February 27, 2016

John of Gaunt and Lady Katherine Swynford: A Royal Lineage

John of Guant Planatagenet
Katherine De Roet Swynford Plantagenet
The story of my 18th great-grandparents—Katherine de Roët Swynford and John of Gaunt—is the most endearing and enduring love affair in all of English history. My grandfather was the “greatest English nobleman of his time”—tall, lean, handsome, a mighty warrior, chivalrous, politically astute. He was the richest and the most powerful man as well; second only to his father, my grandfather King Edward III, and so great a prince that he was called the Greatest King England Never Had. My grandmother was renowned for her beauty, her kind and gentle nature, her financial acumen, her creative independence, most of all her piety. As his mistress, she was not his wife until late in the game. Still, she was (and is) “Mistress of the Monarchy,” for it’s through her children by John that Katherine became grandmother to both English and Scottish royalty, down to the present age. Several books have been written about their illicit and enduring love; their devotion to each other knew no bounds and withstood the test of time and the censure of church and state and public opinion. Lovers for twenty-five years before finally being able to marry, I’m not sure why there’s never been a blockbuster movie made, for their story is the very stuff of Hollywood: adultery, betrayal, chivalry, passion, sacrifice, separations, and murder. Ultimately, their devotion to each other changed the course of the royal bloodline and altered English history. The very least that can be said about their relationship is that without it I would not exist.

King Edgar of England
I actually plug into royalty long before John and Katherine. The very first kings of both England and Scotland were my great-grandfathers thirty-eight generations ago. Grandfather King Egbert reclaimed his English Wessex crown in 802 and by his death in 839 he’d been acknowledged as the first Sovereign over all of England. My Scottish grandfather, King Alpin MacEchdoch, was king of two kingdoms in what is now present-day Scotland, but because his son, my grandfather Kenneth I, increased the territory, founding Scotia, ancient Scotland, he is more often regarded as Scotland’s very first king. Still, the Scottish timeline begins with Alpin and from both Kings Egbert and Alpin I hopscotch down through the centuries: In England for about 600 years via the royal Houses of Wessex, Norman, Angevin, and Plantaganet; in Scotland some 500 years via Clans Dunkeld, Canmore, Balliol, and Bruce.

Alfred the Great
Some of my more illustrious grandfathers are Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, John Lackland (who’s cruelty and bad behavior prompted the Magna Carta), and Richard the Lionheart. A notorious grandmother was Isabella of France, married to my grandfather King Edward II. She did not like him much. Under guise of diplomatic mission she returned to France, took a lover (exiled for bad behavior), and together they crossed the channel with an army so large it scared off all the King’s men. She immediately deposed her husband and later had him barbarically and brutally murdered in the Tower so that she and Roger Mortimer could act as regents for her fourteen-year-old son, King Edward III. And this is where I tumble out of British royalty. 

King Edward III
King Edward III is my last English king grandfather. On the Scottish side I’d already fallen into obscurity by at least 100 years. King Robert the Bruce is my last Scottish king grandfather. Both kings were regarded as heroes and both were dearly loved. Probably my most adored kings in their time.

Still, I’d not fallen far from either tree. On both sides I remained (and remain) cousins, and my dual ancestry was reinforced because they intermittently intermarried—English royalty with Scottish, Scottish with English. The two crowns finally merged in 1603 when my British cousins ran out of heirs. We’re all fairly familiar with the basic precepts of this particular story. My cousin, King Henry VIII, went through six wives—divorced, beheaded, survived; divorced, beheaded, and died—and a break from the Catholic Church in order to begat a promising male heir. This never happened. Upon his death, his young and sickly son Edward VI, then Mary, and finally the “Virgin” Queen Elizabeth succeeded him. All three of these children died without issue, leaving England without a royal heir. 

King James VI and I
The crown was forced, then, in 1603 to slide sideways to Queen Elizabeth I’s Scottish cousin—my cousin King James VI. The crown slid his direction for two reasons: he descended from two of John of Gaunt and Katherine’s grandchildren—on the English side through their grandson John III and subsequent Tudor kings and queens—Kings Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VI, VII, VIII, Edward VI, Queens Mary and Elizabeth. On the Scottish side, he descended from John and Katherine’s granddaughter Joan. She’d married Scotland’s King James I way back in 1424 and begat Kings James II, III, IV, V, Mary Queen of Scots—who was mother to James VI. And so, as much as England and Scotland hated each other their thrones were united in 1603 under this man, renamed King James VI of Scotland, I of England—and from him come every king and queen since.

So what actually happened to me? How and where did I lose my direct lineage to the first kings of England and Scotland? I fell out of the Scottish family tree after Robert the Bruce, descending from his daughter rather than his son. I dropped out of English royalty with King Edward III, descending from John of Gaunt, third son rather than first. I was, however, grafted back in three times to keep my cousin thing going. 

King James I of Scotland
One: The first grafting was when John of Gaunt and Katherine’s granddaughter Joan married King James Stewart I of Scotland in 1424. He was brutally assassinated. She was injured trying to protect him but survived and married Scotland’s Black Knight, Sir James Stewart. I descend from the Black Knight.

 Two: The second grafting came about when John of Gaunt and Katherine’s great-great grandson ended the War of Roses and crowned himself King Henry IV. The throne until then had been held by John of Gaunt’s first wife’s children, but was now held by John’s offspring with Katherine, my kin. 

Joan, the Fair Maiden of Kent
Three: The third grafting happened when my 19th great-grandfather, Sir Thomas Holland, died. His beautiful wife, my grandmother Joan of Kent—known as the Fair Maiden of Kent—remarried, this time to John of Gaunt’s oldest brother and heir to the English throne, the Black Prince. Joan of Kent therefore went from being my grandmother to being my aunt. Unfortunately, her new husband died when their royal son was but nine years old. A year later the king himself was dead. This left Joan of Kent’s ten-year-old son Richard king—my step cousin. These three graftings, then, keep me still very much tangled in the royal family tree. Queen Elizabeth, although many times removed, is nonetheless my cousin.


I have always been frustrated by the lack of story in my forebears. For instance, what of my 4th great-grandfather George Wilbee, born in 1763 ?He was grocery store owner. What else? The sketchy storyline of Isabella Pettigrew Goodfellow has always driven me crazy. She weeded turnips at the Denholm Estate in her bare feet when she was sixteen years old, this I know. Her stepbrother raped her. Or was it consensual

See? So little detail to the drama! But then I bumped into royalty and out rolled the stories in all their brutality and treachery, their inspiration and innovative. The greatest story, of course, is the love affair of my 18th great-grandparents. John of Gaunt and Katherine de Roët survived the test of time and open censure from church and state and public opinion. Their illicit love changed the very course of English and Scottish history. And teaches us all that love can be triumphant.

Always a good story.










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