Missing from history: Jeannette Lucraft recovers the identity and reputation of the remarkable Katherine Swynford

Citation metadata

Date: May 1, 2002
From: History Today(Vol. 52, Issue 5.)
Publisher: History Today Ltd.
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,609 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

KATHERINE SWYNFORD (1350?-1403) is most often remembered as the lover of John of Gaunt (1340-99) and a temptress who diverted the powerful Duke of Lancaster from his political duties. However, it would seem from the perspective of modern scholars that she was only `the lover of ...' or `the mother of ...' other notables, with little recognition that she may have been an extraordinary personality in her own right. The chief exception to this is, of course, Anya Seton's famous novel written in the 1950s, which fully endows Katherine with the romantic image of the woman who, despite not being of noble birth, was to become the ancestress of the Yorkist kings and the royal lines of the Tudors and Stuarts.

The more negative depictions stem from the chronicles contemporary with Katherine's life. Thomas Walsingham, the Benedictine monk of St Albans (died c. 1422), is notorious for his vitriolic condemnation of Gaunt, criticising his leadership in the French wars and castigating him for the general conduct of his lifestyle. Part of this castigation was to rebound on Katherine. He makes his opinion of Katherine and her relationship with Gaunt explicit, stating that Katherine is an abominable temptress, and that Gaunt's blatant showcasing of his mistress in .front of not only his wife, but also his retainers and wider public can only bring vengeance on the kingdom. Walsingham is not alone; both Henry Knighton, canon of St Mary of the Meadows, Leicester (died c.1396), and the French author of the Anominalle chronicle, Jean Froissart, also pass negative comment on the role of Katherine in Gaunt's life. If the writers of the time dismissed her character so easily, should it be any surprise that modern historians and commentators have written about her in similar terms? What is there here to reinstate?

But to concentrate on Katherine as temptress is to neglect numerous issues that arise from her life. There is a multitude of unanswered questions about Katherine Swynford. For example, was Katherine unique in her role? Were mistresses an accepted part of royal or noble life? How do descriptions of her compare with those of other women in the royal household who occupied similar positions and had similar, perhaps dubious, reputations? How should these contemporary descriptions be read? How do the backgrounds and beliefs of the monastic writers of the time influence their texts and their depictions of women? Before Katherine was spoken of as a mistress in the sexual connotation of the word, she had been granted the role of mistress of the nursery with the responsibility for royal daughters; what status and education would she have needed to have gained this position? Most important of all, how did Katherine perceive her own role? Can evidence be found that she attempted to construct an identity for herself to divert from the negative criticism of others?

Katherine was the daughter of Sir Payne Roet, landowner and native of Hainault, and chief herald of Edward III. The younger of two daughters, Katherine's elder sister Philippa, (1348-1387) married the poet Geoffrey Chaucer some time before 1366. Katherine grew up within the royal court, joining the household of Blanche of Lancaster after the marriage of that heiress to John of Gaunt in 1359. Katherine furthered her Lancastrian connections through her marriage to Sir Hugh Swynford, a member of Gaunt's retinue to whom she bore two children, Blanchette (1367-?) and Thomas (1368-1432). Hugh was in his early thirties when he was killed while fighting in Aquitaine under Gaunt, in November 1371. Some time in the late 1360s or early 1370s Katherine became governess to Philippa and Elizabeth, daughters of Gaunt and Blanche. At about the same time she also became the mistress of Gaunt. Gifts to Katherine from the Duke suggest that the affair had begun by the spring of 1372, and it would appear that Gaunt acquired a mistress at the same time that he acquired his second wife Constance of Castile.

