In honor of this month’s theme, Great Loves in History, I am revisiting the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III of England. These two are hands down, my favorite lovers of all time.
Immortalized in Anya Seton’s KATHERINE, their story is an amazing true tale of long time lovers who came to their happy ending late in life.
John, Duke of Lancaster, was, Alison Wier writes “the greatest English nobleman of his time”---chivalrous, rich, politically astute, a great warrior, tall, lean, and handsome. What’s more, it’s reported that 300 years later, a codpiece reportedly made for him was on display in the Tower of London and “better worth a lewd lady’s admiration than any piece of antiquity in the Tower.” (Alas, Wier goes on to expose this as the 18th century equivalent of an urban legend.)
Katherine Swynford, on the other hand, was daughter of a knight (Paon de Roet) and would have sunk into obscurity had it not been for the patron
age of Edward’s queen, Phillipa. She obtained this because her father was from the queen’s home country of Hainault and served her in England for many years.
We have little official evidence of Katherine. No letters and few documents remain, not even her will. What does emerge from the record, however, is almost universally flattering. She was beautiful, educated, pious, and comfortable at the highest levels of court.
In addition, she served as mother or surrogate mother to a blended family of more than ten children. They included three to four of her own (by her first husband), three to four of John’s children (by his first and second wives), as well as the four they had together. And she seems to have successfully created an atmosphere that allowed these pseudo-siblings to become fast friends for life.
Any modern day mother must stand in awe of her for this accomplishment alone.
As a sidenote, Katherine’s sister was married to Geoffrey Chaucer, the pre-eminent writer of the 14th century. This has sparked a game of “find Katherine” among some scholars, for he must have known his sister in law well. The picture here, excerpted from the frontpiece of Caucer’s TROILUS, has been identified as Katherine. (Thanks to Judy Perry for correcting my previous crop of this piece.) At the time the two began their affair, Katherine had already served as governess to John’s children with his first, and much beloved wife, Blanche. (Blanche was a paragon herself. Rich, beautiful, educated, it seems she and John also had a love match.)
Katherine, 22, was a widow with at least three children. John, a widower ten years older than she, had just married Constance of Spain, a political marriage and never a truly happy one.
Initially, the lovers were discreet. John may not have loved his new wife, but she was the key to his goal of assuming the throne of Castile. During their affair, Katherine bore him four children, the Beauforts, but largely stayed away from court (and the attention of the chroniclers) for many years. (From these children, eventually, descended kings of England and Scotland, but that is a story for another post.)
Among the touching evidence that has come down to us from John’s household records are regular gifts to “our very dear and well-beloved Dame Katherine de Swynford.” Among these are oak trees “suitable for building.” This sounds less than romantic to modern ears, but they were cut from forests he owned and used for improvements to her home, Kettlethorpe, where their children were raised.
Of course, all was not bliss. They were regularly apart as John was at court or fighting on the continent. Yet finally, around 1377 or 1378, he seems to have relinquished some of the pretense and Katherine was more and more seen at his side. This did not go unnoticed, and Katherine is called his “unspeakable concubine” by the chroniclers. But despite this, they also note, an unusual and telling entry, that she loved the Duke and their children. (This is a far cry from their description of his father’s mistress, Alice Perrers.)
John’s father had now died, and John was uncle to the new king, Richard II. It was a time of unrest, and when the peasants revolted in 1381, John’s London palace, the Savoy, was looted and then burned to the ground. Katherine, knowing her life and her family’s were in danger, went into hiding, probably at one of John’s northern castles.
Although the revolt finally subsided, it seems to have shaken John. Not only was his property destroyed, members of his household had been murdered. A pious man, he concluded that God was punishing him for his liaison with Katherine. (Political realities may also have been a consideration, for he had become a highly unpopular man.)
He publically broke off the nine year old affair, but also issued a “quit claim” that made it clear that any gifts and property he had given Katherine would remain hers. This document was issued on Valentine’s Day.
And so, the lovers parted.
Despite this, John continued to provide patronage to their children and even to Chaucer’s son, Katherine’s nephew. Meanwhile, the political times were difficult. New favorites came and went and King Richard alternately depended on his uncle and turned on him.
But in 1394, Constance died. John, contrary to all advice and to the horror of several of the highest born ladies of the court, petitioned the Pope for dispensation to marry Katherine and to legitimize their children.
So at 46 and 56, they became husband and wife and, Katherine informed the Pope, they celebrated their wedding with “carnal copulation.”
Until King Richard’s marriage to his second wife, Katherine, Duchess of Lancaster,
was the highest ranking woman in England. She and John had less than five years together before John’s death and he was not well for most of that time. (John may not have been quite as faithful as his reputation. There’s some suggestion that his last illness was actually venereal disease.)
She survived five years after his death and lived to see John’s son, Henry IV, refer to her, his stepmother, as “the King’s Mother.” Her tomb in the Lincoln Cathedral is sketched to the right.
Much of this material is drawn from Mistress of the Monarchy, by Alison Weir, and The HISTORY OF A MEDIEVAL MISTRESS by Jeanne Lucraft. Those who read INNOCENCE UNVEILED may recognize that I used the birth of “John of Ghent,” subsequently John of Gaunt, as a key incident in the book. While I longed to give Katherine a cameo in The HARLOT’S DAUGHTER, which is set in Richard II’s court, I could not derive a way to do so that would serve the story as well as the author’s interest.
Blythe Gifford has written five, 14th century medieval romances for Harlequin Historicals featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket, most recently HIS BORDER BRIDE. The Chicago Tribune called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance." A new trilogy, set on the Scottish Borders during the turbulent era of the Border Reivers, will debut in November.