What can we say about the Face and Figure of Katherine Swynford, eventually Duchess of Lancaster.  What did she actually look like? 

Katherine de Swynford might be the most well known, and perhaps the most well-loved, by readers of historical fiction, of all medieval mistresses, but what did this elusive woman actually look like?  Some historical figures, particularly from the Tudor era, are easily recognisable. Would we recognise Katherine de Swynford if we passsed her in the street?

The documentary evidence for Katherine’s life is limited to sparse entries of gifts made to her in John of Gaunt’s Register and the writings of monks and clerics who were far more interested in her scandalous behaviour and sinful life than in her appearance.  It is possible to glean some thoughts about her character, but nowhere is there any comment on her appearance.

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With John of Gaunt there is, of course, no difficulty in imagining this powerful Plantagenet prince.  This famous portrait is not contemporary, but still it is thought to be a copy of one that existed from his lifetime.  It gives us an excellent and detailed idea of his stature and features, and certainly his pride.  There are also written contemporary comments on his appearance at different stages in his life.

But what of Katherine?

The memorial brass on Katherine’s tomb in Lincoln Cathedral is not helpful.  There she lies with her head on a pillow, hands together in prayer, wearing the veil of a widow, a simple robe and a cloak.  It does not give us much of a clue.  Nor is it a medieval.  The brass on Katherine’s tomb was destroyed in 1644 and the present one created from a description of the original.  Like many medieval brasses or memorials, it shows no definite facial features.

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In their memorials, women were invariably shown as the epitome of slim, serene, attractive womanhood.  The memorial to Philippa of Hainault in Westminster Abbey is unusual and remarkable for its honesty, as Philippa herself wished.  Katherine’s brass follows the usual uniform trend of telling us nothing of her true appearance.

This is a painting by Ford Madox Brown, one of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, in which  the main figure is john Wycliffe, reading his translation of the Bible. Chaucer is obviously there, and so is John of Gaunt, but if the female figure with the child is Katherine with one of her Beaufort children, probably the eldest, John, she has been pushed into the back ground as a pale figure and just  a ‘woman in the audience’.  Clearly the artist was not interested in her.

 

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The man in the red hood is Geoffrey Chaucer, who was part of the Lancaster household and married to Katherine’s sister Philippa.

So can we do any better for Katherine?

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This image is clearly labelled Katherine de Roet, but it is a frivolous twentieth century image with no claim to correctness of either appearance or clothing.   What a strange hat she is wearing.  It has no authenticity, and should never be labeled as Katherine Swynford.

But we can probably do better.

Perhaps the nearest we can get to catching a glimpse of the real Katherine is from the Frontispiece of Chaucer’s work Troilus and Criseyde.

 

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Produced in early 15th century, it looks back and depicts Chaucer reading to the major figures of the reign of Richard II. There is Richard in dull gold in the centre, his face rubbed out, and beside him in pink Anne of Bohemia, his first wife.

But at the front of the gathering …

Is this a little family group at the front of the illustration on the left?  It has been suggested that John of Gaunt is the impressive figure in red.  In front of him are two kneeling women  On the right of the pair – is this Katherine herself as Duchess of Lancaster, splendidly dressed in Lancaster colours of blue and white, trimmed with fur and gold and wearing a ducal coronet?  She is turning with arm outstretched to the younger woman, also dressed in blue.  Might this be her daughter Joan Beaufort?

 

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I like to think so.

(It has to be said that the lady in blue and gold and fur has been identified as Joan of Kent but there is as little evidence for this.  It is far more likely to be Katherine in company with John of Gaunt.)

Except that perhaps the evidence is weighted in favour of the elusive Katherine.  This manuscript has an interesting history. It is said to have been made a few years after Chaucer’s death, perhaps for Joan Beaufort who was of course Chaucer’s niece, for it was later recorded to be in the possession of Joan’s daughter, Anne Neville, Countess of Stafford.  If it had been commissioned by Joan, then she and her mother might well have taken centre stage with her father in this family group.  Joan was strongly of the mind to reinstate her mother into respectability.

There is no definitive evidence but if this is so, then we can at last make some comment on Katherine.  She has a round face, a long, slender and very elegant neck.  Her figure is well developed, even voluptuous, as it might be after her years of childbirth, and her hair is very fair.  A comely woman indeed, as she must have been to take John of Gaunt’s eye and keep it for all the years of their life together.  Royal Dukes did not marry their mistresses, yet John loved Katherine enough to wed her and restore her to the respectability she forfeited when she became his mistress.  She must have had something to take the eye.  This lady, by now in her forties but still very attractive, might just be Katherine de Swynford.

So since we know so little about Katherine, what do editors do when considering book covers? They have of course to make the most of romantic and chivalric images.  This can be best seen with the various printings of ‘Katherineby Anya Seton.

This is the very familiar pre-Raphaelite style painting, The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton, which was used for my own Hungarian printing of Virgin Widow, and by other historical writers over the years. 

 

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It is beautifully romantic, even though it bears no similarity with any scene either in Katherine’s life of that of Anne Neville in Virgin Widow.

 

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This is Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another glorious Pre-Raphaelite portrait.  The woman does not look medieval but does it matter?  She is beautiful and emotional and highlights the mood of the novel.  What would we do without the romantic Pre-Raphaelites?

 

 

17 responses to “The Elusive Face of Katherine de Swynford

  1. I have always been an avid reader of historical books, Katherine by Anya Seton was a firm favourite. The nuns at my school cuts out bits! I managed to find another copy. But what a joy to read The Scandalous Duchess, which is the best love story I have EVER read. Anne O’Brien is a superb artist of historical life. I stand in awe.

