Anne O Brien
Posted on November 3, 2013
So what did Katherine de Swynford look like? We have very little to help us from contemporary sources. Or do we have one tantalising clue ...?
My Giveaway is now closed (Monday 11th November). Thank you to all who enjoyed Katherine and left a comment.
I will post the names of the two fortunate winners of a copy of The Forbidden Queen by the end of the week.
A Celebration of my completion of The Scandalous Duchess, to be released in March 2014 in the UK.
The story of Katherine de Swynford and John, Duke of Lancaster.
What can we say about the Face and Figure of Katherine Swynford, eventually Duchess of Lancaster. What did she actually look like?
Katherine de Swynford might be the most well known, and perhaps the most well-loved, by readers of historical fiction, of all medieval mistresses, but what did this elusive woman actually look like? Some historical figures, particularly from the Tudor era, are easily recognisable. Would we recognise Katherine de Swynford if we passsed her in the street?
The documentary evidence for Katherine's life is limited to sparse entries of gifts made to her in John of Gaunt's Register and the writings of monks and clerics who were far more interested in her scandalous behaviour and sinful life than in her appearance. It is possible to glean some thoughts about her character, but nowhere is there any comment on her appearance.
With John of Gaunt there is, of course, no difficulty in imagining this powerful Plantagenet prince. This famous portrait is not contemporary, but still it is thought to be a copy of one that existed from his lifetime. It gives us an excellent and detailed idea of his stature and features, and certainly his pride. There are also written contemporary comments on his appearance at different stages in his life.
But what of Katherine?
The memorial brass on Katherine's tomb in Lincoln Cathedral is not helpful. There she lies with her head on a pillow, hands together in prayer, wearing the veil of a widow, a simple robe and a cloak. It does not give us much of a clue. Nor is it a medieval. The brass on Katherine's tomb was destroyed in 1644 and the present one created from a description of the original. Like many medieval brasses or memorials, it shows no definite facial features.
In their memorials, women were invariably shown as the epitome of slim, serene, attractive womanhood. The memorial to Philippa of Hainault in Westminster Abbey is unusual and remarkable for its honesty, as Philippa herself wished. Katherine's brass follows the usual uniform trend of telling us nothing of her true appearance.
This is a painting by Ford Madox Brown, one of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, in which the main figure is john Wycliffe, reading his translation of the Bible. Chaucer is obviously there, and so is John of Gaunt, but if the female figure with the child is Katherine with one of her Beaufort children, probably the eldest, John, she has been pushed into the back ground as a pale figure and just a 'woman in the audience'. Clearly the artist was not interested in her.
The man in the red hood is Geoffrey Chaucer, who was part of the Lancaster household and married to Katherine's sister Philippa.
Do can we do any better for Katherine?
This image is clearly labelled Katherine de Roet, but it is a frivolous image with no claim to authenticity of either appearance or clothing. What a strange hat she is wearing.
But we can probably do better.
Perhaps the nearest we can get to catching a glimpse of the real Katherine is from the Frontispiece of Chaucer's work Troilus and Criseyde.
Produced in early 15th century, it looks back and depicts Chaucer reading to the major figures of the reign of Richard II. There is Richard in dull gold in the centre, his face rubbed out, and beside him in pink Anne of Bohemia, his first wife.
But at the front of the gathering ...
Is this a little family group at the front of the illustration on the left? It has been suggested that John of Gaunt is the impressive figure in red. In front of him are two kneeling women On the right of the pair - is this Katherine herself as Duchess of Lancaster, splendidly dressed in Lancaster colours of blue and white, trimmed with fur and gold and wearing a ducal coronet? She is turning with arm outstretched to the younger woman, also dressed in blue. Might this be her daughter Joan Beaufort?
I like to think so.
(It has to be said that the lady in blue and gold and fur has been identified as Joan of Kent but there is as little evidence for this as there is that it is Katherine.)
Except that perhaps the evidence is weighted in favour of the elusive Katherine. This manuscript has an interesting history. It is said to have been made a few years after Chaucer's death, perhaps for Joan Beaufort who was of course Chaucer's niece, for it was later recorded to be in the possession of Joan's daughter, Anne Neville, Countess of Stafford. If it had been commissioned by Joan, then she and her mother might well have taken centre stage with her father in this family group. Joan was strongly of the mind to reinstate her mother into respectability.
There is no definitive evidence but if this is so, then we can at last make some comment on Katherine. She has a round face, a long, slender and very elegant neck. Her figure is well developed, even voluptuous, as it might be after her years of childbirth, and her hair is very fair. A comely woman indeed, as she must have been to take John of Gaunt's eye and keep it for all the years of their life together. Royal Dukes did not marry their mistresses, yet John loved Katherine enough to wed her and restore her to the respectability she forfeited when she became his mistress. She must have had something to take the eye. This lady, by now in her forties but still very attractive, might just be Katherine de Swynford.
So since we know so little about Katherine, what do editors do when considering book covers? They have of course to make the most of romantic and chivalric images. This can be best seen with the various printings of 'Katherine' by Anya Seton.
This is the very familiar painting The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton which was used on my own Hungarian printing of Virgin Widow. It is beautifully romantic, even though it bears no similarity with any scene either in Katherine's life of that of Anne Neville in Virgin Widow.
This is Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another glorious Pre-Raphaelite portrait. The woman does not look medieval but does it matter? She is beautiful and emotional and highlights the mood of the novel.
What would we do without the romantic Pre-Raphaelites?
And what about my own cover for The Scandalous Duchess? I have not been admitted into the secret yet. I'll post when I know.
A Celebration of the completion of The Scandalous Duchess, to be released in March 2014 in the UK.
2 signed copies of The Forbidden Queen
Click, below on the right, on 'Click here to read Comments' and leave a message.
Two fortunate winners will receive a signed copy of the Forbidden Queen. The Giveaway is international and will run from Monday 4th November until Monday 11th November.
Posted on August 8, 2013
A Nun's Lament from Carmina Burana
A Nun's Lament
A moving cry from a 12th century heart.
Why did medieval women join convents? This is a subject well documented, and needs no insightful additions from me.
Some without doubt became nuns through a deep seated vocation, a high ideal: women such as Hildegard of Bingen.
Others acquired a calling during their enclosed lifetime, as did Heloise who devoted herself to her new life after the tragic consequences of her relationship with Abelard.
But for others, the religious content of life behind walls may have played a less important part.
It was the custom of many noble families to be engaged in the endowment and patronage of nunneries, with one of the family being appointed the Superior of that convent. For them it was a career, allowing social standing without a husband, and with much to be enjoyed if Chaucer's Prioress, with her little dogs, her ultra-nice manners, her Amor Vincit Omnia brooch and her coral rosary, is any guide. I am sure many were exemplary nuns, but it is the Prioress who sticks in my mind
Then there were widows who chose a religious house as a refuge from worldly pressures, particularly if they were in financial difficulties. And what better life was there, offering a dignified, respectable option, for women of social standing and wealth who did not or could not wed.
Nunneries were often the answer for superfluous daughters, girls being placed there at an early age, educated there, then making the transition to becoming a nun, the only life they had known. There were not always happy consequences. At the Gilbertine monastic house at Watton in Yorkshire in 1166 a young nun, placed there at the age of four years, grew up with no releigious conviction and was discovered, in maturity, to be pregnant. The nun suffered either a miscarriage or an abortion - the comment was that God annulled the pregnancy. Her lover, a lay brother, was castrated by her fellow nuns. A tragic story altogether.
I am sure that many girls taking the veil simply bowed to the inevitable because there was little choice for them and life within the convent was better than life outside.
My reason for posting these thoughts on the inmates of nunneries came from my browsing through a book of medieval poetry. There I came across these two stanzas from the Carmina Burana, a 12th century collection of Latin poems, some 250 in all. They were written by wandering scholars, often concerned with volatile love, the pleasures of wine or with the exposing of abuse in the church. The authors are anonymous.
Here is The Nun's Complaint. What a sad little tale it tells. How authentic is it? How much truth does it offer as a tiny window into the hearts and minds of many women shut away from the world? Quite a lot, I imagine.
The Nun's Complaint
What tears the sister shed,
Wailing the life she led:
Sighing she shook her head;
Then to the nuns she said:
'What joys I miss.
There is no life on earth
So hard as this,
For I've a wanton heart,
I want a kiss.
'The echoing bells I sound,
I chant the whole year round,
In sleep I'd fain be drowned,
But still no sleep is found.
What joys I miss.
Rebelliously all night
I toss and awake.
Rather inside my arms
A man I'd take
The main difficutly with it is that the author of these verses is most probably a man. If so then the sentiments could well be accused of being the typical male comment on a woman needing a man in her life to make her feel fulfilled. Shut away from the world of men, how was it possible for a nun to feel any sense of satisfaction or enjoyment of her lot? Did the author actually know the emotions of many nuns, or is it a 12th century macho presumption?
But that apart, I imagine many a nun through the ages, who had taken vows for reasons other than religious conviction, would echo this Cri de Coeur against the restrictions on her life.
This simply little poem, kindly translated from the Latin by Jack Lindsay, touched my heart far more deeply than any description of the povery and privations experienced by many women who took the veil.
If you were as moved by this as I was, and wish to comment, please click on Click Here to Read Comments and leave your thoughts. I am always interested to hear from readers.
Posted on June 17, 2013
The ups and downs of medieval baronial life in the Welsh Marches.
A tale of an indigestible meal, a royal standoff, a famous royal mistress and a rough seduction. And this insignificant little ruin is all that's left to tell the tale.
The ups and downs of medieval baronial life in the Welsh Marches.
This post was inspired by my jounrey to and from Hay Festival this year, through the village of Clifford. It is a journey I have done many times, but the weather was glorious and the hedgerows full of flowers, The ruins of this little castle looked idyllic which led me on to write about it ...
