Sir Hugh Swynford of Kettlethorpe and Coleby in Lincolnshire married Katherine de Roet in about 1366, although Alison Weir suggests the earlier date of 1362 based on the possible ages of the couple’s three children. Weir also suggests that the union was arranged by Blanche of Lancaster and her husband John of Gaunt.
The Swynfords themselves were proud of their Saxon heritage and Hugh was part of Gaunt’s retinue. Hugh’s father Thomas held Coleby for John of Gaunt – a reminder that the Lancaster inheritance was a far reaching one. When he married Katherine de Roet he’d been a soldier fighting in the Hundred Years War for about ten years (if we take the traditional 1366 date). He was also born in about 1340 making him a decade older than his barely teenage bride (she was about twelve) when they married in the church of St Clement Dane.
Weir reveals that he’d fought first for the Black Prince and then transferred into the retinue of John of Gaunt, who was after all, his feudal overlord. Hugh wasn’t particularly wealthy, the rents from Kettlethorpe and Coleby appear to have been irregular, although he’d inherited his father’s estates in 1361. It probably didn’t help that it wasn’t the most fertile of ground and even the mill lay in ruins. Realistically his income came from his pay in Lancaster’s service and any loot or ransoms he could acquire whilst in France. He was, however, a knight so the match between him and Katherine who held some lands in Hainault was considered a good one because she didn’t have much in the way of a dowry- though what Katherine, having been raised in the court of Philippa of Hainault, must have thought is not recorded. Not that it would have mattered; marriage was not about love it was a business arrangement that would secure Katherine and Hugh’s future as vassals of the Lancaster family. Realistically we don’t know much about the marriage – the portrayal of Swynford as rough and uncouth is based entirely on Anna Seyton’s book Katherine which has Katherine married off to Sir Hugh against her will.
The marriage took place, it is often stated, on In November 1366 Sir Hugh took himself off to Guienne to continue his duties as a knight in Gaunt’s service. Katherine was pregnant. Their son Thomas was born on 24 February 1367. His arrival is often the reason that the marriage is dated to the previous year but the dates of his sisters’ births are not recorded Weir argues that Blanche who was Gaunt’s godchild and named after the Duchess of Lancaster could have been the older of the siblings but that because she was a girl and because she wasn’t born whilst Katherine was in the company of the Duchess of Lancaster that the dates was not recorded. It is possible to argue the case both ways.
Swynford returned from France in 1369 but was summoned once more for military service the following year. Katherine would not see him again. He died on the Gironde in Aquitaine on the 13th November 1371. Katherine was only twenty-one when she was widowed. Her story was about to take a dramatic turn as portrayed by the image at the start of this post. It’s one of those Victorian History paintings that they loved so much. Its by William Bell Scott and depicts John of Gaunt being read to by Chaucer. The two women are Katherine Swynford and her sister Philippa Chaucer.
When John of Gaunt and Katherine petitioned the pope to legitimise their Beaufort children they stated that the affair had not begun during Hugh’s lifetime. Froissart believed otherwise and when it came to Sir Hugh’s son Thomas inheriting his mother’s Hainault lands there were some problems on account of the rumour that he was actually the illegitimate son of John of Gaunt. In the end King Henry IV wrote a letter stating that Thomas, who had been four when his father died in France, was legitimate. Whatever the truth of the matter Hugh is for the most part a footnote in one of English History’s great love stories or a fictional counterfoil to the heroic personage of John of Gaunt – neither of which seems particularly fair- but without any other evidence its impossible to flesh him out any further.
Lucraft, Jeannette, (2010) Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress. Stroud: The History Press
Weir, Alison. (2007) Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess. London: Jonathan Cape