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Katherine Swynford, that famous adulteress,1 was set on the path to notoriety, fame, and a great love at the tender age of two or thereabouts, when she was placed in the household of Philippa of Hainault, wife to Edward III of England. This would have been around 1352, and Katherine's disposition with the popular and maternal Philippa was almost certainly due to her father, Sir Paon de Roët, having rendered years of faithful service to the Queen and the royal family of Hainault.
Like her benefactress, Katherine was a Hainaulter. She was born Katherine de Roët, her surname variously given as Rouet, Roëlt, or Ruet, and pronounced Roay. The Roëts were a prominent family in Hainault, then an independent principality located in the western reaches of the Holy Roman Empire, bordering on the kingdom of France and occupying much of what is now Belgium. This fertile and prosperous county stretched from Liège and Brussels in the north to Lille and Valenciennes in the south, and contained other thriving cloth cities: Mons, Charleroi, and Tournai; all of which provided a market for England's raw wool, her chief export. Formed at the time of the division of Charlemagne's empire in the ninth century, Hainault had been an imperial fief since 1071, and in the early fourteenth century it was ruled by the House of Avesnes, which had come to power in 1244.
Katherine possibly had noble or even royal connections through her mother, but claims that she was closely related through her father to the aristocratic lords of Roeulx cannot be substantiated. The Roeulx were a great and powerful Hainaulter family that could trace its descent from the ancient counts of Flanders and Hainault, who were themselves descended from the Emperor Charlemagne, and from England's famous King Alfred. William the Conqueror had married a princess of that house, Matilda of Flanders, and by her was the founder of the ruling dynasties of England, the Norman and Plantagenet kings. Since the twelfth century the lords of Roeulx had prospered mightily.2 Their landholdings centered mainly on the town of Le Roeulx, which lies eight miles northeast of Mons, but their name is also associated with Roux, forty miles east of Mons, and Fauroeulx, twenty miles to the south.
That Katherine shared a close kinship with the lords of Roeulx is doubtful on heraldic evidence alone—or the lack of it.3 Her family was relatively humble. The chronicler Jean Froissart, a native of Hainault, who appears to have been quite well informed on Katherine Swynford's background, states that Jean de Roët, who died in 1305 and was the son of one Huon de Roët, was her grandfather. Neither bore a title. Yet it is possible that there was some blood tie with the Roeulx. Paon de Roët, the father of Katherine Swynford, whose name appears in English sources as Payn or Payne,4 and is pronounced Pan,was almost certainly baptized Gilles, a name borne by several members of the senior line of the Roeulx, which is one reason some historians have linked him to this branch of the family.5 Of course, the similarity in surnames suggests a connection in that period, the spellings of Roeulx and Roët could be, and were, interchangeable as does the fact that both families are known to have had connections with the area around
Mons and Le Roeulx. But discrepancies in arms would appear to indicate that Paon was at best a member of a junior branch of the House of Roeulx; all the same, it is possible that the royal blood of Charlemagne and Alfred the Great did indeed run in Katherine's veins.
The arms of the town of Le Roeulx were a silver lion on a green field holding a wheel in its paw;6 this is a play on words, for wheel in French is roue, which is similar to, and symbolic of, Roeulx. It was a theme adopted by Paon's own family: His arms were three plain silver wheels on a field of red; they were not the spiked- gold Katherine wheels later used by his daughter.7 On the evidence of heraldic emblems on the vestments given by her to Lincoln Cathedral, Katherine Swynford used not only her familiar device of Katherine wheels, which she adopted after 1396, but also her father's device of three plain silver wheels.8
If Jean de Roët was his father, as seems likely, then Gilles alias Paon was born by 1305–06 at the very latest. Thus he did not marry and father children until comparatively late in life. The references in the Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut to Gilles de Roët called Paon or Paonnet imply that the name Paon was almost certainly a nickname, although it was the name by which Gilles became customarily known, and it even appeared on his tomb memorial. In French, paon means peacock,which suggests that Paon was a vain man who liked dressing in brightly colored, fashionable clothes, possibly in order to impress the ladies. However, in the form pion, it means usher,9 a term that may be descriptive of Paon's duties at court.10
John of Gaunt's epitaph states that Katherine came from a knightly family,and Paon's knighthood is attested to by several sources,11 although we do not know when he received the accolade. In 1349 he is even referred to as a lord, and his daughter Elizabeth as noble,12 which reflects his landed status and probably his links to aristocratic blood. This is also evident in his ability to place his children with royalty,13 which suggestsin the case of his daughters, at leastthat there was the prospect of some inheritance that would ensure they made good marriages.14 We know Paon held land in Hainault, because in 1411 his grandson, Sir Thomas Swynford, Katherine's son, was to pursue his claim to lands he had inherited there from his mother.15 Paon is unlikely, however, to have owned a large estate and was probably not a wealthy man16 since he was to rely heavily on royal patronage to provide for his children's future.
