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Katherine Swynford: how a Duke's Mistress became the ancestor of royalty
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Katherine Swynford
Royal, handsome, intelligent, athletic, powerful and wealthy, John of Gaunt strode across the stage of 14th century England in a blaze of charisma.
He was the son of an English King, Edward III, and the father of another, Henry IV. His legitimate daughters married into the royal families of Portugal and Spain, and were Queens and the mothers of Kings.
John of Gaunt's power and wealth were greatly enhanced by two very advantageous marriages, but he made the most of all the opportunities which came his way.
As a young man, he married the heiress Blanche of Lancaster. Through her, he became Duke of Lancaster and the wealthiest man in England.
Together they had three children, including Henry Bollingbroke, the future Henry IV.
Katherine Swynford's tomb
After Blanche's death from the Plague, John of Gaunt married Constance of Castile, the usurped and exiled heir to the throne of Castile. He claimed the Crown of Castile by right of his wife.
In his old age, John of Gaunt married for a third time. No Duchess or Queen this time, rather he married his long-term mistress.
Katherine Swynford was the daughter of an obscure, lowly knight, and the widow of another.
She was also the mother of John of Gaunt's four bastard children, the Beauforts.
From this unlikely couple came the House of Tudor - Henry VII's mother was Margaret Beaufort.
This hub is the extraordinary story of how, in an age where rank and virtue were crucial attributes for a wife, a commoner and mistress became the first lady in England, and the mother of a Royal Dynasty.
Katherine Swynford's Coat of Arms
- Edward III and Philippa of Hainault
Westminster Abbey's page about Edward III and his wife, Queen Philippa.
In an age where rank was crucial, and women less important than men, not much is known about Katherine's early life.
She was born Katherine de Roet (also sometimes written as de Ruet), daughter of Paon (or Payne) de Roet. She was not English - her father and ancestry was in Hainault. This was the home of Edward III's Queen, Philippa of Hainault.
The name, or any other detail, about Katherine's mother is unknown. She may have been English, as at the time of her birth and that of her siblings, her father was with the English court.
Paon de Roet was in the service of Queen Philippa. His name appears from time to time in her official records, for example, in Philippa's plea on behalf of the awkward burgesses of Calais in 1347.
At some point during his royal service, he was knighted, probably by Edward III, and became Sir Paon de Roet. with a coat of arms.
In about 1350, he seems to have returned to Hainault, and left the English royal service.
- Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400)
A biography of Chaucer's life and works, from the BBC's history pages.
Katherine probably had at least 4 siblings.
The eldest seems to have been called Elizabeth de Roet, and was born in the mid-1330s.
became a nun, and lived in the convent of Sainte Wandru in Mons until
her death in about 1368. She is also sometimes referred to as Isabelle.
The second oldest was probably a boy called Walter de Roet, born some time in the late 1330s. He appears in the records of Edward, Prince of Wales, as a Yeoman.
A lot more is known about Philippa, born in approx. the mid 1340s. She was initially a young member of the household of Lionel, third son of Edward III, and his wife, Elizabeth of Ulster.
At some unknown time, Philippa moved to the Queen's household, and married a young royal clerk, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales (among others).
Philippa joined the household of John of Gaunt when he married for the second time, becoming Constance's lady-in-waiting, at the same time as her sister Katherine was becoming John's mistress (sounds awkward!)
In the late 1370s and 1380s, Philippa lived in Lincolnshire, probably with Katherine or in her household, and died some time in 1387.
Alison Weir's recent biography of John and Katherine.
John of Gaunt's family and early life
John of Gaunt was one of the many children of King Edward III and Queen Philippa.
He was born in Ghent, which is now in Belgium, and acquired his nickname from his birthplace.
The children of Edward and Philippa were:
- Edward, the Black Prince, Duke of Cornwall, Prince of Wales;
- Blanche (died as a baby);
- William of Hatfield (died as a baby);
- Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence;
- John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster;
- Edmund of Langley, Duke of York;
- Thomas of Windsor (died as a baby);
- William of Windsor (died as a baby);
- Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester;
Edward III inherited his throne at the age of 14, after his father, Edward II, had been deposed and probably murdered by his own wife, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. He then ruled for 50 years, until his death at the age of 64 in 1377.
When Edward III was 16 years old, in 1328, he married Philippa, who was a year older.
John was born in Ghent on 6th March 1340. He grew up in the royal court, and was known to be intelligent, academic, and athletic.
He could read, write, and manage accounts, which were far from universal skills even among the aristocracy in the 14th century.
He was precocious in other ways too - he fathered an illegitimate child by one of his mother's ladies-in-waiting, Marie de St. Hilaire.
Blanche was born in 1359, just before John married for the first time.
Katherine's early life
Her date of birth is unknown, and academic debate places it anywhere between 1345 and 1352.
She may have been either older or (more probably) younger than her sister Philippa. It is also likely that she grew up in the royal court, as her father had been in royal service.
You will look in vain for a portrait of Katherine in this hub, or indeed anywhere.
It's not even certain what she looked like; the writers at the time were mostly monks, and not given to physical descriptions of women (and, especially, not descriptions of women they despised as unchaste).
