Katherine Swynford: the scandalous duchess and ancestress of royal dynasties
Katherine Swynford is best known as the mistress, and then wife, of John of Gaunt, whose whole life was riddled with scandal. Perhaps she is known more as the subject of a 20th-century romantic novel than for her real life. Alison Weir dispels the myth of a scheming enchantress and reveals her to be a most influential figure of the 14th century...
She occupies a unique place in British history: the subject of great scandal and notoriety, who was denigrated as “a famous adulteress” and an “abominable enchantress”, she was the mistress and friend of a royal prince for a quarter of a century, their affair having begun soon after he married a desirable young bride. Years later, after his wife had died and he married her, controversy and criticism surrounded their union, for she was thought to be far below him in status, morally unacceptable and highly unsuitable in many respects. Before long, however, her personal qualities won her acceptance and respect.
It would be understandable to think this sounds like Camilla, Charles and Diana. Instead, it is the story of a fascinating woman who lived more than 600 years ago, the ancestress of our present monarch, and a lady who has been so neglected by historians that no one has ever, until now, written a proper biography of her. She is known to us largely through the pages of a popular romantic novel.
That woman was Katherine Swynford, and she was one of the most important female figures of the late 14th century. Her partner in adultery, and later husband, was John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III and one of the most powerful and celebrated figures of late medieval England.
The details of Katherine’s eventful story are surrounded in mystery, or obscured by time. Nearly everything about her is controversial: her ancestry, the important dates in her life, the number of children she bore, her character, what she looked like, and – above all – her relationship with her princely lover. In approaching her story, the historian is continually weighing up a balance of probabilities and possibilities, yet from the fragmented information – even the lives of queens were not well-documented in this period – some credible inferences may be drawn, and some surprising conclusions.
Katherine Swynford was born around 1350, the daughter of Paon de Roet, a knight of Hainault (now part of Belgium). Her mother’s name is unknown, but she may have been a connection of the House of Avesnes, the ruling family of Hainault. Paon de Roet came to England in the train of Philippa of Hainault when she married Edward III in 1328, and in the mid-1350s, his two younger daughters, Katherine and Philippa, were fortuitously placed in the household of the kindly queen, their countrywoman.
- Read more | How did Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III, become one of medieval England’s best-loved queens?
It may have been in 1360, when she was just 10, when Katherine was transferred to the household of Blanche of Lancaster, the young wife of John of Gaunt, to help in the nursery. She quickly won the respect and affection of her employer, with whom she was to remain for eight years, proving herself pious, intelligent, capable and good with children.
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Around 1362, when she was 12 – the youngest age at which the church permitted wives to cohabit with husbands – Katherine was married to John of Gaunt’s retainer, the impecunious Sir Hugh Swynford. She found herself mistress of the poverty-stricken Kettlethorpe Hall in Lincolnshire, which must have come as a stark contrast to the splendours of the Lancastrian palace of the Savoy in London or the great castles of Leicester, Hertford and Kenilworth. But Katherine showed her mettle, immersing herself so enthusiastically in the life of the manor that for decades afterwards she would be known as the Lady of Kettlethorpe.
When she was 12 – the youngest age at which the church permitted wives to cohabit with husbands – Katherine was married to John of Gaunt’s retainer, the impecunious Sir Hugh Swynford
Following her marriage, she divided her time between her husband’s estates and the Lancastrian court, while bearing a son, Thomas, and two, possibly three, daughters to one of whom the duke and duchess of Lancaster stood as sponsors.
Katherine’s younger sister Philippa had married one of the king’s esquires, Geoffrey Chaucer, who would later gain renown as a poet and author of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer appears to have already earned the friendship and admiration of John of Gaunt, and his career at court was boosted by his sister-in-law’s connections with the duke. One of Chaucer’s earliest poems was the beautiful elegy he wrote for the duchess Blanche, who died in childbirth in 1368, and it bears testimony to the overwhelming grief of her husband.
A destitute widow to dynastic matriarch
Katherine herself was widowed in 1371, when Sir Hugh died on campaign with the duke in France. John of Gaunt had just remarried for political reasons, his bride being Constance of Castile, through whom he was to claim the crown of Castile. Although she was young and beautiful, the marriage never had a chance to succeed.
For it would appear that when Katherine, a destitute widow, appealed to the duke, her overlord, for help, he succumbed to her allure and made her his mistress, probably in the spring of 1372. The course of their affair is charted to a degree by a series of grants in registers, although the registers are incomplete so they do not provide us with a full picture. There is a pattern to these grants that suggests the birth-dates of the four children Katherine is known to have borne the duke during the course of their affair.