Paon had first come to England in December 1327 in the train of Philippa of Hainault, who married the young King Edward III on January 24, 1328, in York Minster. Paon perhaps served as Philippa's usher, and may have been present in that capacity at the royal wedding, which took place in the as yet unroofed minster in the midst of a snowstorm.
After Philippa's nuptial celebrations had ended, nearly all her Hainaulter servants were sent home. Apart from a handful of ladies, only Paon de Roët and Walter de Mauney, her carving squire, are known to have been allowed to remain in her retinue,17 a mark of signal royal favor, which suggests that Paon was highly regarded by both the young king and queen, and was perhaps a kinsman of Philippa, possibly through their shared ancestry.
That kinship may also have been established, or reinforced, through marriage. No one has as yet successfully identified Katherine's mother, for the name of Paon's wife is not recorded in contemporary documents. The slender evidence we have suggests he perhaps married more than once, that his first marriage took place before ca. 1335, and that his four known children,
who were born over a period of about fifteen years or more, may have been two sets of half siblings; in which case Katherine was the child of a second wife, whom he possibly married in the mid late 1340s. We know he maintained links with Hainault, probably through the good offices of Queen Philippa and other members of her house, so it may be that at least one of his wives was a Hainaulter.18
It is also possible that Katherine's mother herself was related to the ruling family of Hainault,19 and while this theory cannot be proved, it is credible in many respects. If Paon was linked by marriage, as well as by blood, to Queen Philippa, that would further explain his continuing links with the House of Avesnes and the trust in which he and his family were held by the ruling families of England and Hainault. It would explain too why all his children received royal patronage and why Queen Philippa took such an interest in them; and it was possibly one reason why John of Gaunt may have felt it was appropriate to ultimately marry one of them.
But there is unlikely to have been a close blood tie.20 If Paon' s wife was related to the House of Avesnes, it must have been through a junior branch or connection. Had the kinship been closer, we would expect Paon to have enjoyed more prominence in the courts of England and Hainault. There have, of course, been other unsubstantiated theories as to who Katherine's mother could have been,21 but this is the most convincing.
Whether Paon was related by marriage to Queen Philippa or not, he was evidently held in high regard by her, and he played his part in the early conflicts of the Hundred Years War, which broke out in 1340 after Edward III claimed the throne of France. For a time Paon served Queen Philippa as Master of the House,22 and in 1332 there is a record of her giving money to Panetto de Roët de Hanonia";23 this is the earliest surviving reference to him. His lost epitaph in Old St. Paul's Cathedral describes him as Guienne King of Arms,24 and it may have been through Philippa's influence that he was appointed to this office in ca. 1334,25 Guienne being part of the Duchy of Aquitaine and a fief of the English Crown.
By the mid- 1340s, Paon was back in Queen Philippa's service as one of the chevaliers of the noble and good Queen.26 In 1346 he fought at Crécy under Edward III. That same year, Sir Panetto de Roët" was present at the siege of Calais, and in August 1347 he was Marshal of the
Queen's Household, and one of two of her knights—the other was Sir Walter de Mauney assigned to conduct to her chamber the six burghers who had given themselves up as hostages after Calais fell to Edward III, and whose lives had been spared thanks to the Queen's intercession.27
Philippa, however, never courted criticism by indiscriminately promoting her compatriots, which may explain why Paon, although well thought of and loved by the Queen because he was her countryman,28 never came to greater prominence at the English court29 and why he eventually sought preferment elsewhere.
By 1349, the year the Black Death was decimating the population of England and much of Europe, Paon had apparently returned to Hainault. From that year on, there are several references to him in the contemporary Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut, the official record of service of the counts of Hainault.30 The first reference concerns a noble adolescent, Elizabeth de Roët, daughter of my lord Gilles, called Paonnet, de Roët,who, sometime after July 27, 1349, was nominated as a prebendary, or honorary canoness (chanoinness),31 of the chapter of the Abbey of St. Waudru in Mons by Queen Philippa's elder sister, Margaret, sovereign Countess of Hainault and Empress of Germany. The choice of a convent in Mons, so close to the former Roeulx estates, reinforces the theory that Paon was connected to that family and that his lands were located in this area.
