Wednesday, September 26, 2007
She lived in the 14th Century, and until Anya Seton rescued her from obscurity, was nothing more than a footnote in the life of her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer. She doesn't even have a name in Shakespeare's play, Richard II. Yet her descendants include several kings of England, and a dukedom that still exists today. Recently two new biographies have appeared about her, the most recent to be released this month, by noted Tudor biographer Alison Weir.
Why has Katherine captured the imagination that she not only has a blog related to her but also a society named her? Perhaps because unlike other royal mistresses who either died young (Nell Gwynn, Madame Pompadour), beheaded (Madame du Barry), died in poverty (Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan) or were banished from their lover's kingdom (Lola Montez), Katherine ended up with a happy ending. Her lover, John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, not only married her but legitimized their children, although his nephew Richard II made sure that they were not eligible to inherit the throne.
Jeannette Lucraft, in her award winning article for History Today magazine (Missing from History, May 2002), concludes that one can learn a great deal about the role of women in the 14th Century as well as the 14th century culture and society through the history of Katherine Swynford.
Personally, I think it's just a great love story.
Katherine was born around 1350, the daughter of Paen de Roet, a Flemish herald from Hainault who was knighted just before his death on the battlefield. He had three daughters and a son who lived. Philippa married Geoffrey Chaucer, and Elizabeth died the Canoness of a convent.
Very little is known about Katherine's early years, but she must have been highly educated to have been appointed Governess to the Duke's daughters. She also would have to have shown a degree of piety and some knowledge of household economics to have been considered for the post.
Katherine grew up within the royal court, joining the household of John of Gaunt's first wife Blanche of Lancaster after her marriage in 1359. At the age of 16, Katherine married Hugh Swynford, a knight in John of Gaunt's retinue who owned the manor house of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. She bore him at least two children, Thomas and Blanche. Hugh was in his early thirties when he was killed while fighting in Aquitaine under Gaunt in 1371 when Katherine would have been all of 21 years of age.
After her husband's death Katherine then became governess to his two daughters (the sisters of the future Henry IV of England) by Blanche. Eventually, she became his official mistress, about 1373. The affair between them was to last for over 25 years culminating in their marriage in 1396.
What did the chronicles of the time say about Katherine. Many considered her to be a temptress. Thomas Walsingham, a Benedictine monk of St. Albans, was notorious for his condemnation of John of Gaunt, criticizing his leadership in the French wars, and castigating him for the conduct of his lifestyle. His opinion of Katherine was quite clear, he stated that she was an abominable temptress, and that Gaunt's blatant showcasing of his mistress in front of not only his wife, but also his retainers, and the public could only bring vengeance on the kingdom.
Apparently, Walsingham was not alone in this opinion. Other chroniclers at the time also passed judgement on the role of Katherine in Gaunt's life, all negative. What was Katherine supposed to have done to have deserved this reputation? Unlike Alice Perrers, the mistress of John of Gaunt's father Edward III, who was said to have pulled the rings of the dead king's fingers, Katherine seems to have been a pretty benign presence in Gaunt's life.
Consider the fact that they were only married after the death of his second wife, and twenty five years after first became lovers, and their children weren't legitimized by the Pope and Richard II until then. Unlike other royal mistresses, she didn't gain great titles or lands, and her children weren't given dukedoms the way Charles II's children were.
It's clear that Katherine is just another weapon to be used by Gaunt's enemies of which he had several. After the Black Prince's death, during the minority of Richard II, John of Gaunt was very powerful. And power makes enemies.
In Anya Seton's novel, Katherine and John end their relationship for a time around 1381. The nature of John of Gaunt's gifts to Katherine changed at this time and a document exists denying Katherine and her offspring any right to the Lancastrian heritage but Jeanette Lucraft argues in her biography of Katherine that if the relationship did end for a time, it was only temporary.
What was most unusual about Katherine's relationship with John of Gaunt, was how readily her children were accepted by both Richard II and later by Henry IV. Richard II referred to the Beauforts as his kinsmen. Enveloping the children of an adulterous relationship into the royal sphere proved the acceptance of the family and was totally unprecedented. Royal bastards may have been provided for and given titles but they weren't considered to be part of the family.
John of Gaunt died in 1400 and Katherine followed him a scant three years later, and the relatively (for us) young age of 53, leaving behind at least six children. She is buried in Lincoln Cathedral where you can still see her tomb, although it was vandalised during the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.
Her daughter Joan married Richard Neville, and became grandmother of Edward IV and Richard III. Katherine's other great-granddaughter married the Jasper Tudor, the son of Katherine de Valois, becoming the mother of Henry VII. The current Duke of Beaufort traces his lineage from Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt.
