Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess by Alison Weir

  Katherine Swynford

  Book Jacket

  Tags: Non Fiction, History


  In her remarkable new book, Alison Weir recounts one of the greatest love stories of medieval England. It is the extraordinary tale of an exceptional woman, Katherine Swynford, who became first the mistress and later the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.Katherine Swynford’s charismatic lover was one of the most powerful princes of the 14th century, the effective ruler of England behind the throne of his father Edward III in his declining years, and during the minority of his nephew, Richard ll. Katherine herself was enigmatic and intriguing, renowned for her beauty, and regarded by some as dangerous. Her existence was played out against the backdrop of court life at the height of the age of chivalry and she knew most of the great figures of the time — including her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer. She lived through much of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, and the Peasants’ Revolt. She knew loss, adversity, and heartbreak, and she survived them all triumphantly. Although Katherine’s story provides unique insights into the life of a medieval woman, she was far from typical in that age. She was an important person in her own right, a woman who had remarkable opportunities, made her own choices, flouted convention, and took control of her own destiny — even of her own public image. Weir brilliantly retrieves Katherine Swynford from the footnotes of history and gives her life and breath again. Perhaps the most dynastically important woman within the English monarchy, she was the mother of the Beauforts and through them the ancestress of the Yorkist kings, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and every other sovereign since — a legacy that has shaped the history of Britain.


  Alison Weir lives and works in Surrey. She is one of Britain's foremost popular historians. Her books include Britain's Royal Families, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Children of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII: King and Court, Mary, Queen of Scots, Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England, Innocent Traitor and most recently the novel The Lady Elizabeth.



  Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy

  The Six Wives of Henry VIII

  The Princes in the Tower

  Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses

  Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII 1547-1558

  Elizabeth the Queen

  Eleanor of Aquitaine

  Henry VIII: King and Court

  Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley

  Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England


  Innocent Traitor

  The Lady Elizabeth


  Katherine Swynford

  The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess



  Published by Vintage 2008

  468 10 9753

  Copyright © Alison Weir 2007

  Alison Weir has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

  This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out,

  or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  First published in Great Britain in 2007 by Jonathan Cape

  Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA


  Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at: www.randomhouse.co.uk/offices.htm

  The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  ISBN 9780712641975

  The Random House Group Limited supports The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the leading international forest certification organisation. All our titles that are printed on Greenpeace approved FSC certified paper carry the FSC logo. Our paper procurement policy can be found at www.rbooks.co.uk/environment

  Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Cox 8c Wyman, Reading, RG1 8EX

  This book is dedicated to

  Bruce and Sandy, Peter and Karen and

  John and Joanna to mark their marriages.


  Illustrations viii

  Acknowledgements xi

  Author's Notes xiii

  Introduction xv

  Prologue: Spring 1378 1

  Panetto's Daughter 3

  The Magnificent Lord 28

  The Trap of Wedding 54

  Mistress of the Duke 86

  Blinded by Desire 113

  His Unspeakable Concubine 137

  Turning Away the Wrath of God 169

  The Lady of Kettlethorpe 198

  My Dearest Lady Katherine 220 The King's Mother 254

  Appendix: Anya Seton's Katherine 279

  Genealogical Tables 283

  Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders but the author and publishers will be pleased to hear from any who have not been traced.


  I should like to express my warmest gratitude to various people who have helped with this book. To Anthony Goodman, our finest late-mediaeval historian, for his assistance with references and original documents; I am also indebted to him for his two booklets, Katherine Swynford and Honourable Lady or She-Devil?, and his magnificent collection of essays on John of Gaunt, which have all proved profoundly useful. To Dr Nicholas Bennett, Librarian of Lincoln Cathedral Library, and his wife Carol for their kindness in welcoming me to the library, making available various sources, and arranging a visit to the Priory, where Katherine Swynford lived towards the end of her life. To Roger Joy, founder of the Katherine Swynford Society and a walking authority on Katherine, for generously sharing his knowledge with me, and for sending me his unpublished articles. To Patricia McLeod and the staff of Sutton Library for their efforts in tracking down numerous books and articles. To Abigail Bennett of the University of York, for translating into English numerous texts in mediaeval Latin. To Andrew Barr and his team at The National Trust East Midlands Regional Office. To the staff at Lincoln Central Library for their assistance in locating books.

  I am indebted also to the many people who have published information about Katherine on the internet, foremost amongst whom is Judy Perry, who has been researching her subject for over twenty-five years.

  My gratitude to my editors for commissioning this book is acknowledged separately, in the Introduction, but I should also like to express it here on account of their unflagging enthusiasm, their sensitive insights and their illuminating input. I wish also to thank my inspirational and ever-supportive agent, Julian Alexander, and all the people at Random House who have helped to create this book.

