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The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

Written by Alison WeirAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alison Weir


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On Sale: January 27, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-345-51291-8
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Acclaimed author Alison Weir brings to life the extraordinary tale of Katherine Swynford, a royal mistress who became one of the most crucial figures in the history of Great Britain. Born in the mid-fourteenth century, Katherine de Roët was only twelve when she married Hugh Swynford, an impoverished knight. But her story had truly begun two years earlier, when she was appointed governess to the household of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of King Edward III. Widowed at twenty-one, Katherine became John's mistress and then, after many twists of fortune, his bride in a scandalous marriage. Mistress of the Monarchy reveals a woman ahead of her time—making her own choices, flouting convention, and taking control of her own destiny. Indeed, without Katherine Swynford, the course of English history, perhaps even the world, would have been very different.


Chapter One

Panetto's Daughter

Katherine Swynford, that famous adulteress,1 was set on the path to notoriety, fame, and a great love at the tender age of two or thereabouts, when she was placed in the household of Philippa of Hainault, wife to Edward III of England. This would have been around 1352, and Katherine's disposition with the popular and maternal Philippa was almost certainly due to her father, Sir Paon de Roët, having rendered years of faithful service to the Queen and the royal family of Hainault.

Like her benefactress, Katherine was a Hainaulter. She was born Katherine de Roët, her surname variously given as Rouet, Roëlt, or Ruet, and pronounced Roay. The Roëts were a prominent family in Hainault, then an independent principality located in the western reaches of the Holy Roman Empire, bordering on the kingdom of France and occupying much of what is now Belgium. This fertile and prosperous county stretched from Liège and Brussels in the north to Lille and Valenciennes in the south, and contained other thriving cloth cities: Mons, Charleroi, and Tournai; all of which provided a market for England's raw wool, her chief export. Formed at the time of the division of Charlemagne's empire in the ninth century, Hainault had been an imperial fief since 1071, and in the early fourteenth century it was ruled by the House of Avesnes, which had come to power in 1244.

Katherine possibly had noble or even royal connections through her mother, but claims that she was closely related through her father to the aristocratic lords of Roeulx cannot be substantiated. The Roeulx were a great and powerful Hainaulter family that could trace its descent from the ancient counts of Flanders and Hainault, who were themselves descended from the Emperor Charlemagne, and from England's famous King Alfred. William the Conqueror had married a princess of that house, Matilda of Flanders, and by her was the founder of the ruling dynasties of England, the Norman and Plantagenet kings. Since the twelfth century the lords of Roeulx had prospered mightily.2 Their landholdings centered mainly on the town of Le Roeulx, which lies eight miles northeast of Mons, but their name is also associated with Roux, forty miles east of Mons, and Fauroeulx, twenty miles to the south.

That Katherine shared a close kinship with the lords of Roeulx is doubtful on heraldic evidence alone—or the lack of it.3 Her family was relatively humble. The chronicler Jean Froissart, a native of Hainault, who appears to have been quite well informed on Katherine Swynford's background, states that Jean de Roët, who died in 1305 and was the son of one Huon de Roët, was her grandfather. Neither bore a title. Yet it is possible that there was some blood tie with the Roeulx. Paon de Roët, the father of Katherine Swynford, whose name appears in English sources as Payn or Payne,4 and is pronounced Pan,was almost certainly baptized Gilles, a name borne by several members of the senior line of the Roeulx, which is one reason some historians have linked him to this branch of the family.5 Of course, the similarity in surnames suggests a connection in that period, the spellings of Roeulx and Roët could be, and were, interchangeable as does the fact that both families are known to have had connections with the area around
Mons and Le Roeulx. But discrepancies in arms would appear to indicate that Paon was at best a member of a junior branch of the House of Roeulx; all the same, it is possible that the royal blood of Charlemagne and Alfred the Great did indeed run in Katherine's veins.

