Taken on board the enemy ship, he was beheaded with ‘many blows’ from a rusty sword and his body displayed for all to see upon the sands at Dover, his head stuck upon a stake.
Alice inherited many lands and manors from her husband and as she loaned a considerable amount of money to the Crown, the lands and titles were not placed under attainder. At one point she was constable of nearby Wallingford castle and as such custodian of both the ill-fated Henry Holland Duke of Exter (later to suspiciously ‘fall off’ a ship and drown after Edward IV’s French campaign) and Margaret of Anjou in the aftermath of Tewkesbury. Years before, Alice had been one of Queen Margaret’s ladies in waiting.
Alice died in 1475 at the age of 71. She has a large and elaborate alabaster tomb of exceedingly fine workmanship. On top lies the effigy of a strong-featured but peaceful-looking woman wearing a coronet; below the top, in a recess, lies a macabre memento mori monument of the Duchess as a decaying corpse, a grim reminder of the transience of life.
How did St Valentine become the patron saint of lovers? The answer to that is the stuff of legends. One story has it that he was a peaceful man, as well as a great peacemaker, and while tending the roses in his garden, he heard a couple quarrelling violently. He cut a rose and went to mediate between them. When he gave them the rose, their love for each other returned.
Another story is that he was chosen to be the patron saint of lovers because his day is close to the pagan feast of Lupercalia, a Roman festival of fertility. One thing is certain, by the time of Richard III, the giving of loving kisses and gifts was in full swing.
Ford Madox Brown, 1845-1851
I think we should credit Geoffrey Chaucer with a large part in the promoting 14th February as ‘St Valentine’s Day’ as the ‘day of love’. There is a widespread tradition that on St Valentine’s Day all the birds chose their mates. “…for this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.”
The Parliament of Birds by Carl Wilhelm de Hamilton (1668-1754)
Chaucer wrote a poem to celebrate the occasion, and called it ‘The Parlement of Foules’, or ‘Parliament of Fowls’. It was meant to be read out on St Valentine’s Day, and is believed to date from the year fifteen-year-old Richard II married Anne of Bohemia, also fifteen. Maybe it was written for the royal couple.
The illustration above is of Richard and Anne’s coronation – he seems a little old for fifteen!
Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Geoffrey Chaucer reading.
Whatever the truth, Chaucer created a symbol of spring love, with birds singing and twittering joyfully. Quarrelling too, with the royal and aristocratic birds of prey lording it over lesser birds. A full translation can be read at http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/Fowls.htm
Danish love poems for Valentine’s Day
To know how medieval lovers celebrated St Valentine’s Day, look at http://uk.businessinsider.com/medieval-valentines-day-celebrations-2016-2?r=US&IR=T.
And to learn of ten great royal romances of the medieval period, try https://e-royalty.com/articles/the-ten-great-medieval-royal-romances/
Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
The oldest existing medieval Valentine love letter, from teenaged Margery Brews to John Paston, is revealed at http://www.historytoday.com/rachel-moss/medieval-valentine (and it is included in a very informative and interesting article about medieval Valentines by Professor Sarah Peverley at https://sarahpeverley.com/tag/medieval-valentine/
And finally, if you fancy something light-hearted and a little silly, go to https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/?s=right+royal
Terry Hunt of the EADT writes here about some famous people with Ipswich links: Chaucer (as an ancestor of Richard’s brother-in-law) and Wolsey (Richard’s contemporary) are obvious cases, as is Dickens. He doesn’t mention Thomas Cromwell (after whom the Square is named) but he does mention Charlie Chaplin, whose grandparents lived here.
Here is the scene. The mother with her newly born child, her ladies, the air of relief and happiness. But presumably she is a faithful wife, and her delighted husband will soon be summoned to see his new offspring. No doubt he hopes for a son.
But what if she isn’t a faithful wife, and the sire of her baby isn’t her late husband. What’s more, the father is a royal prince?
The following article must be viewed against the 14th-century background of the Hundred Years War, the reigns of Edward III and Richard II, the plague and the convoluted private life of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster . . . forebear of Margaret Beaufort, and therefore of Henry VII and the Tudors.
Just when did Gaunt (b. 6 March 1340 – d. 3 February 1399) become the lover of his children’s married governess, Katherine, Lady Swynford (b. 1349/50, d. 10 May 1403)? And was he first the lover of her sister, Philippa, who was married to Geoffrey Chaucer? In fact, were all the children born to Chaucer and Philippa actually Gaunt’s offspring? (See John Gardner, The Life and Times of Chaucer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, INC., 1977), 158-162.)
I do not place much faith in this claim about Gaunt and Philippa, but if it were true, it raises an interesting point. Here is an extract from The Duchesses of Lancaster: an examination of English noblewomen’s exercise of power and influence during the fourteenth century, a thesis by Amanda Elizabeth Sanders.
“. . . Gaunt and Katherine confessed to having an affair during his marriage with Constance and that he was godfather to her eldest daughter with Hugh Swynford, which was seen as incest . . .”
