Lady Katherine’s Life – An Appreciation

From Hainaut to England

Katherine de Roet was born in Hainaut, at the time an independent principality on the edge of the Holy Roman Empire. It is thought she came into the world around 1350, but the date of her birth is not certain. Hainaut is historically known as Heynowes in English. The alternative spelling of Hainault has come into popular use.

Her father, Sir Paon de Roet, came to England in 1327 as part of Philippa of Hainaut’s entourage for her wedding. There is no documentary evidence for when Sir Paon was knighted. Philippa married Edward III in the Cathedral at York, popularly known as York Minster. Sir Paon was one of the very few Hainuyers to remain after Philippa and Edward III’s marriage.

It is thought, though not known for certain, that Sir Paon may have been married twice. Katherine may have been born therefore to a second wife, though no documentary evidence has so far been found to identify her mother.

At some point, most likely in the 1350s, Katherine was placed in Queen Philippa’s household. This suggests her father was held in good favour by the King and Queen. It is possible, though again not proved, that Katherine’s mother may have been related to Queen Philippa, which might also explain why Sir Paon and his daughter were in favour at court.

Katherine had a sister, Philippa, who is popularly thought to be older, but may have been slightly younger. Philippa married the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

Katherine’s upbringing in Queen Philippa’s household made her accustomed to the Royal Court, and she gained skills knowledge and an education that somebody in her level of society would not normally achieve. This gave her the ability to be a good companion to John of Gaunt, and ultimately to be his duchess and for a time the most senior lady in England.

A change of royal households

Having been part of Queen Philippa’s household, Katherine transferred into the household of Blanche of Lancaster after her marriage to John of Gaunt, King Edward and Queen Philippa’s fourth son. John had stayed with his brother Lionel of Antwerp and Lionel’s wife Elizabeth for Christmas 1357 and New Year 1358. They were in Queen Philippa’s hunting lodge at Hatfield, near Doncaster, in Yorkshire. It is possible Blanche was also present, and that this may have been the time when he first became attracted to her as a potential spouse. Geoffrey Chaucer was certainly at the gathering and has given insights into the love of John of Gaunt for Blanche. According to Chaucer’s “Boke of the Duchess”, it took John of Gaunt about a year to win Blanche’s love.

Edward III applied for a dispensation for them to marry about six months later and their marriage took place on 19 May 1359 at Reading Abbey.

It is not known precisely when Katherine transferred to Lady Blanche’s household – the first reference to her is in 1365, but she may have transferred much earlier – perhaps to assist after the birth of Philippa of Lancaster at the end of March 1360.

First marriage

Katherine married one of John of Gaunt’s retainers, Sir Hugh Swynford, who had manors at Coleby and Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. It may be that John arranged the marriage. Katherine de Roet became Dame Katherine Swynford on her marriage. Today the title Dame Katherine Swynford would indicate that the lady was a dame, the female equivalent of a knight, in her own right, and the wife of a knight is styled Lady plus her husband’s family name – so Lady McCartney, Lady Stewart. That is a comparatively modern innovation. There are instances in official records of her being styled Lady Katherine Swynford. The styles Dame Katherine, or Dame Katherine Swynford, and Lady Katherine, The Duchess of Lancaster, will be used from now on in this piece.

Her first marriage began Dame Katherine’s long association with Lincolnshire culminating in her burial in Lincoln Cathedral.

Sir Hugh was not wealthy, but had knightly rank. Dame Katherine similarly was not wealthy but had the prospect of some kind of inheritance in Hainaut – their son together Thomas Swynford claimed the inheritance there of his mother’s assets after her death. The favour shown to Dame Katherine by the Queen, and by the Duke and Duchess of Lancaster, would also be an advantage to her in her marriage. We can see practical benefits to both parties in the marriage, but we don’t know anything of the nature of the relationship between Sir Hugh and Dame Katherine.

There are known to be at least two children of the Swynfords, Blanche, most likely the eldest, and Thomas, who became Sir Thomas on the death of his father. There is evidence to suggest they may have had a daughter, Margaret Swynford, who became a nun with Barking Abbey in 1377. Elizabeth Chaucer also became a nun there, and she is likely to have been a daughter of Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer (married 12 September 1366) – if so they would have been cousins of course. The 1396 petition to the Pope, asking for permission for John of Gaunt and Dame Katherine to marry, states that John of Gaunt stood godfather to a daughter of Dame Katherine – but does not indicate the name of that daughter – it might have been Blanche, but that is not certain.

