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Missing from History

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Jeannette Lucraft recovers the identity and reputation of the remarkable Katherine Swynford.

Katherine Swynford (1350?-1403) is most often remembered as the lover of John of Gaunt (1340-99) and a temptress who diverted the powerful Duke of Lancaster from his political duties. However, it would seem from the perspective of modern scholars that she was only ‘the lover of ...’ or ‘the mother of ...’ other notables, with little recognition that she may have been an extraordinary personality in her own right. The chief exception to this is, of course, Anya Seton’s famous novel written in the 1950s, which fully endows Katherine with the romantic image of the woman who, despite not being of noble birth, was to become the ancestress of the Yorkist kings and the royal lines of the Tudors and Stuarts.

The more negative depictions stem from the chronicles contemporary with Katherine’s life. Thomas Walsingham, the Benedictine monk of St Albans (died c.1422), is notorious for his vitriolic condemnation of Gaunt, criticising his leadership in the French wars and castigating him for the general conduct of his lifestyle. Part of this castigation was to rebound on Katherine. He makes his opinion of Katherine and her relationship with Gaunt explicit, stating that Katherine is an abominable temptress, and that Gaunt’s blatant showcasing of his mistress in front of not only his wife, but also his retainers and wider public can only bring vengeance on the kingdom. Walsingham is not alone; both Henry Knighton, canon of St Mary of the Meadows, Leicester (died c.1396), and the French author of the Anominalle chronicle, Jean Froissart, also pass negative comment on the role of Katherine in Gaunt’s life. If the writers of the time dismissed her character so easily, should it be any surprise that modern historians and commentators have written about her in similar terms?  What is there here to reinstate?

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