The royal family has never been short on scandal: from King Charles III’s affair with Queen Camilla to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — a.k.a. Harry and Meghan — stepping away from public duties. There’s never a dull moment! Such scandals aren’t purely a modern phenomenon, though. After all, 600 years ago the British monarchy — and the public at large — was stunned when a royal married his middle-aged mistress. Her name was Katherine Swynford, and she was the original “bad girl.” So much so, in fact, that her name was virtually excised from history until recent years.
The scandalous duchess
In 2007 historian Alison Weir wrote Katherine Swynford: the Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess. This was the first biography ever composed about Katherine, who until then had been somewhat consigned to history’s sidelines.
Weir reportedly wanted to write the book in the ‘80s, but he told the Wadhurst History Society, “No publisher would have commissioned a biography of a relatively obscure medieval royal mistress, who left behind no quotes or letters for posterity.”
Everything is up for debate
You see, this is the inherent contradiction of Katherine: despite her importance to history, she has always been shrouded in mystery. As Weir admitted, “Everything about Katherine Swynford is subject to debate: her origins, the important dates in her life, the children she bore, her character, what she looked like.”
Above all, though, the nature of “her relationship with one of the greatest princes of the Middle Ages” has been elusive. This is why “she rated barely a passing mention or footnote in most history books.”
A controversial life
Weir claimed, “Only very recently, with the explosion of interest in women’s histories, did such a biography become a viable prospect.” She revealed, “It is more a work of historical detection, because the evidence for Katherine’s life is largely fragmentary or tantalisingly obscure, and nearly every aspect is controversial.”
The determined historian added, “The finished book reflects what I have been able to piece together or infer from contemporary records; surprisingly, a cohesive and ultimately moving story has emerged.”
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster
Katherine remaining so unknown for so long is especially strange when you consider how vital she was to the course of history. As Weir stated, “The poet Geoffrey Chaucer was her brother-in-law. She lived through the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Peasants’ Revolt.”
Weir added, “She was acquainted with all the great personalities of 14th-century England. Most famously, she was for 25 years the mistress of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the fourth son of King Edward III of England.”