Like another royal mistress who became a royal Duchess (Camilla Parker Bowles), Katherine Swynford was not born of the nobility, but she was able to assume the character and mantle of the highest echelons of the nobility and the monarchy.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
It seems like new books appear daily. Philippa Gregory has been writing a popular series of books, and now Carolly Erickson, and Alison Weir are writing historical novels based on this dynasty founded on the wrong side of the blanket (Owen Tudor was the lover and secret husband of Henry V's widow Katherine of Valois).
The focus on the Tudors tends to be on the larger than life Henry, and his second wife Anne Boleyn, but what of the other wife that he beheaded Catherine Howard. What was her story and what made her so scandalous that she lost her head at the tender age of possibly 21? The story of Catherine Howard can be seen as a cautionary tale about what happens when a young, immature girl from a powerful family marries a much older man, and lacks the maturity to deal with her new position.
To understand her, you have to understand her family, The Howards and her Uncle, The Duke Of Norfolk. The Howards were than, as they are now one of the premier Catholic families in the country. They had supported Richard III against Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, but managed to turn their fortunes around after backing the wrong horse. But Henry VIII never fully trusted the family. They were also ambitious, hitching their fortunes first to Anne Boleyn, who turned out to be a Protestant reformer, and then Catherine Howard. To be near the throne meant endless possibilities for advancement and riches. Unfortunately, Catherine Howard proved to be even less of an asset than her first cousin, Anne Boleyn.
Catherine's father was Lord Edmund Howard, the 3rd son of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Her father was a brawler like most of the Howards, but as a gentleman was basically confined to hanging around the court, doing very little. It wasn't until 1531, under the influence of Anne Boleyn, that he was given the post of Controller of Calais. However, the salary was barely enough to to live on, let alone raise a family or pay off his considerable debts.
Catherine's mother, Edmund's first wife, was Jocelyn Culpepper, was a rich heiress, a widow with two children, when they married. She proceeded to give Edmund 10 children of which Catherine was number 10, before she finally expired when Catherine was around ten years old. While her father took up his post in Calais, and married the second of his three wives, little Catherine was sent off to live with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.
The Duchess kept a large household of male and female attendants at her various homes including Lambeth Palace near the King's new Palace of Whitehall. She also had many wards, consisting of the children of relatives who could not not afford to support their families like Catherine Howard's. Supervision was lax, as the Duchess was often at court and had little interest in their upbringing and education. Sounds like a recipe for disaster and it was.
Because of this lackadaisical approach, Catherine was the least educated of Henry's six wives. Oh, she could read and write, unlike many English women of her time, but she had no intellectual curiousity. She is often described by contemporaries as being merry and vivacious, but empty-headed and frivolous with reddish hair and blue eyes, but not necessarily scholarly or even particularly devout.
Catherine was placed in the Maiden's Chamber, a large dormitory like room, where the girls slept two in a bed. It was the equivalent of an Elizabethan boarding school, the girls spent their days having lessons, learning the womanly arts of embroidery and playing instruments, and their nights romping in their room after dark. Catherine was the ringleader of the girls, always leading them into some scrape and then managing to talk her way of out of it, if they got caught.
As Catherine grew up, she attracted many men at a very early age. When Catherine was around thirteen, she began a flirtatious romance with her music tutor Henry Manox, but she soon rejected him in favor of Francis Dereham, another hanger on in the Duchess's household. According to later testimony, she and Henry never slept together but there was some heavy petting going on.
"At the flattering and fair persuasions of Mannox being but a young girl I suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty to permit nor him to require," she said in her testimony.
Francis was a secretary of the Duchess' household, and as such was of a higher social status than Henry Manox. There is evidence that she and Francis were lovers, they called each other "husband" and "wife." At night, he would creep up to share her bed in the girl's dormitory. They were so close, that he entrusted her with his money while he was away on business with the Duchess. Mannox was not happy that Catherine had thrown him over, and left a letter for the Duchess detailing just what was going on in her absence. Apparently the Duchess caught the two of them together, and a horrible scene ensued, as the Duchess perhaps realized the consequences of her indifference.
There was a possibility that Dereham and Catherine had a "precontract" to marry after he returned from Ireland. If this was true, that they had exchanged vows of their intention to marry before they had sex, in the eyes of the church they would have been considered married and her later marriage to Henry would have been bigamous.