The arms of the town of Le Roeulx were a silver lion on a green field holding a wheel in its paw;6 this is a play on words, for wheel in French is roue, which is similar to, and symbolic of, Roeulx. It was a theme adopted by Paon's own family: His arms were three plain silver wheels on a field of red; they were not the spiked- gold Katherine wheels later used by his daughter.7 On the evidence of heraldic emblems on the vestments given by her to Lincoln Cathedral, Katherine Swynford used not only her familiar device of Katherine wheels, which she adopted after 1396, but also her father's device of three plain silver wheels.8

If Jean de Roët was his father, as seems likely, then Gilles alias Paon was born by 1305–06 at the very latest. Thus he did not marry and father children until comparatively late in life. The references in the Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut to Gilles de Roët called Paon or Paonnet imply that the name Paon was almost certainly a nickname, although it was the name by
which Gilles became customarily known, and it even appeared on his tomb memorial. In French, paon means peacock,which suggests that Paon was a vain man who liked dressing in brightly colored, fashionable clothes, possibly in order to impress the ladies. However, in the form pion, it means usher,9 a term that may be descriptive of Paon's duties at court.10

John of Gaunt's epitaph states that Katherine came from a knightly family,and Paon's knighthood is attested to by several sources,11 although we do not know when he received the accolade. In 1349 he is even referred to as a lord, and his daughter Elizabeth as noble,12 which reflects his landed status and probably his links to aristocratic blood. This is also evident in his
ability to place his children with royalty,13 which suggestsin the case of his daughters, at leastthat there was the prospect of some inheritance that would ensure they made good marriages.14 We know Paon held land in Hainault, because in 1411 his grandson, Sir Thomas Swynford, Katherine's son, was to pursue his claim to lands he had inherited there from his mother.15 Paon is unlikely, however, to have owned a large estate and was probably not a wealthy man16 since he was to rely heavily on royal patronage to provide for his children's future.

Paon had first come to England in December 1327 in the train of Philippa of Hainault, who married the young King Edward III on January 24, 1328, in York Minster. Paon perhaps served as Philippa's usher, and may have been present in that capacity at the royal wedding, which took place in the as yet unroofed minster in the midst of a snowstorm.

After Philippa's nuptial celebrations had ended, nearly all her Hainaulter servants were sent home. Apart from a handful of ladies, only Paon de Roët and Walter de Mauney, her carving squire, are known to have been allowed to remain in her retinue,17 a mark of signal royal favor, which suggests that Paon was highly regarded by both the young king and queen, and was perhaps a kinsman of Philippa, possibly through their shared ancestry.

That kinship may also have been established, or reinforced, through marriage. No one has as yet successfully identified Katherine's mother, for the name of Paon's wife is not recorded in contemporary documents. The slender evidence we have suggests he perhaps married more than once, that his first marriage took place before ca. 1335, and that his four known children,
who were born over a period of about fifteen years or more, may have been two sets of half siblings; in which case Katherine was the child of a second wife, whom he possibly married in the mid late 1340s. We know he maintained links with Hainault, probably through the good offices of Queen Philippa and other members of her house, so it may be that at least one of his wives was a Hainaulter.18

It is also possible that Katherine's mother herself was related to the ruling family of Hainault,19 and while this theory cannot be proved, it is credible in many respects. If Paon was linked by marriage, as well as by blood, to Queen Philippa, that would further explain his continuing links with the House of Avesnes and the trust in which he and his family were held by the ruling families of England and Hainault. It would explain too why all his children received royal patronage and why Queen Philippa took such an interest in them; and it was possibly one reason why John of Gaunt may have felt it was appropriate to ultimately marry one of them.

But there is unlikely to have been a close blood tie.20 If Paon' s wife was related to the House of Avesnes, it must have been through a junior branch or connection. Had the kinship been closer, we would expect Paon to have enjoyed more prominence in the courts of England and Hainault. There have, of course, been other unsubstantiated theories as to who Katherine's mother could have been,21 but this is the most convincing.

Whether Paon was related by marriage to Queen Philippa or not, he was evidently held in high regard by her, and he played his part in the early conflicts of the Hundred Years War, which broke out in 1340 after Edward III claimed the throne of France. For a time Paon served Queen Philippa as Master of the House,22 and in 1332 there is a record of her giving money to Panetto de Roët de Hanonia";23 this is the earliest surviving reference to him. His lost epitaph in Old St. Paul's Cathedral describes him as Guienne King of Arms,24 and it may have been through Philippa's influence that he was appointed to this office in ca. 1334,25 Guienne being part of the Duchy of Aquitaine and a fief of the English Crown.

