28 February 2017

Mistresses: Katherine Swynford, later Duchess of Lancaster


As Gilbert and Sullivan might have written, a mistress’s lot is not a happy one.

Hidden away during her tenure, she is typically abandoned and left alone and penniless later in life.

One great exception to this story is Katherine Swynford, longtime mistress of John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III of England.  She became his third wife, with the title of Duchess of Lancaster, and her descendants sat on the throne of England.

Her story, fictionalized in Anya Seton’s KATHERINE, is responsible for my life-long
Katherine is a character in RUMORS AT COURT
fascinating in the Fourteenth Century English royal family.  In my May release, RUMORS AT COURT, a Royal Wedding story, I finally have the opportunity to use her as a secondary character.

When seeking the facts of Katherine’s life, however, we come up against a void, typical of women’s lives in the past.  

Two historians have tackled her story.  Alison Weir wrote Mistress of the Monarchy and Jeanne Lucraft authored The HISTORY OF A MEDIEVAL MISTRESS.  Even their dedicated, professional interest left many questions, even facts, open to speculation.  

We do know that Katherine was daughter of a knight (Paon de Roet) who was a native of Hainault, (now part of Belgium) the original home of Phillipa, queen of King Edward III of England.  As a result, the queen took an interest and brought young Katherine to court, where she was exposed to its manners and culture.

In 1366, at 16 or 17, she was married to Hugh Swynford, a Lincolnshire knight in the service of John of Gaunt.  Gaunt the third living son of the king, had married Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster, and assumed the title Duke of Lancaster, along with the associated lands and riches.

By all accounts, Gaunt loved his wife and during the course of their marriage, Katherine became attached to the household as a governess to the Duchess’ children.  The Duke stood as godfather to her daughter by Hugh, named Blanche in honor of the Duchess.  This suggests that Katherine and Hugh were held in high esteem by the Lancaster household.

By all accounts, the widowed Duke was one of the most admired men of his day.  He was tall, lean, and handsome, chivalrous, rich, politically astute and a great warrior.  He had all the traits and talents necessary to be a king.  He lacked only a country.

A father, two brothers and a nephew stood between him and the English crown and throughout his life, he supported them fully. 

But when his Duchess died, he chose Constanza of Castile, who held claim to the crown of Castile, as his wife.  (Note that Constanza was the daughter of Maria de Padilla, covered earlier this month on this blog: https://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.com/2017/02/mistresses-maria-de-padilla-practical.html ) Despite her lofty ambitions, Castile, and its throne, were actually in control of her (illegitimate) uncle.  The struggle to regain the tile went on for more than fifteen years.

From the frontpiece to Chaucer's Trolius and Criseyde. May be image of Katherine.
Sometime after Blanche’s death, John and Katherine began an affair.  Her husband died three years after Blanche, and very close to the time of John’s marriage to Constanza.  Katherine, 22, was a widow with at least three children.  John was ten years older than she.  While we cannot be certain of the date, 1372 seems the most likely, as their first child together was born by 1373 and in their petition to the pope to confirm their marriage stated that both Blanche and Hugh had died before they began their liaison.

John may not have loved his new wife, Constanza, but she was the key to his goal of assuming the throne of Castile so initially, the lovers were discreet.  Certainly by 1375, however, their affair was public knowledge.

During their affair, Katherine bore him four children, but largely stayed out of the attention of the chroniclers.  What does emerge from the record, however, is almost universally flattering.  She was beautiful, educated, pious, and comfortable at the highest  levels of court.

She also, apparently, kept all the children, John’s and her own, in touch and in some blended family, to the extent that they remained, by in large, friendly for the rest of their lives.

By 1388, Gaunt’s dreams of kingship in Castile were gone.  In exchange for giving up Constanza’s claim to the throne, he gained a marriage of their daughter to the heir, so that she became Queen of Castile.

Katherine's tomb as it appeared in 1809.
Constanza lived for another six years, but by this time, John and Katherine, were together publically.  After Constanza’s death, 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.” 

John lived three years after their marriage.  Katherine lived another four years after his death.

Until King Richard’s marriage to his second wife, Katherine, one time mistress, now a Duchess, was the highest ranking woman in England.

And from John and Katherine’s Beaufort children were descended the Tudor and Stewart kings.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, Blythe Gifford started
writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published eleven romances set in England and on the Scottish Borders.  RUMORS AT COURT, a Royal Wedding story, is a May, 2017 release from the Harlequin Historical line.  For more information, visit

Author photo Jennifer Girard.  Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited.  All rights reserved. ®and T are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license. Copyright 2017