It’s impossible to separate Katherine Swynford from Lincoln Cathedral. I think its one of the reasons that I love the cathedral so much – aside from all the wonderful carvings. The more I look at the choir screen the more fantastic creatures I spot. Anyway, back to John of Gaunt’s mistress. She’s got a chapter in Medieval Royal Mistresses published by Pen and Sword.
John of Gaunt married three times: firstly to Blanche of Lancaster for title and wealth; secondly to Constanza of Castile – to claim the kingdom of Castile and Leon (it wasn’t a successful venture); and thirdly for love to his long time mistress Katherine Swynford.
Evidence that Katherine was married to Sir Hugh Swynford by 1365 can be found in the register of Lincoln Cathedral which was kept by the Lincoln Cathedral Chapter to record the gifts it received between 1304 and 1386. Katherine was probably 15 at most when she married Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe. He was some fifteen years older than his bride and part of John of Gaunt’s retinue. He was often absent on campaign. In 1366 he was sent to Gascony.
The Christmas, Katherine was with her mistress, Blanche of Lancaster, who was John of Gaunt’s first wife, in Bolingbroke for the festivities but in the new year she left Blanche who was pregnant with Gaunt’s son, Henry, to travel to Lincoln where she rented a house in the Cathedral Close. Katherine gave birth to Hugh’s heir, Thomas, at the end of February 1367. He was baptised at the Church of St Margaret of 25 February.
Hugh Swynford died five years later while absent on campaign. Katherine was still very young, perhaps only 21 years of age, but she was responsible for three young children. Fortunately she was able to secure her dower rights to Kettlethorpe and one third of the manor of Coleby. John of Gaunt made the family a gift of £10. The gift was the first of many recorded in his accounts. In time Katherine would be described as ‘very dear and beloved’. For now though she continued to divide her time between running her estates and working in the household of John of Gaunt’s second wife Constanza of Castile, Blanche having died in 1368. She is best remembered however for her role as governess in the household of Gaunt’s eldest daughter’s Elizabeth and Philippa. She also looked after Gaunt’s son Henry until he reached the age of six and was sent into the household of Lady Wake to continue his education.
By the end of 1372 Katherine and John of Gaunt were involved in an affair. Their eldest son John Beaufort was born the following year. By 1381 the affair was of ten years standing (or there abouts) and Katherine had given Gaunt four healthy children. her youngest child, Joan, was a babe in arms at the time of the Peasants Revolt which saw Katherine disappear from the written record. In the aftermath of the rebellion John renounced his mistress. The quitclaim of 1382 was an unusual Valentine’s gift but it distanced Katherine and her children from Gaunt.
Katherine returned to Lincoln. She rented a house in the Cathedral Close but left on occasion to visit John’s son Henry of Bolingbroke and his wife Mary de Bohun. Her son by Sir Hugh was part of Henry’s household. She continued to run her estates – she was fined in 1375 for not maintaining the Fossdyke at Kettlethorpe – and to be a part of the extended royal family. She was invited to become a Lady of the Garter by Richard II in April 1387 and was part of the congregation the previous month when the king and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, visited Lincoln Cathedral.
In 1386, Katherine’s sister Philippa Chaucer, Henry of Bolingbroke, Thomas Swynford, John Beaufort and Robert Ferrers who was shortly to become Joan Beaufort’s husband were admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral (Turner: p.125)
Constanza died in 1394. Lancaster was 56 years of age. On 13 January 1396 he married Katherine at Lincoln Cathedral having gained the necessary consent from the papacy to do so. Soon afterwards Katherine’s Beaufort children were legitimised by the papacy and by their cousin King Richard II by means of Letters Patent read out in Parliament.
Katherine, the daughter of a knight from Hainault, was the First Lady of the land and a scandalous one at that. But Lancaster’s health began to fail and his son, who was one of the Lords Appellants who sought to curb the power of Richard II’s favourites, was banished.
On 14 July 1398 Katherine’s son Henry was consecrated Bishop of Lincoln. He was translated to Winchester in 1404.
After Gaunt’s death, Henry returned from exile and claimed Richard’s throne for himself. As King Henry IV he granted Katherine 1,000 marks a years from the Duchy of Lancaster. She had retired to Lincoln where she maintained her close association with the cathedral. She gave them red velvet chasubles and orphreys decorated with golden leopards.
Katherine died on 10 May 1403. She was buried in the cathedral near the high altar. John of Gaunt was buried in Old St Paul’s next to his first wife Blanche of Lancaster. In November 1440 Katherine’s daughter Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland was buried near her mother. She was married Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Her eldest son Richard Neville, the 5th Earl of Salisbury would father another Richard – the so-called Kingmaker. His youngest daughter Anne was Richard III’s queen.
Before he died John of Gaunt arranged, in 1398, for a chantry to be built in the cathedral so that masses could be said for himself and for Katherine. Gaunt’s own links with Lincoln were of longstanding and dated from his first wedding to Blanche of Lancaster in 1362.
Hickey , Julia A., Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Princes and Kings
Turner, Marian, Chaucer a European Life