The affair between Katherine and Gaunt was to last for a quarter of a century, and culminated in the unprecedented move of the Duke marrying his mistress in 1396. As a result of their marriage, the children of Gaunt and Katherine were legitimised by the Pope and Richard II. The fortunes of these children increased further with the accession to the throne in 1399 of their half-brother Henry of Bolingbroke, son of Gaunt and Blanche (Henry IV, 1399-1413). Gaunt and Katherine had four children, John (b. 1373), Henry (b.1375), Thomas (b.1377) and Joan (b.1379). Henry became the powerful Cardinal Beaufort and their daughter Joan married into the Neville family and was grandmother to Edward IV and Richard III. Their eldest son John Beaufort was both grandfather of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, and father-in-law to James I of Scotland through the marriage of his daughter, another Joan, to the Scottish king.

The first evidence that the Duke's affair was public knowledge appears in the records of William Ferour, mayor of Leicester. His accounts for 1375-76 record an expense of sixteen shillings for wine sent to `the Lady Katherine Swynford, mistress of the Duke of Lancaster'. The same records show that by 1377-79 Katherine was being approached as a channel of patronage. Expenses were claimed for grants to her for:

   Business which a certain lord besought the aforesaid Katherine ... and
   besought so successfully that the aforesaid town [Stretton] was pardoned
   the lending of silver to the king in the year.

The earliest specific mention of Katherine in any chronicle appears at the same time. Walsingham makes his vicious comments on Katherine in reference to a public tour made by the couple in 1378, but is noticeably the only author to describe this occasion. Although this was the first time he mentioned Katherine, Walsingham had condemned John of Gaunt two years earlier for his moral status and the repercussions that this would have on the land and its people.

   Oh! Unhappy and unfortunate duke! Oh! Those who you should lead in war you
   betray by your treachery and cowardice, and those whom you should lead in
   peace by the example of good works you lead astray, dragging them to ruin!

Walsingham was clearly unaware of Katherine at this time, as surely he would have mentioned her in his diatribe against Gaunt. Walsingham's condemnation is directed at Gaunt's leadership in war, and his politics in peace. The chronicler's monastic background is evident, underscored by the clerical commonplace that God rewards the good and punishes the bad, a theme manifest throughout his work. The emphasis of these passages is that the misbehaviour of the leader has wider repercussions: in Walsingham's view the sins of Gaunt will rebound on the country. Walsingham the cleric believed illicit sexual liaisons to be an undesirable trait in political leaders, and Katherine, once her presence as the Duke's lover was discovered, provided further fuel for criticism of Gaunt. The description is graphic:

   [Gaunt] deserted his military duties and was seen riding around his estates
   with his abominable strumpet Katherine, once called Swynford, holding her
   bridle in public, not only in the presence of his wife, but even with his
   people watching on. He made himself abominable in the eyes of God.

But Walsingham's real agenda was not the condemnation of the relationship. The main purpose of the passage was to castigate Gaunt for the neglect of his duties, not to high-light the nature or character of Katherine herself. The depiction of Katherine as temptress echoes the clerical trope of woman as Eve, the seducer of men. The passage says nothing of Katherine's behaviour or self. She is merely a player in a wider narrative. Walsingham begins his tirade with the theme that condemnation stemmed from Gaunt's military errors, a theme also present in the 1376 passage. Katherine's role in the text is therefore to emphasise the moral failings that demonstrated Gaunt's unsuitability for, and dereliction of, his French duties. Gaunt's political standing affected the way his adultery was both perceived and tolerated.

This is also evident in the works of Henry Knighton who painted Katherine in much the same light as Walsingham. She becomes the symbol for all that is bad about Gaunt, evident most clearly in the way Knighton portrays his relationship with Katherine in the period immediately after the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. At this time there appears to have been a split between the couple. The nature of Gaunt's gifts to Katherine changed. She received what appears to be a pay-off and a document was drafted in legal terms denying Katherine and her offspring any right to the Lancastrian heritage. However, there is much evidence to suggest that, despite this document and pay-off, the couple were very much still together during the 1380s. Katherine was at that time a member of Mary de Bohun's household. As Mary was the wife of Henry Bolingbroke, eldest son of Gaunt, the couple would still have been in close contact, and indeed gifts between them are documented. However, the chroniclers of the period wrote of a denunciation of Katherine by the Duke. In Knighton's text, which on the whole is pro-Lancastrian, Katherine becomes symbolic of all Gaunt's faults and Gaunt's supposed renunciation of her is key to Knighton's vindication of the Duke after the Revolt, allowing his pro-Lancastrian sympathies to remain intact. Again, a sense of Katherine's character or bearing is absent. She is merely the universal woman -- deceiver and seducer -causing Gaunt to forsake his usual strong male reason.