Philippa and Geoffrey Chaucer worked in the households of the Queen and King respectively. Dame Katherine and Sir Hugh worked in the Lancastrian household and in the Duke of Lancaster’s military service respectively.

Death strikes

Tragedy struck when Lady Blanche, The Duchess of Lancaster, died on 12th September 1368 at Tutbury Castle (where the Society held its study day in 2018. John of Gaunt wrote from Tutbury to the Bishop of Carlisle on the day of Lady Blanche’s death asking him to order masses for his late wife – so John of Gaunt was with Duchess Blanche the day she died. It is suggested that she had a daughter Isabella who died shortly after birth in August 1368; therefore it is possible Blanche’s death was in some way connected to that birth. There is no known evidence for the cause of death. It is important to note that the date of Lady Blanche’s death, the place where she died and John of Gaunt’s location when she died differ between Anya Seton’s novel, and the now known facts. The letter to the Bishop of Carlisle was not known to Anya Seton; it was found by the late Professor Anthony Goodman.

John of Gaunt appointed others to look after his three surviving children by Lady Blanche after her death. Dame Katherine’s daughter Blanche remained in the company of Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster as their companion until 1369. It is not known whether Dame Katherine was at Tutbury when Lady Blanche died.

Queen Philippa died on 14th August 1369. Dame Katherine’s daughter Blanche was given the same mourning cloth and furs allocated to the daughters of John of Gaunt as their damoiselle. This parity of clothing allocation under a command from the king suggests a certain regard by the late king and late queen.

John of Gaunt married Costanza of Castille, whose father the king had been killed by his illegitimate half brother, at Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (as in Roquefort cheese) south of Bordeaux on 21 September 1371. The plan was that John would regain the throne and rule Castile as king in right of his new wife.

Sir Hugh Swynford died in Aquitaine on 13 November 1371. John of Gaunt and his new duchess had set sail from La Rochelle arriving in Plymouth on 4th November and staying at nearby Plympton Priory for a few days. Sir Hugh had not travelled with them, suggesting that he may have been too ill to do so. No grave or records have been found to show where he was buried.

A new duchess and a new relationship

John of Gaunt appointed both Philippa Chaucer and Dame Katherine to the new Duchess of Lancaster’s household, but we don’t have evidence for precisely when either of them entered that household. There is a reference to Philippa in August 1372 as part of the Duchess’s household, and the first reference to Dame Katherine being part of it is 1373. Both may have been part of the Duchess’s household from the beginning in January 1372. Dame Katherine was tasked with taking the news of the birth of the daughter of Queen/Lady Costanza and John to the king.

At some point an intimate relationship evolved between Dame Katherine and John – determining when is difficult. The petition for the Pope to agree to the marriage of Dame Katherine and John of Gaunt in 1396 stated that John had committed adultery but Dame Katherine had been free of wedlock. Lying to the Pope would have been a very serious matter, and there is no reason for them to have done so. Therefore, Katherine and John’s relationship could not have become physical before Sir Hugh’s death in November 1371.

King Richard II granted John Beaufort an annuity on 7 June 1392, the documents stating that he was in his twenty-first year. So on 7 June 1392 John Beaufort was already twenty years old, but not yet 21. The earliest he could have been 21 would be 8th June 1392 (although very unlikely), which would mean John Beaufort would have been conceived around 8th September 1370. Sir Hugh Swynford was still alive then and the Papal petition of 1396 says there was no double adultery. The latest John Beaufort could have turned 21 would be 6th June 1393 which would mean he was conceived around 6th September 1372. By then Dame Katherine was a widow, so this would not have been adultery for her.

From May 1372 a number of grants and other arrangements were made for Dame Katherine by John of Gaunt and his father King Edward III. Unusually she was granted control of Kettlethorpe, and in two stages, also Coleby, during her son Sir Thomas Swynford’s minority. More commonly a wardship was granted for a child whose father had died, by the late father’s feudal overlord. By September that year Dame Katherine was well provided for.

We can infer therefore, but not definitely conclude, that Katherine and John’s relationship began sometime during the first half of 1372, by May, when significant grants began to be made to her. We cam further deduce that the latest John Beaufort could have been conceived, taking his age from Richard II’s grant of 1396, is early September 1372.