  Lastly, I wish to thank my family and friends, who have all cheerfully put up with me while the book was being written. And to Rankin, my husband — thanks for all the wonderful meals, and just for being there.

  Author's Notes

  I have used the form 'Katherine' (rather than 'Catherine') throughout, as Katherine's name is usually spelt with a K in contemporary sources. The correct mediaeval form of her name is 'Katherine de Swynford', but I have chosen to refer to her as 'Katherine Swynford', as she is traditionally and popularly known.

  It is worth noting that in John o
f Gaunt's Register, Katherine's name is given as either 'Katherine' or 'Kateryn(e)'.The language of the court and the aristocracy at this time was Norman French, and these spellings indicate that John — and others - probably pronounced her name in the French way as 'Katrine'.

  The modern equivalent of fourteenth-century monetary values has been given in brackets throughout the book. For currency conversion, I have used an invaluable internet website, Measuring.Worth.com

  , produced by Lawrence H. Officer, Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Samuel H. Williams, Professor of Economics, Emeritus, of Miami University.


  This is a love story, one of the greatest and most remarkable love stories of mediaeval England. It is the extraordinary tale of an exceptional woman, Katherine Swynford, who became first the mistress, and later the wife, of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, one of the outstanding princes of the high Middle Ages.

  Katherine Swynford's story first captured my imagination four decades ago, when I read Anya Seton's famous novel about her, Katherine. This epic novel made a tremendous impact on me as an adolescent, and still has the power to move me today. And I am not alone, because it has hardly been out of print since its first publication in 1954, and came ninety-fifth in the top hundred favourite books voted for by the public in BBC TV's The Big Read in 2003. (Interested readers will find more about this novel in the Appendix.)

  It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have wanted to write this book for forty years. But even when I became a published author in the late eighties, no publisher would have contemplated commissioning a biography of this relatively obscure woman. And that remained the situation for many years, until the recent explosion of interest in all things historical, which inspired me to seize the chance to make my longstanding, secret dream come true. I am truly indebted to my editors, Will Sulkin, Anthony Whittome and Susanna Porter, for their support and enthusiasm for this project, and to Elisabeth Dyssegaard, who suggested that I write about Katherine as well as John of Gaunt, the subject I originally proposed.

  Katherine Swynford deserves a biography for many reasons. First and foremost, she was romantically linked to John of Gaunt, one of the most charismatic figures of the fourteenth century, and their passionate and ultimately poignant love affair is both astonishing and moving. Katherine was clearly beautiful and desirable, not to say enigmatic and intriguing, and some of her contemporaries regarded her as dangerous also. Her existence was played out against a vivid backdrop of court life at the height of the age of chivalry, and she knew most of the great figures of the epoch. The renowned poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, was her brother-in-law. She lived through the Hundred Years War, the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt, knew passion, loss, adversity and heartbreak, and survived them all triumphantly. Her story gives us unique insights into the life of a mediaeval woman.

  Yet Katherine was unusual in that she did not conform to many of the conventional norms expected of women in that age, and in several respects her story has relevance for us today. Feminist scholars are now beginning to see her from a new perspective, as a woman who was an important personage in her own right, a woman who — in a male-dominated age — had remarkable opportunities, made her own choices, flouted convention and took control of her own destiny. Katherine was intelligent, poised and talented, and fortunate enough to move in circles where these qualities were valued and encouraged in women. Among the choices she faced were ones that would be familiar to women today, although her modern counterparts would not have to endure the moral backlash that at one time rebounded on Katherine and probably wrecked her life. Yet they would identify with her as a woman who coped brilliantly with the sweeping, and sometimes devastating, changes of fortune that befell her.

  Above all, Katherine Swynford occupies an unprecedented position in the history of the English monarchy; dynastically, she is an important figure. She was the mother of the Beauforts, and through them the ancestress of the Yorkist kings, the Tudors, the Stuarts and every other British sovereign since - a prodigious legacy for any woman. Without her, the course of English history would have been very different.

  Writing a biography of Katherine Swynford poses its own particular problems, however, for her voice has been silenced forever: no letter survives, no utterance of hers is recorded. None of her movable goods are extant, and we have barely any details of the clothes she wore, so we cannot determine her tastes in art, literature or dress. Her will is lost, and with it any insights it might give us into her feelings for John of Gaunt, her moral outlook, her family relationships or her charities. She is one of the most important women in late-fourteenth-century England, and yet so much about her is a mystery to us. She is famous but, paradoxically, she is little known.