She does seem to have been beautiful. Even one of the monks who disliked her described her thus.
John of Gaunt was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral with his first wife, Blanche, but his epitaph mentions Katherine, describing her as "pulchretudine feminam", or "particularly / exceptionally beautiful".
A very unusual thing on a 14th century inscription, and it confirms she was indeed very attractive.
Blanche of Lancaster
- The Death of a Duchess
Interesting analysis, extracts, and details from Chaucer's long poem written about Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster.
John's marriage to Blanche of Lancaster
In May 1359, at Reading Abbey in Berkshire, John of Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster. The couple were third cousins.
Blanche was the daughter and co-heiress of Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster, together with her older sister, Maud.
Henry had no surviving adult sons, and thus the enourmous Duchy of Lancaster was divided between his two daughters when he died in 1361.
Maud later died childless, and the whole estate went to Blanche, and therefore John of Gaunt.
Blanche was described as beautiful, with very fair hair and skin, and blue eyes.
Blanche and John had six children:
- Philippa who married John I of Portugal
- John (died as a child)
- Elizabeth, who married (1) John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, (2) John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, and (3)John Cornwall, 1st Baron Fanhope.
- Edward (died as a child)
- Henry of Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV, who married (1) Mary de Bohun and (2) Joanna of Navarre.
- Isabella (died as a child)
Blanche died of plague (the Black Death) in 1369, at Bolingbroke Castle.
After her death, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess, also sometimes called The Deth of Blaunche.
Katherine's first marriage to Hugh Swynford
She married a fairly obscure knight, in the service of John of Gaunt, called Hugh Swynford, also known as Hugh de Swynford. He owned two manors in Lincolnshire, Colby and Kettlethorpe.
Hugh had inherited these from his father in 1362, and neither was particularly impressive. They were described in the Calender of Inquisitions Post Mortem. Colby was said to be "hard, stony, uncultivated and barren" and the house, dovecot and windmill were ruininous.
Kettlethorpe was said ot be flooded regularly by the River Trent.
Hugh Swynford also had an income from his service as a knight in John of Gaunt's retinue.
The couple had at least two, and perhaps three, children. Their son, Thomas, was born on 21st September 1368. Their daughter, Blanche, may have been either older or younger, born between 1366 and 1370. John of Gaunt was her godfather, and his wife, Blanche of Lancaster, may well have been her godmother.
They may also have been the parents of Margaret Swynford, who became a nun at Barking Abbey in the reign of Richard II.
Nothing else is known about the marriage, as to why they married, how exactly they lived, and their relationship with each other.
John of Gaunt's second marriage, to Constance of Castile
In September 1371, John of Gaunt married for the second time in Bordeaux, in modern-day France.
The lucky lady was Constance of Castile, daughter of the King of Castile, known as Pedro the Cruel. Pedro had been going to marry John of Gaunt's elder sister, Joan, but Joan died in the first outbreak of the Black Death in 1349, while she was en route to Castile.
Constance had a claim to the throne, as Pedro had no surviving adult sons. As a woman, it was very difficult for her to enforce her claim, but John of Gaunt assumed it through the marriage and fought several campaigns in Castile to try to take the Crown.
John was unsucessful - Pedro's illegitimate half-brother, Henry II of Castile, hung on to his throne.
Constance and John had one child, a daughter, Catherine of Lancaster. She married Henry III of Castile, thus uniting the claims to the throne.
John of Gaunt's Castles today
Katherine as governess to John of Gaunt's children
At some unknown time before 1369, Katherine was appointed as the governess for John of Gaunt and Blanche's daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth.
This was an important position, as she was in charge of the King's grand-daughters, and became more important after Blanche died of the black death in September 1369.
Kenilworth and Knaresborough Castles, pictured to the right of this text, were frequents stops for John of Gaunt, his children, and their households, so Katherine would have known both buildings well.
In approximately November 1371 (although the date is not certain) Hugh Swynford died in John of Gaunt's service abroad, either in France or Aquitaine.
Book reviews about Katherine and John
- Review of Alison Weir's book
Alison Weir's biography of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford reviewed in The Times.
The beginning of the affair between John and Katherine
The start of their affair can't be dated for certain. In the petition to the Pope for permission to marry, John and Katherine both swore that the affair did not take place until both Blanche of Lancaster and Hugh Swynford were dead, which suggests the end of 1371 as the earliest possible date.
Historians analysing John of Gaunt's household records suggest that until 1372, Katherine's name featured in them as one would expect for a woman in her position as governess of the Duke's children.
From 1372 onwards, payments, grants of furniture, fabric and expensive food and drink items increased significantly, and it likely, therefore, that the affair began at this time.
It wasn't a private matter. Records from other noble households record Katherine as the Duke's mistress, and it appears to have been a widely-known affair. For example, it was Katherine Sywnford who told Edward III that John of Gaunt and Constance of Castile had a child born to them, in 1373.
That child was also called Catherine (or Katherine). To modern eyes, certainly to mine, it seems rather odd to call a child after the father's mistress!
- Katherine Swynford
A blog all about the woman, with interesting pictures and details.
