Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Scandal

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Arms of Katherine Swynford

Katherine Swynford is, arguably, the most famous – or infamous – of English ladies  to have risen so high as to become the first lady of the kingdom, without ever being queen.

Born Katherine de Roet in Hainault, now in modern-day Belgium, in around 1350, her father was Sir Paon de Roet of Guyenne. Unfortunately, as can be the way with Medieval women, I could find no mention of her mother’s identity.

Sir Paon was a Hainault knight who travelled to England with its new queen , Philippa of Hainault, as part of her retinue. As a consequence, Katherine was raised at the English court of Queen Philippa and her illustrious husband, King Edward III.

Katherine and her older sister, Philippa, were eventually given positions as ladies-in-waiting to members of the royal family. Philippa joined the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Lionel of Antwerp, where she met her future husband, the literary giant of the age, Geoffrey Chaucer.

By 1365 Katherine was serving in the household of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, and her husband John of Gaunt, 3rd surviving son of Edward III and Philippa of Lancaster. Sometime before 1367 Katherine married a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe, at St Clement Danes Church on the Strand, London. They had at least 2 children, Thomas and Blanche; John of Gaunt was Blanche’s godfather. Sir Hugh was a tenant of John of Gaunt’s and accompanied him to Europe in 1366 and 1370.

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John of Gaunt

In 1368 in order to avoid the plague, Blanche moved her family to Bolingbroke in the Lincolnshire countryside. She died in childbirth in September the same year. However, rather than leaving the household on Blanche’s death, Katherine was appointed governess to the 2 daughters of Gaunt and the late Duchess, Philippa and Elizabeth.

Katherine’s husband, Sir Hugh, died in 1371 and shortly afterwards rumours started arising of a relationship between John of Gaunt and the young widow. Whether the affair started before Sir Hugh’s death is uncertain and some sources suggest this was the case.

Although John married his 2nd wife, Constance of Castile, on 21st September 1371. John and Constance’s marriage was a dynastic one; John was hoping to gain a kingdom for himself, through his wife. From January 1372 John assumed the title King of Castile and Leon, by right of his wife, although he was never able to consolidate his position. John’s younger brother, Edmund, would marry Constance’s sister, Isabella.

Constance gave birth to a daughter, Catherine, in 1373 and a son, John in 1374 – he died the following year. Catherine would marry Henry III of Castile, becoming Queen Consort of Castile and Leon and thus fulfilling her father’s ambition of his descendants sitting on the throne of Castile.

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Delaroche’s painting of Cardinal Henry Beaufort (son of Katherine Swynford) interrogating Joan of Arc

By 1372 Katherine’s status within Gaunt’s household had risen, indicating their developing relationship. While continuing in her post of governess to Philippa and Elizabeth, Katherine bore 4 children between 1373 and 1379, acknowledged by John of Gaunt as his own; John, Henry, Thomas and Joan. They were given the surname of Beaufort, probably after their father’s lost French lordship in Anjou.

I could find no record of Constance’s – or Katherine’s – reactions to Gaunt’s living arrangements. It’s hard to imagine that either was completely happy with the situation, but Gaunt does appear to have fulfilled his obligations to both women.

There is some record that John of Gaunt formally renounced his relationship with Katherine and reconciled with his wife in June 1381, possible as a way to recover some popularity during the Peasant’s Revolt. The revolt blamed 13-year-old King Richard II’s counsellors as the cause of the country’s problems. John of Gaunt was one of the main targets for the rebels’ anger and his Savoy Palace on the Strand was burned to the ground, despite Gaunt’s absence from the centre of proceedings; he was on his way to Scotland at the time.

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Lincoln Cathedral today, viewed from the walls of Lincoln Castle

Katherine left court and settled at her late husband’s manor at Kettlethorpe, before moving to a rented townhouse in Lincoln. John of Gaunt visited her regularly throughout the 1380s, and Katherine was frequently at court.

With 4 children by John of Gaunt but still only, officially, governess to his daughters, Katherine was made a Lady of the Garter in 1388. However, her situation changed again following Constance’s death at the end of 1394.

