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