The Most Successful Mistress: Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster


It’s about time we got to Katherine Swynford given the number of times I’ve referenced her and the Beauforts in other posts. I deem her the most successful royal mistress for three reasons: 1) the longevity of her relationship with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, 2) the fact that said relationship ended in marriage and 3) all monarchs since Henry VII have been descended from her. That’s a pretty good career for a woman who was certainly never queen and, quite frankly, had little business being a duchess in the opinion of many.

Katherine was born in Hainaut in 1349 or 1350, the daughter of a knight. Beyond that, a considerable amount of her early life is a matter of guesswork. We don’t know who her mother was or the birth order of her siblings. Her father, Paon de Roet, is known to have had four children over the span of 15 years, indicating that he may have been married twice. Katherine and her sister, Philippa, were the younger two, and though Katherine is generally presumed to be the youngest, Alison Weir lays out a compelling case for her being the elder in her biography of the Duchess.

Paon de Roet was a knight in good standing and appears to have had his own estate in Hainaut. There is conjecture based on his career and that of his children that his second wife may have had ties to the Hainaut Royal Family – certainly he and his family maintained a close relationship with Queen Philippa of England, wife of Edward III, herself from Hainaut. He served Queen Philippa in England for roughly two decades before returning home, at which point his two younger daughters were swiftly born.

Then under the employ of Queen Philippa’s sister, Countess Margaret, Paon returned to England in December 1351 when Margaret sought refuge after a political battle with her son. It’s believed that Paon placed his young daughters in Queen Philippa’s household during this visit before returning to Hainaut in 1352. Though typical practice for noble or upper-class children, it’s also a strong indication that their mother was dead. Indeed, we don’t know Paon’s fate after he left them, though evidence indicates that he probably died a few years later.

As such, Katherine likely never knew her mother. She would have had only faint memories of her father. As for her siblings, her eldest sister entered a convent the year Katherine was born and was probably a stranger. Her brother, Walter, an adolescent when she was born, was a remote figure who she likely only saw fleetingly after their arrival in England. Her closest – and arguably only – family was her sister, Philippa.

Katherine was thus raised in the Queen’s household and circled in and out of Edward III’s from her earliest days. She would have had the Queen’s plethora of younger children, particularly her daughters, as companions, as well as several other noble daughters who were being similarly reared. There she would have learned French, dancing, sewing, singing, reading and writing. Significantly, it means that she would have received the right training to take on her eventual role – wife to one of the Queen’s sons.

One of her companions would have been Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of the very wealthy and very powerful Henry de Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster. Born between 1345 and 1347 she would have been a few years older than the de Roet girls, however when she married the Queen’s son, John of Gaunt, in 1359 she appears to have soon taken Katherine with her. It’s unclear when exactly Katherine left the Queen’s service, but all indications point to the early 1360s and it would make sense if she moved to Blanche’s household soon after her marriage.

In 1361, Blanche’s father died and John and Blanche became the new Duke and Duchess of Lancaster. Katherine’s time in their household would have been enjoyable – more intimate than a royal palace, with a happy young couple leading it and a growing family. Blanche gave birth to a daughter (another Philippa) in 1360, followed by a short-lived son in 1362 and another daughter, Elizabeth, in 1363. Given her age, it’s very likely that Katherine’s duties in Blanche’s employ included helping to care for her children.

By then, however, Katherine had reached early adolescence and was of marriageable age. The husband chosen for her was Sir Hugh Swynford, a knight with estates in Lincolnshire. It was a good match for Katherine, one which tied her even more tightly to the House of Lancaster, and which was likely arranged by John and Blanche themselves, with the Queen’s approval. As for John, it is of course tempting to imagine what the relationship between the two was, but Katherine would have been quite literally a child, he is believed to have cared deeply for Blanche and he spent considerable time away from home thanks to his political responsibilities in London and military campaigns abroad. Katherine and John certainly knew one another, but their time together would have been fleeting at this juncture.

As for Hugh, he was about a decade older than Katherine, a capable soldier and in need of a good marriage. Katherine, with her friendship with the Royal Family and possible inheritance in Hainaut, was a fine candidate. The bonus, too, was that she was poised to grow into one of the most famed beauties of her generation. The wedding likely took place in 1362, though no firm date remains, nor a location for that matter. Quite possibly, it took place within the Lancastrian household.