At Lincoln Cathedral, in January 1396 and a quarter of a century after the start of their relationship, John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford were married. Styled Lady Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster, she was, briefly, the 1st Lady in England after the death of Queen Anne of Bohemia.

Once they were married John of Gaunt wasted no time in  legitimising his children by Katherine. They were legitimated by the Pope on 1st September 1396, and by Charter of Richard II on 9th February 1397. A further Charter in the reign of Henry IV also excluded the Beauforts from the succession.

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Tombs of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, and her daughter Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland. Lincoln Cathedral

Their final happiness was of short duration, however, as John of Gaunt died on the 3rd of February 1399; he was buried beside his 1st wife, Blanche of Lancaster, in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. His son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke, had recently been exiled to the Continent for 10 years. Richard II extended that exile to a life term and confiscated the Lancastrian lands.

Following Gaunt’s Katherine returned to her townhouse in Lincoln; close to the east end of the Cathedral. Her son, Henry Beaufort, had become Bishop of Lincoln shortly after being legitimised.

Katherine died at Lincoln on 10th May 1403. She was buried, close to the High Altar, in the cathedral in which she had married her prince just 7 years earlier. Her daughter Joan, Countess of Westmoreland, was laid to rest beside her, following her death in 1440, with a slightly smaller tomb. The tombs themselves are empty, with Katherine and Joan buried beneath the floor of the Cathedral.

Katherine appears to have had a good relationship with John of Gaunt’s children; she was very close to Philippa and Elizabeth. Henry IV, Katherine’s stepson, referred to her in her widowhood as ‘The King’s Mother’.

And together, through their children Katherine and John left a legacy that would change the  course of English and Scottish history.

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Katherine Swynford’s tomb, 1809

Henry Beaufort would rise to the position of Bishop of Winchester and Cardinal. Thomas would rise to become Duke of Exeter and serve on the council of his great-nephew, Henry VI.

Less impressively, their grandson Edmund (son of John, Earl of Somerset) was responsible for great losses of territory whilst Regent of France for young Henry VI.

Katherine and John’s daughter, Joan, was the mother of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, who would be the mother of 2 kings of England; Edward IV and Richard III. Their son John, Earl of Somerset, was grandfather of Margaret Beaufort and great-grandfather of the 1st Tudor King, Henry VII. John’s daughter, Joan Beaufort, married James I of Scotland in another of history’s great love stories.

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Photographs of Lincoln and Katherine Swynford’s tomb are © Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015. All other pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Life and Times of Edward III by paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; womenshistory.about.com/od/medrenqueens/a/Katherine-Swynford.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly

54 thoughts on “Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Scandal

  1. katemartyn 25/07/2015 / 13:10

    Very interesting piece, thanks for posting. Such a fascinating and complex web of relationships with enormously far-reaching consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 26/07/2015 / 12:02

      Thank you very much for saying, Kate. I’m so glad you liked it. It’s amazing how one person could have so big an effect on history. Sharon

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pat 25/07/2015 / 18:13

    Read the book by Anya Seton called”Katherine.” It was written in 1945 but it is a delightful read and more accurate from her research then this article. It was given to me as a gift when I was 17 by the Libraians who serve the Air Force Academy Cadets. This book was found on their shelf because of its accuracy. I have re-read it every year for Nostogia for the past 35 years.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 26/07/2015 / 11:47

      I haven’t yet read it, Pat, but I’ve heard so many people say it’s a wonderful book. I will definitely get round to reading it at some point. Thanks for the recommendation. Sharon 🙂

      Like

  3. Pat 26/07/2015 / 16:59

    Your very welcome. In Seton’s book , “Katherine”, she ( Katherine) survived the plague and grew up in a privy of nuns who escorted Katherine to her sister Philippi who was a kitchen maid for the castle. It was there that she meets Hugh Swyford and reluctantly marries him because her chances for a good marriage are so slim. She does not serve in the Dukes household until the relationship between the two developed. Fascinating read from a great writer .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Judy Perry 29/07/2015 / 20:38

    Lovely blog post! However, Catherine of Lancaster married Henry, not Peter (or Pedro). Also, if Katherine Swynford was born in 1350, odds favor her being born in England, not Hainault, as Payne Roet was in England at that time. Katherine may have had two other siblings, namely, the Walter de Roet who was in the household of the Black Prince, and the Elizabeth or Isabel who was dowered a canonness of St. Waudru, Mons.

