In January 1396 the widow Katherine Swynford married John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, eldest surviving son of Edward III of England and uncle to King Richard II. Until the King remarried later that year, the marriage made Katherine the first lady of the land. It was a startling rise for a woman who 15 years earlier had been branded a slut and a whore and publicly repudiated by her lover John of Gaunt.
The story of Katherine and John has been called one of the great love stories of all time. Katherine Swynford was born around 1350 to a Knight from Hainault who first came to England with Queen Philippa when she married Edward III. She was placed under Queen Philippa’s guardianship at a young age along with her sister Philippa, who later married the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. She then became a member of the household of Blanche of Lancaster, the wife of John of Gaunt. At the age of 16, she married Hugh Swynford, a Knight in the service of Gaunt. With Swynford she had three children. In 1371 her husband died.
John of Gaunt’s wife Blanche had died in 1368, and in 1371 John opportunistically married Constance of Castile, claimant to the throne of Castile and began to call himself King of Castile. Sometime around this time Katherine and John began their affair. They would eventually have four children, all of whom would play a part in English history, and who were given the surname Beaufort, after one of John’s properties in France.
Katherine and John were clearly devoted to one another. John’s brother Thomas of Woodstock is reported to have said that John was a doting fool where Katherine was concerned. John made her governess to his daughters by Blanche. The King made her a Lady of the Garter in order to please John. And in later years his son Henry (who became Henry IV) made her a member of his wife’s household. By all accounts, John’s children with Blanche and Katherine were a happy blended family. But the chroniclers of the day were merciless about a respectable woman turned open mistress and called her “a witch and a whore” and an “unspeakable concubine.”
In 1381 Katherine and John’s idyll was shattered by the Peasants Revolt. The King was a boy of 14, so the peasants’ anger focused mainly on John of Gaunt, the most powerful figure in the land. As the mob entered London, they swarmed towards his home, the magnificent Palace of Savoy and burnt it to the ground. Others who they viewed as associated with John were brutally killed. John escaped to Berwick in the north. Katherine too was in danger, and it appears that she took refuge with the children at Pontefract Castle.
Richard II himself managed to quell the disturbance by meeting directly with the leaders. In the aftermath, John was clearly shaken by what had transpired and was urged to examine his life to understand how he had angered God. It was at this point that he repudiated Katherine. The Chroniclers of the time report that he vowed: “to reform his life and forsake his sin of lechery, particularly associated with Dame Katherine de Swynford, a she-devil and enchantress.” One assumes he did not use these words, but the fact that it was reported in this manner shows that many viewed her in that light and that her reputation took a further blow.
It appears that their relationship did end for some time at this point although John continued to provide support for Katherine and their children. Katherine rented a house in Lincoln, and the Duke focused on his attempt to gain the crown of Castile. In 1386 he led an army to Castile, but this effort would end in failure. John and Constance married their daughter to the King of Castile’s son and returned to England. Their marriage which had always been about gaining the Crown of Castile was effectively over.
John and Katherine’s love had survived separation, scandal and tragedy. When Constance died in 1394, it seems John no longer cared about what people said. He petitioned the Pope to allow them to marry which they did in 1396, 25 years after their relationship first began. Their marriage was deemed quite scandalous at the time but the King supported them, and both the Pope and the King declared their children legitimate. (When John’s son Henry became King, however, he made sure to add a proviso that his half-siblings would not be eligible for the succession.)
John died just three years after their marriage. Katherine died four years later and is buried in Lincoln Cathedral.
All British monarchs since 1461 are descended from Katherine. Henry Tudor, the Lancaster claimant during the Wars of the Roses who became King Henry VII based his claim on his descent from John through their oldest son John Beaufort. The York faction was descended from their daughter Joan Beaufort, who was the maternal grandmother of Edward IV and Richard III.
Katherine’s story captured the imagination of the public after the publication in 1954 of Anya Seton’s historical novel Katherine (UK & US). Katherine was a best seller on its release and has never been out of print. Alison Weir writes that it was reading Katherine as a teenager that sparked her interest in history. In 2008 Weir wrote her own biography of Katherine: Katherine Swynford: the Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess (US title: Mistress of the Monarchy, The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster) (UK & US). Seton’s book brings the characters and period to life and Weir’s sorts out fact from fiction and delves into the details of the historical record of Katherine’s life. For those interested in learning more, either is a terrific option. Other options include the 2001 nonfiction treatment by Jeannette Lucraft, Katherine Swynford, the History of a Medieval Mistress (UK & US) and 2015’s historical novel by Anne O’Brien, The Scandalous Duchess (UK & US).