It takes two to tango

Sirens or angels? Joan Stafford and Alice Fitzalan

The installation of the Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral (previously the Church of St John the Baptist) was officially celebrated on May 6, 1432. Another celebration in the Ghent church that same day was the baptism of Josse, second son of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and his third wife Isabella of Portugal. For whatever reason, the child’s father was absent and Cardinal Henry Beaufort, a half-brother to Isabella’s mother, was recorded as one of Josse’s godparents.

Beaufort is also featured as the prominent rider on the white horse in the Just Judges panel of the altarpiece, surely not a coincidence. His facial features match those of the earlier portrait by Jan van Eyck, once thought to be of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati.

But the presence of Henry Beaufort in the Ghent Altarpiece extends beyond being one of the Just Judges. For as Van Eyck depicted the Cardinal not only on the white horse but also on the brown mare alongside, the presence of the former bishop of Lincoln and Winchester is also found in the two angel panels of the upper register. Two and two make four. the number four is the common denominator underlying many of the narratives in the Ghent Altarpiece.

So just why did Jan van Eyck give the cardinal both a prominent and yet almost invisible role in the Ghent Altarpiece? Possibly to represent both his public and private life – seen and unseen, open and closed as the altarpiece itself would be at times. But Van Eyck did not limit his exposé. He included others, even himself, as if lighting a lamp so that everything hidden would be made clear and secrets made known and brought to light (Luke 8 : 16-18).

One feature of Henry Beaufort’s life that historians have never been able to factually nail down is the claim of an affair with Alice Fitzalan, Countess of Cherleton, said to have resulted in an illegitimate child, Joan Beaufort, sometimes referred to as Jean.

Alice was the daughter of Richard Fitzalan, 11th Earl of Arundel. She was also the wife of John Cherleton, 4th Baron of Cherleton, who she married sometime before 1392. Joan’s father was executed under Richard II on September 21, 1397. Her husband died October 19, 1401. Perhaps it was when she was at this vulnerable stage in her life that the alleged affair was started.

On July 14, 1398, Henry Beaufort was consecrated bishop of Lincoln. Under Henry Bolingbroke, who usurped the throne of Richard II and became Henry IV, Beaufort was made Lord Chancellor of England in 1403. He resigned his position when he was apponted bishop of Winchester on November 19, 1404. Beaufort was a half-brother to the new king. John of Gaunt was their father.

Most historians consider Beaufort conducted his affair with Alice after her husband’s death in 1401 and at the time he was the bishop of Lincoln, although some surmise the affair and the birth of the child was before Beaufort was ordained a priest. Jan van Eyck points to the affair taking place during the Lincoln period, 1398 to 1404.

Van Eyck also goes as far to designate another woman in Beaufort’s arms around the same time, and the actual mother of the bishop’s daughter, not Alice. A second affair was never considered by historians, although it is quite feasible there was only one and that Alice may have been used as a “stalking horse” to conceal the identity of the child’s real mother.

Alice is said to have died sometime in 1415 and details of any affair she may have had with Beaufort seemingly went to the grave with her. Convenient for Beaufort, although he did provide for his child. The bishop of Winchester, as he then was, eventually arranged for her to marry Sir Edward Stradling. The marriage happened sometime between 1420 and 1423 and both his daughter and her husband were remembered in his will when the cardinal died in April 1447.

Alice Fitzalan is depicted in both of the angel panels alongside the second woman Van Eyck has portrayed as the mother of Beaufort’s daughter – Joan Stafford, widow of Thomas Holland, 3rd Earl of Kent. The marriage was childless and Thomas was beheaded without trial on January 7, 1400, as a result of his role in a failed rebellion against Henry IV known as the Epiphany Rising.

Van Eyck also intimates that the two women, though related through marriage, were rivals for the attention of Bishop Beaufort following the deaths of their husbands.

It may have been Beaufort was content for the rumour of an affair with Alice Fitzalan to circulate among the gossips, even that she was the mother of his child. In that way the real identitiy of the other woman in his life was kept secret. For a churchman of high rank to conduct one affair would have been considered improper; to have enjoyed a second mistress may have opened the door to further speculation about possible other affairs.

So what would have encouraged Alice and even Joan to keep the lid on their alledged romance with Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Lincoln and Lord Chamberlain of England? Did Beaufort exert his power and influence to intimidate them into keeping silent, especially the mother of his child? Did she present a potential threat to his reputation and ambitions in governing both Church and State?

More on this in a future post.

Images: closer to van eyck

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