I’m Caitlin Chapman and I’m a proud Committee member of the Katherine Swynford Society. I’m also on the Editorial Team, where I write articles for our twice yearly Journal and help to edit submissions from the rest of the Editorial Team and our members.
- First off, just for those who don’t now Katherine – Caitlin would you give us the 2 minute overview – who was Katherine, when did she live, and why is her life of interest?
Katherine Swynford was the forbearer of the Tudor Dynasty. She lived from about 1350 – 1403, and is a direct ancestress to the current Queen and every English monarch since Edward IV. She was the mistress and eventual third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, son of Edward III, who himself was the forbearer of the Lancastrian dynasty. She was the sister-in-law of Chaucer, and stepmother of Henry IV. Though she was born to a humble knight from Hainault, upon her second marriage she actually became the highest ranking lady in England as Duchess of Lancaster. She was mother to a Marquis, a Countess and a Bishop, grandmother to a Scottish queen, and great-grandmother to two English Kings.
She is the subject of the beloved 1954 eponymous novel Katherine by Anya Seton, a true classic in historical fiction. She lived through some of the most pivotal times of the Middle Ages in England, including the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the usurpation of the throne from Richard II by her stepson Henry IV. Hers and John’s relationship could be argued to be one of the greatest love stories in English history. Princes of John’s stature didn’t marry their mistresses, and Katherine’s is truly a rags to riches tale. Without her line, we would have no Tudors and no Stewarts, or any other succeeding British dynasty for that matter.
- What do we know about Katherine’s background and upbringing?
Not a lot is known about Katherine’s early life, though historians such as Alison Weir are able to piece together a rough picture of her background. Katherine was likely born around 1350, in what was known at the time as The Low Countries (roughly modern-day Belgium and The Netherlands). We know she was the daughter of Pan de Roet, a knight from Hainault who travelled to England in the train of Queen Philippa upon her marriage to Edward III. He was completely devoted to the royal family, and it seems they were just as loyal to him. He was buried in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is a signal to his eventual significance to the English monarchy. We don’t know who Katherine’s mother was, but know she had at least three siblings (Walter, Elizabeth and Philippa). Philippa went on to marry Geoffrey Chaucer. There is some evidence Katherine and Philippa had a different mother than their siblings because there seems to be an age gap. Elizabeth went on to live out her life in a convent back in Hainaut. Walter served in the households of The Black Prince (Edward III’s oldest son) and that of Margaret, Countess of Hainault, sister of Queen Philippa.
Katherine came to England (if she wasn’t born there) by an early age. A lot of what we know about her early years comes to us from Jean Froissart, a chronicler from Hainault who was devoted to Queen Philippa. He states Katherine “had a perfect knowledge of court etiquette, because she had been brought up in it continually since her youth”. It seems likely her mother died when she was young, not only because there is no mention of her anywhere, but because Queen Philippa took Katherine and her sister Philippa (who was likely named for the Queen) into her household, almost as adopted daughters. Queen Philippa had 12 children of her own, and was known for taking-in the children of nobles.
Katherine would have been accustomed to a lavish lifestyle as a member of the royal household. Her childhood spanned the height of the chivalric age, with Edward III at the zenith of his power and fortune. She would have travelled to the many magnificent palaces of the royal family throughout the year, including Westminster, Windsor and Woodstock, and enjoyed a much higher standard of living than many. She would have been afforded a better education than most daughters of the knightly class, and likely spoke multiple languages. We can be sure she spoke Norman French, which was used as a first-language by most of the nobility in England at the time, but she probably also learned English at some point, and likely spoke Dutch (or Flemish as it was called at the time), a native tongue to her.
Katherine and Philippa Roet would have been of a similar age to some of Edward III and Queen Philippa’s daughters, and may have served as their companions. Katherine would have known John of Gaunt most of her life, though he was roughly ten years older.
Philippa’s marriage to Geoffrey Chaucer shows the esteem the Roet girls were held in, because Geoffrey had close ties with the royal family. Katherine’s relation to him only strengthened her ties to the monarchy.
- Katherine was married firstly to Hugh Swynford. Can you tell us about this marriage and their children?
