The Lady in the Chancery

The Lady in the Chancery
by The Very Revd Philip Buckler, Dean of Lincoln

100 Descendants of Blood Royal, Tuesday 8 April 2014, Sulgrave Club, Washington  DC

Let us begin on 19th February 1386. A solemn event is taking place in the great medieval Cathedral at Lincoln. We find it recorded in the Chapter Act Book 1384-95 [Archives A2.27].  A small number of people are being admitted to the Confraternity of the Cathedral – those people, often benefactors, have a place of distinction assured them in this community.

As the form of admission declared:

By the Auctorite of this Chapitour we admitte thee …. to the Brotherhede and fraternite of …. this chirche of Lincoln …. to be with us and all the brethren and sisters … partener and partable of all our & theire prayers suffrages fastynges pylgremages almes dedes and of all other good and meritorie dedes & werkes of mercy that we or thay shall pray or do by day or nyght in this holy place …. That ye may com to ever lasting blisse Amen [1]

Yet who are these people and what is the common link? It would seem that they are all related by circumstance if not by blood, to the Lady in the Chancery. One she had nursed as a child and would later become a stepson and a king; two were her own sons – but by different fathers; another was betrothed to her daughter; and the final one was her own sister  married to a poet whose work still holds one of the highest places in English literature today. But also present was the richest man in England if not the world at that time; a Duke of Royal blood.

There is both history and mystery to be unravelled before they next all gather in the same place ten years later for another solemn event. But let us go back five years.

‘Who is the Lady living in the Chancery?’ many of the people of Lincoln asked in 1381. She was not the first woman to have taken a lease on The Chancery – that honour went to ‘the lady of Whithornwyk’ who had rented the house for only a year beforehand.

The Chancery was (and indeed is) one of the grandest houses in the Cathedral Close at Lincoln known as Minster Yard. It was intended for the Canon Chancellor, one of the residential canons of the Cathedral. But at times during the 14th C that post was not always filled, and even when it was, sometimes the Chancellor would live elsewhere and rent out his house to a fellow clergyman or a worthy figure.

John de Belvoir had lived there a few years earlier, but now he was Subdean and lived in the Subdeanery. But he was one of those who had arranged this tenancy. Another former occupant of the Chancery was Thomas de Sutton, Prebendary of Decem Librarum. He knew the Lady in question, for he had been present some years earlier when her son Thomas was baptized in the church beside the Cathedral in 1367/8, and had acted as godfather.

Much had happened since then, both in England and in the life of Katherine Swynford, who was that Lady in the Chancery in 1381.

The house dated from about 1260 and had been bought for the Chancellor in 1321. It was to remain The Chancery for almost 700 years until I changed it by moving into the house and thereby making it into The Deanery. Over those 700 years it has altered in many ways, but its outline would be familiar to Katherine Swynford. I sit in the chapel there on one side of which are two ‘hagioscopes’ – little windows through which Katherine could have watched the priest celebrating the mass. Out in the garden you can read the house and its different styles: Medieval, Tudor and Georgian are the main features – alas the dining hall has been demolished and our goldfish swim in a small pond where people feasted in the past. Stained glass windows illustrate the coats of arms of earlier occupants, and the house is full of history ancient and modern. ‘And what of ghosts?’ I was asked recently by one of our Royal Family, or should I say one of Katherine’s descendants. But if there are any ghosts, I have not met them. The house, so rich in people and events, is happily friendly.

Katherine Swynford, as many of you will know, was the daughter of a knight Sir Paon de Roet. She was placed in the household of Philippa of Hainault, wife to Edward III. Here she would have grown up and watched the royal children, among them Edward the Black Prince and his brother John of Gaunt.

John of Gaunt had long association with Lincoln. He had himself been admitted to the confraternity at an early age; later he was appointed Constable of the Castle and  Earl of Lincoln. He grew rich beyond people’s dreams and yet, although powerful and influential as one of the King’s sons and later guardian of his nephew king, he was politically clumsy and unsuccessful.