That’s the best we can do in terms of knowing when the relationship between Katherine and John was consummated.

Growing family

In the summer of 1375 two chariots of wood were ordered by John to be delivered to the midwife Elyot in Lincoln. This suggests that their second child was born during summer 1375. The nurse appointed by Queen Philippa to look after Katherine in childhood received a grant from John of Gaunt around this time. Also, there was a grant to a John Maudeleyn, son of Hawise Maudeleyn, cited as a damoiselle to Dame Katherine.

The grants to Dame Katherine of the ducal manors of Gringley and Wheatley in Nottinghamshire for her lifetime in February 1377 suggests the birth of a third child. The date of the birth of Joan Beaufort’s own first child suggests it more likely that this was Joan rather than Thomas’s birth. There were other grants too, and there are records of Dame Katherine being given payments for the wardrobe of Philippa of Lancaster in 1376-77.

This was a challenging period for John of Gaunt, his elder brother the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, died on 8th June 1376. There was much competition for power and influence with the Prince of Wales dead, the heir a minor, and Edward III ailing. John of Gaunt was the king’s main adviser, and arguably the most powerful man in England. He was possibly also the most hated. Edward III’s faith in him and approval of his decisions can be inferred from Edward III’s granting John palatine powers for the Duchy of Lancaster for his lifetime. This made the Duchy effectively a state within a state because of the powers granted.

After an uneasy year and two weeks, Edward III had a stroke and died on 21st June.

Richard II was crowned on 15th July 1377. A council of 12 Lords was appointed. Neither John nor his brothers were among them. John’s unpopularity precluded him being regent. However, he played a key role in the Coronation.

After his duties were done, John went to Kenilworth, and then hunting in Leicestershire. It is likely that Dame Katherine was with him, but we don’t know for certain. During this time he apparently was out riding with only one attendant when he came across a group of labourers enjoying themselves in a meadow at Rathby in Leicestershire. John asked them why they were celebrating, They explained that they were holding their annual meadow mowing day celebrations. John asked to join in and he was made very welcome. It is this story that led to a village in Leicestershire having the name “John o’ Gaunt”.

In 1378, the chronicler Walsingham was thrown into high dudgeon that John of Gaunt was publicly riding around with his mistress Dame Katherine, including in the presence of Duchess Costanza, and horror of horrors, had held Dame Katherine’s bridle in public. This is the first reference to Katherine and John appearing in public together, and from then on there was criticism of their relationship from others too.

A grant to Katherine in January 1381 probably marks the birth of a fourth child to the couple, and if we take Joan to be their third child, then this would be Thomas.

On 3rd April 1381 John hosted a feast for Cardinal Pileo de Prata. On 12th May John of Gaunt rode to Scotland to negotiate a new treaty with the Scots. Katherine my have travelled north with him for part of the way.

A public separation

The Peasant’s Revolt of June 1381 saw a bubbling over of anger among the peasantry at conditions, the Poll Tax lighting the touch paper. The Savoy Palace was very badly damaged during rioting.

John of Gaunt was deeply shocked by what had happened. He publicly denounced Dame Katherine and ended their relationship. This may have been an effort to stabilise the country rather than him turning against Dame Katherine per se. Her service in his household ended. He granted he significant further incomes. Katherine moved into the Chancery in Lincoln. The Savoy, which had been turned from a manor house into a palace by Henry of Grosmont, was not repaired.

The evidence is the two remained friends during the next 15 years. The fact that no further children were born during the 1380s, when :Dame Katherine is likely to have been in her thirties, is strong evidence that their sexual relationship ceased.

There was an evolution of John of Gaunt’s popularity with the population of England during the 1380s. As Richard II took on more power when he moved through his teens and into adulthood, facets of his personality came to the fore. He had favourites, he was insecure, he could behave in an arbitrary way. As a result, he became unpopular with many of the ruling class, and also the wider population. The mood changed so John of Gaunt went from being arguably the most hated man in England, to being perceived as the only person who could keep King Richard II in check.

The rivalry between Richard and Henry

Ian Mortimer, in his book The Fears of Henry IV, examines Richard II’s insecurities with reference to Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard was but three months older than Henry.

