Friday, October 19, 2007

Scandalous Duchess: Roeulx Origins & Pesky Heraldry Problems

I will begin my critique of the book here, in sequential order.

Beginning on the first page of the main body of text, page 3, Weir states:

Katherine possibly had noble or even royal connections through her mother, but claims that she was closely related through her father to the aristocratic lords of Roeulx cannot be substantiated... Since the twelfth century, the lords of Roeulx had prospered mightily... That Katherine shared a close kinship with the lords of Roeulx is doubtful on heraldic evidence alone -- or the lack of it.

Here Weir has clearly read my article for the Foundation for Medieval Geneaology on the subject, in which I made a heraldic argument against Payne Roet being the same as Gilles Roeulx (a tentative identification made by Mr. Lindsay Brook, also of the FMG) on the basis of very different heraldry for the Roeulx versus that which history has ascribed to Payne and Katherine Roet.

As I wrote in 2004,

Payne Roet is often assumed to have been a descendant of a collateral branch of the Lords of Roeulx of Hainault. The traditional argument has been that Payne Roet bore arms that were similar to those borne by the Hainault Lords of Roeulx, recorded by Rietstrap as gules, a trios roues d'arg (while those of the modern town of Le Roeulx are a lion passant holding a single silver wheel). The heraldic usage of a wheel for Roet is an example of a canting or punning coat of arms in which the heraldic device is a play on the name of the individual bearing the device; in this case, a single silver wheel for Roet/Roeulx/Ruet/Roelt, Latin for 'wheel.'

However, one problem with this argument of tying the Payne Roet family to a substantial Hainault patrimony is the finding of the Roeulx' of Hainault bearing not wheels for Roet but instead the lions of Hainault, for the family from whom they descended.


Based upon finding the arms of the Lords of Roeulx given as Or, three lions rampant, gules for Eustache V de Roeulx and his brothers (with appropriate marks of cadency) in the Wijnbergen Roll, Armorial de Gelre and the Armorial Lalaing rolls of arms for the 14th through 16th centuries, I concluded that, inasmuch as Payne Roet bore wheels instead of lions, he was likely not descended from the Lords of Roeulx. However, I am less certain now and am leaning towards the belief that Mr. Brook was quite possibly correct in his assertion that Payne Roet is identical with the Gilles Roeulx who was one of the last surviving brothers of the lordly Roeulx family.

While Weir is correct that the Roeulx family fortunes were indeed on the ascendency in the 12th through mid-13th centuries, as my article and other entries in this blog make clear, by the end of the 14th, the family fortunes had depreciated considerably, such that brother Fastre dies in pecuniary straits in 1331, with the bulwark if not entirety of the Roeulx family inheritance being sold back to the Count of Hainault in return for usufruct usage (see previous blog entries on the subject). If Hainault arms were tied to the land rather than the individual/family, there exists the possibility that Giles/Payne Roeulx/Roet, landless and quite possibly penniless upon joining the English royal service, was granted new arms by Edward III, showing the particularly English love for the punning, canting coat. In any case, if Edward III granted him knighthood, we would not necessarily expect to find him bearing new English arms identical to his family's old Hainault ones.

(There is, of course, one small problem with this idea, however -- The Warwickshire visitation that is said to have preserved description of the sole known personal seal of Payne Roet described it has having a pierced mullet mark of cadency, something he would have had no need for if the grant was a new grant of arms to him. Interestingly enough, his daughter's 1377 seal is said to have had the same cadency mark, which she later apparently dropped inasmuch as it does not appear on Dugdale's drawing of her tomb's heraldry. I am at a loss for a good explanation as to why the two incorporated the mark of apparent cadency, a system which had not yet been systematically developed and implemented in Payne's time).

The Problem: wheels, wheels and more wheels! (And, as we'll see later, maybe wheels that aren't really wheels but are...???) And they're all different! This makes any related heraldic argument not straightforward. As I mentioned in 2004, one 15th C. Harleian MS shows at the foot of the page is tricked a shield of gules with a silver wheel which is to be 'qwartly with Chawcrys.' The tomb of Geoffrey's son, Thomas, has heraldry displaying three plain gold wheels on a red field. The supposed Roet arms once seen painted on the ceiling of Old St. Paul's and described in the reign of Charles II were gules, three wheels argent, and Katherine herself left vestments to Lincoln Cathedral, some of which utilized silver plain wheels and other gold spiked wheels on a red background.