Why was it considered incest? Because in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 it was recorded that anyone’s wife, or sexual partner, is related to her sisters in the first degree, which is incest. It was considered incest up to the fourth degrees of affinity. (See Harry Rothwell, English Historical Documents, 1189-1327,” in Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook, ed. Conor McCarthy, (London: Routledge, 2004), 68-69.) Gaunt, being Philippa’s lover first and godfather to Katherine’s daughter Blanche Swynford, would have been considered to commit incest with Katherine, because she was within the degrees of affinity.
Well, I think I follow all that. My education stopped at GCE ‘O’ level in 1960, and I did not take history or religious education. A vital part of Henry VII’s ancestry was that his mother, Margaret Beaufort, could claim descent from John of Gaunt, and therefore Edward III . . . but it just might be that Gaunt had nothing whatsoever to do with John Beaufort’s conception, except to later claim fatherhood. (Note for those who do not know: Beaufort is the name granted to all of the children of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.)
Disregarding any possible incest, the point of interest for me is that Gaunt and Katherine confessed to being lovers during his marriage to Constance of Castile. Call me Doubting Thomas, but I think it more likely they were lovers before that marriage, a conclusion I have reached while in pursuit of the all-important dates for the start of the affair with Katherine.
These matters are of great consequence to Ricardians (and Tudorites) because the parentage of Gaunt and Katherine’s eldest son, John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset, can be called into question due to his actual date of birth not being known. The event is generally stated to be ‘circa 1373’, and anything ‘circa’ in mediaeval terms can stretch quite a way in either direction. Certainly to the middle of 1372, which is the date I believe.
To explain why, it is necessary to tell something of Katherine Swynford’s marriage to Sir Hugh Swynford (1340-September 1371), a fairly lowly knight of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire, whose only claim to distinction, apart from the identity of his wife, was being “small, stocky and known by his fellows as ‘the battling Saxon ram’!” He was a fierce and shrewd warrior, and clever battle tactician, with a beautiful but unfaithful wife from a lowly background in Hainault. But Katherine Swynford had been raised in the household of Queen Philippa, also from Hainault, and had the formal education and knowledge of court that made her ideal to become the governess of the queen’s grandchildren, Gaunt’s brood by his first duchess, Blanche of Lancaster.
In 1369, while Gaunt was away fighting the war on the continent, Katherine was called to Bolingbroke to spend Christmas with Blanche. But she arrived to find the duchess dying of the plague. Katherine took care of her, and managed to find a priest to administer the Last Rites. Katherine’s loving attentions were appreciated, and on his return to England, Gaunt invited her to come south to London to attend Blanche’s funeral. When she eventually went home to Kettlethorpe, he had rewarded her ‘for the care shown to the late Duchess and for the Lancastrian children after their mother’s death’. She had been granted her own blazon, consisting of three Catherine wheels, which Gaunt had designed, bestowed and registered himself. She also received, as a pension, ‘all issues from, and profits from his towns of Waddington and Wellingere to be paid yearly’.
Lavish rewards indeed! If I were Hugh, I’d be highly suspicious about the nature of the attentions Katherine had paid. And to whom! But there is no proof that anything had yet gone on between Katherine and the duke. Just a very strong hint, in my opinion.
There aren’t any known contemporary portraits of Gaunt and Katherine, so (to give a flavour) here is a rather romanticised view, taken from the cover of an edition of Anya Seton’s excellent novel, Katherine. Fiction maybe, but Katherine was very lovely, and Gaunt was indeed a royal prince.
Next, Hugh went to France to fight in a company led by Sir Robert Kindles, from whom Gaunt would take over command. In 1371 Hugh was seriously wounded and taken to Bordeaux in Gaunt’s train. The duke found him suitable lodgings and instructed his own personal physician, Brother William Appleton, to care for him. A certain Nirac de Bayanne, the duke’s servant (and Hugh’s enemy of old) is mentioned at this juncture, although he had actually entered the story a little earlier because he (and therefore Gaunt?) figured quite considerably in Swynford affairs.
“ . . . May 1367 . . . when the registers note that John of Gaunt appointed his servitor, Nirac de Bayanne, as Steward over Kettlethorpe until Hugh could be sent home. They also record that he stood sponsor to Blanchette, Hugh and Katherine’s daughter born in May 1367 and ordered for her the silver and gilt cup as a baptismal gift . . .”
Hugh and Nirac did not get on at all, and I imagine Hugh resented the man’s presence on his land and in his house. Especially when Katherine was there and gave birth to their daughter.
Now we come forward to Bordeaux again, September 1371, and Hugh recovering from his wounds (or from dysentery, or both, according to opinion). Katherine arrived to be among the English ladies of Gaunt’s forthcoming second duchess, the Infanta Costanza (Constance) of Castile. Gaunt had sent that same Nirac de Bayanne to be Katherine’s escort, and was apparently highly annoyed when she went straight to tend her ailing husband.
The following has been gathered (not word for word) from http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=ancestorsearch&id=I920.