Catherine was sent to court by her uncle, who found her a place as one of Anne of Cleve's ladies in waiting. From the start, Catherine caught the eye of the King who had no interest in his new wife. While her family doubted that Catherine was mature enough to handle being the King's mistress, they saw her as a way to influence the King in matters of the true religion. Not to mention enrich their own pockets along the way.
Indeed as Henry's interest in Catherine grew, so did the Howard influence at court, as Henry lavished gifts and land on Catherine. After Henry had his marraige to Anne of Cleves annulled in July of 1540, rumors swirled at court that Catherine was pregnant. Their quick marriage only few weeks after the annulment added fuel to the fire.
What was it about Catherine Howard that made Henry act like a schoolboy? He was 49 years old at the time that they met, he'd already buried one wife, and several children. He was worn down by the rebellions in the north, worries about the succession, and the jockeying for position between those of the new faith like Cranmer and the Catholic faction at court.
Catherine's lively, vivacious nature must have been a soothing balm to a man who was severely overweight, suffered from gout and ulcerating sores. He had a notoriously short temper. He lavished costly gifts on Catherine, spending more money than he had on any of his other wives. Catherine played her part well, perhaps she was coached by her Uncle Norfolk on how exactly to please the king. Henry was so infatuated he considered her his "rose without a thorn."
Interesting tidbit, Catherine chose as her motto: No Other Will But His when she became Queen. If only she had kept her motto.
As Queen, Catherine was able to indulge her love of luxury and pleasure. She loved to dance, and enjoyed being indulged by her much older husband, not to mention all the attention she received at court, as courtiers jockeyed for her favor. Henry was not only generous to his adored bride but also to her family as well. He made her brother a maember of the Privy Council. In return, Catherine shared her husband's bed, and was loving towards him.
Unlike her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine never concerned herself with the messy business of politics or religion. Her only real assertive moment came early in the spring of 1541, when she helped two prisoners held in the Tower of London. Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III's brother. She'd been imprisoned in the Tower for two years without adequate clothing to handle the harsh winters. Catherine received permission from Henry to send the eldery woman warm clothes. She also asked the King to pardon Sir Thomas Wyatt for his association with engineering the King's marriage to Anne of Cleves. She also attempted to be a good stepmother to Henry's children, reaching out to both the Princess Mary and Elizabeth.
Catherine's downfall began when she began a flirtation with her distant relative Thomas Culpepper who had been one of her most ardent suitors when she came to court. Their meetings were facilitated by none other than Lady Rochford, sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn (more on her in another post). It continued with her other disasterous decision to appoint Henry Manox and Francis Dereham to her household. Yes, the very two men that she'd been indiscreet with before her marriage.
Why would Catherine risk her position as Queen? Was she bored with having to entertain a cranky, old man, who she didn't love and whose body now repulsed her? Did she think that by keeping her former paramours close, she could monitor their actions? Perhaps some of the Howard arrogance came to the fore. Although Catherine had fallen in love with Culpeper before her marriage to Henry, it's not clear whether or not Culpeper returned her affections. Maybe this was Catherine's attempts to get a little of her own back.
And what of her great love, Culpeper? For his part, he was no doubt using Catherine's infatuation to further his own ambitions. Apparently, he was not a particularly 'gentlemanly' gentleman. In fact, he had brutally raped a park-keeper's wife, ordering three of his servants to hold her down during the attack; he also murdered a villager who tried to save her. He had been pardoned by the king for his crimes. What a piece of work! His ambitions regarding Catherine undoubtedly stemmed from the King's poor health. If the king died, then the queen dowager would maintain some influence and power at court (i.e Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr). She'd already given him several tokens of her affection, passed on by Lady Rochford, who acted as a go-between.
The beginning of the end came after Henry and Catherine's progress the summer of 1541 in the North of England, undertaken to placate the region after a series of rebellions. Henry had also hoped to meet up with his nephew, James V of Scotland. Henry was still as besotted as ever with his new bride.
"Now in his old days after sundry troubles of mind which have happened unto him by marraiges he had obtained a jewel in Catherine."
However, John Lascelles, a protestant reformer had as sister who had been a chambermaid to the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and knew what Catherine had been up to. Worried about the threat to his faith by the Catholic faction surrounding the Duke of Norfolk, he informed Thomas Cranmer of Catherine's youthful indiscretions.
Cranmer left a letter for Henry went he went to Mass on All Soul's Day (November 2nd) 1541. Henry at first refused to believe the allegations that about his wife, unlike his previous behavior with Anne Boleyn, when he was only too willing to believe the most vile accusations. However, he asked Cranmer to discretely investigate further. Dereham and Culpeper were arrested. Dereham confessed to his behavior with Catherine when they were members of the Duchess' household. Culpeper however claimed that the relationship between himself and the Queen was no more than a flirtation.
