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Authors: Alison Weir

Tags: #Biography, #Historical, #Europe, #Social Science, #General, #Great Britain, #To 1500, #Biography & Autobiography, #History, #Women's Studies, #Nobility, #Women

Mistress of the Monarchy

BOOK: Mistress of the Monarchy


Alison Weir and
Mistress of the Monarchy

“Weir’s sound scholarship and storyteller’s gift for rich, telling detail constantly engages and enthrals the reader.”

The Times

“Weir combines high drama with high passion while involving us in the domestic life of a most remarkable woman in an equally remarkable book.”

Scotland on Sunday

“Weir combines imagination, good judgement and common sense…. Her smooth narrative belies her skill in weaving together incidental facts and cautious surmise.”

Independent on Sunday

“Bowled over by this tale of true love, Weir recaptures its glow in a fluid, artfully assembled narrative.”

Nanaimo Daily News

“Alison Weir has perfected the art of bringing history to life. There is a breadth of vision to [her] research and writing that provides a sense of time and place as well as consequence.”

Chicago Tribune

“Alison Weir writes compellingly. Her art is such that the reader is swept along by the story, scarcely noticing how very complicated that story is.”

Literary Review

“Alison Weir is one of the best historians of the British monarchy at work today…. Weir is so much the master of the period, so intuitive and unsentimental an interpreter of royal minds, and so upfront about her assumptions.”

Boston Globe

“Weir wears her learning lightly and has a pleasant habit of anticipating all the questions of a curious reader.”

Publishers Weekly

“Alison Weir has become an authority on Britain’s royal families…. The result is a series of vivid cameos as brilliantly conceived as they are scholarly.”

Birmingham Post

“Weir is an expert on Tudor history, and her work is both scholarly and readable — an enviable talent to possess.”

The Bookseller

“Alison Weir has a wonderful way of bringing … history alive.”

Manchester Evening News

Also by Alison Weir














This book is dedicated to

Bruce and Sandy,
Peter and Karen
John and Joanna

to mark their marriages.


I should like to express my warmest gratitude to various people who have helped with this book. To Anthony Goodman, our finest late-mediaeval historian, for his assistance with references and original documents; I am also indebted to him for his two booklets,
Katherine Swynford
Honourable Lady or She-Devil?
, and his magnificent collection of essays on John of Gaunt, which have all proved profoundly useful. To Dr Nicholas Bennett, Librarian of Lincoln Cathedral Library, and his wife Carol for their kindness in welcoming me to the library, making available various sources, and arranging a visit to the Priory, where Katherine Swynford lived towards the end of her life. To Roger Joy, founder of the Katherine Swynford Society and a walking authority on Katherine, for generously sharing his knowledge with me, and for sending me his unpublished articles. To Patricia McLeod and the staff of Sutton Library for their efforts in tracking down numerous books and articles. To Abigail Bennett of the University of York, for translating into English numerous texts in mediaeval Latin. To Andrew Barr and his team at The National Trust East Midlands Regional Office. To the staff at Lincoln Central Library for their assistance in locating books.

I am indebted also to the many people who have published information about Katherine on the internet, foremost amongst whom is Judy Perry, who has been researching her subject for over twenty-five years.

My gratitude to my editors for commissioning this book is acknowledged separately, in the Introduction, but I should also like to express it here on account of their unflagging enthusiasm, their sensitive insights and their illuminating input. I wish also to thank my inspirational and ever-supportive agent, Julian Alexander, and all the people at Random House who have helped to create this book.

Lastly, I wish to thank my family and friends, who have all cheerfully put up with me while the book was being written. And to Rankin, my husband — thanks for all the wonderful meals, and just for being there.

Author’s Notes

have used the form ‘Katherine’ (rather than ‘Catherine’) throughout, as Katherine’s name is usually spelt with a K in contemporary sources.

The correct mediaeval form of her name is ‘Katherine de Swynford’, but I have chosen to refer to her as ‘Katherine Swynford’, as she is traditionally and popularly known.

It is worth noting that in John of Gaunt’s Register, Katherine’s name is given as either ‘Katherine’ or ‘Kateryn(e)’. The language of the court and the aristocracy at this time was Norman French, and these spellings indicate that John — and others — probably pronounced her name in the French way as ‘Katrine’.

The modern equivalent of fourteenth-century monetary values has been given in brackets throughout the book. For currency conversion, I have used an invaluable internet website,, produced by Lawrence H. Officer, Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Samuel H. Williams, Professor of Economics, Emeritus, of Miami University.


his is a love story, one of the greatest and most remarkable love stories of mediaeval England. It is the extraordinary tale of an exceptional woman, Katherine Swynford, who became first the mistress, and later the wife, of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, one of the outstanding princes of the high Middle Ages.

Katherine Swynford’s story first captured my imagination four decades ago, when I read Anya Seton’s famous novel about her, Katherine. This epic novel made a tremendous impact on me as an adolescent, and still has the power to move me today. And I am not alone, because it has hardly been out of print since its first publication in 1954, and came ninety-fifth in the top hundred favourite books voted for by the public in BBC TV’s The Big Read in 2003. (Interested readers will find more about this novel in the Appendix.)