  Furthermore, the contemporary sources to support a biography of Katherine Swynford are meagre and fragmentary at best. She rates barely a mention in the chronicles of the period, and such references as there are usually reflect monastic prejudice against a woman who was regarded as 'a she-devil and enchantress’.

  The best evidence for her life lies mainly in the dry entries in John of Gaunt's Register, the Calendar of Patent Rolls, the Duchy of Lancaster Records in the National Archives, and the civic and clerical records of Lincoln, Leicester and other places. The rest is largely inference. Yet there is a wealth of evidence on which to base those inferences, as will be seen. There is monetary evidence, and archaeological evidence. Much remains of the many castles and manor houses owned by John of Gaunt, in which Katherine would often have resided, not the least of which is his magnificent range and great hall at Kenilworth, which she would have known well. Houses in which she herself lived for long periods — Kettlethorpe Hall in Lincolnshire, and the Chancery and the Priory in the close of Lincoln Cathedral — also survive in part. There is, in addition, much surviving documentation on John of Gaunt's fabulous but long-lost Savoy Palace, so it is possible to place Katherine and her prince in the context of vividly recreated authentic settings.

  So although there is a great deal that is not known about Katherine Swynford, and the tantalising glimpses of her that appear in the sources often raise more questions than they answer, there is enough to justify a long-overdue biography. This book therefore represents a quest to discover the truth about this most intriguing of royal ladies. It has led to the most fascinating historical investigation I have ever undertaken, affording unique opportunities for original research, which has encompassed delving into numerous contemporary sources (and in some cases having them retranslated), following up significant clues, sometimes into unexplored territory, examining the remains of the houses in which Katherine lived, interpreting intriguing allusions in stained glass and ancient manuscripts, and studying a wealth of pictorial evidence.

  In drawing up a detailed chronological framework for Katherine's life, then piecing together the myriad pieces of information I had gathered, and analysing them within the context of that framework, I have been surprised by the interesting revelations that have emerged, some of which challenge the received wisdom about my subject, or lend weight to existing theories. Time and again, I have been surprised at what I have been able to infer from my research. It is, above all, my hope that what will unfold in the pages that follow is a convincing and challenging portrayal of a most fascinating — but elusive — woman.

  Alison Weir Carshalton, Surrey April 2007

  Prologue: Spring 1378

  In March 1378, putting aside 'all shame of man and fear of God', John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the mightiest subject in the realm of England, was to be seen riding around his estates in Leicestershire 'with his unspeakable concubine, a certain Katherine Swynford'. Not only was the Duke brazenly parading his beautiful mistress for everyone to see, but he was 'holding her bridle in public', a gesture that proclaimed to all his possession of her, for it implied that the rider thus led was a captive, in this case one who had surrendered her body, if not he
r heart. And as if this were not shocking enough, the fact that the Duke was flaunting his mistress 'in the presence of his own wife' created a scandal that would soon spread throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom and beyond. Even today, echoes of that furore still reverberate in the pages of history books.

  John of Gaunt's conduct in that long-distant spring led disapproving contemporaries to conclude that he had 'made himself abominable in the eyes of God', and that Katherine Swynford was 'a witch and a whore'. Thus was born the legend of the 'famous adulteress', who occupies a unique place in English history. There can be no doubt that in her own lifetime, she was the subject of great scandal and notoriety, for she was closely linked to John of Gaunt for a quarter of a century before they married, and she had already known him for many years before he wed the desirable young wife who was so openly insulted on that tour of Leicestershire in 1378.Years later, after John's wife had died and he married Katherine, controversy and criticism surrounded their union, for she was far below him in status, morally unacceptable and considered highly unsuitable in many respects. But she confounded her critics and gradually came to be tolerated and even respected.

  Indeed, all the evidence suggests that Katherine Swynford was no lightly principled whore, which is what hostile chroniclers would have us believe; on the contrary, she was one of the most important female figures of the late fourteenth century, and more likely to have been a woman deserving of our admiration and esteem. Her partner in adultery — later her husband — was the son of King Edward III of England, and one of the epoch's most famous and celebrated paragons. From her is descended every English monarch since 1461, and no fewer than five American presidents.

  The truth about Katherine Swynford has been obscured by people down the centuries accepting at face value the calumnies that were written about her by a few disapproving contemporaries; and, too, by nearly every aspect of her story being shrouded in mystery, exaggerated by debate or simply obliterated by time. Nearly everything about her is controversial. When and where was she born? What did she look like? How many children did she bear? When did she become John of Gaunt's mistress? What influence did she have? And what was the nature of their relationship over the years? Above all, did she really deserve all the moral opprobrium heaped upon her after her lover paraded her in public on that fateful spring day?

No Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]