Girls were not normally accepted into the novitiate before the age of thirteen, so Elizabeth de Roët, who was described as being adolescent at the time of her placement, was probably born around 1335-36 at the latest. St. Waudru was a prestigious and influential abbey, and it was an honor for a girl to be so placed by Countess Margaret; it further demonstrates the close ties between the Roëts and the ruling family of Hainault, and suggests yet again a familial link between them. It was unusual for the eldest girl of a gentle family to enter the cloister, but given the fact that Paon's daughters were both to offer their own daughters as nuns, we might conclude that giving a female child to God was a Roët family custom.
Paon also had a son, Walter de Roët, possibly named after Sir Walter de Mauney,32 who in 1355-56 was in the service, in turn, of Countess Margaret and her son, Duke Albert, and Edward III's eldest son and heir, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, popularly known to history as the Black Prince.As Walter was a Yeoman of the Chamber to the Prince in 1355, and probably fought under his command at Poitiers in 1356, he is likely to have been born no later than 1338-40.
Between 1350 and 1352 there are seven references to Paon in the Cartulaire des Comtes de Hainaut. For example, on May 11, 1350, he is recorded as preparing to accompany Countess Margaret's sons Duke Albert, Duke William, and Duke Otto on a pilgrimage to the church of St. Martin at Sebourg near Valenciennes to make their devotions at the shrine of the twelfth- century hermit, St. Druon. It was probably in that year that Paon's famous daughter was born.
C.L. Kingsford, in his article on Katherine Swynford in the Dictionary of National Biography, suggested that she was born in 1350. There is no contemporary record of her date of birth, but since the minimum canonical age at which a girl could be married and have marital intercourse was twelve, and Katherine probably married around 1362-63 and had her first child ca. 1363-64, a date of 1350 is feasible, although she could have been born a little earlier. November 25 is the feast day of St. Katherine, so it is possible that Paon's second daughter was named for the patron saint on whose anniversary she was born, and for whom she was to express great devotion and reverence.
In the Middle Ages, St. Katherine of Alexandria was one of the most popular of female saints. Edward III and Philippa of Hainault had a special devotion to her; their accounts show that Katherine wheels, the symbol of her martydom, adorned counterpanes on the royal beds, jousting apparel, and other garments. Like other English medieval queens, Philippa was patroness of the royal hospital of St. Katherine- by- the- Tower in London, which had recently been rebuilt under her auspices, and with which Katherine Swynford herself would one day be associated.33
St. Katherine probably never even existed. There is no record of her in antiquity, and her cult did not emerge until the ninth century. She was said to have been of patrician or even royal birth, beautiful, rich, respected, and learned. Her studies led her to convert to Christianity at a time when Christians were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, and she dared to publicly protest to the Emperor Maxentius (reigned AD 306-312) against the worship of pagan idols and the persecution itself. Maxentius was greatly impressed by her beauty and her courage in adhering to her convictions, and sent fifty of his sages and philosophers to reason with her. When they failed to demolish her arguments, he was so infuriated that he had them all burned alive. He then demanded that Katherine abjure her Christian faith and marry him, but she refused on the grounds that she was a bride of Christ. At this, the emperor's patience with her gave out, and she was beaten, imprisoned, and sentenced to be broken on a spiked wheel that had its two halves rotating in different directions. But just as her agony was about to begin, an angel appeared and smote the wheel with a sword, breaking it into pieces.
This miraculous intervention is said to have inspired the mass conversion of two thousand Roman soldiers, whereupon an even more enraged Maxentius had Katherine beheaded. Afterward, other angels appeared and miraculously carried her remains to Mount Sinai, where a Greek Orthodox monastery was built to house her shrine. It should be noted that there are many variations on this fantastical tale.
Throughout the Middle Ages the cult of St. Katherine gained momentum. She was revered for her staunch faith, her courage, and her blessed virginity, and was believed to have under her special protection young maidens, churchmen, philosophers, students, craftsmen, nurses, and the dying. Numerous churches and bells were dedicated to her, and miracle plays were written about her. Her story, and her symbol of a wheel, appeared widely in art, mural paintings, manuscripts, ivory panels, stained glass, embroideries, vestments, and heraldry.34 And many little girls were named in her honor, in the hope that they would emulate her manifold virtues.