She married Hugh Swynford sometime before 1365, so likely in her early to mid-teens. By then, Katherine had been part of the household of Duchess Blanche, John’s first wife. Hugh was a vassal of John after he became Duke of Lancaster. It was common for members of a lord and lady’s respective households to marry each other, and this marriage may have been suggested or even arranged by the Duke and Duchess. It’s likely Katherine and Hugh weren’t complete strangers, having moved in the same circles.
After their marriage, they would have moved from Court to Hugh’s estates, and Katherine’s lifestyle would have actually taken a down-turn upon her nuptials. Hugh was a knight, but not part of the nobility. He had only two impoverished manors in Lincolnshire, called Coleby and Kettlethorpe. Kettlethorpe was the nicer of the two, and that’s where they resided, but both had been poorly maintained and occupied land that was often unusable for crops or grazing. Katherine was used to the grand apartments of the Savoy Palace and the Queen’s chambers at Westminster; I can’t imagine life in a poorly maintained country house suited her well.
Nevertheless, Katherine was made of tougher stuff, and seemed to make the best of her new situation, throwing herself into the role of Lady of Kettlethorpe. She became a mother in due course to at least probably three children, though evidence of age, birth order and even positive identification is sometimes scarce.
Blanche was likely their first-born. Lancastrian accounts show she was a member of the household of the ducal daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth. Just so you know, everyone in this story has 1 of 5 names, and there are about 20 Philippas, it’s very confusing so I’ll try to use qualifying titles. We know Blanche Swynford was the goddaughter of John of Gaunt, and this would in fact have later repercussions for her mother and godfather, as will be seen. She was betrothed in 1375 to a Robert Deyncourt, whose wardship had been granted to Katherine by John around that time. As this marriage never took place, and we hear nothing more of Blanche after this, sadly we presume she did not live past her early teens.
Their son Thomas was likely the third child. He was born in February 1367, and we know this because as heir, records were more carefully kept of him. Girls’ births weren’t tracked so meticulously. He lived to adulthood, eventually inheriting his father’s estates, which had been enriched by land grants to Katherine from both John of Gaunt and King Edward. He went on to become a favorite and close companion of his eventual step-brother Henry IV. He married a Jane Crophill and had two children.
There is evidence for a third child, Margaret Swynford, but we don’t know for certain she was Katherine and Hugh’s daughter. If so, she may have been the second-born. She went on to take vows at Barking Abbey (one of the most prestigious in England), and was nominated by King Edward himself to do so, along with Philippa and Geoffrey Chaucer’s daughter (and her likely cousin) Elizabeth. Two of her Beaufort half-brothers would later patronize the abbey, and John of Gaunt is known to have sent gifts to its abbess. Margaret herself eventually became the Abbess, which was equal in rank to a Baron.
It’s possible a fourth child named Dorothy existed, but very little is known of her. Of course there could have been other children in between who did not live past infancy, but not much can be known for certain because, at the time, no one knew that one day Katherine and her Swynford children would become people of consequence.
Hugh was often away serving as a retainer of John, either at court or abroad on military campaigns. Katherine seems to have travelled between court and Kettlethorpe during her first marriage, likely going home to her estates to give birth. Their marriage couldn’t have lasted more than ten years at the most before Hugh died in the service of the Duke in Aquitaine in 1371.
- How did her affair with John of Gaunt come about, and how (who?) was John of Gaunt?
So to back-up a little bit, as mentioned before, John was the third of five surviving sons of the great Edward III. Edward III was the first king to make royal dukes out of his sons, and the title he gave John was Duke of Lancaster. This was an elevation from Earl of Lancaster, and that title was inherited in right of his first wife, the aforementioned Blanche. This duchy, along with numerous smaller titles, actually made John the richest man in England after the king, wealthier even than his two older brothers, Edward Prince of Wales (“The Black Prince”) and Lionel Duke of Clarence.
