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The Poet’s Wife; The Mistress’ Sister

By Gina M. Bright

León, Spain 1387

So this is how it ends. The body stops working long before the mind. There is much time to think, indeed. At least I have time to write—well, in between the cramping and letting go. The black liquid comes pouring out and soils my bed now more often than filling my chamber pot.

I wish Geoffrey were here. I have my son though. When John gathered his men for this action to be taken in Spain, Thomas did not have much of a choice in going, nor did I. My son has served John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, for many years now. And not because John is his father, a loathsome rumor spread by those who cannot accept my sister’s position in his bed.

Katherine never could escape the will of her heart. When we were girls back home in Hainault she took in every little kitten found wandering in our garden. She fell in love with John the first time she saw him look at his wife, Blanche. By my faith, angels must have swathed her in their light. Blanche’s beauty did not belong to this world. Perchance Katherine found celestial comfort through John’s adoration of Blanche. She has always been faithful to our Creator. Or perchance Katherine could not resist John’s Plantagenet charms, his solid stature and stormy eyes.

When Blanche was plucked from this world by the dreaded pestilence, they at least waited some time to fulfill their mutual desire. Unfortunately, their secret union happened just as Katherine’s husband, Hugh, perished in France serving our Black Prince and John was betrothed to Constance, the Castilian beauty I have served ever since John brought her to England as the second Duchess of Lancaster.

John was always seeking power and what better way to get it than to marry one of the daughters of the recently slain King of Castile, Pedro the Cruel. Alas, the gallant Gaunt did not assume that title then or now. His ambition though is the reason we are here in León and I am dying from dysentery, along with many of his own soldiers.

I regret that I cannot serve my Duchess Constance. She has her ladies, certainly, but she needs me. She has always felt as long as I tend to her, my sister cannot move too close to John. It is no wonder Constance was so worried when I spent a few years with Katherine at her Kettlethorpe manor almost ten years past. My husband was away once again and Katherine needed me.

Katherine missed John to the brink of madness. When he did visit, their nightly cries of ecstasy spilled over into the light. But then he was gone again and Katherine retreated to her chamber for days without any sustenance.

And my poor Duchess! I could just see her at Hertford, her beloved castle, sipping wine through her sighs of despair as her ladies tried to comfort her during John’s absences. At least her quarters there contained the largest hearth that always managed to defeat our English dampness that she hated so much.

I took the time I had to myself at Kettlethorpe to write, not something that is becoming to a lady in waiting to the Duchess of Lancaster, nor to the wife of a poet with a bit of fame. John so admires Geoffrey’s work and rewarded him with his Aldgate apartment in London. It provides a quiet space for his craft.

John had begged him to write something, anything, to relieve his great sorrow after Blanche died. The Book of the Duchess was the result of a few years’ labor written during his visits to France and Italy for our old King Edward. Geoffrey shared those woeful words with me before he gave them to Gaunt.

“Dear Philippa,” he said through my tears, “your response means more to me than John’s and even the court’s. You know what it is to write.”

Indeed I do but only Geoffrey knows my work. For the world thinks women are not fit for writing. We are creatures, so they say, with humors not in balance. Perchance another age will see us otherwise, as my dear husband does.

Before my long visit to Kettlethorpe, I spent time with my husband in his apartment above Aldgate where the rabble entered the city during our Great Revolt six years past. Geoffrey said it was thrilling to watch so many commoners march into London to get some justice. What they did to our city, though, perhaps shifted the scales in the other direction. I wish I could have seen them though.

Geoffrey had collected nearly sixty books for his library there. I visited Aldgate as much as I could and spent hours turning the leaves of parchment. I found a story by one of our French writers, Chrétien de Troyes, who I think got it from the Roman poet, Ovid. I was so moved by this tale of two sisters I could not return the book to the shelf.

