Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

‘Nostre tres chere et bien ammee’

(John of Gaunt’s Register)

Katherine de Roet was born about 1350 in Hainault or England. Her birthplace and birthdate are uncertain as there are no known surviving records. Katherine’s date of birth was possibly 25 November as this is the feast day of her patron saint, St Catherine of Alexandria. It is more likely she was born in Hainault than England as the chronicler Jean Froissart (who was from Hainault) refers to Katherine as a ‘Hainaulter’. Also, Anthony Goodman writes:

‘Henry Knighton the well-informed Canon of Leicester Abbey described in his chronicle as ‘alienigenam’ (foreigner) which implies that she (not just her father from Hainault) had been born abroad. (A. Goodman, Katherine Swynford: Honourable Lady or She Devil, page 10)

Her father was Paon de Roet (also known as Payn and Gilles) who travelled to England in the train of Philippa of Hainault when she married Edward III on 24 January 1328 in York Minster. After Edward and Philippa were married the majority of those who had travelled with the new queen returned to Hainault yet Paon stayed, indicating he was highly regarded by both the king and queen and serving as Master of the Horse. Paon returned to Hainault in 1349 but by 1352 he disappears from sources indicating that perhaps he dies around this date. He was buried in Old St Pauls Cathedral, London, where there was a monument to him, placed there after Katherine became duchess of Lancaster.

It is thought Katherine had at least two sisters, Isabel or Elizabeth and Philippa, and one brother, Walter. There is a reference to ‘Elizabeth de Roet, daughter of my Lord Gilles’, who was a canoness of the Chapel of the Abbey of St Waudru in Mons. Walter de Roet appears in the Black Prince’s register in 1354-55 which gives a possible birth date up to the late 1330s. As Elizabeth was a canoness in 1366, it would suggest a birth date in the early 1330s. Elizabeth and Walter appear to be quite a bit older than Katherine and Philippa, which suggests Sir Payn was married twice with Katherine and Philippa being the issue from the later marriage.

Katherine has traditionally thought to have been the youngest child of Sir Payn but Alison Weir argues that Philippa is the youngest, pushing Katherine’s date of birth a little earlier to around 1345-8. An earlier birth date would help to support why she was put in such a position of responsibility as that of governess to John and Blanche’s children. Roger Joy writes:

Some websites and printed publications suggest that Katherine Swynford was placed in charge of the children of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster shortly after the death of the latter. It has long been my contention, however, that Katherine was closely associated with Blanche from a much earlier time. After all, Froissart said that Katherine was brought up in her youth with Blanche of Lancaster. In my version of the Universe they grew up together, whether this was in the household of Henry of Grosmont, the earlier Duke of Lancaster, or in the English Royal household under the care of Queen Philippa of Hainault. In order for this to have been possible, they would have to have been born fairly close together. Most writers consider Blanche, born in the early 1340s, to have been about five to eight years older than Katherine. Alison Weir in her biography of Katherine, however, states that there is no known record of the date of Katherine’s birth. The belief that Katherine was born in 1350 appears to have originated in a suggestion in the Dictionary of National Biography by Charles L Kingsford. This must have been published sometime between 1889 when he joined the editorial staff of the DNB and his death in November of 1926. Did Mr. Kingsford, a highly respected and knowledgeable historian, a vice-president of the Royal Historical Society, have access to some information which is not common knowledge now? I cannot say one way or the other but would like to suggest that the date of 1350 was perhaps only an inspired guess. The point is an important one for my interpretation of their histories. If they were reasonably close in age to each other, then Katherine would have many shared memories of their childhood activities and thoughts. When Blanche died, it would be natural for John of Gaunt to turn to Katherine to gain access to her anecdotes about Blanche from the period before his first marriage.

Both Katherine and Philippa were brought up around the court from quite a young age as their father was in Hainault in 1349 and probably died around 1352. Queen Philippa was well known for care of the children of those who were in her service, giving the two girls an education they would not have otherwise had and both girls would have been familiar with all of the customs and ceremony of court life. Philippa would go on to marry Geoffrey Chaucer. John of Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster at Reading Abbey on 19 May 1359. Blanche was a co-heiress (with her sister Maud) to the wealthy duchy of Lancaster, daughter of Henry Grosmont and descended from Edmund Crouchback the youngest son of Henry III. John and Blanche had seven children:

  • Philippa of Lancaster (1360-1415)
  • John (c.1362) died in infancy
  • Elizabeth 1364-1426)
  • Edward (born and died 1365)
  • John (1366) died in infancy
  • Henry (1367-1413) became Henry IV
  • Isabella (1368) died in infancy

When Henry Grosmont, 1st duke of Lancaster, died in 1361 of the Black Death, his two daughters became wealthy heiresses. Blanche’s sister died the following year making Blanche the sole heiress and through her, John became the wealthiest man in England. He not only inherited vast amounts of land, castles and wealth but also took the titles of; earl of Lancaster, Derby, Lincoln and Leicester and was created duke of Lancaster on 13 November 1362.

