One of my favorite historical novels of all time is "Katherine" by Anya Seton it is the story of Katherine de Roet who married John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and was the ancestress of the Tudor rulers of England. It is a wonderful telling of Katherine's fascinating life. Imagine my thrill one day on Ancestry when I discovered her in my (MY) family tree! She is my fourteenth great grandmother, there are 17 generations between us. Again, she is someone about whom many books have been written. I thought I would compare as a female role model to Eleanor of Aquitaine of whom I wrote last week. Eleanor lived 200 years earlier than Katherine and was my 21st great grandmother.
Katherine was born in Picardy in 1340, the daughter of a knight who served the House of Hainault (now in Belgium). Edward III's wife, Philippa, was of the House of Hainault and he served her, dying in battle and leaving two young daughters, Katherine and Philippa. Philippa became a serving woman to the Queen and married Geoffrey Chaucer. Katherine came to court and became famous for her beauty. She was married to Hugh Swynford, a knight serving John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. She married him at the age of 15 and had either two or three children by him depending on the source you take. In 1369, she was called to serve Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, taking care of her children and nursing her when she contracted the plague. She died of the plague and Katherine attended her funeral. It is believed that her affair with John, husband of Blanche and son of King Edward III, started at this time. John of Gaunt awarded her a personal Coat of Arms and a pension "for the care shown to the late Duchess and for the Lancastrian children after their mother's death."
In 1371, Hugh Swynford went to France to fight for the Duke. He died there in mysterious circumstances from poison, after being wounded in battle. there is no evidence that Katherine was involved in his death but due to her involvement with the Duke, there were rumors about it. Katherine became the governess of John's children and bore John three sons and one daughter. The children were given the name of Beaufort. By this time Richard II was king but he wan only 14 so, in effect, John ran the country. There was a peasant's revolt and his palace was burnt to the ground. After this he and Katherine separated for awhile. John married Constance of Castile. Their daughter became the ancestress of Isabella of Castile of Ferdinand and Isabella fame.
Constance died in 1394. John and Katherine were reunited and married in Jan 1395. She was 54 (or 44 if born in 1350 as some sources say) and their four children were grown. She was now the Duchess of Lancaster and the highest ranking and most powerful woman in the country. However, there no indication that she used this power in any political manner. Their children were legitimatized with the stipulation that they could not ascend to the throne. However, that stipulation was set aside so that her great grandson, Henry Tudor, could become King Henry VII. John died three years after their marriage and Katherine followed in 1403. She is buried in Lincoln Cathedral, next to her daughter, Joan.
Katherine was famous for her beauty, in fact, her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer, is said to have modeled is Cressida in "Troilus and Cressida" after her. Her love and devotion to John of Gaunt is clear. She loved him and took care of his children, bore his children out of wedlock despite the scandal of it, allowed him to make a politically astute marriage to another woman and then finally married him. All of this withstanding immense social pressures and acrimony. She was called a "witch and a whore" and a "she-devil and enchantress" by members of the clergy at the time. She was constant an devoted in her love and her children were among the leaders of English nobility, eventually ruling the country.
Eleanor of Aquitaine had beauty and was also reviled during her lifetime. But she also had a passion for power and she did many things which were considered outside of the realm of women. Katherine never strayed from a woman's role. If one could take the best of each one would be an unstoppable force as a woman in any time! (Did I mention my granddaughter is named Elinor Catherine?)