Philomena and Progne were separated when Progne married a lord who took her to a land far away from Greece. As the years passed, Progne asked her husband to bring her sister to her so she could see her once again. Alas, lust reigned in this lord’s heart when he returned with Philomena. He placed her in a cave and robbed her of her purity. He could not silence her screams and so he cut out her tongue.

What was to be done with her now? This brutal man kept her in one of his castles. Certainly she would be safe from the world there. Philomena did not want for anything in her prison, including a loom and thread. Day after day she weaved the words of her story into a large piece of cloth. One of the servants took pity on her and fulfilled her request to deliver the tapestry to her sister. When Progne read the words in the cloth, she left for the castle and was reunited in sorrow with her dear sister.

I carried this story with me to Kettlethorpe and felt compelled to write it in my native tongue. Philomena’s story spoke to me. My own sister has been mistreated by a very powerful lord. John displayed her as his mistress that one Spring a few years past at his Leicestershire estate. Thank goodness my Duchess Constance was not there when John led Katherine’s horse by the bridle for everyone to see. Evermore, my sister has been called “whore.” Evermore, John continues to be called “duke” or “my lord.”

My tongue has not been severed but I cannot speak out loud about their affair. The customs of the nobility silence me since I am lower in status. Yet I write about these matters now, just like Philomena did, as I lay dying in León.

Geoffrey was so pleased with my Philomena poem he included it in his present work, The Legend of Good Women. It’s a shame really that people would scoff at my poem if it bears my name. I will be pleased though if people admire it as one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s own.

Perchance the Duchess will be pleased with this “legend” when she hears it because Philomena gets her revenge, after all, on the lord who befouled her. Heaven knows Constance has endured a good deal of abuse from the Duke, but never in public.

I remember that magnificent dinner for the boy king’s soon to be new wife at the Savoy in April of 1381. It was the last one there for the palace was destroyed by the rebels in June of that year. No more Gascony wine flowing from the spigots and no more shrimp, eels, or bream served to perfection at that feast!

John of Gaunt was the host that night for Anne of Bohemia, her family, so many courtiers, and King Richard himself. And Constance was the hostess, the respected Duchess of Lancaster, and John’s adored wife. John always made sure Constance was treated that way at this event and all others. But when the Duchess was not in the court’s eye, she was not in John’s either.

The truth of the matter is Constance despised the Savoy because she knew Katherine spent most of her time there. John always ordered the servants to move my sister’s belongings before his wife arrived. Gaunt’s bedroom had two cabinets of clothing and Constance always placed her garments in the smaller one. After she arrived for the Bohemian event, she looked in her cabinet for just the right bejeweled tunic to wear. In there, she spotted an emerald one with a weasel collar, far too small for my Duchess’ curved Spanish body. The servant who removed Katherine’s garments was a bit too hasty in her work.

Constance at once commanded all of her ladies to move her to another room. The next day she returned to Hertford Castle. But she felt compelled to leave there after a few months when she got word that the Savoy had been burnt to the ground. Her reply to the messenger had a feigned sense of concern for my sister.

“Dios mío! Espero que la puta fugado.” I had learned enough Spanish in my service with her to translate thus, “My God! I hope the whore escaped.”

I prayed Katherine did. Thinking of her perishing in the flames made my skin feel hot all over. Fear then set into my Duchess’ heart after she expressed her hopes for my sister. She asked to move the household far away from these troubles in London and, as we heard, in the nearby counties of Essex and Kent. And so we set off for John’s Pontefract Castle, quite a bit north in Yorkshire.

After several days’ journey, we arrived there near eventide, thank goodness because Constance did not have good vision at dusk. Constance took the candlelight she saw within as a good sign the servants were ready for us. I knew though that they were serving my sister. I could see Katherine’s favorite destrier in the stable. Troilus’ blue-black hue and that gold and blue ribbon, Plantagenet colors, she always tied around his tail were not to be mistaken as anyone else’s horse.