From then on, Katherine split her time between living in Lincolnshire and serving Blanche. Hugh wasn’t wealthy and their primary home, Kettlehorpe, was in no way comparable to the sprawling and luxurious houses in which she was used to living. But it was at least hers, and by all accounts Katherine, even as a young girl, played her part as mistress of her husband’s lands well. Their first child, named Blanche for her mistress, was likely born in 1363, who was followed by Margaret, born in 1364. A son, Thomas, was born in February 1367.

At the time of this last birth, Hugh was away in France for a military campaign with John and Katherine is known to have attended upon Blanche during her pregnancy. Indeed, both women were pregnant at the time same time. Two months after Thomas was born, the Duchess gave birth to a son of her own, christened Henry.

The months that followed concluded what were likely relatively peaceful years for Katherine (though we have no idea what she and Hugh made of one another). In September 1368, Blanche suddenly died a few months after delivering another child who didn’t live long. John and his children were plunged into mourning and the Duchess’s household was disbanded. Katherine likely returned to Kettlethorpe and focused her attention to her caring for her own children and estates full-time.

The following year, Queen Philippa died at Windsor Castle at the age of 56. Philippa de Roet was still in her service at the time of her death, though by then she had married the famous poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. Like Hugh and Katherine, both divided their time between serving the Royal Family and caring for their own children.

For the de Roet sisters, royal service had come to an abrupt end. It wouldn’t pick up again until John remarried in 1371 to Constance of Castile, the beautiful 17-year-old daughter of the recently deceased King of Castile, whose claim to the throne was under attack. In need of military support and therefore a husband, it was a perfect match for Constance, while John was gifted the opportunity to make himself a king. In the short-term, the new Duchess of Lancaster needed English attendants and, remembering their former service, Katherine and Philippa were summoned forth.

For Katherine, it was a gift. Her financial situation grew perilous when Hugh died in November 1371, leaving her cash-poor with three young children and estates to manage until her son came of age. Likely, John well-knew the state she was in and thus offered her employment. His ties to Katherine were not only that she was the widow of one of his retainers, but he is known to have stood godfather to one of her daughters, likely Blanche, who had occasionally lived in the Lancastrian household as a playmate to his daughters in the 1360s.

Katherine attended to Constance during her pregnancy and was there when she gave birth to a daughter. Indeed, she was chosen to carry the news to King Edward, a sign of her prominence within the household. In many ways, this was as ideal a set up as Katherine could have given the circumstances. She and her sister were reunited, her children could live with her and she was once again close to the Lancastrian children – Philippa, Elizabeth and Henry – who she had helped care for since birth. All was in service, theoretically, to the new Duchess, but in May 1372, the first of what would become countless payments from John to Katherine appears – the affair had begun.

We don’t know the exact timing of John and Katherine’s relationship, but it’s safe to assume that it began between January and May 1372. The wording of the later petition for a papal dispensation to marry states that their adulterous relationship took place while John was married and Katherine was a widow, thus ruling out the possibility that it began while Hugh was alive. Even so, the speed with which Katherine became John’s mistress after her husband’s death lends credence to their marriage having never grown into a love match. As for John and Katherine, however morally debatable the circumstances, theirs was a true passion, one which grew into a sustaining partnership that would last a quarter-century.

If we accept that Katherine began sleeping with John in the spring of 1372 then that rather unfortunately means that their affair began while Constance was pregnant. She then attended on her lover’s wife during labor and would have had to awkwardly stand by when the child was given her name – though we can safely assume it wasn’t in her honor. To make matters worse, Katherine would have been pregnant herself when Constance gave birth. When her own pregnancy was a certainty, she retired back to Kettlethorpe and it was there, in the winter of 1372/3 that she delivered a son, named John for his father.

As for a surname, the Duke bequeathed “Beaufort” – he had once been known as Lord Beauchamp amidst his vast array of titles courtesy of some land in Champagne he had subsequently lost. He couldn’t bestow on the child any name associated with his legal titles, for those all belonged by right to his legitimate children and would eventually be inherited by his actual heir, Henry.