When Blanche died in 1368, probably of the Black Death, she was deeply mourned by many throughout England. Chaucer’s “Boke of the Duchess”, where the poet retells his dream of where he encounters a knight dressed in black and full of sorrow. The central character ‘White’ (Blanche) is described as ‘whyt, smothe, streght’ and flat and Nature’s ‘cheef patron of beautee’. She was interred in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in an elaborate alabaster tomb which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. John, would later be interred in the same tomb in 1399.Katherine is mentioned in the records of the bishop of Lincoln in 1365 as ‘ancille’ of the duchess of Lancaster. As she is referred to as ‘Katherine Swynford’ in the records we know she had married Sir Hugh Swynford by this time. Sir Hugh Swynford was the son of Thomas Swynford and Nicole Druel. The Swynford family held the manors of Coleby and Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire but it is the latter which has become indelibly linked to Katherine’s story.

Katherine and Hugh had at least two children; Thomas (1368-1432) and Blanche. John of Gaunt stood as godfather to Blanche who was probably named after the duchess of Lancaster. There is suggestion of another child of Katherine and Hugh, Margaret. She became a nun at Barking Abbey in 1377 along with an Elizabeth Chaucer (possibly the daughter of Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer). There is some uncertainty who was the eldest child of Hugh and Katherine’s marriage but as a young fertile woman, it would be more likely that she had a child before Thomas in 1368. Hugh Swynford is thought to have died about 1372. At some point after the deaths of Blanche and Hugh, Katherine and John of Gaunt began their affair. Later, in their petition to the Pope, they both attested that their affair began after Hugh’s death. However, Froissart claims it was known they were lovers in Hugh’s lifetime but there is no other evidence to corroborate this. John and Katherine had four children together who were all given the surname ‘Beaufort’.

  • John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset (1373–1410)
  • Henry, Cardinal Beaufort (1375–1447)
  • Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter (1377–1426)
  • Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland (1379–1440)

John of Gaunt had married Constance of Castile on 21 September 1371 at Roquefort. They had two children: Catherine (1372-1418) and John (1374-1375). Constance was the daughter of Pedro the Cruel of Castile and Leon and through his second wife, John of Gaunt would pursue a claim to the Castile throne. This was only resolved when John and Constance’s daughter Catherine married the future Henry III of Castile in …John’s second wife, Constance of Castile died on 24 March 1394 at Leicester Castle and was buried in the Church of the Annunciation of Our Lady of the Newarke. Two years later on 13 January 1396 Katherine and John of Gaunt were married in Lincoln Cathedral and Katherine became duchess of Lancaster and for a time, the first lady in England. It was Katherine in her role as the highest ranked lady of the realm who welcomed the six-year-old Isabella of Valois when she married Richard II in 1396. After marrying their children were legitimised by Richard II and the Pope.

Why is Katherine important in history?

It Is not just that Katherine came from humble beginnings to become the first lady of England; nor that she married a prince; or what many people see as a love story. The children and descendants of John and Katherine play pivotal roles in English history.

John and Blanche’s son Henry seizes the throne from Richard II after he confiscates his inheritance. Thomas Swynford is thought to have been Richard’s guard at Pontefract Castle (where Richard dies in mysterious circumstances). Joan marries Ralph Nevill as her second husband and one of their daughters, Cecily, marries Richard of Cambridge. Cecily is the mother of Edward IV and Richard III, making Katherine and john the great grandparents of the York line. They are also responsible for the Lancaster line with Henry VII claiming the throne through his mother Margaret Beaufort, daughter of and great granddaughter of John and Katherine. However, the Beauforts and their descendants had been barred from inheriting the throne by Henry IV so Henry VII claimed the throne by right of conquest and consolidated this claim by marrying Elizabeth of York (a great great granddaughter of John and Katherine).