Speculation has been offered by others that the Old St. Paul's arms, found also in a window of the Divinity School of Oxford, represent perhaps those of a Roet Dean of St. Paul's. As Ms. Weir notes, however, the name is not to be found on a roll of Deans of St. Paul's. Fair enough (though it doesn't necessarily dismiss any other ecclesiastical potential Roet); however, Ms. Weir is not content to merely dismiss the idea that a son or other male heir of Payne (or Walter) Roet had an ecclesiastical connection with either the See of London or Old St. Paul's but goes on to further dismiss even Dingley's description of them:

It is intriguing to discover that a shield bearing what appears to be Paon's coat of arms, impaling the arms of the See of London ... was painted on the ceiling of Old St. Paul's. It was one of a number of painted shields placed there that have been dated to no later than 1525 and which were recorded in the reign of Charles by Thomas Dingley... the likelihood is that these arms were in fact ... misrepresented by Dingley." (p. 314, note 43).

This is indeed a curious heraldic argument inasmuch there aren't many heraldic charges that look like but in fact are not wheels. Moreover, we then have the additional problem of how to account for the same arms found at Oxford by a different antiquarian in a different century. Were they misrepresented as well? Ms. Weir acknowledges their finding but does not dismiss them as she does those reportedly found at Old St. Paul's.

Weir also sets great store by the accounting of Katherine's family as presented in various editions of Froissart's Chronicle. Again, Weir remarks:

That Katherine shared a close kinship with the lords of Roeulx is doubtful on heraldic evidence alone -- or the lack of it. Her family was relatively humble. The chronicler Jean Froissart, a native of Hainault, who appears to have been quite well informed on Katherine Swynford's background, states that Jean de Roet, who died in 1305 and was the son of one Huon de Roet, was her grandfather..." (p. 4)

However, I believe the tentative genealogy given for Roet in Froissart (and previously cited by A.S. Cook, as noted in my 2004 FMG article) is in fact supplied by his much later editor, Kervyn de Lettenhove, rather than by Froissart himself. And I would disagree with Ms. Weir's statement that ...Jean Froissart, a native of Hainault, ... appears to have been quite well informed on Katherine Swynford's background:

--1: The earlier passages that may refer to Payne Roet in Froissart were not written by him as an eyewitness per se but were rather continuations and further commentary on the earlier chronicle of Jean le Bel written years after the fact by collecting testimony of the old warriors whose memories may have grown old as well; and

--2: The significant fact that Jean Froissart (or Jean le Bel either, for that matter) doesn't really have anything concrete to say at all about Katherine's background other than that she was from a knightly family, was a foreigner, and was nothing like a great, landed English heiress or the heiress to a continental throne.

I have long wondered about this absence of specific commentary on Katherine's background by one who certainly should have known something. Froissart may not have been bodily present at the Seige of Calais, but he certainly had to have known of the family of Roeulx. And yet he failed to mention any supposed connection. I am much reminded of the scholarly debate regarding whether or not Thomas Chaucer was the son of the poet Geoffrey, and the failure of his friends and literary figures of the time to mention the connection.

On the one hand, the failure to mention an important family connection (in both cases) can reasonably be construed to indicate that there was no such connection: the persons in question were in a position to know of such a connection and yet do not state the obvious. However, there is an opposing point of view that argues the position of why should they have stated the obvious? Does every reference to current U.S. President George Bush remark upon his being the son of the previous U.S. President George Bush? Or is it well-understood that this is a familial connection that everybody already knows? I don't recall whether it was Martin B. Ruud who addressed this same 'failure to remark upon the obvious' in the case of Geoffrey and Thomas Chaucer, but the gist of the argument was that contemporaries routinely fail to remark upon the obvious.