They were all surnamed Beaufort, after a French lordship John had once held, and from them were descended the Royal Houses of York, Tudor, Stuart and every British sovereign since 1461. For this alone, Katherine is of key dynastic importance in the history of the British monarchy.
The romantic novel that blurs Katherine's fact and fiction
Katherine Swynford is the subject of Katherine, by American author Anya Seton, one of the most enduringly popular novels of the 20th century. First published in 1954, when it was branded as “obscene and evil” by critics, it has never been out of print, and made the top hundred favourite books in the BBC’s The Big Read in 2003.
Seton spent four years researching the novel, and made worthy efforts to achieve historical accuracy, but hers is essentially a romantic portrayal, which reflects the values of her time and tells us perhaps as much about Anya Seton as it does about Katherine Swynford. Moreover, a great deal of research has been done since it was written.
Thus we have Katherine growing up in a convent (for which there is no evidence) and marrying Sir Hugh Swynford in 1367, five years later than she probably did in real life. They have two, not four, children, and Sir Hugh – for whose loutish character there is, again, no evidence – is murdered, a fictional assertion that is still accepted as fact by some, so great is Seton’s reputation for veracity.
This murder paves the way for Katherine to become John of Gaunt’s mistress. Their romance has been simmering ever since she first came to court. After John’s renunciation of Katherine, Seton has her visiting the mystic anchoress (a type of religious recluse), Julian of Norwich, and in time achieving peace of mind. Later, one of the Suttons, a prominent Lincoln family, proposes marriage to her. However, John returns to England and claims her for his wife.
Most of this is pure fiction, but so well-told that it reads convincingly and reflects the breadth of Seton’s research. Notwithstanding its factual errors, Katherine is beautifully written, and remains my favourite historical novel. It has also been the inspiration for my biography.
Although the lovers were discreet to begin with, by 1378, John was openly parading Katherine as his mistress, and provoking criticism from scandalised monastic chroniclers, who accused her of being a witch and a whore.
At court, however, and certainly in Lincoln, where Katherine was popular with the cathedral clergy, the affair was probably accepted and condoned. The duchess Constance was more preoccupied with regaining her kingdom than trying to dislodge her love rival, and Katherine’s undoubted tact and personal qualities ensured that there was never any open rivalry between them.
Listen: Historian, author and podcaster Helen Carr charts the eventful life of the 14th-century prince, John of Gaunt, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Indeed, Katherine was popular with the duke’s children by Blanche (she was governess to his two daughters), and she worked with John to bring some cohesion to a domestic ménage that could easily have been highly dysfunctional. She helped to bind Lancastrians, Swynfords, Beauforts and Chaucers into a harmonious family group, which in itself is testimony to Katherine’s warmth and generosity of character.
Katherine was popular with the duke’s children by Blanche and she worked with John to bring some cohesion to a domestic ménage that could easily have been highly dysfunctional
For all that he clearly loved Katherine, John, who apparently had a healthy sexual appetite, does not seem to have been faithful to her. They were often apart for long periods, and by his own later admission, he had many fleeting sexual encounters with women in his wife’s household. Katherine may not have known about these at the time.
Initially, the affair lasted for nine years. Then came the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the destruction of the Palace of the Savoy, a virulent attack on John, whose head the rebels demanded. It left him profoundly shaken and guilt-ridden, and he publicly renounced Katherine and separated from her, a decision in which she seems to have concurred.
For the next few years, Katherine lived mainly at Kettlethorpe or in Lincoln, where she leased a fine house near the cathedral. The duke was reconciled to Constance and thereafter concentrated his energies on claiming her kingdom. He remained in touch with Katherine, though, and she helped him financially with his military expedition to Spain, a venture that would ultimately end in failure – the crown he had so long sought eluding him at the last moment.
- Read more | John of Gaunt: The man who would be king
John finally returned to England in 1389, and two years later we find a record of Katherine stabling 12 horses in his household. Bound already by their shared interests in their growing family, it would appear, from this and other evidence, that they had resumed their former intimacy.
In 1394, Constance died and after John had obtained a dispensation and completed a period of service as duke of Aquitaine, he returned to England and married Katherine. The wedding took place in January 1396 in Lincoln Cathedral.