The ruins of Clifford Castle in Herefordshire, on the banks of the River Wye just on the English side of the border with Wales, some three miles from Hay on Wye, occupy a lovely spot on a warm afternoon in June. There is very little to see of the overgrown stonework, but what we know and what still exists suggests some definite clashes of personality - some romantic, some much less so - to have taken place there over the years.
Clifford Castle was built by Earl William Fitz-Osbern in 1069-70 on a natural outcrop overlooking a ford in the river (hence Cliff Ford). With some ground work and a ditch dug, it became the motte that can still be seen from the road.
The castle passed into the hands of Ralph de Tosny. Originally simply a small motte and bailey, by the 13th century it had become a stone keep with a hall and 5 D-shaped towers. This is the remains of one of them.
With the wars of Stephen and Matilda the Tosny's hold on Clifford castle weakened. Roger Tosny's steward, Walter Fitz Richard, had taken the name Walter de Clifford, had married Isabel Tosny, Roger's sister, and by the end of the civil war he had made himself de facto lord of Clifford. With an eye to the main chance, Walter refused to return the castle and lordship to their rightful owners, and also saw the advantage of having a beautiful daughter. Walter was clearly a man with ambitions.
During the reign of King Henry II, Walter Clifford - a pragmatic man as well as an ambitious one - introduced his daughter, renowned for her beauty, to Henry when he was campaigning in Wales. Soon the two became lovers and Walter's seductive daughter ensured that Walter never lost control of Clifford. This lovely young woman is of course Rosamund, the 'Fair Rosamund' of myth and legend. It is said that Henry placed Rosamund in a safe house at the centre of a maze at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The centre could only be found by following an almost invisible silver thread. However, Henry's wife Queen Eleanor found the threada nd, finding the fair maiden, Eleanor forced her to drink fatal poison. Another excellent historical myth, I expect. Whatever the truth of her end, this little castle in the Marches is where Fair Rosamund grew up.
Now for the unpleasnt 'snack.' The main building project at Clifford was complete by the reign of King Henry III who ordered a later Walter de Clifford to pay off the large debts he owned to the Jews as a result of the expense of these new works. When Henry sent his demand, a furious Walter rebelled. The story says that he made the royal messenger 'eate the King's Writ, Waxe and all'. A scene that certainly fires the imagination and certainly resulted in severe indigestion. Royal seals were not small! King Henry suitably incensed by this flagrant disobedience sent an army to besiege and capture the castle from Walter - who wisely saw it in his interests to surrender without a fight.
This is a somewhat romantic view of the ruins of Clifford from the River Wye. Today it is certainly not as impressive as this.
And here is another gem of history at Clifford - the tale of a rough wooing. On Walter's death in 1262 the castle passed to Matilda de Clifford, Walter's daughter and widow of William Longspey, Earl of Salisbury. This lady was abducted and forcibly married to John Giffard of Brimpsfield. In terror she managed to get a letter to the king telling of her abduction and rape, pleading for rescue. Once more Henry III took to the field, this time for the honour of the baroness of Clifford. However before he reached Clifford he received another letter from Matilda saying that everything was quite satisfactory now, and she had married her abductor! Resuce was no longer on the cards.
This enterprising gentleman was fined for this vicious exploit against the lady, but Matilda opted to remain with him as his wife. Did Matilda fall for her abductor? Was it a more exciting life for her as his wife than as a widow? We will never know the answer, but somewhere in there is a great story. The marriage was subsequently blessed by the birth of two daughters before Matilda’s death in 1284.
In the 14th century the castle passed into the hands of the Mortimers of Wigmore. It is said that they entertained Richard II and John of Gaunt at Clifford Castle in 1381, before the Peasants' Revolt and the destruction of Gaunt's magnificent Savoy Palace. At this point in Gaunt's history with Katherine Swynford, he had not yet publically disowned her and she would still have been his mistress, but I doubt she was with him at Clifford.
Clifford played little part in subsequent history apart from being garrisoned against the Welsh in 1403 in the Owain Glyn Dwr uprising. It eventually fell into disuse.
Today, as this shows, there is little to see except the large over-grown motte on the south bank of the River Wye, some poor remnants of wall structures and the remains of the great gatehouse. It is on private property and so cannot be visited by the hopeful tourist, but recently it was on the market for sale, and unlike Wigmore Castle, it has a house for the lucky owner, as well as a stretch of the River Wye and fishing rights. The house is more of a Victorian villa than a house of historic construction, but how splendid to have a castle in your own back garden.
Finally a lovely view of Clifford - both castle and house - in the June sunshine this year, but I doubt that life was ever very attractive there in the bleak winter months (although Matilda de Clifford obviously had no desire to escape from it!)
Perhaps some day there will be the opportunity to incorporate a flavour of these events in one of my novels. I used Matilda in a romance written some years ago Who knows if the rest will feature?
Do leave a comment. I am always delighted to hear from readers.