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 29/07/2015 / 21:36

      Hi Judy, thanks for your lovely comment – and for spotting the name error (edited to Henry now, don’t know how Peter got in there). As to Katherine’s birthplace; given the date I expected to find that she’d be born in England, but every reference I found had her place of birth in Hainault. It may be he had been sent there on duty for the queen? One source said the family returned to England in 1351. The lack of information is frustrating but understandable, considering she was an unremarkable minor noble until she caught John of Gaunt’s eye.

      Like

  5. brentlibrariesblog 07/08/2015 / 15:12

    Very interesting and quite romantic! I’m surprised Katherine and John haven’t found their way into more historical fiction and TV dramas (everyone is too busy obsessing over the Tudors!)

    Zoe

    Liked by 1 person

      • Geraldine Barton. 13/09/2016 / 15:04

        Also Alison Weir’s non fiction book –Katharine Swynford is very good too.

        Like

      • Sharon Bennett Connolly 13/09/2016 / 15:16

        Thank you Geraldine – I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to get round to it. 🙂

        Like

  6. Kristie Dean 09/12/2015 / 23:57

    I went to Kettlethorpe – not much left to see there, but I just had to visit! Loved the post (as usual!).

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 10/12/2015 / 08:40

      Thanks Kristie. Kettlethorpe is on my list for next year – it’s only about an hour’s drive away from us, but I just haven’t got round to it yet. 🙂

      Like

  7. Richard P. McArthur 10/12/2015 / 01:52

    Are you sure that Richard II’s charter legitimating the Beauforts excluded them from the royal succession? I have always read that the exclusion was by Henry IV, in 1408.

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 10/12/2015 / 08:39

      I always thought it was Henry IV but a couple of sources said it was Richard II, Richard, so I went with that, thinking I must have got it wrong. I will have another look, see if I can find anything more specific and detailed and edit if needs be. Thanks for pointing it out. 🙂

      Like

  8. nmayer2015 12/07/2016 / 13:13

    Not my period at all, but I have read in several places that parliament passed the act that made the children legitimate without being in the line of succession. As it turns out, they managed to put several on the throne anyway.

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 12/07/2016 / 13:51

      Hi, it was done in 2 steps. Richard II issued a charter which confirmed the legitimacy of the children, following the papal bull, however Henry IV barred them from the throne. This was done by royal charters which were later ratified by parliament (parliament was not independent in those days and took its cue from the king). Best wishes, Sharon

      Like

  9. jeanette taylor ford 13/07/2016 / 21:48

    Brilliant Sharon. I don’t know how you manage to gather all this information; you must always have your nose in a dusty tome! Fascinating stuff

    Like

  10. Catherine Hokin 29/07/2016 / 08:20

    Very interesting. I am descended from her and she is the subject of my next novel, details hopefully coming soon

    Like

  11. lizannelloyd 29/07/2016 / 11:11

    An interesting account of the life of Katherine Swynford. I have blogged about her step-daughter Philippa who became Queen of Portugal.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Lucinda E Clarke 29/07/2016 / 12:32

    I think sarah duchess of Malborough might have given her a run for her money 🙂

    Like

  13. Pamela Daly 29/07/2016 / 14:36

    I read Anya Seton’s Katherine and fell in love with John of Gaunt as a young teen. When I went to England I visited the crypt at St. Paul’s to visit his tomb. What a disappointment to find it had been destroyed during the blitz. I took a photo of his portrait instead. He did not look at all like he did in my own imagination. I wanted to get to Katherine’s tomb but unfortunately did not. Thank you so much for the above piece. It is mind boggling how one person can change the course of history.

    Like

  14. Jennie 29/11/2016 / 01:21

    This is so interesting. Thank you for a great post. As a history lover I look forward to reading more on your blog.

    Like

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