Writing medieval women’s lives: the case of Katherine Swynford, Lady of Kettlethorpe (and Duchess of Lancaster)


Tomb of Katherine Swynford, Lincoln Cathedral (photo credit: Nick Thomas, 2016)

Few topics are as challenging and yet ultimately rewarding for writers than writing stories about the lives of medieval women. Not only was the period particularly muscular with regards to its approaches to public life, but patriarchy was pervasive to the point of occasionally obliterating traces of even the most elite women from records. Or when women’s records were not obliterated altogether, all too often what we are left with are barely disguised stereotypes and caricatures of woemn as ‘seductresses’, as ‘enchantresses’, as a second Eve, with all individuality and quirk of character missing. Never mind the omission of women from written records in the first place, quite a few of these records don’t even survive, and speaking of records, this does not just refer to written mentions in wills, inventories and legal documents. One of the ways of tracing women can be in the built record of doemstic and public edifices and especially tombs! There is a snag here though too: the  Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII swept away the traditional framework of Church worship and this often meant moving and destroying tomb monuments with their invaluable inscriptions, too. Not surprisingly, this has hit the record of women especially hard and has therefore only added further to the  erasing of  memories of women even after their deaths. But this is an issue that needs its own blogpost, so back to Katherine Swynford and her legacy.


Tombs and monuments tell stories about faith, about spiritual preoccupations, about the way somebody wanted their image fashioned after death and for all eternity. Tomb monuments establish a context for a life, and especially with regards to medieval women, a tomb ‘places’ a woman and her relationships with the male members of her natural and married families, making these relationships visible and preserving them through the monuments. There is also something worth thinking about with regards to the prominence occasionally afforded to women in medieval monuments,  with the women often more visible in death than in life, placed at the core of the most masculine of all establishments, the medieval church.

Tomb of Katherine Swynford

Lincoln Cathedral, Katherine Swynford’s tomb

What got me thinking about medieval tombs, and the visibility of even politically prominent women in particular, was picking up Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford. The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess, because unusually, Katherine’s tomb still survives in Lincoln Cathedral (see above). This in turn made me travel to Lincoln, camera in hand, to revisit the cathedral, looking for Katherine’s  tomb. It’s easy enough to find, prominently marked on the floor plan/guide handed out to all the visitors to the Cathedral and  in a prestigious position close to the  High Altar. Very little though survives of the framing and context for the tomb of this most fascinating of medieval women- the tomb no longer stands in its original position, and what survives, is badly damaged and defaced, which basically provides no context for learning anything about Katherine from her tomb. And yet, what stories there are to tell….

What makes Katherine so interesting is who she was: Katherine Swynfor, born de Roet, and originally from Hainault, the ‘scandalous duchess’, became the third wife of John of  Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster in 1399. Katherine had been Gaunt’s mistress since the 1370s and bearing him (at least) four children, all of whom were later legitimated by King Richard II. These children, who bore the surname Beaufort, became essentially a Junior line of the Plantagenetes, and even a cursory glance at the family trees of any monarch after Ruchard II, reveals the significance and prominence of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynforde’s children in government offices. Katherine may have been a royal mistress, but seems to have been an unusually astute and respectable one. In sharp contrast to such reviled Royal mistresses as the rapacious Alice Perrers, reputed to have cut the rings off the hand of the deceased Edward III before fleeing (!), Katherine’s conduct was less that of a mistress and more that of a wife:  fiercely loyal and chaste, pious and concerned with the fortunes of her children, both from her first marriage to Sir Hugh Swynford, and her Beaufort children, the offspring of John of Gaunt. Arguably Alice Perrers incurred the wrath of such prominent fourteenth centuries as  the Benedictine Thomas Walsingham, author of the   Chronicon Angliae, but even so, Katherine fares significantly better in contemporary chronicles than Perrers.

