In all classes of society, women were often excluded from the historical record. Frequently, their surnames were not recorded on birth and marriage records. Sometimes, their names did not feature at all. In this section of my website, I feature women who did make a mark on history. All the women featured here are my direct ancestors.
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My 19 x great grandmother, Constance of York, Countess of Gloucester, was born in 1374, the only daughter of Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, and his wife Isabella of Castile.
In November 1397, Constance married Thomas Despenser, 1st Earl of Gloucester, one of Richard II’s favourites. The couple produced three children: a son, Richard, and two daughters. The first daughter, Elizabeth, died in infancy, while the second daughter, Isabel, was born after her father’s death.
When Henry IV deposed and murdered Richard II, the Crown seized the Despenser lands. In consequence, in December 1399, Thomas Despenser and other nobles hatched a plot known as the Epiphany Rising. Their plan was to assassinate Henry IV and restore Richard, who was alive at this point, to the throne.
According to a French chronicle, Edward, Constance’s brother, betrayed the plot, although English chronicles make no mention of his role. Thomas Despenser evaded immediate capture, but a mob cornered him in Bristol and beheaded him on 13 January 1400.
After Thomas’ death, Constance was granted a life interest in the greater part of the Despenser lands and custody of her son. However, in February 1405, during the Owain Glyndwr rebellion to liberate Wales, Constance instigated a plot to abduct Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, and his brother, Roger, from Windsor Castle.
Constance’s plan was to deliver the young Earl, who had a claim to the English throne, to his uncle Sir Edmund Mortimer, who was married to Glyndwr’s daughter.
The first part of Constance’s plan went well, only to stumble when Henry’s men captured Edmund and Roger Mortimer as they entered Wales.
With the plot over, Constance implicated her elder brother, Edward – clearly sibling love was not a priority in the House of York – and he was imprisoned for seventeen weeks at Pevensey Castle. Meanwhile, Constance languished in Kenilworth Castle.
With the rebellions quashed, Henry IV released Constance and she became the mistress of Edmund Holland, 4th Earl of Kent. Out of wedlock, they produced my direct ancestor, Eleanor, who married James Tuchet, 5th Baron Audley.
Constance outlived Henry IV and her brother, Edward. She died on 28 November 1416 and was buried in Reading Abbey.
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My 20 x great grandmother Isabella of Castile, Duchess of York, was born in 1355, the daughter of Pedro Alfónsez (Pedro I) “Rey de Castilla y León, el Cruel” and his favourite mistress Maria de Padilla.
Isabella accompanied her elder sister Constance to England after Constance’s marriage to John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, and on 11 July 1372 married Gaunt’s younger brother, Edmund Langley, 1st Duke of York, a man fourteen years her senior. The marriage was a political alliance to further the Plantagenet claim to the crown of Castile.
Chroniclers described Isabella and Edmund as ‘an ill-matched pair’. Isabella was flirtatious and committed many indiscretions, including an affair with Richard II’s half-brother, John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, a ‘violent and lawless’ man.
The chroniclers didn’t like Isabella and tarnished her reputation, taking exception to her ‘loose morals’. Of course, their comments must be seen within the context of the political intrigues of the day, which were numerous in Richard II’s court. It seems certain that Isabella did have affairs, no doubt looking for the love and affection that might have been absent in her marriage.
Officially, Isabella and Edmund produced three children: Edward, Constance (my direct ancestor) and Richard, although there is a suggestion that John Holland fathered Richard.
Isabella died on 23 December 1392, aged thirty-seven and was buried on 14 January 1393 at the church of the Dominicans at King’s Langley. Shakespeare, however, brought Isabella back to life when he featured her in Act V of his play, Richard II, set in December 1399.
There are no records of the King’s Langley tombs. The priory surrendered to the Crown in 1536, but was not dissolved until 1559, when the estate passed into private hands. It’s assumed that the heraldic tomb-chest now standing in the north chapel of King’s Langley parish church originated from the priory. It was moved in 1877 and opened to reveal the disturbed remains of a sixty year old male and a forty year old female, thought to be Edmund and Isabella.