He married three times. First to Blanche of Lancaster – a marriage that was to produce a king, Henry IV (1366-1413). Secondly to Constance of Castile – a political marriage of convenience. And lastly – and unusually – to Katherine Swynford: the family governess and subsequently his mistress.

Meanwhile Katherine herself had been married to a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford who had a modest estate at Kettlethorpe – today only an arch remains of her home, but the present Manor House is lived in by one of our political dynastic families – Viscount Hailsham and his wife Baroness Hogg. Katherine became a lady in waiting to Blanche and tended the young children of that family. Her husband died, however in 1371 as a casualty of war overseas.

Katherine’s sister had been placed as a lady in the Queen’s chamber and had married  one of the king’s esquires, the young poet Geoffrey Chaucer, known today especially for his Canterbury Tales. In our Library we have a manuscript copy (MS110). Within these poems we can find examples of events and people in Lincoln and around the country. [eg Prioress Tale tells of Little Hugh]

Katherine became the Duke’s mistress during his marriage to Constance and bore him four children between 1373 and 1379.  But in 1381 something occurred that severed this relationship which had already caused scandal in society. The Peasants Revolt, as the uprising was called, caused great disturbance and one of the casualties was the Savoy Palace – the great home of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. Today on the site of the Savoy Palace stands the Savoy Hotel, and beside it one of the royal peculiars – the Savoy Chapel. Go to a service there and they will pray for HM The Queen as Duke of Lancaster, a title she bears today. But in 1381 not only was the Savoy Palace destroyed by fire, but so nearly was Katherine. She escaped with her life, but both she and the Duke saw this disaster as God’s judgement on their illicit relationship, and so it came to an end. Katherine moved back to Lincolnshire, and indeed into Lincoln itself, into the Cathedral Close, into my house in Minster Yard. There she lived for a dozen years or so until after the death of Constance, John was free to marry again and their relationship rekindled. So a similar group gathered once more at Lincoln Cathedral, but this time for the ceremony of matrimony. John of Gaunt finally married Katherine Swynford on 14 January 1396 at the Cathedral. An unusual marriage in the sense of a mistress, often a despised role in any society, becoming one of the leading ladies at Court. Even their children were belatedly legitimised by the Pope – and of course went on to be ancestors of both the houses of Stuart and the Tudors. The eldest son, Henry Beaufort became Bishop of Lincoln just two years later in 1398. The following year John died and was buried alongside his first wife Blanche in the old St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Once again Katherine returned in sorrow to Lincoln and this time rented a house a few doors away from mine, known as The Priory. The house today that bears that name has a few pieces from the medieval building, but little that Katherine would recognise.

Finally Katherine herself died in 1403 and received from the Dean and Chapter the honour of having a chantry chapel in her honour where prayers might be said for her soul. There on the south side of the sanctuary today her tomb stands; alongside hers is that of her daughter Joan.

The story of Katherine Swynford is the stuff of romance and also legend – many will know the novel by Anya Seton entitled simply ‘Katherine’. Certainly there was a love that was more than just attraction – for it lasted through times of hardship and separation. It also had the courage to defy convention at Court. So we can see something of the remarkable woman that Katherine must have been.  To some she was a she devil, to others she became an honorable Lady. Desirable yet determined; despised then designated one of the leading figures at Court.  Reviled one minute, respected the next: she remains something of a mystery still.

We began with a group of people being admitted to the family of the Cathedral at Lincoln. Many centuries have passed since then, but only this morning we launched another branch of that continuing family of those belonging to our great Cathedral. This morning we launched the American Friends of Lincoln –  another group  like the medieval confraternity – of those who have affection and interest in, and a willingness to support, Lincoln Cathedral and who thereby become a part of its past, its present and its future.

[1]  Fifteenth century form of admission preserved in archives