Catherine was arrested on November 12th. She was never to see the King again. Confined to Hampton Court, stripped of all luxuries, her attempts to see the King were ignored, and Cranmer interrogated her concerning the charges. Despite the fact that admitting to a precontract with Francis Dereham would have spared her the fate of her cousin, Catherine steadfastly denied it, insisting that Dereham had forced himself on her.
The Duke of Norfolk, not known for his family loyalty, swiftly moved to throw Catherine under a bus and to castigate his step mother for her moral laxness. He even threw in a diatribe against his other niece, the long dead Anne Boleyn as an extra measure. It was a caculated move to save his butt and his place at court. Henry, at one point, had softened towards Catherine and was leaning towards leniency. However, the anti-Catherine, pro Protestant faction at court nipped that in the bud by insinuating that Catherine's appointing Dereham to her household indicated that the relationship had continued after her marriage to the King. No longer was it just her youthful indiscretions being held against her, but adultery.
On November 22nd, Catherine was stripped of her title as Queen and imprisoned at Syon House. Culpeper and Dereham were executed, Dereham in the particularly grisly method of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Culpeper as a gentleman was spared that indignity being beheaded instead. The charge was treasonous conduct. Catherine remained in limbo until Parliament passed a bill of attainder on January 21, 1542 making treason punishable by death. She was taken to the Tower on February 10th and executed on the 13th, the day before Valentine's Day.
The night before her execution, Catherine spend hours practising how to lay her head upon the block. No longer the vivacious, lively teenager who had captivated a King, she died with dignity, asking for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. She was beheaded with one stroke, and buried in an unmarked grave in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula where her unlucky cousin Anne Boleyn is also buried. A plague on the west wall of the church is dedicated to those who died on Tower Green.
Catherine's reputation suffered horribly during the Victorian years, where her earlier behavior was a sign of moral laxness. However, in recent years, historians have started to look more kindly towards her. It's important to remember how young she was, her mother died when she was young, her father was ineffectual at best, shipped off to not even a blood relative where she had no one to guide her in what was proper and what was not. Used and abandoned by her poweful family when she became a hindrance. Her indiscretions to us in the 21st century seem perfectly normal for a young girl. But in Tudor England, where a girl's virginity and need for an heir who was indisputably her husband's, Catherine's indiscretions become something more.
If Catherine had married Dereham or Culpeper, she would have been just another empty-headed flirt who people at court gossiped about behind her back. Instead, she caught the attention of the most powerful man in the land. Unlike her cousin Anne or Jane Seymour, who had spent years in royal service before they became Queen, Catherine had no experience with the hotbed of intrique of court life, where nobles constantly jockeyed for position with a King who seemed to change his mind daily about whom he favored.
Yes, she was incredibly stupid but if anything she's to be pitied more than reviled for her sins such as they were.
In her final hours, she displayed the maturity and composure, that would have made her a good Queen, if she had come to that realisation months sooner.
Thanks to David Starkey's monumental book Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, Eleanor Herman's Sex with the Queen, and Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Sound familiar? Like something ripped from today’s headlines, or the lead story on Court TV? Well this case took place 150 years ago this year in Scotland, and the accused was named Madeleine Smith. The Case of Madeleine Smith reads almost like a film noir. It’s exactly the type of case you’d expect to read about in Dominick Dunne’s column in Vanity Fair, of a love affair gone sour and ending in death. It has all the earmarks of Passion, Power and Privilege.
Emile was not to be put off. He wrote back, entreating her to meet with him. He persuaded a female friend, Miss Mary Perry, to allow them to meet covertly at her house. Madeleine relented, presumably swept up in the forbidden nature of it all. How exciting it must have been for her to have this secret!
Her letters to Emile from this time show a slow cooling off in her ardor towards him, although she cautions him not to listen to gossip about her and Minnoch. Finally, she tried to break off with him, asking that he return her letters to him back to her. Emile, of course, decides not to take this lying down. He tries to blackmail Madeleine by threatening to show her father the letters. Those letters were the 19th Century version of making a sex tape. Her father would know from her letters that she was no longer a virgin. Her life would be ruined.
Because the sudden and popular interest in the case, the trial was moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Madeleine was interred in the county jail until the trial started in June. Her parents hired the 19th Century equivalent of the Dream Team, including John Inglis. Due to Victorian Scottish law, she couldn’t testify in her own defense. Opinion in the press was divided on whether or not she was guilty or innocent.