He was also first in line to the throne during Richard II’s reign until Richard was old enough to marry and have children. And this is where the seeds of the Wars of the Roses are unknowingly being laid, all with the five sons of Edward III: King Edward listed The Black Prince and his children as his heirs in his will of course, but then things get dicey. Technically, under primogeniture, Lionel, the second son, and his heirs should have been next. However, Lionel only had one daughter, yet another Philippa. So John and his heirs were listed in Edward III’s will as next in line after The Black Prince and Richard. This was never a problem for the five sons of Edward, all of whom were devoted to each other. Also, Lionel died before The Black Prince, and this is how John was first in line after Richard. But it was the descendants of Lionel and John who would eventually represent the houses of York and Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses. Lionel’s heirs get associated with York, which was the duchy assigned to Edward’s 4th son, Edmund, because one of Lionel’s descendants married one of Edmund’s descendants, so York had a double claim from the 2nd and 4th sons. So in a nutshell, John was a prince, and one step away from the throne at one point, and the most powerful magnate in England.
To answer the second part of the question, the affair started after the deaths of both of their first spouses. John’s first wife, Blanche, died in 1368 after the birth of their 7th child (though only three of them, Philippa, Elizabeth and Henry of Bolingbroke, survived). Hugh died in November 1371 in Aquitaine in the service of John, three years after the Duchess.
We don’t know the exact dates, but it’s assumed the affair began not long after Hugh’s death, so in the winter of 1371-72. Their first child together, John, was born in about 1373.
As mentioned before, John and Katherine would have known each other since early childhood. They moved in the same circles, and Katherine was close to John’s first wife. He selected her almost immediately after Blanche’s death as governess to his daughters, and it’s likely she was already in that or a similar role before Blanche’s death. Hugh was one of John’s knights. John was a patron of Katherine’s brother-in-law Chaucer. John was her daughter’s godfather. The ties are endless. There was likely a mutual attraction or fondness that would never have been acted upon during their respective marriages, but once that barrier was gone, they seem to have come together to comfort each other in their times of loss.
- Why is the timing and the manner in which the affair started important?
The dates are significant to me, because John remarried in September 1371, two months before Hugh’s death. Had Hugh died before this marriage, would John have possibly considered marrying Katherine then? He had already had an extremely advantageous marriage to Blanche. She made him the grandest nobleman. He didn’t need to marry again for fortune, and he had legitimate children.
He took Constance of Castile as his second wife. She was claimant to the throne of Castile as the eldest surviving child of Pedro the Cruel, and there was a precedence for a woman succeeding to the Castilian throne. If John could help Constance press her claim, this would have made him de facto King of Castile. It would have been enticing to him, but if Hugh had died close to when Blanche did, I think it’s possible John may have looked no further for a second wife than Katherine.
The timing is also significant because, as far as we know, John was faithful to his first wife. He adored her, and it’s assumed Katherine was faithful to Hugh. So neither of them were “the cheating kind”, but must have had long-suppressed feelings for each other, or at least a mutual affection for a long time.
What is clear is the affair was about as old as his second marriage, and he was not faithful to Constance for very long. I’m not condoning adultery, but you have to remember he didn’t know Constance, and Katherine had been in his life for as long as he could remember, someone comfortable to him. I hate to draw the comparison, but the historian Jeannette Lucraft draws it as well, but this is kind of the 14th century Charles and Camilla. Katherine may have also served as a link with his beloved Blanche, as she was one of her companions. They likely grieved and remembered Blanche together, and maybe even Hugh, as strange as it may sound.
- John and Katherine had 4 children between 1373 and 1379; how would the world have viewed this?
Yes, so they had John, who arrived probably in 1373, Henry, who came likely in 1375, Thomas in about 1377, and Joan in 1379 or so. They were all given the surname Beaufort. This was to distinguish them from the legitimate Lancastrian children, so they could never pose a rival claim. It also makes it easier because this meant John had two sons named Henry and Katherine had two sons named Thomas! Beaufort was a grant of land in France that technically belonged for a short time to John but he never actually held, so it was thought safe to give the title to his bastard children. They were probably brought up at Katherine’s residence Kettlethorpe alongside her Swynford children.
The world probably didn’t think much of them at first, many noblemen had illegitimate children with mistresses. They were usually married off to minor nobility, or took a career in the Church, as Henry Beaufort indeed did. Bastards were one of those things that were accepted but properly swept under the rug, so that’s why we don’t know much about the Beauforts’ early years. It wasn’t acceptable for them to be at court with the legitimate Lancastrian children, but John provided well for them nevertheless.