A controversial marriage
Their marriage provoked far more scandal than their affair, for it was unheard of for a prince to marry his mistress, and many aristocrats felt that he had married far beneath him. The great ladies of the realm refused to acknowledge Katherine, who was now, for the brief period before Richard II remarried later that year, the first lady in the land. But gradually, by her tactful and dignified behaviour, she won them round. It was to her care and guidance that the king’s young bride, the six-year-old Isabella of Valois, would be entrusted.
Early in 1397, parliament legitimated the Beauforts, elevating them to the status of princes of the blood royal. This was certainly one of the reasons why John of Gaunt had married Katherine, but it is abundantly clear that their marriage was also made for love, for there is plenty of evidence for this in the duke’s financial settlements on her, and in his will, in which he left her, among other things, the beds in which they had slept together.
The remaining years of their marriage were overshadowed by political tensions and John’s failing health. In 1398, the king’s tyrannical and cruel exiling of the duke’s beloved heir, Henry of Bolingbroke, led to John’s final decline. He retired with Katherine to Leicester Castle, where he died in February 1399. There is some evidence that he had been suffering from a venereal disease, the result of his earlier promiscuity, although this is not conclusive.
After his funeral, Katherine again retired to Lincoln, where she leased another substantial house in the cathedral close. She was generously treated by Richard II, notwithstanding his seizure of the Lancastrian estates, and by his successor, John’s heir, now Henry IV, who, after he had deposed Richard and usurped the throne in 1399, referred to Katherine as “the King’s mother” in official documents.
Kings, presidents and dynasties: the remarkable family legacy of Katherine Swynford
Katherine Swynford lived through a dramatic age – the time of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War and the Peasants’ Revolt. She was acquainted with most of the great personalities of 14th-century England, including Geoffrey Chaucer and theologian John Wycliffe. Three kings – Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV – extended their friendship and patronage to her. She also enjoyed an affectionate relationship with two queens, Philippa of Hainault and Isabella of Valois. Her brother, Walter de Roet, was in the Black Prince’s household.
Katherine’s eldest son Sir Thomas Swynford was gaoler to the deposed Richard II and implicated in his probable murder. Her daughter Joan Beaufort married the powerful Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, and by 1450, thanks to the marriage alliances of their many children, Katherine’s descendants were related to almost every noble family in England.
Their legitimation saw the Beauforts rise to the highest ranks at court and in society. Henry Beaufort became a cardinal, Thomas a duke and the guardian of the young Henry VI. John Beaufort, the eldest son of John of Gaunt and Katherine, was created earl of Somerset and died in 1410. His son, John Beaufort, duke of Somerset, was the father of Lady Margaret Beaufort, who married Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, and the mother of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty.
Through her granddaughter Joan Beaufort, who married James I, King of Scots, Katherine was the ancestor of every Scottish monarch from 1437 onwards, and thus of the royal House of Stuart following the union of the crowns in 1603. Another granddaughter, Cecily Neville, married Richard Plantagenet, duke of York, by whom she was the mother of the English kings Edward IV and Richard III, making Katherine the ancestor of every English monarch since 1461.
Five American presidents, among them George W Bush, are also descended from her.
During the final years of her life, she is not recorded at court and appears to have remained in Lincoln, living quietly. Her Beaufort children were carving out glittering public careers for themselves, which must have delighted her, but the lack of evidence about her own life suggests that she was either immersed in grief or suffering declining health.
Katherine died in May 1403 and was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, where her daughter Joan Beaufort was later laid to rest beside her in a chantry chapel that still partly exists today.
Popular perceptions of Katherine either cast her as a romantic heroine or as the witch and whore of the chroniclers’ fevered imaginations. Yes, hers is primarily a love story, but there was clearly far more depth to her than the romantic image would suggest. To have held the interest of John of Gaunt for so long, to have interacted socially in the cultivated circles in which he moved, and to have served as governess to the Lancastrian princesses all required intelligence, erudition and sophistication.
The enduring affection of her family connections stands testament to her warmth, charm and good diplomatic skills. Although we have no true likeness to go on – there may be a hitherto-unsuspected vivid image in a chronicle – Katherine Swynford was undoubtedly beautiful. Her story is one of triumph and pain, and it ends most poignantly. In telling it, I am fulfilling the dream of decades.
Alison Weir is a historian and bestselling author. Among her historical biographies is Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess (Vintage, 2007). Her latest books are Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen (Headline, 2020), the fifth instalment in her Six Tudor Queens series, and Queens of the Crusades (Vintage, 2020)
This article was first published in the September 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine