I was inspired to write this post after realizing that so many people learned about Katherine Swynford by reading Anya Seton's classic novel Katherine which was re-released several years ago in a trade paperback edition.
She lived in the 14th Century, and until Anya Seton rescued her from obscurity, was nothing more than a footnote in the life of her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer. She doesn't even have a name in Shakespeare's play, Richard II. Yet her descendants include several kings of England, and a dukedom that still exists today. Recently two new biographies have appeared about her, the most recent to be released this month, by noted Tudor biographer Alison Weir.
Why has Katherine captured the imagination that she not only has a blog related to her but also a society named her? Perhaps because unlike other royal mistresses who either died young (Nell Gwynn, Madame Pompadour), beheaded (Madame du Barry), died in poverty (Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan) or were banished from their lover's kingdom (Lola Montez), Katherine ended up with a happy ending. Her lover, John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, not only married her but legitimized their children, although his nephew Richard II made sure that they were not eligible to inherit the throne.
Jeannette Lucraft, in her award winning article for History Today magazine (Missing from History, May 2002), concludes that one can learn a great deal about the role of women in the 14th Century as well as the 14th century culture and society through the history of Katherine Swynford.
Personally, I think it's just a great love story.
Katherine was born around 1350, the daughter of Paen de Roet, a Flemish herald from Hainault who was knighted just before his death on the battlefield. He had three daughters and a son who lived. Philippa married Geoffrey Chaucer, and Elizabeth died the Canoness of a convent.
Very little is known about Katherine's early years, but she must have been highly educated to have been appointed Governess to the Duke's daughters. She also would have to have shown a degree of piety and some knowledge of household economics to have been considered for the post.
Katherine grew up within the royal court, joining the household of John of Gaunt's first wife Blanche of Lancaster after her marriage in 1359. At the age of 16, Katherine married Hugh Swynford, a knight in John of Gaunt's retinue who owned the manor house of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. She bore him at least two children, Thomas and Blanche. Hugh was in his early thirties when he was killed while fighting in Aquitaine under Gaunt in 1371 when Katherine would have been all of 21 years of age.
After her husband's death Katherine then became governess to his two daughters (the sisters of the future Henry IV of England) by Blanche. Eventually, she became his official mistress, about 1373. The affair between them was to last for over 25 years culminating in their marriage in 1396.
What did the chronicles of the time say about Katherine. Many considered her to be a temptress. Thomas Walsingham, a Benedictine monk of St. Albans, was notorious for his condemnation of John of Gaunt, criticizing his leadership in the French wars, and castigating him for the conduct of his lifestyle. His opinion of Katherine was quite clear, he stated that she was an abominable temptress, and that Gaunt's blatant showcasing of his mistress in front of not only his wife, but also his retainers, and the public could only bring vengeance on the kingdom.
Apparently, Walsingham was not alone in this opinion. Other chroniclers at the time also passed judgement on the role of Katherine in Gaunt's life, all negative. What was Katherine supposed to have done to have deserved this reputation? Unlike Alice Perrers, the mistress of John of Gaunt's father Edward III, who was said to have pulled the rings of the dead king's fingers, Katherine seems to have been a pretty benign presence in Gaunt's life.
Consider the fact that they were only married after the death of his second wife, and twenty five years after first became lovers, and their children weren't legitimized by the Pope and Richard II until then. Unlike other royal mistresses, she didn't gain great titles or lands, and her children weren't given dukedoms the way Charles II's children were.
It's clear that Katherine is just another weapon to be used by Gaunt's enemies of which he had several. After the Black Prince's death, during the minority of Richard II, John of Gaunt was very powerful. And power makes enemies.
In Anya Seton's novel, Katherine and John end their relationship for a time around 1381. The nature of John of Gaunt's gifts to Katherine changed at this time and a document exists denying Katherine and her offspring any right to the Lancastrian heritage but Jeanette Lucraft argues in her biography of Katherine that if the relationship did end for a time, it was only temporary.
What was most unusual about Katherine's relationship with John of Gaunt, was how readily her children were accepted by both Richard II and later by Henry IV. Richard II referred to the Beauforts as his kinsmen. Enveloping the children of an adulterous relationship into the royal sphere proved the acceptance of the family and was totally unprecedented. Royal bastards may have been provided for and given titles but they weren't considered to be part of the family.
John of Gaunt died in 1400 and Katherine followed him a scant three years later, and the relatively (for us) young age of 53, leaving behind at least six children. She is buried in Lincoln Cathedral where you can still see her tomb, although it was vandalised during the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.
Her daughter Joan married Richard Neville, and became grandmother of Edward IV and Richard III. Katherine's other great-granddaughter married the Jasper Tudor, the son of Katherine de Valois, becoming the mother of Henry VII. The current Duke of Beaufort traces his lineage from Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt.
Like another royal mistress who became a royal Duchess (Camilla Parker Bowles), Katherine Swynford was not born of the nobility, but she was able to assume the character and mantle of the highest echelons of the nobility and the monarchy.