Katherine's role in these works is either to enable criticism of Gaunt or to enable his rescue; they both talk about the man, not about the woman. Yet these representations of Katherine appear in the works of modern scholars with no real attempts made to investigate her further. Moreover, given the direct descent of the Tudors from Katherine, it is significant that there was to be no revival of Katherine's fortune during the life of that royal house that could influence the modern perspective.

The start of the Tudor reign in 1485 was heralded with much discourse on the inappropriate lineage of the new king Henry VII. Indeed, in the months before the accession of Henry, Richard III issued a proclamation discrediting the Tudor claim.

   ... For he [Henry] is descended of bastard blood both of the father's side
   and of the mother's side. For the said Owen the grandfather was bastard
   born, and his mother was daughter to John, duke of Somerset, son of John,
   earl of Somerset, son to Dame Katherine Swynford, and born of her in double
   adultery.

Here, Richard neatly forgets that he, too, was a direct descendant of Dame Katherine Swynford. But Henry was anxious to promote his Lancastrian descendancy as this formed the basis to his royal claim. This was reflected in the new epitaph that adorned John of Gaunt's monument in St Paul's Cathedral from the reign of the first Tudor king. Katherine is portrayed in this epitaph as an exceptional beauty from a knightly family, and there is no mention that the Beauforts were born before the marriage of the couple. On the contrary, Henry proudly proclaimed that his descendancy is from these children of Katherine.

But despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- there is almost no mention of Katherine in the chronicles of the Tudor era. The chroniclers preferred to proclaim Henry as a gift from God, a more politically astute view of him than one that declared his bastard lineage. This lack of discussion has left the modern scholar with only the meaty scandals of Walsingham and his contemporaries upon which to base one's opinion of Katherine.

Yet, there are many areas beyond the chronicles where evidence of Katherine's character can be found. And these reveal the limitations of the textual depictions of Katherine. Katherine's social setting is an obvious area to search for further clues of her identity. She was brought up at court, and her character will therefore have been influenced by the education offered to noble women and by the atmosphere that surrounded the medieval elite. The chroniclers of the time ignored discussion of Katherine's character, with one exception. Froissart stated that `she was a lady accustomed to honours'. It is unclear exactly when or on whose appointment she became the governess of Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster, but this appointment reveals a great deal about Katherine's bearing and reputation that reflects Froissart's comment. There have been suggestions that the appointment was merely one of convenience, allowing the relationship of Gaunt and Katherine to develop through the Duke's trips to the nursery. However, Katherine must have held a certain level of education and accomplishment to have been considered for the post. Aristocratic girls remained under female supervision until they married, and the office of governess or mistress was the female equivalent of the boys' master or tutor. Katherine must have possessed a high standard of education, a degree of piety, and a knowledge of household economics to have been considered for the post.

Throughout the later Middle Ages the royal household and court environments were important centres of education and of educated people, and Katherine would have been exposed to this atmosphere both as a member of Blanche's household and later as governess to the two girls. The individual family or household limited the education of noble women and girls to what was deemed necessary or desirable. John of Gaunt, through his patronage of Wyclif and subsequently of Lollard texts, was a promoter of education and learning. His own education was scholarly and he could read Latin and was familiar with the classics. This extended to his family. Katherine's charges were interested in literature and the production of texts. Philippa of Lancaster, who became Queen of Portugal through her marriage to Joao I in the late 1380s, was credited with inaugurating a new era at the Portuguese court through the education of her children, and was herself regarded as a model of womanly goodness for her piety and household management. Her sister, Elizabeth, wished to associate herself throughout perpetuity with piety, education and literature. Elizabeth is pictured on her monument with her hands clasped in prayer and a book by her side. A window of Ampthill church also portrays her in a humble reverent pose with a book on her lap. The manor of Ampthill was one of the landholdings of Elizabeth's husband, Sir John Cornwall, and he financed much work in the church there. It is likely that the couple commissioned this window and decided on the pose contained within it.