It is likely that Constance knew exactly what was going on. Certainly her Castilian ladies-in-waiting did, for John had them packed up and sent to a convent for well over a year around this time as punishment for gossiping. Regardless, Katherine was no longer suitable to attend on the Duchess and she was instead made governess of the ducal daughters, 13-year-old Philippa and 10-year-old Elizabeth. It’s possible that she also supervised six-year-old Henry, however if she did it would have been brief since in 1374 he was transitioned to the rule of a tutor as was deemed appropriate for male children.

Throughout this, Katherine’s Swynford’s children remained with her, living alongside the Lancaster children and creating an almost modern, blended family of what were essentially step-siblings. The oddity came from the fact that John’s children really had two stepmothers.

Katherine’s eldest daughter, Blanche, appears to have passed away around this time. Preliminary arrangements were made by John for the girl (aged roughly 12) to marry in January 1375, however there is no record of a wedding, nor any further mention of her.

We can assume that Katherine’s grief over losing her firstborn was considerable, but she was also pregnant with another child. That summer she returned to Kettlethorpe and there gave birth to another son, christened Henry after John’s former father-in-law. Indeed, that Katherine ended up naming two of her children after members of Blanche of Lancaster’s family (the Duchess herself and her father) is a strong indication that both continued to hold John’s first wife in high esteem and she was a very real presence in their relationship.

Unfortunately, things were not going well for John politically. Given his visibility and power, not to mention his role in various military campaigns in France and Castile, he was the perfect scapegoat for growing resentment from Parliament and the public over the state of the King’s government. During the 1376 “Good Parliament” he was forced to acknowledge that he would inquire into royal administration and stood by the dismissal of his father’s mistress. He was castigated by chroniclers for any number of sins, not least of which was having a mistress (though Katherine’s identity was unknown) and having poisoned his former sister-in-law, Matilda of Lancaster (he did not).

If that wasn’t enough excitement, John’s eldest brother, Edward, the Prince of Wales, passed away after a long illness on June 8, 1376. The entire Royal Family was plunged into mourning, a grief only made worse by the knowledge that the King didn’t have long to live and his heir would be the Prince of Wales’s young son, Richard. Rumors abounded that John meant to take advantage of his nephew’s youth and seize the crown for himself, but this is unlikely – John was still vying for the Castilian throne and not only had he and his brother been close, but he also had a friendly relationship with the Princess of Wales, Joan of Kent.

Katherine wasn’t by John’s side for this tumultuous time – instead she was pregnant with their third child and gave birth in the early months of 1377. Traditionally this child has been identified as a son, Thomas, but Weir lays out a compelling case that this child was actually the couple’s daughter, Joan, and that the birth took place not at Kettlethorpe, but at Pleshey in Essex where Katherine could be better protected from the hostile political climate. Pleshey was the residence of Joan FitzAlan, Dowager Countess of Hereford, whose elder daughter, Eleanor, had just married John’s youngest brother, Thomas of Woodstock. Her younger daughter, Mary, as we shall see, would eventually marry John’s eldest son, Henry – circumstances we covered in more detail here.

Edward III passed away on June 21, 1377, leaving behind his grandson, still a child, as the next king. John would have been in London during this time, overseeing a smooth succession, planning his father’s funeral and preparing for his nephew’s coronation. It’s possible that Katherine was also in London during this time, though if she was she would have only discreetly witnessed these events. The dramatic turn of events over the past two years, however, brought about a change in John, if not in Katherine, too. The couple, who had been so careful to be discreet for the first years of their relationship, threw caution to the wind and allowed themselves to be seen together in public. At one point, according to a chronicler, John showed preference to Katherine in full view of Constance. From that point onward, Katherine became a “witch” and a “whore” in the public eye, while Constance was the pitiable good wife unlucky in marriage.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is actually no indication that Constance much cared about her husband’s infidelity. Theirs wasn’t a love match and given that she only conceived twice in a marriage that lasted over 20 years (a short-lived son followed her daughter), it’s likely that the two rarely shared a bed. Though they came together for high holidays as was expected, by the time their daughter was moved to a noble household to continue her education, they essentially separated. Constance may have expected discretion from her husband, but jealous she doesn’t appear to have been.

