John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford - One of the greatest love stories in history:
A far-reaching love story.
The story of the affair between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford is one of those rare love stories in history which has a happy ending; a love story where all the facts are not just well known, they are also exceptional. Theirs was a love affair that has not only given rise to books and societies but also, more remarkably, the present British monarchy.
John of Gaunt, Earl of Lancaster.
John was born in Ghent in Belgium (Ghent was pronounced Gaunt at that time, hence this nickname) on June 24th 1340. He was the third son of King Edward Ⅲ and Philippa of Hainault and thus third in line to the throne of England after his brothers, Edward, the Prince of Wales and Lionel, the Duke of Clarence.
This dynasty, known as the Plantagenets, was not only one of the most powerful in the country but also reputedly one of the most quarrelsome. Despite the argumentative nature of the family John seems to have been loyal to his brother, Edward, when he became king. When Edward died prematurely John became guardian of Edward's son and heir, the ten year old boy who would become Richard Ⅱ.
As Richard's protector, John became immensely powerful and all but ruled England in Richard's name until he came of age. Remarkably for the time, and although it is very evident that he desired absolute power, he did not appear to want to wrest it from Richard as many 'protectors' in history have done. Already we get an inkling of an unusual man.
It must be admitted however that he seems to have had no aptitude for warfare of any sort. He was brave enough but his tactics never seemed to work and he often suffered from lack of troops and the funds with which to pay them. That coupled with a great deal of bad luck meant that he failed in many of his military campaigns, unlike his elder brother, Edward, later nicknamed The Black Prince, whose warlike tendencies are now the stuff of legend. This was just one of the reasons that John became unpopular with the English people of the time as they dearly loved a strong armed hero.
Though John was a great lord, and an often skilful politician in an age that only really understood the politics of the sword, he is probably best remembered today for his liaison with Katherine Swynford.
Little is really known of Katherine, the facts about her are merely skeletal. We do not know if she was devious or devout, vivacious or viperish. We can only surmise and draw our own conclusions from the facts of her amazing life though it is possible that those conclusions are, in the main, accurate.
She was born on or around the 25th November 1350, the daughter of Sir Paon de Roet, a Flemish herald who was later made a knight. As her father served in the retinue of Queen Philippa, Katherine would have travelled with the court at least for the first year or two of her life.
In 1366 around the age of sixteen she was married to Sir Hugh Swynford, a minor nobleman who held the manor of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire and to whom she bore at least two children before he died in 1371.
No-one knows for sure whether or not she was happy during this time or whether or not she loved Sir Hugh but it does seem likely that she cared about Kettlethorpe itself as she added to its parkland in 1383. But by then Fate had already taken her by the hand.
The love affair begins ...
It is apparent that John knew Katherine before she was widowed as he became godfather to Blanche, her daughter. After she was widowed however, Katherine became attached to the household of John of Gaunt's wife, who was also called Blanche. In fact she was so much in favour with her, that her own daughter was brought up along with their children and treated as one of the family.
However in 1369 John became a widower when Blanche died of the plague. It is thought that this was when he turned to Katherine for solace and their long love affair began. At the time however there was absolutely no thought of legitimising the union, John was a prince of the most powerful family in the land and Katherine was merely a minor noblewoman. He loved her but dynastic alliances were more important to all concerned.
So although Blanche had brought John much land and wealth when he married her, now she was dead he needed to make another such beneficial match. He married the Infanta Constanza of Castile and assumed the title of King of Castile though he never in fact ruled in Castile or even lived there.
Eventually, after several unsuccessful military attempts to actually obtain control of Castile and rule from there, he and Constanza relinquished all title to it. And although we have no way of knowing whether John's marriage to Constanza was happy, it is could be supposed that it was not as during this time he fathered four children with Katherine. They were John, Henry, Thomas and Joan and although they were illegitimate they were given the surname, Beaufort, after one of John's former properties in France.
There are some historians who believe that their love must have been a turbulent affair but perhaps that added to the attraction as John eventually married Katherine in 1396 after the death of Constanza in 1394. So it would appear that even if their relationship was volatile they still could not live without one another. Indeed, far from the flame of love burning out as love often does, theirs had held strong and true for twenty years before the commitment of marriage was made.
The end of the affair.
Once they were married their children were legitimised by the Pope and Richard Ⅱ and all future rulers of Britain have descended from those children since that time; quite an achievement for a spectacularly unsuccessful soldier and a relatively lowly born woman.
The heroine through all of this however must be Katherine. Although we will never know what sort of woman she really was, the fact that she not only won but, more remarkably, held onto the love of one of the most powerful men of the age is testament to her having been exceptional.
The mere fact that John married her, most likely against the advice of his family who would have been looking for another, more advantageous, match, speaks silent volumes.
Separated only by death.
Poignantly, their marital bliss lasted only three years as John died in February 1399 and was interred beside Blanche, his first wife in Old St. Paul's Cathedral in London. This is likely to have been decision made by John's family and one can only guess how that made Katherine feel. The church and indeed the tomb was later destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Katherine lingered only another four years and died in May 1403. She is buried with her daughter, Joan Beaufort, and they are laid to rest in a tomb in Lincoln Cathedral.
The protagonists of this story may be long gone but their love still inspires many to this day.
For more information on Katherine see: http://www.katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk/
The video below is not from a film made of their love story ... it is merely a video using clips of two much loved actors and excerpts from the book Katherine by Anya Seton to give a flavour of this enduring romance ...