The Katherine Swynford Society - Dedicated To Lady Katherine, ne de Rot The Duchess of Lancaster

About Lady Katherine In Brief

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Lady Katherine's coat of arms on Thomas Chaucer's tomb at Ewelme in Oxon

A short summary about Lady Katherine

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Gate of Kettlethorpe Medieval Manor House

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Lincoln Cathedral West Front

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Lady Katherine's tomb at Lincoln Cathedral

 At a glance
  • Born Katherine de Roet
  • Became Lady Swynford upon marriage to Sir Hugh Swynford
  • Became The Duchess of Lancaster upon marriage to John of Gaunt, The Duke of Lancaster. It seems that her title was probably Lady Katherine, The Duchess of Lancaster, in so far as such things were fixed in medieval times. The styles and titles used in today's British Royal Family, such as HRH (His or Her Royal Highness), and referring to the wife of a Prince who does not have her own royal style and title by birth as Princess and her husband's first name (eg Princess Charles, Princess Michael), evolved much later - I have asked the Windsor Castle Library for advice on how styles and titles have changed, but their record do not go sufficiently far back to provide an answer. Out of respect for the position our protagonist reached in English society, rather than just 'Katherine' the style 'Lady Katherine' is used mostly in this section -  as in Lady Katherine, The Duchess of Lancaster - the wife of John of Gaunt (as his widow she would have been the Dowager Duchess of Lancaster).
 
More about Lady Katherine

Lady Katherine is the late Duchess of Lancaster - widow of John of Gaunt, The Duke of Lancaster.

Many people come to Lady Katherine's story through the well-known and outstanding historical novel 'Katherine' written by Anya Seton. This is a very cleverly written work based on research undertaken around the middle of the twentieth century. Although based on facts, it is fiction - not all of the incidents recounted in the novel are supported by historical record, and even those that are based in historical fact are skilfully embellished with extra detail from Anya Seton's fertile imagination.

For example Anya Seton’s book has a very powerful passage in which John of Gaunt’s first wife Blanche dies of plague at Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, in 1369. Blanche is now thought to have died in 1368 (Froissart says 1369). There are theories that she may have died at Lincoln, or at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire (the evidence for the latter theory is a letter from John of Gaunt in the Bishop of Carlisle’s register saying that Blanche had died), and that she may have died as a result of childbirth. You may well read supposedly historical works which say that Blanche did indeed die at Bolingbroke, of plague, in 1369 - but at the time of writing, to the writer’s knowledge, the place and cause of Blanche’s death are not proven.

Anya Seton's novel shouldn't be taken as an accurate statement of historical record - it was never intended by the author as such. For the facts, you should consult biographies and other historical works, and also of course the Katherine Swynford Society - but there is still much to find out and verify, so we all need to persevere with original research too...

Before moving on with this summary, it should be noted that spellings in 14th century England were not standardised (even within the same document), the country had three official languages (Latin for the legal and ecclesiastical spheres, French at Court, and English among the populace). You will no doubt see alternative spellings elsewhere to those used in this summary.

Born in Hainaut* in what is now Belgium (probably around 1350 but the date is not certain), daughter of Sir Paon de Roet who was himself from Hainaut, Katherine was brought up at the English Court (the King at the time, Edward III (founder of the Most Noble Order of the Garter – the most senior honour which can be bestowed in the UK), was married to Philippa of Hainaut). Sir Paon's epitaph (which can be seen in the crypt of the present St Paul's Cathedral) states that he was Katherine, The Duchess of Lancaster's father.

Katherine married Sir Hugh Swynford (the exact date of their marriage is not known), becoming Lady Swynford, the name Katherine Swynford being the name by which she is most famously known.  This marriage resulted in at least two children, a son, Sir Thomas Swynford, and a daughter called Blanche. Sir Hugh's main property was at Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire, though he also owned other properties such as the Manor of Coleby, also in Lincolnshire. Kettlethorpe has become closely associated with Lady Katherine. After Sir Hugh's death in the early 1370s Lady Katherine became the lover of the widowed John of Gaunt (one of King Edward III's sons, born at Ghent – hence his nickname ‘of Gaunt’ - in what is now Belgium in 1340) who was Duke of Lancaster (though some sources say that they became lovers while Sir Hugh was still alive). There were four known offspring of Katherine and John's relationship, (John, Henry, Thomas and Joan) who were collectively known as the Beauforts.

Lady Katherine’s sister Philippa, who also seems to have been raised at the English Court, meanwhile had married Geoffrey Chaucer making this most famous of poets Katherine’s brother-in-law.

Debate rages over whether Katherine and John separated after the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 as Anya Seton’s novel has it, or whether they became more discrete about their relationship, while continuing the affair.

Following the death of John's second wife (Costanza of Castile), and after a relationship which had lasted around a quarter of a century, the couple married in 1396. This made Lady Katherine The Duchess of Lancaster, a member of the Royal Family and for a time the First Lady of England. The Pope, and King Richard II declared Katherine and John's four children legitimate. These were all very unusual events for the time and help to create the impression of Lady Katherine as an exceptional woman, because of her rise from comparatively humble beginnings, which was most likely a consequence of her personal qualities.

John died in February 1399 at Leicester Castle and after a procession down to London was buried beside his first wife Lady Blanche (who had inherited the Duchy of Lancaster after the deaths of her brother, father and sister**) in St Paul's Cathedral. John and Blanche's tomb was destroyed - most likely during the fire which severely damaged the old St Paul's Cathedral in the seventeenth century, or possibly during the demolition of the Old St Paul's a short time later when it had been decided to build the present edifice.