Nor does she seem to have had any issue with Katherine assuming a maternal role with John’s children by Blanche. It was Katherine who prepared the 17-year-old Elizabeth for her wedding to John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke in June 1380, and it was Katherine who attended the 1481 wedding between 14-year-old Henry and Mary de Bohun. Katherine and Mary appear to have grown attached to one another and in the coming years Katherine would care for Mary during her pregnancies and childbirths.

It was also around then that Katherine gave birth to her fourth and final child by John, another son, named Thomas. The four-year gap between the births of Joan and Thomas indicates there may well have been stillbirths, miscarriages or infant deaths that went unrecorded – indeed, given the infant mortality rate and the fact that the children were bastards, these occurances wouldn’t have been widely circulated.

In June 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, their targets being the men influencing the King’s Council, namely John, and foreigners (which would have included Katherine). We have no idea where Katherine was at this time, but she certainly had her children with her and likely Philippa of Lancaster, who was still under her charge. John was in Scotland when news of riots in London reached him, including the targeted destruction of his London home, the Savoy. He quickly ordered that of his castles be garrisoned and then he returned to England, attempting to seek refuge with the Earl of Northumberland. The Earl, however, had no intention of being associated with the hated Duke, much less offering him protection, and stated he wouldn’t open his doors until he heard from the 14-year-old King directly that he could be trusted.

Humiliated, John returned to Edinburgh and, apparently understanding the level of crisis, took the extraordinary step of publicly refuting Katherine and claiming he realized the calamity was the result of God’s wrath for his sinful life with her. Within this declaration was the acknowledgement of other extramarital affairs, which proved that in addition to cheating on his wife, John had not even been faithful to his mistress. Whether Katherine knew about this beforehand is anyone’s guess, but it was also the least of her worries at that particular moment.

John didn’t return to England until July. He met Constance on his way to London (herself also a foreigner and thus vulnerable to the rebellion), who prostrated herself before him three times. They both asked for forgiveness, gave it and were reunited, apparently scared straight back into their marriage vows.

John and Katherine met face-to-face at some point soon after John’s return, but it was only to acknowledge their break. As painful as it must have been, it also appears to have been amicable. John continued to financially provide for Katherine generously, as well as the Beaufort children – not only that, but he continued to take a personal interest in their lives and saw them relatively frequently. That patronage similarly extended to Katherine’s sister, Philippa, and her husband, Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as Katherine’s Swynford children. Her daughter, Margaret, entered a convent in the 1370s, and John helped arrange Thomas Swynford’s marriage in 1382. Afterwards, the young man continued to reside in Henry of Lancaster’s household – they were, after all, essentially brothers.

It’s unclear how often John and Katherine saw one another over the next several years, but they likely encountered each other when John visited their children. (Katherine’s charge of his daughter, Philippa, had ceased.) Katherine maintained a friendly relationship with Henry and Mary, then the Earl and Countess of Derby, and regularly visited Mary during her confinements. Joan Beaufort also appears to have sometimes lived in Mary’s mother’s house. What can be safely assumed is that John kept his word and the former couple weren’t sleeping together – Thomas, born in 1381, was the last child conceived by Katherine and, only in her 30s, it’s safe to assume she would have conceived again had she maintained a physical relationship with the Duke. Letters and gifts between the two continued – they were never completely out of touch.

As for where Katherine resided, now single and unemployed, she leased a new house in Lincolnshire called the Chancery. She was, at least, a wealthy woman in her own right.

In 1386, John prepared for an extended stay in Castile, marking his last effort to claim his wife’s throne. Prior to going he arranged the betrothal of nine-year-old Joan to Sir Robert Ferrers and was in Lincolnshire in February, at which point he saw Katherine and their children to say goodbye. Philippa Chaucer, who is believed to have been living with her sister, agreed to serve Constance on the journey and may have left in John’s retinue, though she wouldn’t make the return trip, passing away from dysentery in Leon.