- The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse
In this poem, Chaucer confronts his medieval financial crisis with a light-hearted but earnest plea to his patron. Complete with analysis and glossary.
John and Katherine's life together
The couple seem to have spent quite a lot of time together, made easier by Katherine's official position in John's household.
They were separated during John's unsuccessful military expeditions to Castile, and when he travelled elsewhere on England's business. As a senior member of the Royal Family, he did quite a lot of official government business.
From John's accounts, he gave Katherine frequent and extremely expensive presents, including clothes, jewellery, and silver warming pans.
That their relationship was close can also be seen from other accounts in the 1370s. Various nobles and senior churchmen gave Katherine presents, including horses and silver cups, hoping that she would look favourably on them and influence her lover.
After the Peasants Revolt in 1381, it seems that the couple split up, for an unknown period of time. There is a Latin "Quit Claim" from 1381, in which the split is set out, and each party renounces future claims on the other. A yearly amount was payable under the claim to Katherine.
They do seem to have resumed their relationship in the mid 1380s, but John was away in Castile for most of 1386 to 1389, and during this time, Katherine was a member of Mary de Bohun's household. Mary was the wife of Henry of Bolingbroke, his legitimate son from his first marriage.
Katherine continued to have close ties to Lincoln and Lincolnshire. She maintained her manors at Kettlethorpe and Colby, and rented a house sometimes near the Cathedral in Lincoln.
John was very generous to Katherine's Swynford children, particularly her son, Thomas. He was a retainer in John's household, and received generous grants and privileges.
The Beaufort children
John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford had four children during their affair:
- John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset, who married Margaret Hollan;
- Henry, Cardinal Beaufort;
- Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, who married Margaret Neville
- Joan Beaufort, who married (1) Robert Ferrers, 3rd Baron Ferrers of Wemme and (2) Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmoreland.
They were given the surname "Beaufort" after some of John of Gaunt's lost French lands. AS they were unlikely to be retrieved, this did not threaten the inheritence of John's legitimate children, particularly his heir, Henry of Bolingbroke.
- John of Gaunt
Factsheet about the life, times and activities of John of Gaunt.
John of Gaunt's political and military life
A long and detailed account of John of Gaunt's political significance would extend this article too far.
He was certainly an immensely capable, ambitious, and intelligent man. His first two marriages brought him great advantages, both in terms of wealth and power.
He tried, and failed, to claim the thrones of both Scotland and Castile.
John was an increasingly important figure in the last 15 to 20 years of his father's reign. Edward III became less involved in government, and his son more important.
Edward III's heir, Edward the Black Prince, died before his father. When Edward III died in June 1377, the throne passed to his grandson, Richard II, who was then only 10 years old.
John then almost was the government. Many unpopular decisions were blamed on him, and throughout John's life, people were suspicious that he might try to usurp the throne, although he never made any such effort.
John was a target of the leadership of the Peasants Revolt in 1381, and his grand London palace, the Savoy, was burned to the ground.
A video of Lincoln Cathedral
The marriage between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt
In January 1396, John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford married in Lincoln Cathedral. Chantries were endowed in the Cathedral to pray for both their souls.
This meant that she became the first lady in England, as the King, Richard II, was unmarried.
Such an elevation was astonishing and entirely unprecedented.
The marriage did not last long - John of Gaunt died in 1399 and Katherine Swynford in 1403.
- Lady Margaret Beaufort
A page from Christ's College, Cambridge, about Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII). She was a patron of the college, and encouraged education generally.
The historical significance of the marriage between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford
Every English King and Queen since Edward IV ascended to the throne in the mid 15th century is descended from John of Gaunt and Katherine Sywnford.
Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III were all descended from their daughter, Joan Beaufort, who married Richard Neville. Her daughter, Cecily Neville, was the mother of both Edward IV and Richard III, and grandmother of Edward V.
John and Katherine's eldest son, John Beaufort, was the grandfather of Margaret Beaufort. She gave birth, at the age of 13, to the future Henry VII.
After their marriage, both the Pope (in religious terms) and Richard II (in English legal terms) made the Beauforts legitimate, post facto.
Further reading: books about the couple and their times
Katherine Swynford by Anthony Goodman.
A detailed, careful biography of Katherine. Only 30 pages long, it packs a lot in there.
- Richard II - Shakespeare in quarto
Information from the British Library's website about the play Richard II, when it was written, and a summary of the plot.
John and Katherine in literature
John of Gaunt is an important character in Shakespeare's Richard II, giving the famous speech about England and the importance of being an island nation.
Katherine, by Anya Seton, is a historical novel written in the 1950s, about the life and loves of Katherine Sywnford.
- The 1381 Peasants' Revolt
A history of the Peasants' Revolt, headed by Wat Tyler and John Ball. John of Gaunt was a particular target of the anger and frustration among the Commons.
Traces of Katherine and John today
Pevsner notes of Kettlethorpe:
Of the C14 house of the Swynford family only the gateway remains, of stone, with battlements and typically C14 sunk mouldings. The back later strengthened by brickwork. In the r. wall a blocked C14 archway in situ.