For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday, I have decided to discuss the life of Katherine Swynford. Swynford was the lover of John of Gaunt, and she would become his third wife. She was also the mother of the Beaufort line through her relationship with him.
Katherine Swynford is a unique figure in medieval history, as she became a mistress of a Prince after she came into the household as a governess to his children. The relationship between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt began during his second marriage. Katherine was employed as a Lady in Waiting to his second wife, whom he always is said to have disliked. This made their relationship one that was not surprising. After all, we all know that royals were known to take lovers outside of marriage. This was seen as perfectly natural and socially accepted. In the medieval period, the concept of courtly love made this something that could even be hidden in plain sight, at times!
An interesting fact about Katherine Swynford, which is unrelated to her famous affair with John of Gaunt, is that she was the sister-in-law of Geoffrey Chaucer! As a lover of medieval literature, I find this fascinating. There is no way to know how close the two actually were, given the fact that he was married to her sister and they did not necessarily run in the same circles. I just find the fact that they were of relation in this manner as something important to note!
Now, onto what makes Katherine Swynford an intriguing, and important figure within royal history. As I stated in the introduction, she was the mother of the Beaufort line. This was the surname given to her children by John of Gaunt. They had several children together, who were born bastards, as it was during the marriage of John of Gaunt to his second wife that they had been conceived. Upon the death of said second wife, John married his long-time mistress, Katherine. This allowed their children together to be legitimized after the marriage had occurred!
The fact that the Beaufort line was legitimate allowed the children to marry well and had them firmly seated within noble houses through marriages for generations. However, it must be noted that there was a caveat to their being legitimized. The caveat was that although the Church would recognize them as true heirs of John of Gaunt, they could never hold the crown of England! In other words, they were true heirs, due to their parent’s eventual marriage, but they were not eligible for being Kings or queens’ regents.
This would go on to play a factor during the Wars of the Roses, and the eventual rule of Henry Tudor. Henry Tudor was a descendant of John of Gaunt through the Beaufort line, as his mother was Margaret Beaufort, and therefore he should not have been eligible to rule. However, several factors played in his favor. He was the last male Lancastrian of age to be King, he won the crown on the battlefield at Bosworth, and he married Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth of York daughter of Edward IV, and eligible to rule as Queen in her own right (had she chosen to do so), and this marriage was the final thing to cement his ability to reign! Through this fact, every English monarch since has been a descendant of Katherine Swynford.
I hope you have enjoyed this overview of the importance of Katherine Swynford to royal history. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a tapestry reported to depict Katherine Swynford. I found the image on https://historicalhoney.com/makes-katherine-swynford-intriguing-subject/.
- Katherine Swynford: Mistress of the Monarchy by Alison Weir