  2. I am in the middle of reading Anne O’Brien’s book The Scandalous Duchess, and as I always do when reading about historical figures, am trying to find what the characters may have looked like! Your research is fascinating – I hate modern depictions that pretend to be a likeness – so thank you! The image you suggest may be Katherine de Roet, appears to have short hair! Is this unusual?

    1. Dear Robin,
      Thank you for your kind words. I am delighted that you enjoyed Katherine’s story. I found it fascinating to research. No, I do not think that either Katherine or her daughter Joan have short hair. I think it would be closely confined or plaited as was fashionable in Edward III and Richard II’s day. It looks short because the reproduction of the painting is not very good!
      All best wishes,
      Anne

  3. Dear Anne, I have been in the UK for 5 weeks now and we have just two more to go and then we return home. I was able to buy your two latest books that I couldn’t get in the U.S. I mailed them back to Buffalo, NY and can’t wait to read them when we return. Thank you again for such pleasure I receive from reading your work.

    1. Dear Bonnie, I am so pleased that you have found the books you wanted and have sent them on to be waiting when you return home. I hope that you are enjoying your visit to England – I am sure that you are. Thank you for your kind words. I am always pleased to hear from readers who find pleasure in reading my books. All best wishes, Anne

  4. Your books, research, insights and style are wonderful ….. through the miracle of DNA testing I am finding that Katherine de Roet was my last known female anscestor (as her mother remains unknown?!). I too have a long neck…. 🙂 but more seriously a connection through France and many dots to connect. Where I was raised on the border of far northern Maine and NB/QC we still spoke French, and have great genealogical records but only to the Revolution (and only pateilineal) – not prior -! Any insight you may have to the connections or questions you may have are welcome. Life’s mysteries are endless.

    1. How did you manage to compare your DNA to Katherine’s? I, too, am a descendent and have had my DNA tested, so I am curious how to check for a match. Thanks!

  5. Hello! Thank you for this all! I have always loved these wonderful stories. I believe I am a direct descendant of Kathryn Swynford, through Joan Beaufort. ?

  6. Years ago I read KATHARINE by Anya Seton. And I read it again. And again. And many times again. I felt so sorry for her circumstances and joy when she at last was able to marry John and have her children by him legitimated.
    Then I joined Ancestry.com and began working on my family tree. Imagine my shock and awe to find that Katharine and John were my 19th great-grandparents!!! I descend from their daughter Joan. I hope to learn all I can about her through articles like yours. Thank you for posting your info.

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  8. Anne
    Thanks so much for sharing this. I read a book about Catherine Swynford many years ago and the story has stayed with me, especially interesting is the long, unmarried relationship with John of Gaunt. Not because it is wrong to be unmarried, but because the culture of the times, for women, was so … sheltered? I’m not sure that is the proper word, but how to describe women surviving? Anyway, it seems Catherine made a place for herself and her children.
    Katy

  9. Hi Anne,

    I have read you book “The Scandalous Duchess” and I enjoyed and appreciated it.

    I am also a descendant of Katherine Swynford (she was my 18th Great Grandmother and John of Gaunt my 18th Great Grandfather) via Joan Beaufort.

    Catherine Stradling (my 12th Great Grandmother) was a direct descendant 6 generations removed from Katherine. Catherine Stradling was the daughter of Sir Edward Stradling and Elizabeth Arundel and wife of Sir Thomas Palmer.

    Maybe if we can find a painting of Catherine Stradling (I’ve seen paintings of her Husband) we can imagine that her Great Grandmother may have looked similar.

    Or another idea is to find a painting of Lady Joan Beaufort. She was Katherine’s Granddaughter.

    Thank you.

    Sincerely,
    Aimee Speidel von Ofterdingen
    ————————–
    Here is Katherine Swnford’s profile on Geni:
    https://www.geni.com/people/Katherine-Swynford-Duchess-of-Lancaster/6000000000387716957?through=4194842439740054741

    Here is Catherine Stradling’s profile on Geni https://www.geni.com/people/Catherine-Stradling/6000000005943522641#name=Catherine%20Stradling?

    Here is my connection to Katherine Swinford https://www.geni.com/path/Aimee-C-Speidel-von-Ofterdingen-Mack+is+related+to+Katherine-Swynford-Duchess-of-Lancaster?from=6000000011182595392&to=6000000000387716957

    Lady Joan Beaufort https://www.geni.com/people/Lady-Joan-Beaufort/6000000000595941084?through=6000000000387716957

  10. Hi Anne, I am just beginning my research on Katherine Swynford after recently discovering that she is my 20th great-grandmother and John of Gaunt my 20th great-grandfather via Joan Beaufort! I’m thrilled and grateful for your work and look forward to learning as much as possible about these great historical figures!

  11. Dear Anne, I’ve loved so much reading Katherine’s story. It’s like you’ve been able to open a door to another world to show us what her life might’ve been. What a fascinating journey. And reading about her biography I always wondered if John ‘s daughter Catalina of Castille was named after Katherine, since the year of her birth is thought to be the same as the beginning of their affair. I’ d like to now what you think.

    1. I am so pleased that you enjoyed The Scandalous Duchess.
      I have to say that if John named his daughter with his wife Constance ‘Catalina’ after Katherine, his mistress, it was beyond insensitive of him. It does not put him in a good light. But who is to know? Best wishes, Anne

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