There was history to their rivalry predating their births. Richard was son of Edward the Black Prince, grandson of Edward III, great grandson of Edward II. Two of Henry III’s sons also had a historic role in this rivalry. One of them would become King Edward I, father of Edward II – Richard was heir to the heir to their throne. The younger of Edward I’s two sons, Edmund, was given a huge inheritance mostly in the north of England from which arose the earldom of Lancaster. His son Thomas had an intense rivalry with Edward II and ultimately was executed. He was assigned saintly status by many. Thomas’s younger brother joined Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella in bringing about Edward II’s abdication because of his tyranny. Richard was great grandson of, and heir to, the disgraced Edward II. Henry was great grandson of, and heir to, the Henry of Lancaster who had forced Edward II to abdicate. That might well feel threatening. A precedent.

Ian Mortimer also cites “The Prophecy of the Six Kings” as being very relevant. It was much talked about, and it was believed. If you were mentioned in these prophecies, your role had a bearing and added significance to your behaviour. If you had the role of a brave warrior, and behaved like a brave warrior, that would strengthen confidence. If the prophecy gave you a role as politically divisive, you had to move very carefully in case those you offended started to claim the Prophecy was coming true.

Edward III was characterised as a boar – to be renowned for his holiness, fierceness and nobility but at the same time being humble like a lamb. Edward III manage to fulfil these conflicting qualities. “Spain would tremble” said the prophecy. Edward III defeated the Spanish fleet in 1350. There were prophecies about reclaiming lands in France which came true too. The next king was prophesied to be a lamb, but the Black Prince didn’t seem to fit that description at all. He died before Edward III, as many had interpreted the Prophecy to mean. The successor would be the lamb. Whoever that might be. There were those who said that the crown would land in the House of Lancaster.

That is background which would fuel the rivalry between the two. Another factor was that Henry of Bolingbroke was born and raised in England, and very much brought up to the role of military leader and Duke. Richard was born and in his first years raised in Aquitaine. He felt like an outsider. Henry was naturally confident in his role. His circumstances meant Richard was not. If you would like to know more about these issues, read Chapter One of “The Fears of Henry IV” by Ian Mortimer.

The role of character and upbringing

There was a sense of Henry of Bolingbroke becoming king because his character and upbringing made him more suited to the role. There is a mirroring sense also that Dame Katherine became third Duchess of Lancaster because her character and upbringing made her suited to the role – arguably more suited to the role than Duchess Costanza, even though she was born royal.

Up to the Peasant’s Revolt, Dame Katherine had been playing the role of John of Gaunt’s consort, filling the gap left by Duchess Costanza. As mentioned above, that role had become increasingly obvious to the wider British population and after the Revolt, it seems John of Gaunt’s political acumen, and possibly his religious scruples, put an end to the physical relationship.

The blended family continues

They still had contact in the ensuing years. There is evidence they met. John provided for Dame Katherine, their four children, Katherine’s two children, and also her sister’s two children, very well.

Katherine was not excluded from ducal and royal family life. There was a ceremony at Lincoln Cathedral, in the Chapter House, on 19th February 1386 at which Henry of Bolingbroke was admitted to the Confraternity of the Cathedral. His father was already a member. Also admitted to the Confraternity that day alongside Henry were John Beaufort, already knighted, Sir Thomas Swynford, Philippa Chaucer and Sir Robert Ferrers. In other words Dame Katherine’s eldest son by John, her son by her late husband, her sister and her future son-in-law. The most likely explanation for Dame Katherine’s omission from the list is that she was already a member.

That July, John and his retinue left Plymouth on his Castilian campaign. Katherine seems to have continued living at the Chancery in Lincoln. Still, Dame Katherine was not excluded from royal life. In March 1387 King Richard II and Queen Anne visited Lincoln and they too were admitted to the Confraternity of the Cathedral. The next month he appointed Dame Katherine a Lady of the Garter. Dame Katherine would have been part of the magnificent ceremonies, meeting other members of the court, many of whom she would already have met. John was still overseas. This was a particular public mark of favour for Dame Katherine on the part of the King.

In the coming months John’s dream of capturing Castile ended. It would seem Katherine’s sister died between June (when her pension was collected by Geoffrey Chaucer) and November 1387 (when it wasn’t) – possibly while serving Philippa of Lancaster, now married to King Joao I of Portugal. Costanza returned to England in 1389, to Tutbury. She largely withdrew from court and Lancastrian life.