My lady was impatient to enter the castle. I told her I would declare our arrival and return at once. The servant who opened the door revealed my sister had arrived with haste two nights ago after the Duke gave her word from Scotland to flee London because of the rebels who hated him so. Thank goodness she received his order before the rebels made it to the Savoy.

Now what to tell my Duchess with my sister safe inside? The servant said we should travel even farther north to the vacant Knaresborough Castle, another night’s journey.

“My dear Duchess,” I said with the utmost sadness when I returned, “there are no proper provisions for our stay here. There is no meat to be had and no wine. The rebel army has hindered the arrival of many goods.”

“No vino! Dios mío,” she replied. And then with tears in her eyes she asked where we would go. I explained we could travel a bit farther north to one of her husband’s other castles arriving at day’s break.

Our journey here to León now was much less difficult for my lady. She did not want for anything with her husband by her side. John filled one carriage with wine and another one with cheeses, meat, and fish, if we were close to the coast.

Before I contracted this malady and became chained to my chamber pot, I got to see my Duchess experience some joy with John, as he did with her. Constance was ready to give birth. The castle was filled with anticipation for the baby boy’s arrival. John and Constance loved their young girl, Catalina, but they just knew they were having a son who would maintain the Castilian line.

I labored hard with my Duchess. I applied cool cloths to her brow and told her when to push. A beautiful boy entered the world, but only to take two little breaths. Then he was gone. Constance never seems to hold onto happiness for very long.

I cannot hold onto much of anything at the present time. My son, Thomas, visits me daily and brings me water and small plates of cheeses and fruit. None of it stays with me though.

I miss our home in Rotherhithe. How glorious to step into our garden with the fierce Thames felt in the morning air. There’s something about living on the water that makes me feel like I too am always going somewhere. We moved into that home after Geoffrey became Justice of the Peace for Kent. The pay is not worth the effort it takes to sit in the session court issuing fines, hearing pleas and what not, but it gives him much time to write.

He has begun work on a simply wonderful idea. Geoffrey met the Italian poet Boccaccio when he visited his country many years ago. Boccaccio’s book of tales told by nobles who escape the pestilence in Florence inspired my Geoffrey to create his own book. But Geoffrey will have stories told by people from every station in life as they travel from London to Canterbury to honor our slain saint, Thomas Becket.

He has set himself quite the task! Geoffrey wants me to write the tales told by the women on the journey, but I do not think this undertaking will come to pass. I barely have the strength to move from my bed to my chamber pot. When Thomas comes to visit me tomorrow, I will give him what I have written here, and this last letter to my dear husband.

Dear Geoffrey,

My father warned me when I met you in the Countess of Ulster’s household—you a page to Edward III’s second oldest son and me a personal demoiselle to his wife—about my happiness being compromised by someone lower than me in status. I knew you were the son of vinters, but your mind, your view of the world, and your love of books drew me to you. I knew no one else would have satisfied me as you have done for a lifetime.

I have never wanted for nice food, wine, or tunics. I have never wanted for children. Our three have been a blessing and no mum could be prouder. I have never wanted for a husband who treats my sister as his own in spite of her transgressions.

My dearest husband, you have never failed to respect me as your equal and encourage my own habit of writing in spite of my sex.

I so wish I could see you one last time for some more talk and a read together, but my passage through this world has sped up quite a bit. I have been forced into a lane going elsewhere. I pray it is a good place. Please make your tales one for the ages, Geoffrey Chaucer.

I love you so,

Philippa

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Gina M. Bright has a doctorate in medieval English literature from Lehigh University. She has worked as a registered nurse for more than 30 years, primarily in the fields of AIDS and oncology. Her first book, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), reflects her passion for caring for underserved populations and for research and writing. 1381: The Forgotten Revolt is her first novel and was a 2016 First Place Category Winner (Dark Ages, Medieval, Renaissance) in the Chaucer Awards for Pre-1750 Historical Fiction sponsored by Chanticleer Book Reviews.

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