Ahhh, yes.. I have located the paragraph in question. It is from Martin B. Ruud's investigation into the issue of whether Thomas Chaucer was indeed the son of the poet, or whether he was perhaps the bastard offspring of John of Gaunt's presumed liaison with Philippa Roet Chaucer, Katherine's sister. It makes for a delightful read as a serious argument made in full good humor, even if you should disagree with either its conclusion or applicability here:

It would be very nice if contemporaries of important people, or of people who some centuries later turn out to be important, would always ask themselves before putting pen to paper, "Now, what will Dryasdust four or five centuries hence wish to know about this man?" and write accordingly. But they never do, and unfortunately for the historian they probably never will. Contemporaries have a strange weakness for neglecting the obvious." (Ruud, p. 86).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Alison Weir's "Scandalous Duchess" book released

Alison has found a wealth of information about this very passionate relationship and the massive royal family of the times...
--says BFK's Books/The BookFiend's Kingdom.

Others have noted the praise she has received for her 'meticulous research.'

It must be noted the difficulties Ms. Weir assuredly faced in assembling sufficient research in a two year period to crank out a nearly 300 page book on a woman who left nothing of her own thoughts behind for us to read.

Nearly all of the information we have on Katherine is transactional data -- grants made to her, loans she made, places she lived... imagine, if you will, that some 600 years hence someone is trying to write a biography of you: based upon the information in your credit report, your purchases as reported by your supermarket 'club card,' cell phone records, GPS traces and property records: How much would such a biographer really know about you as a human being?

I appreciate these difficulties faced as I have spent nearly 30 years doing just that. I should doubtless feel appreciative, too, that much of that, my, research turns up in various places in Weir's new book, entitled Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess, which I have recently finished reading.

While I disagree with some of the positions which Ms. Weir has taken in this book, I am glad to see that Katherine has finally attracted a well-known author to help make her name and story better known to those residing outside of academia and Chaucerania: Jeannette Lucraft , of course, wrote the first groundbreaking non-fictional treatment of Katherine; also, Katherine's life has long been a staple of Chaucer biography scholarly articles. Ms. Lucraft's book can be found here.

For those of us who are just joining this discussion, Ms. Weir's book is the latest look at the life of the woman whose extraordinary life was perhaps best "chronicled" by the novelist Anya Seton in her 1953/4 novel, Katherine made her a semi-popular romantic heroine.

Seton, whose own life was anything but ordinary, had a most unorthodox life of her own. As Lucinda H. MacKethan, of the Department of English at North Carolina State University (URL previously cited) notes:

Who were the Setons? They were first and foremost a family of writers -- father, mother, and daughter -- who wrote book after book successfully, often with profit and popularity somewhat more in mind than artistry. The appeal of their books, and the popularity that resulted, were phenomena that made them relatively rich and famous in their own time but which practically guaranteed that they would be ignored by posterity, particularly the later twentieth century academic guardians of high culture. The academic literati of the last forty years have not looked favorably on ETS's animal tales, nor Grace's sprawling travel books, nor - God forbid - Anya's "historical romances" (she vastly preferred the term "biographical novel" for most of these works, which hasn't helped them among highbrows). Yet during their lives they were as successful a professional family as American letters has ever produced...The only child ..., named Ann (later Anya), was unusual in both her haunting beauty and her intelligence. Yet she never attended college, married at nineteen, and remained an accomplished if restless housewife until her late thirties, when her dream of becoming a writer finally came true with the publication of a first novel that, like her father's first effort, became a bestseller. All ten of Anya Seton's historical novels were bestsellers, most of them Book-of-the-Month Club selections, beginning with My Theodosia in 1941 and ending with Green Darkness in 1973.

She further makes the pertinent observation of Anya that Anya wrote primarily of homebodies and homebuilders, though she herself was anything but:

...Anya Seton creates a series of homebuilders as characters in her novels, and for her readers, homes become a way of judging both status and personal worth, as we see in the castle John of Gaunt builds for Duchess Blanche in Katherine; in Joseph Alston's carelessly constructed plantation homes in My Theodosia; and in the elegant but intimidating design of Dragonwyck, the Hudson River mansion that dominates the psychological terrain of the novel of the same name..

Ms. Weir has written that the popular story of Katherine is of necessity imbued with the modern Anya's more's, more relevant to a Margaret Mitchelll's Gone With the Wind than Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

What of Katherine's transactional data transcends time and helps us to better understand her and her life? Identity -- so centrally important to Lucraft's thesis, has its basis in who we have been, who we wish to be and who we can be -- can this be uncovered with mere transactional information?

Stay tuned...