Katherine's own children also demonstrate how educational influences affected the Lancastrian family. Joan Beaufort (1379-1440), Katherine's youngest child with Gaunt, in particular was a highly literate woman. She owned works of piety, including Rolle's Meditations on the Passion of Christ, and played hostess to Margery Kempe. Sir John Morton of York bequeathed to Joan in 1431 `unum librum de Anglico vocatum Gower pro remembraneia', and Hoccleve dedicated a work written `in honur and plesance of yow ladyes' to Joan. Joan also had copies of The Chronicle of Jerusalem and The Voyage of Godfrey de Bouillon, which she lent to Henry V, and her brother Thomas left her a copy of the Arthurian romance Tristram.

Katherine's children, both Beaufort and Swynford, were clearly accepted by both Richard II and Henry IV-as members of Gaunt's family. Richard II refers to the Beauforts as kinsmen during the 1390s and uses glowing terms to describe the offspring of Gaunt in their patent of legitimation following the marriage of Gaunt and Katherine in 1396. To envelop the Beauforts into the royal sphere in this way was the ultimate acceptance of the family and an unprecedented move in English history. Henry IV referred to Katherine as the King's mother when granting her gifts of wine after Gaunt's death, and explicitly stated his faith in the family by appointing the eldest Beaufort, John, as his lieutenant of South Wales, `trusting in his loyalty and prudence'.

Thus, in sharp contrast to the terms in which Walsingham and Knighton describe her, the evidence demonstrates that Katherine was a highly educated and accomplished woman, and that her children were perceived similarly, taking on public roles alongside their legitimate family.

Beyond this, there is the question of Katherine's self-perception. The clearest indication of a desire to promote a certain image would have come from Katherine's testament, but unfortunately this is no longer extant. However, Katherine's coat of arms is revealing about the identity promoted by the new Duchess of Lancaster. Katherine's perception and construction of self were linked to the ideas and associations of the virgin martyr St Katherine of Alexandria. This is manifest in her armorial Gules, three Katherine wheels, Or. Katherine Lewis has argued that the imagery of St Katherine, the most popular saint in late medieval England, was associated with royalty and queenship. Katherine, finding herself first lady of England upon her marriage to Gaunt, clearly wished to promote herself as worthy of this position. Certainly issues of identity were important to John of Gaunt. His was the largest retinue in England and he promoted the use of badges and insignia, the most familiar being the Lancastrian collar of esses. Social differentiation was marked; identity and association were actively promoted with the awarding of different cloths and badges.

It has been suggested that Katherine wheels were featured in the arms of Katherine's father, Sir Payne Roet, but this is incorrect. These were clearly Katherine's own arms, as recorded from her tomb-detailing by both William Dugdale and Gervase Holles in the seventeenth century. The Roet arms were plain wheels, as adopted by Thomas Chaucer and visible as such on his tomb. Thomas was the son of the poet Geoffrey and Katherine's sister Philippa. The arms are also portrayed as plain wheels originating from Payne Roet on the `Progenie' page of Thomas Speght's edition of the Workes of Chaucer. Moreover, the Roet arms are portrayed as Argent, three wheels, Or on the tomb of Lewis Robsert, standard-bearer to Henry V and mentioned in the will of Thomas Beaufort.