In her Will, Isabella bequeathed to the Duke of Lancaster, a tablet of Armenian jasper; to her son Edward, her crown; to Constance Despenser, her daughter, a fret of pearls; to the Duchess of Gloucester, her tablet of gold with images; and to Richard II her heart of pearls and the residue of her goods, in trust that he should allow his godson Richard, Isabella’s younger son, an annuity of 500 marks for life, a trust which Richard II, out of the great respect he bore for her, accepted.
Richard II loved pomp and pageantry, and it’s clear that Isabella had more in common with him than with her husband, Edmund. While Isabella’s marriage was no bed of roses, in Richard II’s flamboyant court I sense that she was at home, even though that home was a long way from her native Castile.
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While tracing the Stradling branch of my family tree, I discovered a direct connection to Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.
Born Katherine de Roet, Katherine is thought to be the youngest child of Paon (aka Payn) de Roet, a herald and later a knight. Her birthdate is uncertain, although some sources place it on 25 November 1350 in Hainaut, Belgium.
Around 1366 at St Clement Danes Church, Westminster, Katherine married Sir Hugh Swynford. From Lincolnshire, Sir Hugh was in the service of John of Gaunt, a son of Edward III and arguably the most powerful man of his age. For Katherine, this was a political not a love match and we can only imagine her feelings as she embarked upon a new life with Sir Hugh.
As Lady Swynford, Katherine gave birth to the following children:
Blanche (born 1 May 1367)
Sir Thomas (21 September 1368 – 1432)
And possibly Margaret Swynford (born c1369), later recorded as a nun in Barking Abbey
Katherine served John of Gaunt, a charismatic, chivalric knight, as governess to his daughters, Phillippa of Lancaster and Elizabeth of Lancaster. In turn, John of Gaunt was named as the godfather of Katherine’s daughter, Blanche. At this stage it was evident that Katherine and John of Gaunt were close. In due course, that relationship became more intimate.
John of Gaunt’s wife, Blanche of Lancaster, died on 12 September 1368 of the plague. A few years later, after the death of Sir Hugh on 13 November 1371, Katherine and John of Gaunt embarked upon a love affair that produced four children out of wedlock. The children were:
John, 1st Earl of Somerset (1373 – 1410)
Henry, Cardinal Beaufort (1375 – 1447) My direct ancestor.
Thomas, Duke of Exeter (1377 – 1426)
Joan, Countess of Westmorland (1379 – 1440)
The illicit relationship continued until 1381 when it was truncated for political reasons. The ensuing scandal damaged Katherine’s reputation, and we can only imagine her feelings at losing John of Gaunt, the man she truly loved, and the gossip around court.
Another union for political reasons followed: John of Gaunt’s marriage to Constance of Castile (1354 – 24 March 1394). On 13 January 1396, two years after Constance’s death, Katherine and John of Gaunt were married at Lincoln Cathedral. Subsequently, the Pope legitimised their four children.
Katherine lived through many of the major events of the fourteenth century including the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War and the Peasants’ Revolt. At the royal courts she met the greatest personalities of her age. While the London courts were often flamboyant and licentious she was also familiar with the pastoral aspects of Lincolnshire. Both locations must have offered a sharp contrast to her childhood in Hainaut.
When John of Gaunt died on 3 February 1399, Katherine was then styled as ‘Dowager, Duchess of Lancaster’. She outlived him by four years, dying on 10 May 1403 in her early fifties.
Katherine’s descendants were members of the Beaufort family, the name assigned to her children. This family played a major role in the Wars of the Roses when Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, derived his claim to the throne from his mother, Margaret Beaufort, a great-granddaughter of Katherine and John of Gaunt. Furthermore, five American presidents are descended from Katherine.
Katherine has been the subject of numerous novels, including Anya Seton’s Katherine, published in 1954, and non-fiction works including Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess by Alison Weir.
A footnote to Katherine’s story. Her sister, Phillipa, married Geoffrey Chaucer, thus placing the great poet on my family tree.