By the mid- 1340s, Paon was back in Queen Philippa's service as one of the chevaliers of the noble and good Queen.26 In 1346 he fought at Crécy under Edward III. That same year, Sir Panetto de Roët" was present at the siege of Calais, and in August 1347 he was Marshal of the
Queen's Household, and one of two of her knights—the other was Sir Walter de Mauney assigned to conduct to her chamber the six burghers who had given themselves up as hostages after Calais fell to Edward III, and whose lives had been spared thanks to the Queen's intercession.27

Philippa, however, never courted criticism by indiscriminately promoting her compatriots, which may explain why Paon, although well thought of and loved by the Queen because he was her countryman,28 never came to greater prominence at the English court29 and why he eventually sought preferment elsewhere.

By 1349, the year the Black Death was decimating the population of England and much of Europe, Paon had apparently returned to Hainault. From that year on, there are several references to him in the contemporary Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut, the official record of service of the counts of Hainault.30 The first reference concerns a noble adolescent, Elizabeth de Roët, daughter of my lord Gilles, called Paonnet, de Roët,who, sometime after July 27, 1349, was nominated as a prebendary, or honorary canoness (chanoinness),31 of the chapter of the Abbey of St. Waudru in Mons by Queen Philippa's elder sister, Margaret, sovereign Countess of Hainault and Empress of Germany. The choice of a convent in Mons, so close to the former Roeulx estates, reinforces the theory that Paon was connected to that family and that his lands were located in this area.

Girls were not normally accepted into the novitiate before the age of thirteen, so Elizabeth de Roët, who was described as being adolescent at the time of her placement, was probably born around 1335-36 at the latest. St. Waudru was a prestigious and influential abbey, and it was an honor for a girl to be so placed by Countess Margaret; it further demonstrates the close ties between the Roëts and the ruling family of Hainault, and suggests yet again a familial link between them. It was unusual for the eldest girl of a gentle family to enter the cloister, but given the fact that Paon's daughters were both to offer their own daughters as nuns, we might conclude that giving a female child to God was a Roët family custom.

Paon also had a son, Walter de Roët, possibly named after Sir Walter de Mauney,32 who in 1355-56 was in the service, in turn, of Countess Margaret and her son, Duke Albert, and Edward III's eldest son and heir, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, popularly known to history as the Black Prince.As Walter was a Yeoman of the Chamber to the Prince in 1355, and
probably fought under his command at Poitiers in 1356, he is likely to have been born no later than 1338-40.

Between 1350 and 1352 there are seven references to Paon in the Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut. For example, on May 11, 1350, he is recorded as preparing to accompany Countess Margaret's sons Duke Albert, Duke William, and Duke Otto on a pilgrimage to the church of St. Martin at Sebourg near Valenciennes to make their devotions at the shrine of the twelfth- century hermit, St. Druon. It was probably in that year that Paon's famous daughter was born.

C.L. Kingsford, in his article on Katherine Swynford in the Dictionary of National Biography, suggested that she was born in 1350. There is no contemporary record of her date of birth, but since the minimum canonical age at which a girl could be married and have marital intercourse was twelve, and Katherine probably married around 1362-63 and had her first child ca. 1363-64, a date of 1350 is feasible, although she could have been born a little earlier. November 25 is the feast day of St. Katherine, so it is possible that Paon's second daughter was named for the patron saint on whose anniversary she was born, and for whom she was to express great devotion and reverence.

In the Middle Ages, St. Katherine of Alexandria was one of the most popular of female saints. Edward III and Philippa of Hainault had a special devotion to her; their accounts show that Katherine wheels, the symbol of her martydom, adorned counterpanes on the royal beds, jousting apparel, and other garments. Like other English medieval queens, Philippa was patroness of the royal hospital of St. Katherine- by- the- Tower in London, which had recently been rebuilt under her auspices, and with which Katherine Swynford herself would one day be associated.33

St. Katherine probably never even existed. There is no record of her in antiquity, and her cult did not emerge until the ninth century. She was said to have been of patrician or even royal birth, beautiful, rich, respected, and learned. Her studies led her to convert to Christianity at a time when Christians were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, and she dared to publicly protest to the Emperor Maxentius (reigned AD 306-312) against the worship of pagan idols and the persecution itself. Maxentius was greatly impressed by her beauty and her courage in adhering to her convictions, and sent fifty of his sages and philosophers to reason with her. When they failed to demolish her arguments, he was so infuriated that he had them all burned alive. He then demanded that Katherine abjure her Christian faith and marry him, but she refused on the grounds that she was a bride of Christ. At this, the emperor's patience with her gave out, and she was beaten, imprisoned, and sentenced to be broken on a spiked wheel that had its two halves rotating in different directions. But just as her agony was about to begin, an angel appeared and smote the wheel with a sword, breaking it into pieces.