- What kind of life would Katherine have lived?
When she was at the Duke’s side, life was good. Constance was never around much, living in seclusion a lot of the time with her Spanish ladies, so Katherine would have been the acting first lady in the household. She seems to have taken on the role of stepmother to John’s children with Blanche, a role Constance never saw fit to fill. Her life seemed dominated by raising children, as she had really three sets of children in her care: her Swynford children, her Beaufort children and the Lancastrian children. We don’t know much about her role in the life of Constance’s daughter. They were certainly quite the blended family, and as the children got older, they became increasingly close, when in many cases, half-siblings or step-siblings such as them would have become rivals. Their unity and harmony had the common thread of Katherine, and she seems to have fostered the sort of filial devotion Queen Philippa did among her large brood.
When she wasn’t with John, she would have lived a rather simple life as a minor noblewoman in Lincolnshire. She was known as “The Lady of Kettlethorpe”, and seems to have taken an active role improving the estate with frequent building projects.
- How did being Chaucer’s sister-in-law impact Katherine’s life?
Even though Chaucer today is the more famous of the two, it was Katherine who used her influence for his betterment, rather than the other way around. Her connection to him may have been one more avenue that brought her close to the Duke of Lancaster, but that seems about it.
There’s no evidence of any affection between Chaucer and Katherine, or even Chaucer and his wife, Katherine’s sister, for that matter. Many of his works, especially The Wife of Bath and The House of Fame, which portray a nagging wife and a hen-pecked man, may have been based on real-life marital experience. He refers to the “the trap of wedding”, and never dedicated one work to his wife. He also states he knows nothing of love except what he has read about.
The lack of affection for Katherine, therefore, could be due to the fact that she was simply his estranged wife’s sister, and so he had no use for her. Another reason could be his devotion to Duchess Blanche’s memory, as seen in The Book of the Duchess, and even John’s second wife, Duchess Constance. He adulates a character called Constance in The Man of Law’s Tale for the hardships she endures with grace. It’s possible he saw Katherine as a siren leading the Duke astray from his current wife, and the memory of his former one. Chaucer even makes a disparaging remark at one point about “governesses with a past”. It’s likely he’s referring to his sister-in-law. It’s even possible the dissolution of his marriage was a result of his feelings on the matter, if Philippa sided with her sister, as seems likely. She went to live with Katherine at Kettlethorpe in the last years of her life.
- In 1371, Gaunt had married Constance of Castile. She was very grand and her marriage very important to Gaunt. Can you explain why, and what we know about Constance’s attitude towards Katherine?
As I said before, this marriage was very attractive to John. He was incredibly ambitious, but completely loyal to his older brother The Black Prince and his nephew Richard. Therefore, he never aspired to the English throne as long as they were alive, but marrying a female claimant to another monarchy gave him the chance to be king. He even started styling himself Lord of Spain upon his marriage. Constance’s claim came from her father, who had been overthrown by his half-brother Henry of Trastamara. She and her sister Isabella were in exile in English territories in nearby southern France after their father’s usurpation and assassination. John was in France at the time, and had been a widow for 3 years. He saw a golden opportunity and seized it. His younger brother Edmund married Constance’s younger sister Isabella a few months later.
Katherine was not John’s mistress yet when Constance became his second Duchess, because she was still married to Hugh. She was, however, still figuring largely in his life. She was still the governess to his children and was placed right away into Constance’s household. Ironically, it’s possible her placement in Constance’s household brought her closer into John’s orbit than before. Nevertheless, it must have been apparent from the start that the Castilian marriage was not a love match, and John probably missed the marital affection he had had with Blanche, and needed that void filled. His long association with Katherine and her proximity made things easy.