. . . Less than a week after Katherine’s arrival, Hugh was dead. His death surprised everyone as he had been making a good recovery. [It was thought he had been poisoned by the hate-filled Nirac de Bayanne, either from personal dislike or on the duke’s instruction.] Katherine seemed to have been genuinely shocked and upset by her husband’s passing. Aided by Brother William, she arranged for Hugh’s body to be returned to England and Kettlethorpe for burial. Unusually, she returned to court in Bordeaux, rather than accompany the body home. Hugh was buried, and faded into obscurity, leaving Katherine free to enter into a liaison with John [Gaunt] . . .
. . . Nirac was posthumously implicated in Hugh’s death. He is reputed to have confessed to poisoning Hugh, and on his deathbed repeatedly stated that neither John nor Katherine was aware of what he had done. (Hmmm. Maybe she didn’t, but I’d hazard Gaunt knew full well. Hugh was an inconvenience with a husband’s rights, and Katherine had just miffed the duke by putting her husband first. Were those conjugal rights being enjoyed? Might ducal jealousy have raised its head?) . . .
. . . It is known that John and Katherine disappeared for several weeks prior to his second marriage (which took place on 21st September 1371 near Bordeaux). She returned to England and was obviously pregnant because (in the summer of 1372?) she gave birth to John, later John Beaufort. It was assumed that John was Hugh’s posthumous child, but when Henry (My note: second Beaufort son) was born to [Gaunt] and Katherine, they acknowledged John as theirs . . .
Back to my narrative. So, September 1371 was a vital month in this story. Hugh probably died in about the first week, and Gaunt married Constance of Castile on 21st. Between the death and marriage, Gaunt and Katherine disappeared together . . . and they were not intent upon needlepoint, I’ll warrant. Katherine was not pretending to be a grieving widow, nor was Gaunt being much of a bridegroom. Given this conduct, I strongly suspect them of hanky-panky while poor old Hugh lingered.
When Gaunt returned to England not long after his wedding, he did not bring his new duchess with him. Going straight to the Savoy, he spent Christmas with his children by Blanche of Lancaster . . . and their widowed, pregnant governess was there too. If tongues did not wag into a thunderous racket, I would be absolutely amazed!
How intriguing is the whole scenario, because if it was thought Katherine’s child could be Hugh’s posthumous offspring, then presumably everyone in Bordeaux believed he had recovered enough to be capable of siring it! Maybe he would have survived had fate, or Nirac de Bayanne, not intervened.
So . . . was Hugh the real father of John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset? He was still alive for the likely period of the earl’s conception. Might Katherine have warmed her husband’s bed and Gaunt’s during the same week? Should John Beaufort have actually been named John Swynford? His date of birth is unknown, and is given as ‘circa 1373’, which certainly could have encompassed the middle of 1372, which is nine months or so from September 1371.
And on top of all this, we have the interesting point mentioned at the very beginning. If Gaunt had been the lover of Philippa Chaucer before he tumbled into bed with Katherine, the latter relationship would have been regarded as incestuous, as well as adulterous. Their Beaufort children were subsequently legitimised, and specifically excluded from any claim to the throne, but I can’t imagine that, according to the then rules, they could be freed from the stigma of incest. Could the Pope have done that? I don’t know. (An aside: Presumably this means that Henry VIII’s activities with the Boleyn sisters was incestuous too?)
Oh, to get to the truth of it all, for the possibility exists that Margaret Beaufort, the scheming mother of the first Tudor king, might have only been the granddaughter of the obscure Kettlethorpe knight, Sir Hugh Swynford, not any offspring of Gaunt.
But there was more scandal, because when it came to blood descent, the man she took as her first husband, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, father of Henry VII, was most likely not a Tudor at all, but a Beaufort/Swynford by a son of the same John who had been conceived in Bordeaux in September 1371!
How could this be? Well, according to entirely different and equally salacious whispers, Edmund Tudor’s father wasn’t Owen Tudor (the supposed second husband of Queen Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V) but was sired by one Edmund Beaufort, third son of the Bordeaux John Beaufort/Swynford. Catherine of Valois was widely rumoured to have had an affair with this Edmund Beaufort, who would not/could not marry her, but got her with child anyway. Catherine swiftly married Owen Tudor, maybe for love, maybe for protection. (Note: It cannot be proved that they actually did marry, but tradition has it they did.) The baby was born a Tudor, but naming him Edmund certainly fanned the rumours.
So, Margaret was Beauchamp on her mother’s side, but either Beaufort or Swynford on her father’s. Edmund Tudor was half Valois, and either Beaufort or half Swynford, but most likely not Tudor. Poor old Henry, all that playing upon his Welshness, and even naming his son and heir Arthur, when all the time there was most likely no proud descent from great Welsh heroes, both mythical and real, and certainly no link to Camelot. Or to Gaunt and Edward III. I would love to have seen the faces of Margaret and Henry had they discovered all this to be true.
This article is about the de la Poles and their connection with Hull. The author rather muddles some members of the family but there are no nasty comments about Richard III.