Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Katherine Swynford: Is It Really a Love Story?

Katherine de Roet, lady Swynford and, later, duchess of Lancaster (born 25 November 1349 or 1350)

For generations of readers, Anya Seton's 1954 historical novel Katherine was the means by which they came to the story of Katherine Swynford. Seton's is a romantic narrative in the extreme: the twenty-five-year-long love affair between a young woman with no social status or political significance and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, the third son of Edward III, king of England. 

Katherine Swynford's device,
featuring Katherine Wheels,
adopted after her marriage to
John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster
Their passion, their heartbreak, their separation, their against-the-odds marriage (Katherine becomes Gaunt's third wife)--it's an amazing novel. I read it for the first time, just a few years ago, on the recommendation of a co-worker, and I loved it. Much to my co-worker's surprise, actually, since she thought I would hate a book that was, as she apologetically described it, "just fiction." (She said this to me, knowing that I taught literature!!)

I have also read Alison Weir's biography of Swynford, Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster. Weir begins her study by noting her own lifelong fascination with Seton's novel:
This is a love story, one of the greatest and most remarkable love stories of medieval England. . . .
Katherine Swynford's story first captured my imagination four decades ago, when I read Anya Seton's famous novel about her, Katherine. This epic novel made a tremendous impact on me as an adolescent, and still has the power to move me today. And I am not alone, because it has hardly been out of print since its first publication in 1954, and ranked ninety-fifth in the top one hundred favorite books voted for by the public in BBC TV's "The Big Read" in 2003.
While I loved Seton's novel, I did not love Weir's biography--I guess I expect more out of non-fiction. The truth is that we have no way of knowing whether Katherine Swynford's relationship with John of Gaunt was "one of the greatest and most remarkable love stories" of the late Middle Ages--or of any time. Too much focus on the inner (and highly romanticized) feelings and motivations of historical figures in a work of history doesn't make for good history, or at least not the kind of history that I appreciate. 

There simply is not much information available about Katherine Swynford, for one thing. The broad facts of her life are known: she was the daughter of Paon de Roet, a knight from the county of Hainault, a principality that was part of the Habsburg empire (the area generally corresponding, now, to Belgium), who seems to have become a part of the English court around the time of Edward III's marriage to Philippa of Hainault. (While Paon de Roet was not named in the official list of Philippa's retinue, the fifteenth-century court historian Jean Froissart, himself from Hainault, indicates that he was one of the "other young squires" who accompanied her to England at the time of her marriage.)

Historians have never been able to identify Katherine de Roet's mother--there is simply no information about Paon de Roet's marriage. Even so, there is speculation he married more than once--that his four children, born over the course of fifteen years, must have had different mothers--and that Katherine's mother was somehow connected to the ruling family of Hainault, and thus that she was related to Philippa of Hainault. But no evidence.

I'm posting today because her birthdate is conventionally cited as 25 November--but that is speculation too, simply because it is the feast date of Katherine of Alexandria, a saint for whom Katherine would demonstrate particular reverence (as we might expect if this were her patron saint). The badge she adopted after her marriage to John of Gaunt incorporated Katherine Wheels in its imagery, as did a variety of vestments she offered as gifts to Lincoln Cathedral.

Katherine Swynford's tomb,
Lincoln Cathedral
Katherine's eldest sister, Elizabeth de Roet, was probably born around the year 1335; she became a canoness at the Abbey of St. Waudru in Mons (Hainault).

Her brother, Walter, was probably born between 1338-40; he served Margaret, countess of Hainault, and fought under Edward, the "Black Prince," probably at the battle of Poitiers in 1356.

Katherine's younger sister Philippa, likely born in the 1350s, was a member of Queen Philippa's household and would later marry the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. 

At some point before 24 January 1365, when she is referred to by her married name in the register of Lincoln Cathedral, Katherine de Roet was married to Sir Hugh Swynford, of Kettlethorpe. She bore him at least three children, though their order of birth is not clear: Blanche (b. 1363?), Margaret, and Thomas (b. 24 February 1367). Sir Hugh was killed in 1371, fighting with John of Gaunt in Aquitaine.

And at some point after Gaunt's marriage to the heiress Blanche of Lancaster in 1359, Katherine had joined her court. (Katherine's daughter Blanche was likely named after the duchess.) Also at some point, again we don't know when, Katherine became the governess of Blanche and Gaunt's daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth. And at some point, too, she became Gaunt's mistress. 

Blanche of Lancaster died in 1369, when she was just twenty-three years old; on 21 September 1371, John of Gaunt married Constance of Castile (Constance's younger sister, Isabella, married Gaunt's younger brother). While married to Constance, and having children with her (a daughter, Constance of Lancaster, born in 1373, and a son, John, born in 1374), Gaunt had four children with Katherine: John (b. 1373), Henry (b.1375), Thomas (b.1377) and Joan (b.1379). The children were given the surname Beaufort. 