Now, one would assume the relationship between Constance and Katherine was strained at best. But Katherine was still serving in Constance’s household at the time of the birth of Constance’s only surviving child, a daughter who was oddly named Catherine. Catherine was not a commonly used royal name in Castile, nor was it in the English royal family. Is it possible Constance was complacent enough in John and Katherine’s relationship to allow her daughter to be named for her husband’s mistress? That seems unlikely, but nor does it seem likely John would have insulted his wife “The Queen” (as he called her due to her claim) with such an overt demonstration of affection to his mistress. It’s possible the child was not named for Katherine at all, but in a time when almost every child was named in honor of someone else, as we’ve seen, it’s impossible to not see a connection. There were no other well-renowned women with that name present at the time. It’s also possible Constance was ignorant of the affair at this point. After all, Katherine was selected to give the message to John’s father, King Edward, of the birth of the child. What’s even more awkward is Katherine’s first child by John was scandalously born not very far apart from Constance’s.
- In 1381 Gaunt formally repudiated Katherine; what was going on here, and how would Katherine’s life have changed?
So this happened in the wake of the Peasants’ Revolt. To give a little background, the Peasants’ Revolt happened in the summer of 1381, and was in response to many things, chief among them John’s growing power and influence over his 14 year-old nephew the King. John was a staunch monarchist, and believed firmly in the unassailable rights of kings. The English people were fed up with being heavily taxed, especially when a lot of this tax money went to fund John’s invasion of Castile to claim his wife’s throne. This was seen as a personal ambition paid for with the people’s money. The distaste for John’s influence grew and a movement to topple him was formed and somehow came to be led by a Wat Tyler, who was an ordinary peasant of Kent. A mob was formed, and on June 13th, they stormed London. Their main target was John’s beloved Savoy Palace, the grandest house in England by all accounts. Luckily, John and likely no member of the ducal family was in residence, but the mob destroyed the entire palace and killed several members of his household. 1500 people were killed in London in the riot in all.
Once John heard the news (he was in Scotland on a diplomatic mission), he was shaken to the core. It was clear if he and his family had been at the Savoy, they would have been killed. His precious heir Henry of Bolingbroke had to be hidden in The Tower of London during the chaos. Apparently Duchess Constance narrowly escaped with her life after fleeing Hertford for the fortress of Pontefract Castile, where she was actually denied access. At this point some of her terrified servants abandoned her, and she travelled at night through the forest to Knaresborough Castle, where she was finally admitted. John felt the need to ask for Richard’s assurance of his safety before he re-entered the country, and once it was given, he met the shaken Constance at Northallerton. Here, Constance kneeled to John upon greeting him, begging his forgiveness. This is an odd scene, because we don’t know why she was asking John for forgiveness (maybe she felt she had neglected her wifely duties?), but John raised her up and in turn begged her forgiveness. This horrifying experience seems to have reconciled them, and it’s partly for this reason John saw fit to repudiate his mistress of almost ten years and mother of four of his children.
Another reason is his sheer distress at the realization that he was so very unpopular. Everything about him had come under scrutiny, and his mistress and unchaste ways were an easy target. It seems like John actually had a sincere ping of conscience. He was a very pious man, and seems to have believed that his sins of the flesh had come back to haunt him with the near-death of himself and his family and the destruction of his beloved home.
Lastly, Katherine had been under immense scrutiny, and had been the recipient of vitriol from the likes of Thomas Walsingham and several monastic clerics. She was described as nothing but a harlot, an “unspeakable concubine” to quote one source, leading the Duke astray. As mentioned before, even her brother-in-law seems to have disapproved of the affair. What really rankled with people was not even that John had a mistress, but that they lived rather openly, and it was disgraceful to his Duchess. People viewed it as a snub to all nobility, since Katherine was low-born. Finally, she was thought of as “a foreigner”, because of her Hainault roots, even though she was raised and lived almost all her life at the English court. We may not think of a Dutch person as completely foreign to an English person, but xenophobia is timeless, sad to say. Merchants in London had resentment toward Flemish merchants because they were “taking away their jobs”.
I think John felt he had to give Katherine up, for the sake of his soul, for the sake finally of poor Constance’s honor, and for Katherine and the Beauforts’ safety. He wrote up a very odd document that was basically a quit claim to Katherine and anything she owned on Valentine’s Day 1382.