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have wanted to write this book for forty years. But even when I became a published author in the late eighties, no publisher would have contemplated commissioning a biography of this relatively obscure woman. And that remained the situation for many years, until the recent explosion of interest in all things historical, which inspired me to seize the chance to make my long-standing, secret dream come true. I am truly indebted to my editors, Will Sulkin, Anthony Whittome and Susanna Porter, for their support and enthusiasm for this project, and to Elisabeth Dyssegaard, who suggested that I write about Katherine as well as John of Gaunt, the subject I originally proposed.

Katherine Swynford deserves a biography for many reasons. First and foremost, she was romantically linked to John of Gaunt, one of the most charismatic figures of the fourteenth century, and their passionate and ultimately poignant love affair is both astonishing and moving. Katherine was clearly beautiful and desirable, not to say enigmatic and intriguing,
and some of her contemporaries regarded her as dangerous also. Her existence was played out against a vivid backdrop of court life at the height of the age of chivalry, and she knew most of the great figures of the epoch. The renowned poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, was her brother-in-law. She lived through the Hundred Years War, the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, knew passion, loss, adversity and heartbreak, and survived them all triumphantly. Her story gives us unique insights into the life of a mediaeval woman.

Yet Katherine was unusual in that she did not conform to many of the conventional norms expected of women in that age, and in several respects her story has relevance for us today. Feminist scholars are now beginning to see her from a new perspective, as a woman who was an important personage in her own right, a woman who — in a male-dominated age — had remarkable opportunities, made her own choices, flouted convention and took control of her own destiny. Katherine was intelligent, poised and talented, and fortunate enough to move in circles where these qualities were valued and encouraged in women. Among the choices she faced were ones that would be familiar to women today, although her modern counterparts would not have to endure the moral backlash that at one time rebounded on Katherine and probably wrecked her life. Yet they would identify with her as a woman who coped brilliantly with the sweeping, and sometimes devastating, changes of fortune that befell her.

Above all, Katherine Swynford occupies an unprecedented position in the history of the English monarchy; dynastically, she is an important figure. She was the mother of the Beauforts, and through them the ancestress of the Yorkist kings, the Tudors, the Stuarts and every other British sovereign since — a prodigious legacy for any woman. Without her, the course of English history would have been very different.

Writing a biography of Katherine Swynford poses its own particular problems, however, for her voice has been silenced forever: no letter survives, no utterance of hers is recorded. None of her movable goods are extant, and we have barely any details of the clothes she wore, so we cannot determine her tastes in art, literature or dress. Her will is lost, and with it any insights it might give us into her feelings for John of Gaunt, her moral outlook, her family relationships or her charities. She is one of the most important women in late-fourteenth-century England, and yet so much about her is a mystery to us. She is famous but, paradoxically, she is little known.

Furthermore, the contemporary sources to support a biography of Katherine Swynford are meagre and fragmentary at best. She rates barely
a mention in the chronicles of the period, and such references as there are usually reflect monastic prejudice against a woman who was regarded as ‘a she-devil and enchantress’. The best evidence for her life lies mainly in the dry entries in John of Gaunt’s Register, the Calendar of Patent Rolls, the Duchy of Lancaster Records in the National Archives, and the civic and clerical records of Lincoln, Leicester and other places. The rest is largely inference. Yet there is a wealth of evidence on which to base those inferences, as will be seen. There is monetary evidence, and archaeological evidence. Much remains of the many castles and manor houses owned by John of Gaunt, in which Katherine would often have resided, not the least of which is his magnificent range and great hall at Kenilworth, which she would have known well. Houses in which she herself lived for long periods — Kettlethorpe Hall in Lincolnshire, and the Chancery and the Priory in the close of Lincoln Cathedral — also survive in part. There is, in addition, much surviving documentation on John of Gaunt’s fabulous but long-lost Savoy Palace, so it is possible to place Katherine and her prince in the context of vividly recreated authentic settings.

So although there is a great deal that is not known about Katherine Swynford, and the tantalising glimpses of her that appear in the sources often raise more questions than they answer, there is enough to justify a long-overdue biography. This book therefore represents a quest to discover the truth about this most intriguing of royal ladies. It has led to the most fascinating historical investigation I have ever undertaken, affording unique opportunities for original research, which has encompassed delving into numerous contemporary sources (and in some cases having them retranslated), following up significant clues, sometimes into unexplored territory, examining the remains of the houses in which Katherine lived, interpreting intriguing allusions in stained glass and ancient manuscripts, and studying a wealth of pictorial evidence.

In drawing up a detailed chronological framework for Katherine’s life, then piecing together the myriad pieces of information I had gathered, and analysing them within the context of that framework, I have been surprised by the interesting revelations that have emerged, some of which challenge the received wisdom about my subject, or lend weight to existing theories. Time and again, I have been surprised at what I have been able to infer from my research. It is, above all, my hope that what will unfold in the pages that follow is a convincing and challenging portrayal of a most fascinating — but elusive — woman.

Alison Weir
Carshalton, Surrey
April 2007

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