Meanwhile at Christmas 1387, Dame Katherine and Joan Beaufort were invited to join Mary de Bohun’s household. Mary and Henry of Bolingbroke had begun cohabiting again in 1387. They had been given a base at Castell Trefynwy ~ Monmouth Castle and a house in Bishopsgate, London.

Alison Weir (Katherine Swynford: the story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess) tells us that the Duke of Lancaster’s checkrolls for 1391-2 show that all four Beaufort children were with him from time to time and were based in his household. John Beaufort stabled six horses in the ducal residences and Dame Katherine stabled twelve. She also received 12d a day whenever she visited the Duke.

The new status quo was maintained until the Duchess Constance died on 24th March 1394. John of Gaunt was in France so her funeral was delayed. On 7th June Queen Anne died. On 4th July Mary de Bohun died. Duchess Constance was buried in Leicester on 5th July; Mary was buried there the next day.

Married at last…to each other

Papal dispensation was sought from the Pope for John to marry Katherine. It may be that there was a wait of about a year after Duchess Costanza’s death.

Their marriage has many romantic qualities about it. We should also though go back to the theme of Dame Katherine’s character and upbringing making her suitable for the role of Duchess, and that she had been playing that role for many years, almost certainly even after the end of the physical relationship in 1381. “…and verily the lady herself was a woman of such bringing up and honourable demeanor, that envy could not in the end but give place to well-deserving” (Holinshed’s Chronicles, 16th century).

Ian Mortimer has suggested in “The Fears of Henry IV” that a strong motivation for John marrying Katherine and having their four children legitimated was to strengthen the Lancastrian line of succession. Henry of Bolingbroke’s children were very young. There were three Beaufort adults, very capable, brought up in effect as royal princes. Legitimated, they would provide backup for Henry if anything were to happen to him. It was Henry IV that barred the Beauforts from the line of succession to the crown, and he did that when his eldest son had reached adulthood.

Lady Katherine and John had three years together as man and wife. John died on 24 February 1399. Lady Katherine lived in Lincoln until she died on 10 May 1403. Since Henry IV was a widower, she remained The Duchess of Lancaster until Henry remarried on 7 February 1403, at which point lady Katherine became the Dowager Duchess of Lancaster.

The legacy of John and Katherine’s relationship

When John died, he and Katherine had been together emotionally for 28 years. They had four children together and appear to have created a successful blended family out of the children they had together, and those that had been born to them with other people. Perhaps some of the strength of their relationship came from Katherine stepping in to fulfil a wifely and motherly gap left by Duchess Blanche and not properly filled by Duchess Costanza. This is speculation, but there is evidence to support the theory.

The late Professor Anthony Goodman, in his book “John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth Century Europe” admires John of Gaunt’s handling of many tricky situations. He writes approvingly of John of Gaunt not falling into the trap of Thomas of Lancaster’s “fantasies about the supposed constitutional rights attached to the stewardship of the realm.” Perhaps John Beaufort was his father’s son, and this is why there was a period when he was not supporting Henry IV – but the two brothers were reconciled.

Henry of Bolingbroke, argues Professor Goodman, pretty much tore up John of Gaunt’s rule book with regard to respecting kingship, and implies John of Gaunt would not have approved. Others argue that Richard II had so much forfeited the confidence of the barons and people that there was no real choice but to remove him as king.

Professor Goodman also writes about the qualities of John’s offspring. “His children, though some of them clashed bitterly on occasion, were often to display a strong sense of family solidarity…Gaunt reared a family well suited to take over as the English royal house. Duchess Katherine had been playing a key role in that rearing for many years before John married her.


Sidney Armitage Smith, John of Gaunt, Archibald Constable and Company, 1904.

Sidney Armitage Smith, John of Gaunt’s Register Volume 1, Royal Historical Society, 1911.

Sidney Armitage Smith, John of Gaunt’s Register Volume 2, Royal Historical Society, 1911.

Edward Baines, James Croston (ed.), The History of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster (Volume 1), John Heywood, 1888.

Anthony Goodman, John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth Century Europe, Routledge (1992).

Jeannette Lucraft, Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress, Sutton Publishing, 2006.

Ian Mortimer, The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Vintage, 2006.

Ian Mortimer, The Fears of Henry VIII, Vintage, 2007.

Robert Somerville, The Savoy: Manor, Hospital Chapel, The Duchy of Lancaster, 1960.

Alison Weir, Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess, Jonathan Cape, (2007).