However, this repudiation didn’t last long. When they reconciled is unknown, and precisely what form that relationship took on is unclear, but throughout the late 1380s and early 1390s, there is ample evidence of an enduring relationship. He certainly continued to provide financially for her and their children from the outset of their “separation”. He had to remove her from the post of governess to his young daughters for propriety’s sake, but three months after the repudiation, he increased her annuity to 200 marks. This was enough for her to take out a lease on the Chancery at Lincoln Cathedral, where she lived for the majority of the next 15 years. Obviously, her “sins” were not viewed as preposterous enough to prevent her from taking up residence in the Chancellor’s home at the grand Cathedral. This home is one of the few extant buildings associated with Katherine today. All that remains of Kettlethorpe from her time is the gatehouse.
During this time she also continued to receive grants from King Richard. Before 1382, her son Thomas Swynford had been in John’s household as a shield bearer, and that year, he transferred him to his son Henry of Bolingbroke’s household. They were about the same age. That same year, Katherine was given a position in the household Mary de Bohun, Bolingbroke’s wife.
In 1383, John increased Thomas Swynford’s annuity twice. It seems he treated Thomas as a son, the latter’s father having died when he was only 3. He was also knighted in 1386.
Also in 1386, at the time of John’s failed attempt to reclaim Castile, Katherine lent him money “in his time of great need”. The Duke gives numerous intimate gifts to Katherine, such as materials for rich clothing and jewels, including “a diamond in a gold ring” around 1391 or 92, and frequent gifts of wine. She kept horses at his stables. Daily maintenance for Katherine and her children was recorded in the Lancastrian Household Attendance Rolls in 1391. She was frequently present at court and given robes for ceremonial events just as ladies of the royal family were. John and Katherine were definitely a couple again, but seemed to have used much more discretion than previously.
The most important thing we see happen during this time, however, is the arrival of the Beauforts at court. In 1386, Henry of Bolingbroke is admitted to the Confraternity of Lincoln Cathedral alongside his half-brother John Beaufort and future step-brother Thomas Swynford. In 1390, the trio are selected by John as part of a contingent of 30 knights to travel to France for a friendly jousting tournament between knights from both countries. Two years later, Richard II appoints John Beaufort as one of his household knights. Not only were the Beauforts becoming prominent within the Lancastrian household, but the royal one as well.
- Rather dramatically, after the death of Constance in 1394, Gaunt and Katherine got married. How did society respond? Why did they get married?
This was sensational. Princes did not marry their mistresses, former or otherwise. At the time, 1396, Richard had no children, and John was first in line to the throne. He was still the richest and most powerful magnate in England. And Katherine was a repudiated mistress and widow of common birth in her mid-forties. The nobility’s heads exploded. They could not comprehend it. They honestly didn’t know how to react, because this made Katherine the highest-ranking lady in England, as Richard’s first Queen Anne of Bohemia had died. Some noblewomen refused at first to give precedence to her. But they seem to have come around rather quickly. Katherine seems to have had remarkable tact and likability. What’s more, she was always warmly embraced by King Richard. She was selected as the chief lady to welcome his second bride to England, Isabella of France.
The timing here again is interesting, because they don’t rush into it. They really seemed to want to do it right, so John wrote to the Pope for a dispensation. The grounds for even needing one was John had been her daughter Blanche’s godfather. In those days, this was considered consanguinity. Godparents were considered to develop a sort of sibling relation with the parents at the time of the child’s baptism. This document is also where we learn that they committed adultery while John was married, but not Katherine. They would not have lied to the Pope (they were both very pious), especially not in the very document made to completely legitimize their marriage. It was a canny move, because it’s likely no one would have questioned or even remembered John having stood godfather to a child (who was already dead) of Katherine’s 30 years before. What it did, though, was allow the Pope to sanction the marriage in its entirety. It took almost two years between Constance’s death in March 1394 and their wedding in January 1396 to get everything in place. They married in a beautiful ceremony at the majestic Lincoln Cathedral, which they had always had ties with.
