Lincoln’s Scandalous Mistress
By Samantha Ann Rose Brinded
Level 3 History student
What first drew me to Anya Seton’s 1954 historical fiction, Katherine, was the front cover. Edmund Blair Leighton’s painting, The Accolade, was full of romance and nods towards a chivalric society that is often lamented as being long forgotten. The story within the cover followed these themes and, ten years later, I am still as much in love with the tale of Katherine Swynford as I was then. It was not just the romantic elements that intrigued me, it was also Katherine’s links to my home city of Lincoln. Based on true events, Seton’s unique story of a mistress turned wife and Duchess is an interesting introduction to Katherine. However, further research is needed to reveal more about this scandalous mistress’s links with Lincoln.
Katherine was born around 1350, the daughter of Sir Paon De Roët, a knight in service to the Queen of England, Philippa of Hainault. Contemporary historian, Jean Froissart, states that Katherine ‘had been brought up at court during her youth’. As a ward of the queen, the young girl would learn the courtly skills that would go on to help her later in life when navigating her various roles. By 1365, she was married to Sir Hugh Swynford, a good match for the landless, titleless teenager, for he was lord of Coleby and Kettlethorpe, manors located in Lincolnshire. Six years later Hugh died whilst abroad on campaign, making the young woman a widow, yet her ties with Lincolnshire, and specifically Lincoln, had been well-established.
Not long after the death of her husband, Katherine became the mistress of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt. As Duke of Lancaster, Gaunt was an incredibly powerful prince and this brought another change of circumstances to the young woman’s life. Upon the death of Hugh, their son, Thomas Swynford, had been too young to inherit his father’ lands, so Katherine was granted wardship of them. Katherine also procured land herself, when the duke granted her the manors of Wellingore and Waddington, also in Lincolnshire. It was perhaps because of this increase in land and status that Katherine could afford to live in the shadow of Lincoln’s cathedral, renting a house on the exclusive cathedral close.
Despite her status as a mistress it is possible to tell that Katherine enjoyed a good relationship with her neighbours, namely the cathedral’s clergy. This can be seen not only in her decision to live amongst them but also in how they allowed her to reside there. For at least twelve years she rented the Chancery, using it as her main residence and, later in life, she leased the Priory (now a private school), both of which were homes usually occupied by canons of the cathedral. One of these canons, John Dalton, left her a silver cup in his will, indicating her popularity amongst them. However, she did receive some resistance from the city itself when in 1384 her home in Grantham and Lincoln was raided by locals, amongst whom was Lincoln’s Mayor, Robert de Saltby and bailiffs, John Prentyss and John Shipman. Historian Alison Weir believes this was not due to her status as a mistress, for at this point John had publicly separated from Katherine, but because she had failed to clear her part of the Fossdyke canal, an important trade link for the city which had become unnavigable. Another factor may have been her alliance to the clergy in an ongoing dispute between the cathedral close and the Bail, which saw the clergy demand to be placed outside of the town authority’s jurisdiction. Ultimately, John of Gaunt ruled in favour of the clergy.
As was the norm for a man of his rank, John of Gaunt’s second marriage was as politically driven as his first. However, two years after the death of Constance of Castile, John took the scandalous decision to marry for love. On 14 January 1396, John married Katherine in a place that was immensely important to them both, Lincoln Cathedral. Katherine had taken the unthinkable step from mistress to wife and, in addition, was now Duchess of Lancaster. Froissart describes this union as causing ‘astonishment’ and ‘great shock’ among the nobles of England and France. Regardless of the reaction, after the Queen, Katherine was now the highest-ranking woman in England.
On 10 May 1403, in her early fifties, Katherine passed away. Having been widowed for a second time, Katherine had chosen to live out her remaining years living quietly in the city that had been her home for nearly four decades. One of her sons by John, Henry Beaufort, was now Bishop of Lincoln and would have had a role in placing Katherine in her final resting place in her beloved Lincoln Cathedral.
Katherine’s tomb (pictured next to the smaller tomb of her daughter, Joan Beaufort) remains in the cathedral’s Angel Choir. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, her name is still included in the obit prayer offered up during Evensong.
In Lincoln, Katherine had found a home where she sought refuge during two marriages, and raised a family amid tumultuous changes in rank. Though life wasn’t always easy or kind, I believe her decision to remain in Lincoln indicates that here, in this city, she was happy.
Amin, Nathen. The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown (Gloucestershire, 2018).
Lucraft, Jeannette. Katherine Swynford: This History of a Medieval Mistress (Gloucestershire, 2006).
Seton, Anya. Katherine (London, 1954).
Weir, Alison. Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess (London, 2007).