Anne O Brien

New Year Gift Giving

Posted on December 31, 2013

New Year Gift Giving in the House of Lancaster 1392.

New Year Gift Giving in the House of Lancaster 1392

Jewels all the Way


What value do we put on a man who is more than happy to buy gifts for the members of his family?  A man generous with the amount he spends, and with exquisite taste?

John, Duke of Lancaster and his son Henry, Earl of Derby (later to become Henry IV after the deposition of Richard II), were both open-handed and generous gift givers, and were also fairly meticulous record keepers. 

My interest in this family developed through my novel of Katherine de Swynford, The Scandalous Duchess, and my present writing about Elizabeth of Lancaster, Henry's sister.  Henry plays a major role in Elizabeth's relationship with John Holand, Duke of Exeter.

So to return to gifts ...

In the late fourteenth century, the time for exchanging gifts was New Year's Day rather than Christmas, and the giving of gifts by an important man was more than simply a way to mark the special day.  One purpose of it was of course to bind the lucky recipient in an unbreakable bond of loyalty with the giver.  Another was to exhibit the power of the giver through the value and ostentation of the gift.  But some gifts were simply to give pleasure and show affection to a loved one.

And how open-handed Earl Henry was on New Year's Day in 1392 when a large number of the Lancaster family had met to celebrate Christmas at Hertford, Duke John bringing his own minstrels with him to swell the musical offerings.

These are Henry's gifts on record:

- To the King, Richard II, Henry's first cousin - who was not at Hertford - a gold brooch in the style of a panther with sapphires and pearls.

- To his father the Duke of Lancaster, a gold swan with a ruby and pearls.

- To Mary, his young wife of years, a golden hind covered in white enamel with a gold collar.

- To Dame Katherine  de Swynford (not yet married to the Duke but who clearly had a very close association with the whole family and was present at Hertford) a gold ring set with a diamonds.

- To Joan Beaufort, daughter of Dame Katherine and the Duke, a pair of paternosters - rosary beads - of coral and gold.

Jewels were also given to Constanza, the Duchess of Lancaster, who was not one of the party.

Also to Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester, Mary's sister.

And to Elizabeth, Countess of Huntingdon, Henry's sister. 

Of all these gifts, from an aesthetic point of view, the white enamelled hind is the most interesting.   The use of white enamel was rare in jewellers' art, requiring great skill, and although there is no trace of Mary's golden hind, we have the famous and absolutely exquisite Dunstable Swan jewel which is made in the same manner.  In the same account of these New Year's Gifts is a reference to Henry paying Ludwing the Goldsmith for the mending and enamelling of a gold swan of his own, which he had broken.  Was this the Dunstable swan jewel?  Or something very like it?  The swan was one of the heraldic symbols of the Bohuns, Mary's family.  It may be that the swan brooch too belonged to Henry. 

Henry continued to give generously.  In future years - such as 1393 - he ordered the making of two suits of armour which were then sent on to Hertford for himself and Thomas Beaufort, the youngest son of Katherine and Duke John.  Tournaments were part and parcel of the celebrations for this family and the new armour was to be displayed in the jousts.

In that same year, Mary and Dame Katherine were each presented with four lengths of white damask silk for gowns for the celebrations. 

What a pleasure it is to see these personal touches, when much of history is taken up with politics, battles and thwarted ambitions.  How fortunate that John and Henry kept personal accounts.

The jewels I have included in this post, apart from the Dunstable Swan jewel, are part of the Fishpool Hoard, discovered in Nottingham, and thought to date from the mid 1400s, so they are roughly contemporary and give us an idea of the quality and craftsmanship in the production of such gifts.  They can all be seen in the British Museum.  The originals noted by Henry have sadly all disappeared. Perhaps they are waiting somehwere to be discovered.  How wonderful!


All the above characters appear in The Scandalous Duchess, my novel of Dame Katherine de Swynford, which will be released in the UK in march 2014.


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Categories: medieval matters, Plantagenet, Work in Progress,

The Elusive Face of Katherine de Swynford

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 ...?

Celebratory Giveaway!


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. 

Glorious Giveaway:

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.

Good Luck!



Categories: All Things Romantic, Giveaway!, Katherine Swynford, medieval matters, Plantagenet, Women in History, Work in Progress,

A Nun's Lament

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.



Categories: medieval matters, Women in History,