It is interesting that Thomas Chaucer chose his maternal Roet arms over his paternal Chaucer arms, these being parti per pale, a bend over all. Indeed, of the twenty coats of arms represented on his tomb the only male ones are those of the Beauforts; the rest represent the female side of his family. This affiliation to the female side allows the differentiation between the Roet arms and Katherine's own to be made. Of course, Katherine may have just adopted Katherine wheels in allusion to her name; the connection cannot have been unnoticed by her. However, she made the deliberate choice to adopt these as her arms in replacement of her Swynford arms when she became Duchess of Lancaster. Furthermore, her general level of piety, and other connections that can be established with the saint, suggests that it was the virgin martyr that she had in mind when choosing her insignia.

In her youth in Blanche's household, Katherine demonstrated her piety through her desire to celebrate private service and to obtain a portable altar. Katherine was also the member of at least two religious fraternities that had dedications to St Katherine. As Duchess of Lancaster she was admitted to the Coventry Gild of the Holy Trinity, St Mary, St John the Baptist and St Katherine. As a member of the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral, Katherine received the spiritual benefits of the thirty to forty masses celebrated on behalf of the brothers and sisters in the cathedral, and mass was said for the fraternity at the altar of St Katherine. John of Gaunt also set up a chantry at the Hospital of St Katherine by the Tower of London. The details are not known, but it would seem likely that Katherine would have been one of the benefactors.

The hospital of St Katherine was under royal control and this link emphasised the royal attributes of the saint. By the later Middle Ages, the hospital was associated specifically with women and, from Eleanor of Provence (1223-91) onwards, was patronised by the queens of England. This in itself may have proved important in terms of Katherine's devotion.

By affiliating herself with St Katherine, the new Duchess could create for herself a regal and respectable image, and there is evidence that she publicised this affiliation. After their marriage, both Gaunt and Katherine made considerable gifts to Lincoln Cathedral. These gifts were adorned with the insignia of the couple. Katherine's offerings included numerous vestments and cloths apparelled with Katherine wheels. In this use of the imagery of the wheel, she was asserting an individual badge of identity for herself, but one that was indelibly associated with St Katherine.

These discoveries provide sharp contrast to the vitriolic animadversions of Walsingham et al. Katherine was clearly educated, excelling in court etiquette and the fineries of dancing, embroidery and courtly literature. But she was also pious and sensible, able to run a household and deemed suitable to control two young girls, while still in her teens or twenties herself. The records of Leicester show that she was approached for patronage, but she appears to have kept a low profile in political matters, with no public scandal to be found in the chronicles. Moreover, indirect evidence provides an idea of the way in which Katherine wished to be viewed by others. Despite not being of noble birth, she was able to assume the character and bearing to infiltrate the highest echelons of the nobility and the monarchy. Her ability to conduct herself at the highest level of society offers a significant model of fourteenth-century social mobility. Her example also suggests that women were able to have agency over the construction of their images and referred to female `role models' to achieve this.

As such Katherine deserves attention from `feminist' historians. A look at the social environment and experience of Katherine demonstrates how the monastic chronicles, though indisputably valuable sources for the period, can be and should be deconstructed to offer information, not about the characters they are describing, but about their own authors' immediate concerns and values. Historians who neglect Katherine are therefore neglecting the opportunity to expand studies in many important and significant areas. A study of Katherine Swynford is a study of fourteenth-century culture and society.

FOR FURTHER READING

Katherine J. Lewis, `The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in late Medieval England' (Boydell & Brewer, 2000); Anthony Goodman, Katherine Swynford (Lincoln Cathedral Publications, 1994); J.W.F. Hill, Medieval Lincoln (CUP); Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis, The Royal Bastards of Medieval England (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984); John Harvey, Catherine Swynford's Chantry (Lincoln Minster Pamphlets, Second series no.6).

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Lucraft, Jeannette. "Missing from history: Jeannette Lucraft recovers the identity and reputation of the remarkable Katherine Swynford." History Today, May 2002, p. 11+. Gale General OneFile, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FA85677836%2FITOF%3Fu%3Dtplmain%26sid%3DITOF%26xid%3Da3429ae8. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A85677836