The jury deliberated for only 9 days before reaching a verdict of ‘not proven’. What this meant was not that she was found innocent, but that the prosecution had not made a strong enough case to convict her.
If she did kill Emile, why did she make her purchases of arsenic so blatant? She even brought an eyewitness with her for one of her purchases. And if she killed him, why did she not remove his letters from either his room or his office? Just like Lizzie Borden, the Case of Madeleine Smith has taken on a mystique over the years. Was she an innocent victim of an older man? Or a calculating witch getting rid of her lower class lover when she was bored of him? Or a desperate girl taking the only way out that she could think of?
After having two children Tom and Kitten, she and her husband separated after 28 years. He moved to Italy where he died. Lena Wardle moved to New York to live with her son’s family at the age of 70, where she eventually died at the age of 93.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Friday, September 21, 2007
Whenever I see a new historical mystery, I have to buy it. Nowadays, there are so many, I can't believe it. Everything from Ancient Rome to turn of the century New York has been featured in a mystery novel. Some have been great like Anne Perry's Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, some have not been so great (I won't name names). For a long time, I've been toying with the idea of writing a historical mystery series of my own.
But who would be the detective? Well a good friend of mine once said, "If you want to know where the bodies are buried, ask a whore!" And who was the most famous courtesan of the Regency period? Harriette Wilson according to my friend. He was actually the one who suggested that Harriette would be perfect as the heroine of a series of Regency mystery novels.
There's only one problem, Harriette was a blackmailer, when she wasn't whoring. Not the most attractive quality to have in a detective. See, she would threaten to name names in her future memoirs unless the client paid up. Some like the Duke of Wellington told her to "publish and be damned." Others paid up several times.
Who was Harriette Wilson? Well, she was born the daughter of a Swiss clockmaker, and was working as a prostitute by the age of 12. By 15, she was courtesan. It was something of a family industry, both her sisters were also courtesans, her sister Sophia actually married into the aristocracy.
Harriette's usual modus operandi was to seduce a lover, and then write him an intriguing letter. Then after they were lovers, she would threaten him with exposure unless he paid up. This practice eventually led to her downfall.
I suppose I could get around the whole blackmailing thing by having it that Harriette was actually working for the government. Or the whole first mystery could be Harriette working to clear her name after one of her lovers is found murdered and she's a suspect. I suppose if Jane Austen can be a detective, then a courtesan like Harriette Wilson could as well.
The question is would anyone want to read a mystery series about a detective/whore?
Thursday, September 20, 2007
The answer is: Why not? These were women who fascinated the chroniclers, and biographers of their time, and their lives are still as fascinating today as they were during the age in which they lived. Sure, some of them seem less scandalous today what without our relentless news coverage of the celebrities, but in their time, they stepped out of the rigid confines of their world, and stepped boldly forth into the unknown, some by necessity, and some because they just could not live comfortably in the chocolate box of life proscribed by society.
First of let me start by saying I'm not a historian by any stretch of the imagination although I am a history geek. From the moment I picked up a copy of Anya Seton's book Katherine, I was hooked on reading about women in history. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II's Queen, Matilda who waged war against her cousin to assert her right to rule England, Isabella, the She Wolf of France who helped depose her husband with her lover Roger de Mortimer, Boudicca who avenged the murder and rape of her daughters against the Roman Invaders, all these women came alive to me through the pages of history.
I devoured books by Jean Plaidy (another future post) about the Kings and Queens of England and their paramours. One of my favorite books was my Jean Plaidy's alter ego, My Enemy, the Queen about Lettice Knollys, granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, who married Elizabeth I's favorite Robin, Earl of Leicester and mother of Elizabeth's last favorite Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex. My other favorite authors were of course Anya Seton, and Annmarie Sosenko who wrote a fabulous book on Desiree, the first love of Napoleon who became Queen of Sweden (great book that should be reissued).
Then came Lillie on PBS, and that opened up a whole new world of women I had never heard of. I'd already started studying dancing and acting and that introduced me to Sarah Bernhardt, Mathilde Khessinkaya, mistress of Nicolas II before his marriage to Alexandra, Clara Bow, Lillian Russell and others.
The original impetus for this was a book that I hope to write about these fascinating women. However when I made a list of all the women that I wanted to write about, the list kept stretching on and on as I discovered more and more fascinating women than could ever be contained in one book.
This blog is my attempt to pay homage to these women, and to share their stories with readers. Some of them you may have heard of, and some you may not.
I hope you enjoy them as much I have writing about them.