We will save the full story of John’s Castilian efforts for another day, but the trip resulted in the marriage of his other two daughters. First, Philippa was wed to King Juan of Portugal in February 1387, and second, Katherine (John’s daughter by Constance) was married to Henry of Castile (the future Henry III) in 1388. Constance, who believed herself the rightful queen regnant, had to comfort herself with the knowledge that her daughter was queen consort and her grandson would someday succeed as king.

As for Katherine, she remained in Lincolnshire, but a highlight must have been a March 1387 visit from Richard II and his wife, Anne of Bohemia. Richard was personally fond of Katherine and had known her since childhood. In April, he made public his friendship with her by making her a Lady of the Garter, a marked honor since it took place outside of her relationship with John. She would have attended the Garter ceremony at Windsor, a bittersweet return to the King’s court, which was essentially her childhood home.

John didn’t return to England until 1389, and not a moment too soon. In his absence Henry, Earl of Derby joined Richard II’s critics in forming the Appellates, who were gunning for the lords who had replaced John as the most powerful political figures behind the throne. Richard was forced to give in to their demands, which included the banishment and executions of a number of his friends, and though all were formally reconciled by 1388, the King was definitely not over it as time would tell. Though Richard resented his uncle, he was the devil he knew and he summoned him back even as he was already preparing his return.

John’s return marked his reunion with his Beaufort children, all of whom began to take up temporary residence in their father’s household With them came their mother and though the arrangement likely began purely on the grounds of friendship, at some point between 1389 and 1393, the two resumed their relationship. With Constance having withdrawn from public life and permanently living apart from John after their disappointment in Castile, it’s possible that John was already planning to marry Katherine if he was ever able. At the very least, he intended to do whatever he could to set up their children for success – his genuine affection and closeness to his Beaufort offspring is readily apparent.

The eldest, John, was knighted, took part in crusades alongside Henry, Earl of Derby and Thomas Swynford and served Richard II at court. Henry, the second son, was earmarked for the Church and so was given the most extensive education of his siblings, including stints at Cambridge and Oxford. Joan was officially married to Sir Roger Ferrers in 1391 at the age of 14. Residing in her father’s household, she went on to have two daughters with Roger – Elizabeth in 1393 and Mary in 1394. The youngest, Thomas, continued to live in his father’s household, too.

Katherine, meanwhile, still continued to spend significant amounts of time in her own residences, particularly when John’s duties took him to London or abroad. He was in France in the spring of 1392 and again in the spring of 1394. This second trip, however, meant that he was abroad when Constance took ill and died unexpectedly at Leicester Castle in March. John was unable to return to England until June, but even then he ensured that an elaborate funeral was arranged and his wife was afforded all due respect and ceremony. If they hadn’t already discussed it, then it would have been at this juncture that John promised to marry Katherine.

Marrying Katherine was, as we will see, doable, but still no small feat. Katherine had been publicly acknowledged as a mistress and as such didn’t have a stellar reputation. Within courtly circles, and with those who knew her personally, she was almost universally respected, which says much about her character. That the marriage was premised on love can be assumed – the high regard with which John continued to hold Katherine is clear from the respect with which he extended her within his household, regardless of the status of their relationship. Their children, too, were a motivating factor, for the marriage of their parents enhanced their own social position and laid down a pathway for legitimization. It wasn’t the only factor, though, for as was clear from later correspondence with the Vatican, the marriage was certainly consummated.

In the hopes of moving from as strong a position as possible, John seems to have waited a year after Constance’s death before making any formal inquiries into remarriage. The final petition states plainly that he and Katherine engaged in an adulterous relationship while John was married, and that John had stood as godfather to one of her daughters via Hugh Swynford. The chroniclers at the time also report that the two loved one another before and after John’s marriage to Constance, indicating that their relationship was indeed romantic between 1389 and their own wedding.

While they waited for this process to unfold, other deaths within the Royal Family continued to dictate events. Henry, Earl of Derby was widowed in July 1394, as was Richard II when Anne of Bohemia passed away in June. Both appear to have genuinely grieved the loss of their wives, though Richard was childless and it was his public duty to remarry and beget heirs. John, who had long argued for peace with France, was instrumental in arranging his second marriage to Isabelle of Valois, the eldest daughter of King Charles VI of France.

