History Love: Katherine and John of Gaunt

I like to do a little genealogical research whenever I have some spare time. It’s taken a few years to get a handle on my family tree. For the most part, it’s full of brick walls that I slowly pick away at. One line, however, is easy to trace. I find something new every time I work on it. The other week, I discovered that King Edward III is my 18th great grandfather and his son, John of Gaunt, is my 17th great grandfather. 

John of Gaunt? That name sounded familiar. Then I remembered a famous book I’ve been meaning to read, Katherine by Anya Seton. It’s a novel based on the love story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt. Katherine, it turns out, is also my 17th great grandmother! So I knew I had to pickup the book at the library immediately. I started it over the weekend. I’m not very far in, but I’ll come back and do a review when I’m finished. 

I thought it would be fun to do a short post about Katherine and Gaunt today since Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. 

A lot of Katherine’s life before John of Gaunt seems a little hazy. She was born in Hainaut (now in Belgium) around 1350. Her father, Paon de Roet, was a herald and knight who had access to the court of King Edward III, which meant that his daughters likely grew up in court.* She married Sir Hugh Swynford. Together they had at least one son, Sir Thomas Swynford, one daughter, Blanche, and possibly a second daughter named Margaret. In November of 1371, Hugh Swynford, died fighting in Aquitaine. 

And John of Gaunt? He was born in 1340 in Ghent (hence, “of Gaunt”) to King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He married his third cousin, Blanche of Lancaster, in 1359, but she died 10 years later of the bubonic plague. In 1371, he married Infanta Constance of Castile, which gave him the grand idea that he could claim the kingship of Spain (spoiler: he set off to make his claim 1386 and failed). 

Now that you know some basics, on to the juicier stuff. Katherine, was governess to Gaunt and Blanche’s daughters, Phillipa and Elizabeth. It was during this time that Gaunt and Katherine likely began their relationship. 

In an excellent article about Katherine Swynford, “Missing from History,” (History Today, May 2002), Jeannette Lucraft writes about critics of Gaunt like Thomas Walsingham, a benedictine monk, using Gaunt’s blatant affair with Katherine to exemplify his immorality and attack his ability to be a good leader. Walsingham, for example, wrote:

[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.
— Lucraft, Jeannette. "Missing from history: Jeannette Lucraft recovers the identity and reputation of the remarkable Katherine Swynford." History Today 52.5 (2002): 11+. General OneFile. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

A monk railing against adultery and moral failing doesn’t seem crazy or out of the ordinary, right? Of course not. 

Did the criticism change anything? Not really. Katherine and Gaunt’s relationship continued. Lucraft writes that there may have been a cooling off after the Peasent’s Revolt of 1381. There is evidence that Gaunt provided Katherine with a pay-off and drew up legal documents stating that  their children had no claim on the Lancastrian line. There’s also evidence, however, that they were still close and exchanging gifts after 1381. Maybe they were just keeping their relationship under wraps. 

In 1394, Gaunt’s second wife died. In 1396, he did something unprecedented. He married Katherine, his mistress of over 25 years. The Pope and King Richard II legitimized their children, who took the surname Beaufort. This would become a very powerful act later when the Tudors made their claim to the throne in the 1480s. Henry VII was the great grandson of Katherine and Gaunt’s eldest son, John Beaufort, and, therefore, a descendent of King Edward III. So, in some ways, you can thank Katherine and Gaunt for the Tudors. 

Beyond the romance and drama of it, I found how Katharine navigated her position fascinating. She was heralded as a “strumpet” by Walsingham when she was a mistress, but what happened after her marriage to Gaunt? Katherine took a new coat of arms and affiliated herself with Saint Katherine of Alexandria, a popular medieval saint that was often associated with royalty. In my favourite passage of Lucraft’s “Missing from History,” she underscores just how intelligent and savvy Katherine was:

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.
— Lucraft, Jeannette. "Missing from history: Jeannette Lucraft recovers the identity and reputation of the remarkable Katherine Swynford." History Today 52.5 (2002): 11+. General OneFile. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

And just to wrap this up neatly, when Gaunt died in 1399, Katherine became dowager Duchess of Lancaster. She lived in Lincoln until her death in 1403.

It seems like something from a fairytale, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is a love story for the ages and they did live happily ever after. The historian inside me wants to investigate them both further, and the romantic in me can’t wait to get further into Anya Seton’s Katherine and report back!

*As a neat little side note, Katherine's sister, Phillipa married famed poet Geoffrey Chaucer.