- Tell us a little about why the descendants of Katherine and John are so important
The Beaufort children became very important upon their parents’ marriage because John asked not only the Pope, but Parliament, to legitimize them. This is key, and where a lot of people get their history wrong. It’s often stated Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was through “a bastard line”. But this is incorrect. In not only Canon but also common law, they became legitimate and they and their heirs (i.e. Henry Tudor) had a legal right to inherit not only noble titles, but the throne itself. In his patent of legitimation, Richard II clearly states the four should be:
“…raised, promoted, elected, assume, and be admitted to all honours, dignities, pre-eminencies, estates, degrees and offices of public and private whatsoever, as well perpetual as temporal, and feudal and noble, by whatsoever names they may be designated, whether they be Duchies, Principalities, Earldoms, Baronies, or other fees, and whether they depend or are holden of us mediately or immediately, and to receive, retain, bear, and exercise the same as freely and lawfully as if ye were born in lawful matrimony…”
This charter was read out at the Westminster Parliament of January 1397 by the Lord Chancellor, where he declared on behalf of the king that the Pope had “enabled and legitimised Sir John de Beaufort, his brothers and his sister”. Richard goes on to say in reference to John’s request of legitimation in the charter:
“…we think it proper and fit that, for the sake his [Gaunt’s] merits, and in contemplation of his favours, we should enrich you (who are endowed by nature with great probity and honesty of life and behaviour, and are begotten of royal blood, and by the divine gift are adorned with many virtues) with the strength of our royal prerogative of favour and grace.”
Where the confusion arises, however, is when Henry IV adds to the document the clause “except to the royal dignity”, in 1407. His Beaufort half-siblings were just about as loyal as you can get to the Lancastrians, but obviously Henry felt some sort of threat to himself and his heirs. However, Henry never had this version confirmed by Parliament. Richard’s charter was ratified by Parliament, and therefore held the weight of law. Now we know which king was more popular, and even the better of the two, but Richard’s statement on the Beaufort legitimacy has the backing of Parliament. Henry’s does not. So it comes down to who has the last say, a King writing a little amendment to a document after the fact, or a confirmation by Parliament. Also, the Pope freely declared them legitimate, and for many, his word held more sway when it came to birth-right than any other source.
As for later generations of Katherine’s descendants, their eldest son John had six children, four sons, the eldest of which is named John. That John had only one child, a daughter named Margaret Beaufort! So that’s where the Tudor line comes from.
The aforementioned eldest son of Katherine and John had a daughter named Joan, who became Queen of Scots upon her marriage to the captive James I of Scotland, and then mother to James II. This gives the Stewart, then succeeding houses another Beaufort ancestress.
Joan Beaufort, this one the daughter of John and Katherine, had 16 children, 14 of whom were of the illustrious Neville family. Her youngest daughter was Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III.
And let us not forget Katherine’s ties to the house of Lancaster. Henry of Bolingbroke took the throne from his cousin Richard a few months after John died in 1399. At this point Henry outright calls Katherine his mother. It’s believed he charged his stepbrother Thomas Swynford with killing Richard, as Thomas was Constable of Pontefract (where Richard died) at the time of his death. Henry IV elevated his half-brother John from an Earl to a Marquis. His other half-brother, Henry Beaufort, became Bishop of Winchester (the richest diocese in England) and later a cardinal. Henry Beaufort was one of the most influential counsellors to his nephew the great Henry V, and his influence lasted into the early reign of Henry VI. So truly Katherine was a matriarch figure to the houses of Lancaster, Stewart, York, and Tudor, all by different descendants.
- How did Katherine spend the remainder of her life after Gaunt’s death in 1399?
She retired to Lincoln and started up her lease again on the Chancery in Lincoln Cathedral. She only outlived John by 4 years, and not much is known of what she thought of her stepson’s usurpation of the throne from Richard, to whom John had been so loyal. What’s fascinating is she is one of the few people who never felt the wrath of Richard in his final years. Even after John’s death but before Henry became king, Richard did not seize any of her or her children’s lands. She’s seems to have been a master at domestic diplomacy.
She died on May 10th 1403, and is buried at Lincoln Cathedral with her youngest daughter Joan. John had been buried with Duchess Blanche at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, but their tombs were lost between the Civil War and the Great Fire of London. You can visit Katherine and Joan’s tombs today at Lincoln. It think it’s fitting she rests at the place of her penultimate triumph, where her joy likely culminated.
- How has Katherine been portrayed in popular culture?
