Katherine Swynford: Her Life and Legacy
Katherine Swynford is not often found in history books throughout time – no personal documents of hers survive, although it is certain that she was at least partially literate. She is often forgotten throughout history because of this and is shadowed by the much more prominent figure of John of Gaunt. There is so much of her life that is based on pure speculation and imagination that it is hard to know facts from fiction. Yet, Katherine’s ancestors are some of the most important figures in the history of England, including Richard III, the final Yorkist king, and Henry VII, the first Tudor King. Katherine Swynford was born around the 1350s, although historians cannot agree on an exact date or location, it is likely that it was somewhere in England. Her father, Paon de Roet, was in the train of the English King, Edward III; her sister, Phillipa, married the famous writer, both then and now, Geoffrey Chaucer. Katherine, according to Froissart, spent her early life in the household of Blanche of Lancaster – the first wife of John of Gaunt. Katherine’s first husband was a Knight called Sir Hugh Swynford, whose main residence was Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. Hugh Swynford was also a part of the Lancastrian household, as retainer for John of Gaunt. It is likely that her conditions in Kettlethorpe were much less grand than those she experienced at Court. Lady Katherine Swynford was mother to two Swynford children, Thomas and Blanche (John of Gaunt was godfather to Blanche who was likely to have been named after his first wife).
Katherine’s Affair with John of Gaunt
Katherine was given the prestigious position as governess to John of Gaunt’s daughters, Elizabeth and Philippa; this position may have been given to her prior to the death of her husband, between 1366 and 1370. It is not clear whether Katherine’s affair with John started whilst she was still married – she was widowed after Hugh went to fight in Aquitaine in 1371 (interestingly Katherine had held her lands in jointure with Hugh, which allowed her to retain a sense of financial independence). It is unlikely that the affair started whilst John’s first wife was alive. However, she was well-known as his concubine during his second, dynastic marriage to the Castilian Princess Constance. The most common date to refer to is 1372, due to an increasing amount of gifts from John of Gaunt to Katherine being logged in his records. Furthermore, in their later application to Pope Boniface IX in 1396, they explicitly stated that their relationship started after the deaths of Hugh and Blanche. Katherine had four, at the time illegitimate, children with Gaunt; they were named John, Henry, Thomas and Joan. In the latter half of the 1380s, in the period when Gaunt was fighting for his right to the Castilian throne, Katherine could be found living quietly in the household of John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, and his wife, Mary de Bohun.
Sources vary in their accounts of whether their affair survived the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381; some historians believe the affair became more secretive whilst some suggest that it was stopped at this point. John of Gaunt suffered huge amounts of hatred at this time, due to the power he held over the young King Richard II. His introduction of the Poll Tax in 1371 had been particularly (and rather unsurprisingly) unpopular. During the revolt itself John suffered heavy losses, including the ransacking and burning of his beautiful London residence, the Savoy Palace. Gaunt’s son, the future Henry IV, was almost killed. By 1396 they were, quite unusually, married. The English Chronicle, more than anything else, saw this surprising as it was so decent yet unnecessary for John to marry his mistress. This made Katherine Swynford, a woman who came to the English court with no real title, Lady Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster and First Lady of England. This new status was one which was not greeted happily by many female members of the English Court; interestingly males, such as Richard II and Henry IV, happily accepted her into their circles. Males could not see her as a threat: she may have been a mistress from a relatively low-born family, however, in the medieval world that she lived in, she could not and likely would not directly go against them. However, she overtook women who, in their minds, had more right to the title as First Lady of England, more right to sit where she sat at the table and other such things. Froissart mentions the Duchess of Gloucester, Countess of Derby and the Countess of Arundel by name, however, the source itself may not be the most reliable and Lucraft mentions that some of the ladies may have been more worried of the effects of legitimising John and Katherine’s children than the marriage itself. However, considering Katherine was brought up in court, within the households of multiple royal children, she is unlikely to have found court ritual or life intimidating. Furthermore, we cannot say whether Katherine was an ambitious power-seeker or just in love; I would like to think that their long term relationship was due to a deep emotional attachment. In fact, it is the romance that we see in Anya Seton’s novel Katherine that first developed my interest in Katherine. Despite its historical inaccuracies, it is an excellent novel worth reading since it gives us an insight into what John of Gaunt and Katherine’s deep connection might have been like. Moreover, Gaunt’s step in marrying Katherine was surprising, despite their 25 year-long relationship, and showed a huge amount of loyalty on both parts; it can certainly be seen as a true love story that held strength and power through years of problems.
Life After John
Upon John’s death in 1399 (he was buried next to his first wife Blanche) Katherine moved to Lincoln, a familiar place where her son was Bishop. Blomefield suggests that Katherine remarried at this point, however, there is no evidence to directly suggest that she ever did and, as Lucraft tells us, Katherine held her title as Duchess of Lancaster until her death which she would have been unlikely to have done if she had ever remarried. It was a political feat that Katherine managed to keep Henry IV and Richard II as close connections. The reason that this is such an achievement and shows her strength of will is that John’s son Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) was banished by Richard II and had many of his lands confiscated by the crown. Katherine herself died in 1403. Her children were legitimised; however, in 1407, Henry IV altered the document to say that they could not take the crown, but in every other respect they were legitimate. The addition cannot be assumed to be a valid one as parliament were not consulted and among Katherine Swynford’s Beaufort descendants can be found Cecily Neville (mother to both King Edward IV and Richard III) and John Beaufort (grandfather of Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, and he was also father-in-law to James I of Scotland). We can see that, considering her father was a Knight, Katherine rose high to become First Lady of England; however, her descendants rose higher and made the houses of York, Tudor and Stuart.
Written by Lauren Miller
1. Blomefield, Francis and Charles Parkin. An Essay of the Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 3. Fersfield: 1739-1775.
2. Lucraft, Jeanette. Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010.
3. Seton, Anya. Katherine. London: Coronet, 1956.
4. Froissart, Jean. Chronicles of England, France, Spain, and the Adjoining Countries, From the Latter Part of the Reign of Edward II to the Coronation of Henri IV. Edited by Thomas Johnes and John Lord. New York: Leavitt and Allen, 1957.
This is an accessibly written article on an overlooked women who actually played quite a crucial role in history! I found it particularly interesting that Katherine is at the root of the Beaufort (and therefore Tudor) line, highlighting just how tenuous the Tudors’ claim to the throne really was.
Thank you so much for your comment! She really is a fascinating women and I’m glad you enjoyed my article!