John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford: The Charles and Camilla of their Day?

John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford: The Charles and Camilla of their Day?

Once Upon a Time there was a prince of England. As a young man, he fell in love with a woman who was totally unsuitable to be his wife. So he took her as his lover. They were happy. But the prince had to make a dynastic marriage, which he did. But he kept the unsuitable woman as his mistress for decades.

illuminateCourtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection

When his wife died, he married the mistress and gave her a grand noble title of Duchess. She became the second highest female in the land … after the Queen. And then finally, they did live happily ever after.

In reading that story you might immediately think of Charles, Prince of Wales and his second wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. The facts fit. They’ve been married for ten years now and by all accounts are quite happy.

But, the facts also fit one of the most powerful Plantagenet princes and his lady love as well. I’m speaking of John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III and his mistress, then later wife, Katherine Swynford.

But, the facts also fit one of the most powerful Plantagenet princes and his lady love as well. I’m speaking of John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III and his mistress, then later wife, Katherine Swynford.

Theirs is truly one of the great love stories in English histories. While Charles and Camilla’s affair will likely not impact Britain beyond their own personal happiness, John and Katherine’s shaped England’s history for generations.

Let’s go back to the beginning. John was born in Ghent, Flanders … hence the name John of Gaunt. It was common to title princes by the places of their birth. His mother, Phillippa, was Philippa of Hainault. Katherine was born in Hainault too.

His father, Edward III, arranged a great marriage for John. His chosen bride was the daughter of his great friend, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, a man of great wealth and lands. But Henry had no sons. His daughter, Blanche, was considered a great English heiress.

Upon the death of Blanche’s father, the king made John, Duke of Lancaster. John achieved much of his power and wealth through his marriage. Only his father the King had more wealth and lands than John. Yet what may have started as an arranged marriage, very quickly grew in to a true royal love match.

Blanche was a great beauty and John was handsome. They were teenagers when they married and in the full flush of life. In Anya Seton’s wonderful historical fiction novel, Katherine, she describes the Duke and Duchess thusly, “They were most splendidly appareled in crimson and gold and jewels, and they each wore ducal coronets … They lit up the gray church like torches.”

Blanche and John were truly the golden couple of their day. There is every indication that John was faithful to Blanche. They had seven children in nine years of marriage, but only three – Henry of Bolingbroke, Elizabeth and Philippa – survived.

Meanwhile, Katherine married a knight in the service of John of Gaunt, named Sir Hugh Swynford. She, too, had three children, Blanche, Thomas and Margaret. While Hugh was fighting in the Hundred Years War in France, Katherine worked for Duchess Blanche, most likely caring for her daughters.

Sadly after almost 10 years of marriage, Blanche died in 1368 shortly after giving birth to her last child. She was only 24. By all accounts, John was devastated by the loss of his wife. Katherine may have stayed on to help care for the children.

No one can say for sure when John and Katherine began their affair. Best guesses suggest their affair may have begun sometime in 1372. By then Hugh Swynford had died, but in September of 1371, John had married an exiled queen, Constance of Castile.

With this marriage, John became by title, King of Castile. The only catch was he had to fight a war to retake the throne from its usurper, Constance’s uncle. That appears to be the one bond they had – their mutual determination to rule Castile. Unfortunately for their marriage, that never happened. His marriage to Constance was one of courtesy and ambition, but not love, and nothing like his loving marriage with Blanche.

Constance did give John one child – a daughter, Katherine. (Really? He names his child after his mistress.) Katherine does become Queen of Castile by marrying her cousin King Henry III of Castile. Her granddaughter was Isabella of Castile, mother of Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, who is also the great, great, great grandson of John of Gaunt.

By the summer of 1372, Katherine is firmly ensconced in John’s household, caring for his daughters, and preparing to give birth to her own child by John, a son also named John. She went on to have three more children with John: Henry, Thomas and Joan. They were given the surname Beaufort.

John and Katherine remained together, scandalizing the country. Just like Prince Charles, I’m sure John considered his relationship with his mistress, “non-negotiable”. Did his wife know? Most likely, but she never said. Constance died in 1394.

Two years later, John and Katherine married in Lincoln Cathedral. Even though both of their spouses were dead, John and Katherine still had to receive a dispensation by the Pope. This was due to John having acted as godfather to Katherine’s eldest daughter by Swynford.

The marriage of John and Katherine stunned all of Christendom. Dukes just didn’t marry their mistresses. John, still the most powerful man in England, after his nephew who was now Richard II, could have achieved a third political marriage to increase his wealth and power. But he chose not to. He chose love. He chose Katherine.

The late Queen Mother remarked on the marriage of her brother-in-law to the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, “Men of title and privilege simply do not marry their mistresses.” (Could this opinion be the reason that Prince Charles made no move to marry his mistress until his grandmother died?)

As a consequence of John and Katherine’s marriage, their children were declared legitimate and all royal opportunities of marriage and position were opened to them, except they could not claim the throne.

Katherine became the Duchess of Lancaster, second in the land only to Richard II’s six-year old queen, Isabella. From commoner to royal duchess … again a journey that was unheard of in its day.

Even though they had Richard II’s support, acceptance of their marriage by the nobles and the court came very slowly. Did it matter to John and Katherine? I like to think not. They had endured much for love and had been together for a quarter-of-a century before they married.

Sadly, they only had three years together as husband and wife. John died in 1399. He was 59 – considered old by the times. Katherine then became the Dowager Duchess of Lancaster.

John-and-KatherineThrough their love, John and Katherine founded the great Tudor dynasty.

Her Beaufort children rose high. Their children rose ever higher, but lost everything to the Yorks in the Wars of the Roses. Her granddaughter Joan married James I, the King of Scotland … and her great-great granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, was the mother of Henry Tudor. Through their love, John and Katherine founded the great Tudor dynasty.

It’s a rare medieval love story with a happy ending. Even so, John chose to be buried next to his first wife, Blanche, in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Katherine died four years after John and is buried at Lincoln Cathedral