After Constance of Castile died in March of 1394, on 13 January 1396, Gaunt married Katherine Swynford. Their four children were legitimized by Pope Boniface IX and the English king, Richard II. Gaunt died just three years later, in 1399. 

The relationship between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford was widely condemned by contemporaries, who called her an "abominable strumpet" and an "unspeakable concubine." Gaunt himself was condemned for being "blinded by desire" and a "doting fool."

While Seton and Weir are anxious not only to defend Katherine but to tell the story of a great "love affair," I'm not sure that Gaunt and Swynford's relationship was what Weir calls, quoting Shakespeare, "A marriage of true minds," nor that Katherine was "the love of his heart, and the sole focus of his desire" (particularly since Gaunt is known to have had sexual relationships with other women--other than his wife, that is--during the time of his relationship to Katherine Swynford--"sole focus of his desire"??????).

Part of what makes me so hesitant, I think, is that clearly Katherine was in a position that made her vulnerable--vulnerable in terms of her sex (as a woman to a man), vulnerable in terms of her social status (as a woman of a somewhat ambiguous social class in relationship to one of the most powerful men in England), vulnerable in terms of her marital status (as a widow, probably, at the time her relationship with Gaunt began). She was certainly financially dependent. Her children's futures were also at risk--the children that she had with Swynford as well as her children with Gaunt. 

Rather than reduce (and I do mean reduce) Katherine to a romanticized object of desire or a woman driven by passion, I guess I'd rather focus on her rather limited options as a woman. Her sister's husband, Geoffrey Chaucer, could rise in service to John of Gaunt, Richard II, and Henry IV, by means of his wits through a series of royal grants and appointments.

As a woman, perhaps equally gifted and ambitious, Katherine Swynford's options were more limited. But she certainly accomplished a great deal within the limited scope offered women. Unlike Chaucer, the upwardly mobile son of a merchant, she couldn't dedicate graceful dream visions to royal patrons or secure increasingly important bureaucratic posts. But she could become a governess to aristocratic children--which she did--she could marry reasonably well--which she did--and whether she courted a sexual relationship that could advance her position and offer her security or agreed to one because she was madly in love or accepted one because she had little choice in the matter, she certainly advanced her Beaufort children.

It was exceptional for a man--especially a royal duke, the son of a king--to marry a woman who had been his mistress, certainly. But was the marriage to Katherine Swynford the culmination of a long love affair? Or was it, as the chronicler Froissart suggested, because of his "affection" for the children he had with her? Or, perhaps, because if legitimized, his Beaufort children could prove the source of consolidating yet more power and influence?

Whatever the case, Gaunt's children with Katherine Swynford, legitimized in 1399, proved themselves to be extraordinary. John Beaufort, first earl of Somerset, was the grandfather of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII of England. Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, became a Cardinal in 1426, and presided over the trial of Joan of Arc after her capture in 1431. He served as Lord Chancellor of England on several occasions and was part of the regency council for Henry VI. (And he had an illegitimate daughter--oops.) Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, held a variety of military commands and also served as Lord Chancellor of England. Joan Beaufort, countess of Westmoreland, married into the powerful Neville family--her daughter was a woman we have met before, Cecily Neville, and thus Joan Beaufort was the grandmother not only of Edward IV and Richard III, but also of Elizabeth of York, who married Henry Tudor. 

Gaunt's son by Blanche of Lancaster, Henry, ultimately became king of England, and when he did so, he referred to Katherine as "the king's mother," even after Gaunt's death, a tribute to this remarkable woman. 

Not a bad outcome for Katherine de Roet, the daughter of an unremarkable knight from a small county on the continent.

I've already linked you, above, to Weir's biography, though I will warn you that much of the book is really about John of Gaunt, since there is so little information, really, about Katherine Swynford. There is also a biography by Jeanette Lucraft, Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress

I have not read Lucraft's biography, but certainly her essay, "Missing from History: Jeanette Lucraft Recovers the Identity and Reputation of the Remarkable Katherine Swynford," published in History Today, is excellent, and I'll link to it here.*

(By the way, this is another great example of the reason "traditional" marriage isn't quite what people think it is!)

*Update, 25 November 2021: Jeanette Lucraft's History Today article is no longer freely available--it is now behind an institutional subscription paywall. I've left the reference in just in case you might have access . . . I hate it when this happens.


  1. I read the Weir book. I loved it, for the deep dive into the history of this remarkable woman. True, there isn't a lot in the historical record apart from the gifts of money and land Gaunt gave to her for the upkeep her and their children, but it says a lot about their relationship to me. The fact that he married her after his political and unhappy marriage to Constance, with whom he rarely lived, also says a lot about his feelings for her. Call me a romantic, but I think their actions speak about a deep, abiding love.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Just in case you haven't yet read it, do pick up Anya Seton's novel--it's so good.