Most of us know Katherine from the Anya Seton novel. I personally love the book, and I think no contemporary historical fiction holds a candle to it. Seton strove to keep it as accurate as possible, but with an elusive figure like Katherine, you have some license to embellish or imagine things. For instance, Seton has Katherine at the Savoy during the Peasants Revolt with her daughter Blanche. This was almost certainly untrue, but since we don’t know where Katherine was, why not imagine it? Seton also portrays the repudiation as lasting the full 15 years until their marriage, and we know that’s not true either, but since we don’t know the nature of their relationship during this period, it makes their reunion in 1394 all the more dramatic. She also adds a lot of detail to characters we don’t know a lot about, but it does no harm, it fills in the blanks where there’s mystery. I love how Seton dedicates a decent portion of the book to Julian of Norwich. She’s the first woman to write a book in English, and supposedly all her quotes in the novel are taken from her written works, so sort of direct quotes, something we don’t even have for Katherine. Not one letter or quote from Katherine survives, or even a physical description. Seton gives us this, whether it’s accurate or not, because we have to imagine something.
- Why is Katherine’s story interesting and important in your view?
Katherine and John’s tale is my favorite love story. I don’t usually like my history sappy, but the fact that someone of John’s stature stayed with her for almost 30 years is endearing. The fact that he threw convention and what other people thought to the wind and married her shows his love. It’s one of the few real-life stories where the forbidden couple actually end up together.
It’s also interesting because hers is really a rags to riches story. We don’t even know who her mother was, and her father was just a foreign knight, but she became Duchess of Lancaster and was the first lady of England for a time, and the king’s “mother”, in name at least, at the time of her death.
There’s the Tudor tie, of course, because everyone loves the Tudors, but she really did have some illustrious descendants, and without her line, the Dukes of Buckingham or someone of the sort may have become the monarchs after the House of York fell.
Lastly, she was a survivor. She endured a tremendous amount of stress, between widowhood at a young age, the scourge of being “the other woman” during her affair with John, a terrifying revolt aimed at her lover and protector, and due partly to her relationship with him, a humiliating repudiation, and the Black Death rearing its ugly head every few years. She experienced some very bleak times, but she stayed the course and put her children first. Before, during and after her illustrious affair, she takes her role of mother seriously. In the wake of her widowhood, when John and King Edward are endowing her with lands, she adds these to her son Thomas’ inheritance and provides for him, rather than enriching herself. She likely uses her influence to get her probable daughter Margaret and her niece a position at the most prestigious abbey in England. She takes on a ward who is betrothed to her eldest daughter. Meanwhile, she fills the void left by Duchess Blanche’s death for the Lancastrian children. Henry IV never called his first stepmother of 23 years “mother”, but he calls Katherine that readily once he’s king. And she never abandons her Beaufort children. Even though she’d been humiliated by their father’s rejection, she continued to maintain ties with him for their betterment. She kept her head high, and in the end, she got everything she wanted and more. It doesn’t always work out that way, but if John hadn’t come back and married her in the end, I still see Katherine living out her days as Lady of Kettlethorpe, mother of royal children, dying with dignity and the respect of all the children she had a hand in raising.
- Finally, tell us something about the Katherine Swynford Society; what does it do, how can people find out more and join up?
The Katherine Swynford Society is a UK-based historical society founded by Dr. Roger Joy in 2007 in memory of his wife Sylvia, who was a great lover of Katherine Swynford’s story. Dr. Joy sadly passed away this past August, but we aim to continue his passion of exploring the life and times of Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt and their descendants. One of the focal points of the Society is our twice-yearly Journal, entitled “The Katherine Wheel” (which refers to the emblem she chose for her royal arms). The Journal features articles written by our editorial team and submissions from our members. Many are biographies or features of historical sites or artefacts, but some are fiction submissions as well. Our membership includes ordinary history lovers from around the world and some renowned historical scholars. It’s a place for people who are inspired by history to come together to share knowledge and network with like-minded folks.
For those interested in becoming members, please visit our Facebook page, titled “Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster” *. Our newly remodelled website is underway, so keep an eye out for that. It’s only 8 pounds a year for an email subscription, which includes digital copies of each Journal. Or, if you prefer print, it’s 18 pounds a year for UK residents and 24 pounds a year for non-UK residents. We would love to hear from anyone interested in learning more about Katherine!