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Mistress of the Monarchy

The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

Author: Alison Weir
Nonfiction, copyright 2010
ISBN: 978-0-345-45324-2
Publisher: Ballantine Books trade paperbacks, New York

Katherine, daughter of the knight Paon (Pan, Payne, baptized Gilles) de Roet, granddaughter of Jean and granddaughter of Huon de Roet, a prominent family in Hainault (now Belgium), is worthy of the many books about her.  She was first the mistress and later the wife of the famous and honored John of Gaunt (Ghent), 3rd son of King Edward and Queen Philippa.  From Katherine is descended every English monarch since 1461, and no fewer than five American presidents.  

As an infant, Katherine, born about 1350, was placed in the household of Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife to Edward III of England as a toddler, when her father left to protect the Countess Margaret’s sons on a pilgrimage to St Martin’s. Apparently her mother was deceased. Paon is believed to have had two older children, Elizabeth and Walter, and one younger, Philippa. Elizabeth apparently spent her whole life in a convent, which was an honorable destiny at the time. William later married King Edward’s cousin, Matilda of Lancaster, and served as knight to Queen Philippi’s eldest son, known as the Black Prince. Philippa married poet Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the Father of English literature. 

In that world, Katherine would have lodged at Windsor Castle, Westminster Palace and a number of other luxurious residences of the King. They dined in style on rich cuisine, drank to excess, and dressed in extravagant fashionable and colorful clothing. Women dared not show an ankle but necklines were very low often leaving the shoulders and breasts half bared. The population of about 3 million lived in an economy based on farming, wool, and overseas trade. They resided in tight communities, in villages, or on manors, in crude wattle-and-daub cottages. The contents of a knightly household might comprise a canopied or “tester” bed, covers, blankets, linens, coverlets, mattresses, painted cloths, rugs, napkins, towels, washbasins candelabra of bronze, marble and silver gilt, bronze poets and pans, twelve silver spoons, spits, poles, iron pots, vessels of silver gilt and lead for beer, silver-gilt salt cellars, three iron braziers, trestles and boards for tables. Furniture probably included cupboards, buffets, and stools.

Katherine grew up in this male-dominated, militaristic society. Girls like Katherine knew they must wait to be addressed, keep their eyes downcast, and their hands folded. Females were non-persons without a husband, but catching one was not so easy for penniless women in that time of arranged marriages. Courtly love had little to do with the hardheaded medieval approach to marriage, which then was essentially a business contract giving full control of a wife to her husband. But Edward was devoted to Queen Philippa and they enjoyed a long and happy marriage. 

In the year preceding Katherine’s birth, the Black Death, a particularly virulent form of bubonic plague, killed almost 3/4ths of the population of Europe, leaving the world a very different place.

Females were bound in marriage as quickly as possible. The husband chosen for Katherine at age 12 was Sir Hugh Swynford, lord of the manors of Coleby and Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. In the meantime the man Katherine most admired, John of Gaunt, had married the Duchess Blanche and they had several children. 

Both Katherine Swynford and the Duchess Blanche were pregnant when their husbands rode off to war in 1366.

Both Blanche and Hugh died in subsequent years, leaving John of Gaunt and Katherine alone. Their affair had certainly begun by the spring of 1372. John  was required to make an alliance for the good of the country so he married Constance of Castile as his second wife, but was already committed to his “unspeakable concubine” Katherine. For the next nine years, Katherine remained John’s mistress and bore at least four of his children. After the death of Constance, John made all special arrangements and married Katherine, even though she was not of the royal blood line.

I probably would not have read this book if not for the book study led by Elizabeth Prosser. It does drag in places and reading the fiction version (below) is much easier. 

I recommend this book to true fans of the history of the English queens.