Finally, Roger Ferrers passed away prematurely in 1395, leaving Joan a widow with two young daughters. Unlike when her mother found herself in a similar position in 1371, Joan was financially and socially protected thanks to her parents.

Early in January 1396, John was at court where he, having been granted a papal dispensation, formally requested the King’s permission to marry Katherine. It was granted, though we have no idea what Richard’s reaction was. We know that he personally liked Katherine, but it was still scandalous and borderline unprecedented for a man of John’s rank to marry his mistress. The wedding went forward in Lincoln Cathedral in the middle of January, followed by a brief honeymoon up north. From then on, Katherine was the Duchess of Lancaster and assumed the same public position as Blanche and Constance before her. Given her history of attending upon both women at various points, one can only guess on how she felt about setting up her own household alongside John’s, or taking her place at his side formally.

The immediate implications of it, however, were beneficial to Joan. Her mother now less notorious, she was able to remarry to Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, a coup of a match that would have been difficult to justify hitherto. It was Ralph’s second marriage as well, though he brought to the table no less than eight children. Nineteen-year-old Joan now found herself playing stepmother in yet another shadow of her mother, though as we will get to in a future post, she was by far less successful at it.

As for John and Katherine, their first significant public presentation came that autumn when they helped escort the six-year-old Isabelle of Valois from France to England. Given Isabelle’s age the marriage remained unconsummated, and custody of her was handed to a number of highly-ranked women, of which Katherine was one. Though she didn’t take on day-to-day care of the new Queen, she was partly responsible for her guidance. It was a situation that grated a number of other noble women, not least of whom were her sisters-in-law, for as Duchess of Lancaster Katherine was the second highest ranking woman in the country after Isabelle.

Just three months later, Richard extended the most significant hand of friendship yet – he issued Letters Patent legitimizing the four adult Beaufort children. Though they had already been legitimized in the eyes of the Church, they couldn’t enjoy the legal benefits of legitimacy in England without Richard’s intervention. A mantle ceremony was performed before Parliament and three days later, John was created the Earl of Somerset. Two months later he would join the Order of the Garter. It wasn’t a moment too soon for the young man, for with his promising career and close ties to the Royal Family, he was also a married man – at some point between 1391 and 1394 he married Margaret Holland, and though the marriage remained unconsummated at that point due to the bride’s age, he now had a title and an inheritance to pass along to his future children.

John and Katherine’s marriage was by all accounts a success, a righting of the wrongs that the prior status of their relationship had wrought. It was also short-lived. John passed away at Leicester Castle at the age of 58 on February 3, 1399, little more than three years after their marriage. He chose to be buried alongside his first love, Blanche, in St Paul’s Cathedral.

By then, his heir, Henry, now Duke of Hereford, had been banished by Richard over his long-ago sins as an Appellate (we covered this in more depth here). When Richard attempted to seize the Lancastrian estate, Henry returned to England without permission and deposed Richard. He was crowned King Henry IV on October 13, 1399, a stunning turn of events that neither John nor Katherine could likely have ever predicted. His four Beaufort half-siblings would all play key roles in the formation and protection of Henry’s reign – indeed, they would arguably become the most significant branch of the extended Lancastrian family throughout the entire House’s tenure on the throne. Katherine’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond would go on to produce the first Tudor king, Henry VII, and it is through this line in which all future monarchs are descended from Katherine.

Through Joan, she was also grandmother to Cecily Neville, Duchess of York and thus a great-grandmother to both Edward IV and Richard III.

As for Katherine herself, she lived another four years, passing away on May 10, 1403. After John’s death she returned to Lincolnshire, choosing not to live in any of her dower estates, but instead leasing a house that allowed her to live close to the Swynford lands. Today Katherine is buried in Lincoln Cathedral alongside Joan.

Further reading: Weir, Alison. Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess. London: Random House, 2007.

3 thoughts on “The Most Successful Mistress: Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

    1. Thanks! Agreed – I thought she did a great job with providing an incredibly comprehensive rundown of her life while still acknowledging the sizable gaps in the record.

  1. Pingback: Katherine Swynford – Queens Podcast

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