Katherine de Roet was probably born about 1350 in Hainault. As is often the case we have no exact records of her birth. What we do know about Katherine’s early life is found in the accounts of chronicler Jean Froissart who was also from Hainault. He talks of Katherine as a ‘Hainaulter’ so its a reasonable assumption to make.
The family headed by Katherine’s father Paon de Roet arrived in England as part of Philippa of Hainault’s entourage when she married Edward III in 1328. Paon served in the royal household. Historians think he died in the early 1350s. Katherine and her sister Philippa served in the queen’s household and received their education there as well as developing links with some of the most important people in the country. Philippa married the poet Geoffrey Chaucer whilst Katherine found herself looking after the daughters of John of Gaunt and his first wife Blanche of Lancaster; Elizabeth and Philippa.
Blanche died in 1368, most historians think from the Black Death. By this time Katherine was married to Sir Hugh Swynford of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. It was considered an advantageous marriage for Katherine at the time. Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt held many estates in the area. Historians tend not to think that Katherine had begun her affair with John of Gaunt before Blanche of Lancaster’s death. Certainly Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess suggests that the duke deeply mourned the wife that gave him seven children and made him the wealthiest man in the kingdom.
Katherine and Hugh appear to have had three children who survived infancy. The oldest child was a boy called Thomas, the second was a girl called Blanche presumably named after Blanche of Lancaster. John of Gaunt was Blanche’s god-father and when the time came for John to make his union with Katherine legal and also to legitimise his children this would cause a degree of problem as the papacy deemed that there was a degree of prohibited relationship on account of John’s role as godfather. Blanche grew up with Elizabeth and Philippa of Lancaster. The third child probably grew up to be a nun. Her name may have been Margaret. Katherine swore her affair with John of Gaunt did not begin until after Sir Hugh Swynford died but Froissart says differently.
Hugh died in 1372 and Katherine’s first child by John of Gaunt was born the following year. John Beaufort was named after the french castle that Gaunt owned and where John was possibly born. The couple went on to have three more children who survived infancy; Henry, Thomas and Joan who had her own dramatic love story. John had married his second wife Constance of Castile in 1371. It was a state marriage that gave John a claim to the throne of Castile but the existence of a much loved mistress in John’s life cannot have helped the relationship nor the fact that it is known that during some periods Katherine lived quietly in the home of John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV). During the Peasants Revolt of 1381 the lovers parted company or they became more secretive about their liaison possibly because John was so hated or because John wished to pursue his claim to the Castilian throne. Not that this prevented Katherine from being made a Lady of the Garter in 1388.
Wife number two died in 1394. There followed a flurry of letters to the pope and two years later John of Gaunt took the unusual step of marrying his mistress. They were married on 13 January 1396 at Lincoln Cathedral. This had the effect of putting rather a lot of noses out of joint. Not only did Katherine become the duchess of Lancaster but because the king, Richard II, had no queen and John was the next most important man in the country Katherine automatically became the first lady to whom all others had to give way… I should imagine that some very stiff necked ladies muttered rather a lot about that particular turn up for the books.
John and Katherine’s children were not only legitimised by the pope but also legitimised by Act of Parliament on the command of their cousin Richard II on 9th February 1397. Later Henry IV would add a note in his own hand to the effect that whilst the Beauforts might be legitimate they couldn’t inherit the throne. This didn’t stop Henry IV from making effective use of his Beaufort half-siblings.
Katherine died on the 10th May 1403 having outlived John of Gaunt by four years. She’d survived a period of plague, seen the Peasants revolt and the Hundred Years War as well as having caused a national scandal. She and her daughter Joan are buried in Lincoln Cathedral having lived quietly in Lincoln in her final years. We can still identify her house.
There was a brass of the dowager duchess but it was destroyed or certainly very badly treaded by the Roundheads in 1644 so we have no certain primary source image of the woman who stole the heart of the most powerful man in England despite the fact that there is now a brass over Katherine’s tomb it is not the original and she’s wearing a widow’s veil which doesn’t help matters but it is an effective way of the engraver dealing with the fact he didn’t know what the duchess looked like. Froissart describes her as young and pretty in his chronicles. The image at the start of this post comes from a fifteenth century edition of Chaucer’s work and it shows the key people of Richard II’s reign. John of Gaunt is identifiable. It’s possible that the girl in blue is Katherine.
Weir, Alison.(2007) Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess. London: Jonathan Cape