In fact, it was her integrity of conduct which made it possible for John of Gaunt to eventually marry his long-term mistress after the death of his second wife, Costanza of Castile. The timing of this marriage is significant: Katherine was at this point beyond childbearing age, John’s political power was on the wane, their Beaufort children were effectively established as a junior Lancastrian line, John’s legitimate children of his first wife Blanche of Lancaster (including Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV) were well established and married with families of their own, and the royal succession rested firmly with Richard II. John of Gaunt was the King’s old and ageing uncle in his twilight years, his health visibly failing, retiring from public life  (some say sidelined by Richard’s meinie) and arguably free to marry a woman of his choice. This makes Katherine Swynford one of the very few Royal mistresses to become a legitimate wife and a woman of wealth and status on her own terms. Katherine appears to have spent much of her widowhood living in the close of Lincoln Cathedral, but as always, oh so few references survive to shed light on her movements.  Alison Weir’s biography offers an excellent introduction to the sources on Katherine, but the outstanding source  on Swynford is Jeanette Lucraft’s Katherine Swynford. Lucraft’s book offers a historiography of writings about Katherine Swynford that includes the literature on her brother-in-law Geoffrey Chaucer, and also, interestingly, looks at contemporary fourteenth-century attitudes towards Royal mistresses. It’s beautifully written and meticulously researched, and Weir and Lucraft between them convey a sense of how historical writing can raise questions that go beyond the biographical interest in just one woman, even one as remarkable as Katherine Swynford.


Display of books on Swynford in Lincoln Cathedral shop

Both Alison  Weir and Jeanette Lucraft refer in their studies to a novel I had never heard of, yet one that is credited by both as being of seminal importance for inspiring interest in Katherine Swynford: Anya Seton’s Katherine. In fact, the book is one of the very few non-fiction titles stocked by the Lincoln Cathedral shop (see image), where Seton’s novel is displayed right next to Alison Weir’s biography of Katherine Swynford! On reading it, Katherine turned out to be a highly enjoyable historical novel, beautifully written, beautifully paced, that casts Katherine and John of Gaunt in very recognisvaly Hollywood roles, with Katherine imagined like Elizabeth Taylor in Ivanhoe (all drop-dead gorgeousness and integrity of conduct) and John of Gaunt as the dashing Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind.  As page turners go though, Seton’s is one of the fienst I have encountered and while it hs a distinctive feel of the 1950s about it, this actually adds to its charm. It is certainly easy to see just why this 1954 novel has stood the test of time so well and remains as popular as ever.
But getting back to the tomb: Katherine’s  tomb, as I have already mentioned,  survives and is in fact the only tomb to survive of either John of Gaunt or his other two wives, Blanche of Lancaster and Costanza of Castile. Katherine’s table tomb sits end to end with that of her daughter Joan Beaufort, but maybe rather fittingly, the tombs, in Lincoln Cathedral, have been moved from their original location, Joan’s has been reduced in size, both have lost their brass and arguably, both tombs no longer tell the full story of the women who had them constructed as memorials for themselves.


Katherine Swynford’s tomb in the front, with Joan Beaufort’s (the smaller, plain one) stood behind (photo credit: Gabriele Neher, 2016)

Katherine built a tomb for herself, in a prominent position, in a place, Lincoln Cathedral, where she had had significance throughout her lifetime and where she spent time on her own, on both occasions she was widowed. The memorial is Katherine’s and her attempt at fashioning an identiy for herself. Alas, with so much of the decoratuon missing, it’s hard to see exactly what kind of identity she constructed, but even the remnants of the vandalised tomb speak oif a woman of substance with proud and extensive family connections, a woman both learned and also a matriarch and land owner in her own right. Katherine never intended to be buried with either of her two husbands (Hugh Swynford is thought to have been buried in the church at Kettlethorpe, while John of Gaunt was interred with his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, in the Old St. Paul’s). Incidentally, Joan Beaufort, her daughter, chose to be buried in a monument next to her mother at Licoln, rather than resting with either of her two husbands, Sir Robert Ferrers and Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmorland, so for botth women, an identity of their own outweighed conformity and eternal rest with their married families. Food for thought?

So maybe the most interesting stories of them all are still waiting to be discovered. After all, history does not necessarily have to mean HIS-story, but can mean HER-story just as well 🙂


Lincoln Cathedral, December 2016 (photo credit: Gabriele Neher)


Lincoln Cathedral, December 2016 (photo credit: Gabriele Neher)

Lincoln Cathedral Katherine Swynford

Tomb of Katherine Swynford: under the arch, bottom right hand corner  (tomb marked with the white flowers), December 2016 (photo credit: Gabriele Neher)


Lincoln Cathedral, December 2016 (photo credit: Gabriele Neher)




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