King Richard II, who had already exiled John's heir, Henry of Bolingbroke, confiscated the Lancastrian estates. Later in 1399, Henry returned to England to reclaim his inheritance. Support for King Richard II, who was in Ireland at the time, slipped away and shortly after his return to mainland Britain Richard was taken into custody by the Earl of Northumberland. The members of the English Parliament accepted King Richard II's resignation on 30th September 1399, they also deposed him for good measure (on the grounds of misrule - thirty three charges were cited against King Richard), and chose Henry, John of Gaunt's heir as Richard II's successor – Bolingbroke thus became King Henry IV. This development helped lay the foundations for the later Wars of the Roses, though it was not the only cause of the conflict.

After John of Gaunt's death, Lady Katherine had returned to live in Lincoln, in a house close to the East end of the Cathedral. One of her sons, Henry Beaufort, had become Bishop of Lincoln shortly after his legitimation. Katherine died on May 10 1403. The tomb chests of herself and her daughter Joan, Countess of Westmorland, can still be seen in Katherine Swynford's chantry which is close to the high altar of St Hugh's Cathedral in Lincoln. The tomb chests had been found to be empty, but according to the Cathedral Library, Katherine and Joan were buried below the floor, not in the tomb chests (the Cathedral does not have a crypt). Joan had married the Earl of Westmorland and in her widowhood had lived at Howden (location of one of the Bishop of Durham's palaces), in East Yorkshire. Joan died at Howden.

Katherine and John’s son John Beaufort, The Earl of Somerset, is buried in Canterbury Cathedral (as is John of Gaunt’s eldest brother the Black Prince, and John of Gaunt’s son, King Henry IV). Henry Beaufort became Bishop of Winchester and is buried in the Cathedral of that City. Thomas Beaufort, The Duke of Exeter, was buried in St Edmundsbury Abbey – his body was discovered in the 19th century and is reburied in the grounds of the Abbey ruins – the present St Edmundsbury Cathedral (Bury St Edmunds) was formerly St James Church and was part of the old Abbey complex.

Lady Katherine is significant in English history and in the English (now British), Royal Family. Lady Katherine is the stepmother of Henry IV (who referred to her in her second widowhood as 'The King's Mother') - John and Katherine are the great great grandparents of Henry VII through their son John (Earl of Somerset). Henry VII founded the Tudor dynasty (which included Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) and became King after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in the final stage of the Wars of the Roses. Katherine and John are great great great grandparents of Henry VIII; great great great great grandparents of Elizabeth I. The Scottish House of Stuart is also descended from them through John (The Earl of Somerset)'s daughter Joan who married James I of Scotland - and the present Queen of the UK (the current Duke of Lancaster) is descended from John and Katherine.

The late Diana, Princess of Wales (the first wife of the present Prince of Wales), was apparently descended from Lady Katherine. Her son Prince William of Wales (second in line to the UK throne who is one of the Counsellors of State***) is descended from Katherine through both his mother and his father. Incidentally The Prince of Wales's second wife, Camilla, is legally The Princess of Wales (as Prince Charles's wife), but is styled in England and Wales as The Duchess of Cornwall (The Duchess of Rothesay is the style used in Scotland).

Lady Katherine might have had comparatively humble origins (though she certainly was not a peasant), but through marriage she became a member of the Royal family, four of her children became legitimately Royal and many of her descendants have been Monarchs, Princes and Princesses. Given the rigidity of fourteenth century English society, her rise was remarkable, and exceptional.

 

To find out more about Lady Katherine, join the Society!

 

Graham Coult, Vice Chairman, Katherine Swynford Society.

* Hainaut is the correct English spelling for this part of Belgium. Hainault is a suburb of London, the name apparently developing from Hyneholt. As far as the writer is aware there is no connection between this London suburb and Philippa of Hainaut. The Hainault spelling of this part of Belgium is incorrect, though not unknown. The French pronunciation is much closer to ‘Enno’ than ‘Hayno’ or the completely incorrect ‘Haynote’.

** Page 17 of 'Blanche of Lancaster' by Norman W Webster (Halstead Publications 1990) and the Kempsford village web site (http://www.kempsford.net/news/church_news.php) both make reference to Henry of Grosmont having a son (also called Henry) who drowned at or near Kempsford. The BBC  refers to Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, having a son who drowned at Kempsford. The article is about  the restoration of Kempsford Church with its Lancastrian Roses and is written by the vicar of the church, the Revd David Ackerman, also the author of the Kempsford village website article (http://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/content/articles/2007/10/02/kempsford_church_feature.shtml). Some sources suggest Blanche had at least five sisters.

*** Counsellors of State are senior members of the United Kingdom Royal Family to whom the Monarch delegates certain state functions and powers when she is abroad or unavailable for other reasons (such as short-term incapacity or sickness). Any two Counsellors of State, when the Queen is unavailable, may attend Privy Council meetings, sign state documents and receive the credentials of ambassadors. They cannot dissolve Parliament, except on The Queen's express instructions, nor can they create peers. The present counsellors of state are The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, Prince William of Wales, Prince Henry (Harry) of Wales, and the Duke of York.

The British Sovereign can be seen as having two roles: Head of State, and 'Head of the Nation'. As Head of State, The Queen undertakes constitutional and representational duties which have developed over one thousand years of history.

There are 'inward duties', with The Queen playing a part in State functions in Britain such as opening Parliament, approving Orders in Council, signing Acts of Parliament, and weekly meetings with the Prime Minister.

There are also 'outward duties of State', when The Queen represents Britain to the rest of the world. For example, The Queen receives foreign ambassadors and high commissioners, entertains visiting Heads of State, and makes State visits overseas to other countries, in support of diplomatic and economic relations. Further information on the UK Monarchy can be found on the official website (http://www.royal.gov.uk/).

 

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Tomb of Henry IV and Joan of Navarre at Canterbury Cathedral

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Bolingbroke Castle