This miraculous intervention is said to have inspired the mass conversion of two thousand Roman soldiers, whereupon an even more enraged Maxentius had Katherine beheaded. Afterward, other angels appeared and miraculously carried her remains to Mount Sinai, where a Greek Orthodox monastery was built to house her shrine. It should be noted that there are
many variations on this fantastical tale.

Throughout the Middle Ages the cult of St. Katherine gained momentum. She was revered for her staunch faith, her courage, and her blessed virginity, and was believed to have under her special protection young maidens, churchmen, philosophers, students, craftsmen, nurses, and the dying. Numerous churches and bells were dedicated to her, and miracle plays were written about her. Her story, and her symbol of a wheel, appeared widely in art, mural paintings, manuscripts, ivory panels, stained glass, embroideries, vestments, and heraldry.34 And many little girls were named in her honor, in the hope that they would emulate her manifold virtues.

From the Hardcover edition.
Alison Weir|Author Q&A

About Alison Weir

Alison Weir - Mistress of the Monarchy
Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth and several historical biographies, including Mistress of the Monarchy, Queen Isabella, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. She lives in Surrey, England with her husband and two children.

Author Q&A

Further Thoughts on the Causes of the Deaths of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford

 In Chapter 9, I discuss the theory that John of Gaunt suffered from, and died of, a venereal disease, and suggested the possibility of his having contracted gonorrhea, although I did stress that the evidence is, of course, inconclusive. Since this book was published, I have been fortunate to have the benefit of the medical opinions of two experts, which may throw some light on the Duke’s final illness, and Katherine Swynford’s death, and are an essential addition to this book. 

If we believe the evidence for a disease affecting the sexual organs, then we should perhaps look beyond the assumption that it was venereal. Dr. Susanne Dyby is a biologist, and she thinks it unlikely that John of Gaunt suffered from gonorrhea; certainly it is very rare to die from it, for it is usually relatively benign as diseases go. Dr. Cynthia Wolfe has confirmed that gonorrhea, and today’s most common type of chlamydia, do not cause “putrefaction of the genitals and body,” as Gascoigne described. They do cause rather mild discomfort (if any), some pus from the urethra or vagina, and infertility, but never ulceration or putrefaction outside the body. The symptoms, if any, tend to show up within a month, and sexual contacts are almost always also infected. So it is almost certain that neither gonorrhea nor chlamydia was the cause of John’s diseased groin. 

Dr. Wolfe believes that I could be right in speculating that John of Gaunt had a venereal disease, or that he could have contracted a rare type of chlamydia trachomatis disease called lymphogranuloma venereum, which does cause swelling of inguinal lymph nodes, ulcerations, skin breakdown and putrefaction, is slow in onset, and is not so easily transmitted, thus accounting for the fact that Katherine did not seem to suffer. Dr. Dyby thinks that, after their separation in 1381, it is certainly possible that John contracted gonorrhea, and that, when the couple reunited, this could have caused sterility in Katherine, sterility being a common by- product of sexually transmitted diseases. Even so, it is unlikely that an STD killed either John or Katherine, given that syphilis had not yet arrived in Europe and that the Duke’s mental state was clear at the very end. 

Dr. Dyby believes it far more credible that he contracted malaria in Aquitaine, in the marshes and the mosquito- ridden summers of southwest France. The intermittent high fevers that he suffered might suggest this diagnosis. Both experts suggest that John could have had a cancer that was slowgrowing and destructive, and Dr. Dyby offers the convincing theory that he suffered from prostate cancer, which could have been responsible for the putrefying—and possibly stinking—genitals that John had allegedly displayed to Richard II. It can also cause many other ghastly effects on the body, if the disease is allowed to run its course over a long time without any effective treatment, as must invariably have been the case in medieval times. It would not be surprising if the Duke’s contemporaries concluded that such a disease was the consequence of fornication. 

Dr. Dyby also mentions another malady that can cause kidney failure, gangrene, blindness, as well as other symptoms: by- proddiabetes. Aristocrats at that time certainly had the lifestyle to induce it, not to mention all the lead and mercury and woodsmoke to which they were exposed. Therefore, we should not discount the possibility that John of Gaunt was an untreated diabetic. 

As Dr. Dyby points out, two factors militate against accepting Gascoigne’s account. Apart from the documentation of John’s extramarital affairs, there is no evidence dating from his lifetime or soon afterward, to suggest that his final illness was a venereal disease. Would Richard II, who possibly had the callousness to throw unpaid bills on Gaunt’s deathbed, have refrained from comment at what he had been shown, or from making political capital out of the fact that the Duke was dying from his “sinfulness,” especially when he had the chance to discredit John with a view to seizing his estates? Then there is the Duke’s request to leave his corpse for forty days in state, above ground; if he was so badly diseased, would he have inflicted such a horrific charge on his widow and family? 

Dr. Dyby suggests that Katherine Swynford might have died of tuberculosis, given that Kettlethorpe was moated, situated on a river, and humid. Rheumatic fever was also very common in those days, and can have a nasty affect on the heart. This might account for Katherine’s frailty, and thus her absence from the records, in her declining years. 

The evidence for John of Gaunt’s final illness is still inconclusive, of course, and we can only speculate as to the cause of Katherine’s death, but these theories are an invaluable contribution to the debate. 

I am indebted to Dr. Susanne Dyby and to Dr. Cynthia Wolfe for supplying much of this information, and for so generously giving me permission to include it in the book.



"Weir brings alive the brilliant beauty whose descendants would sit on the British throne."—USA Today

"For those interested in the rarified realms of medieval British royalty, its trappings, intrigues, excesses, cruelties, and sex scandals, Alison Weir's latest excursion will be gratifying."—Star-Ledger

"One of history's greatest love stories . . . Swynford's colorful life played out against a backdrop of court life at the height of the age of chivalry."—Wisconsin State Journal

"Weir has accomplished a seemingly impossible task [in writing a] biography about a woman who left behind not a single image and not a single written word. . . Weir's meticulous and scholarly research has unearthed details that help bring Katherine to life."—Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
"Quite beguiling . . . Bowled over by this tale of true love, Weir recaptures its glow in a fluid, artfully assembled narrative."—Kirkus Reviews
"The historical research is meticulous and seamlessly integrated into the narrative. The result is a story of a real woman with virtues, flaws, and an altogether fascinating life." —Historical Novels Review
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What are the challenges facing an author who undertakes a biography of a medieval woman such as Katherine Swynford?

2. Having read the book, what impressions have you been able to form of Katherine as a person? Has the author succeeded in bringing her to life? 

3. Did Katherine deserve her bad reputation? Why did her contemporaries censure her? Did they all censure her for the same reasons?  How is it that we can take a kinder view of her today? Do you think that Anya Seton’s sympathetic portrayal in her bestselling novel Katherine has something to do with this? 

4. Why is Katherine now finding favor with feminist scholars? How far did she take control of her own destiny and make her own choices? 

5. “This is a love story.” What evidence is there in this book to support that claim? Do you think that the author has been influenced in any way by Anya Seton’s romantic portrayal? 

6. The story of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford has often been compared to the relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker- Bowles. What parallels can be drawn? 

7. Has the author made a convincing case for John’s affair with Katherine beginning in the spring of 1372? Some writers have concluded that his renunciation of her in 1381, after the Peasants’ Revolt, was purely a smokescreen. Would you agree with the author’s assertion that their parting was genuine, and that they only resumed their affair after John’s return to England in 1389? 

8. Is the evidence for John of Gaunt suffering from a venereal disease in his closing years convincing? Could any other construction be put upon this evidence? 

9. In the 1950s, Hollywood was going to film Katherine with Charlton Heston as John of Gaunt and Susan Hayward as Katherine Swynford. If Katherine’s story were to be filmed today, which actors would you like to see in the leading roles? 

10. Why is Katherine Swynford considered a controversial character?  Why is it that no one thought to write a biography of her until recently? 

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