Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Starkey)

Author: David Starkey
Publication Date: 2004  
Number of Pages: 880
Cost: You can literally find this book for almost any cost these days--used copies go from about $2.00 up to around $10.00, and there is a Kindle edition available.  
Where Did I Hear About It: Well, it's almost impossible NOT to have heard about this book somewhere if you're a fan of Tudor history. I purchased this book years ago, and I used it as a reference for a long time before actually reading it cover to cover.  

The Backstory

I think we've all heard it: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. Henry VIII is England's much-married monarch, and the story of his relationship with each one of his wives is enough to make a book of its own (and, in some cases, it already has). However, there's something about treating Henry's wives all together that makes the story particularly interesting to the reader. This approach allows the author to draw conclusions about the similarities and differences from wife to wife and relationship to relationship that only a book a of this kind can do.

In case anyone is unclear, Henry's six wives were: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Katherine Parr. His marriage to Katherine of Aragon was the longest of all and perhaps the most dynastically significant given her impressive Spanish royal descent. Anne Boleyn, the woman who supposedly "stole Henry's heart" from Katherine, produced the famous Elizabeth I but quickly lost Henry's love and ended her days prematurely on the scaffold. Jane, dutiful, quiet, and brief, was the mother of Henry's only living son, Edward (and her significance in history pretty much ends there). Anne of Cleves was the product of a second foreign marriage (Katherine of Aragon being the first), but Henry's lack of attraction to her quickly ended the marriage on favorable terms for Anne, who remained in England. Katherine Howard was the much-younger woman who invigorated an ageing Henry, but whose indiscretions landed her the same fate as her unfortunate cousin, Anne Boleyn. Katherine Parr was perhaps more a companion than the others, save perhaps Katherine of Aragon, whose attachment to religious reform nearly ended her life. It's debatable how successful each of these relationships truly were. Eventually, something went wrong somewhere along the line, and, to Henry, if he had to end a marriage that fell into that category, he was always the victim. Some of this story makes for a more interesting read, naturally, than other parts. Katherine of Aragon had a pretty conventional dynastic marriage to Henry for some time, and, under most circumstances, the story would have began and ended there. Anne Boleyn's part is probably the most exciting and interesting. Although Katherine Howard offers a splash of color a bit later down the line, the rest of Henry's marital history is a bit duller than might be expected. However, as a whole story, it is a fascinating, and unusual, one.  

What About The Book?

 David Starkey is a great historian. There is no question that he consulted a long list of applicable sources to write this book. Whenever he offers analysis of a detail that has been long accepted or interpreted by other historians in a different light, I would definitely trust Starkey's assessment on that point. However, I am not sure this is the book that Starkey truly wanted to write.

How much Starkey actually focuses on the "six wives" varies from wife to wife depending upon his interests in the characters and how much new analysis he can offer on the topics. His section on Katherine of Aragon was a very enlightening read, for example, as is his treatment of Katherine Howard, using some of the original documents that are rarely included by other historians. However, I really think Starkey was more interested in some of the other figures of the day than Henry's wives--figures like Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, and, above all, Thomas Wolsey, figure too prominently and often replace insight on the stated subject(s) of this book. The most prominent example of this phenomenon is how Starkey treats his section on Anne Boleyn. He offers a very lengthy analysis of the divorce proceedings in which Thomas Wolsey has a starring role but Anne is only an afterthought. It may be that Starkey felt other historians had covered Anne's relationship with Henry in enough detail and had not gone over the divorce with as much description. There is no question that I would use his discussion of the divorce as a reference for the chronology involved. However, this is advertised as a book about Henry's "six wives." As a reader, I want to know more about Anne and Henry's relationship pre-marriage and how it fell apart later. I am not as interested in Cardinal Wolsey's fall from power as a result of that process. In fact, in order to learn more about Henry's relationship with Anne, I had to pull out author Alison Weir's book of the same name and read the two side by side. Weir almost entirely focuses on Anne and Henry's relationship, whereas I'm not sure Starkey was very interested in it. Starkey seems to fall into the same trap I see a lot of (primarily male) Tudor historians fall into--he loves the men of the age, but he knows he can't write a book about Thomas Wolsey and hope to sell it, so he inserts him rather annoyingly often into a book that is about the more popular topic--unfortunately for his readers.

A big bright spot in this book is his treatment of Katherine Howard. His is the most detailed analysis of Katherine, where she came from, and what really happened to bring about her fall, that I have seen anywhere, even in Katherine's own (fairly poorly written) biography. For example, he uses an inventory of the many jewels Henry gave Katherine to ascertain that a well-known portrait claimed to be Katherine actually must be her. He also includes documents about Katherine's previous relationships with other men that were too vivid to be printed in Victorian histories on the topic.

This is a massive book--or, it feels massive to the reader (Weir's book is of similar length, but I feel it is a faster read). And, it suffers from it's ups and downs, focusing rather too little on the overall subject at times. Starkey has a little bit of a showman-oriented writing style that can both excite interest and annoyance in the reader. However, you can't beat his bibliography, and I don't think you'll find a better analysis of anything he does focus on anywhere else.  

Rating: With such a long book, it is very hard to give this a rating. Instead, I'll rate the different sections by wife: Katherine of Aragon: 8, Anne Boleyn: 4, Jane Seymour: 7, Anne of Cleves: 7, Katherine Howard: 9, Katherine Parr: 7.5 (probably the most balanced section)  
Buy It or Borrow It: You can't beat the price on the many used copies available out there. If you're a Tudor historian and you want a really good reference for primary sources or to double-check information in either other books or in TV specials/movies, it is definitely worth having a copy of this around.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Unicorn's Blood

Author: Patricia Finney
Publication Date: 1998
Cost: This is on offer on for just over $7.00, and there is no Kindle edition available.
Where Did I Hear About It: This is another find.

The Backstory

This novel takes place in 1587. Elizabeth has been queen for some time, and is now an older, somewhat cantankerous version of herself. Her Privy Council continues to try and convince her to order the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. She is attended by several familiar faces and many fictional ones created for the primary action of the story.

The main focus of the book is a diary kept by Elizabeth as a teenager, known as the Book of the Unicorn. From the beginning, it is clear that this diary contains information that could completely undo the Queen, compromising the loyalty of her subjects and delivering to her enemies exactly what they're looking for to destroy her. The mystery of the novel is exactly how the different individuals, who appear both separately and without reference to the diary at the start of the book, fit together.

The primary characters are: Mary, a former nun dissillusioned by the dissolution of the monasteries and nunneries under Elizabeth's father; David Becket, a man who has completely lost his memory who may know something about the Book of the Unicorn; Thomasina, Elizabeth's court fool and trusted friend; Simon Ames, a Jewish man who was a former informant for Frances Walsingham; and Secretary Davidson, who is working for the Queen. All of them are somehow related to the Book of the Unicorn, and their relationship to this book and to each other is gradually revealed throughout the novel.

The primary question is: Will Elizabeth find the Book of the Unicorn before her enemies do? And, if she doesn't, what will be her fate?

What about the book?

This book, unlike many novels focusing on Elizabeth or on the Tudors generally, was never a big hit with history buffs, and, after reading it, I can completely understand why.

The story isn't a good one for many reasons. First, it has an aura of complete impossibility about it, and often, what separates clever historical fiction from not-so-great historical fiction is believability in the context of historical events. Second, for about half of the book, none of the characters are particularly likeable. I will say that this issue improves during the course of the story, however, it may be difficult for even a determined reader to get to that point before giving up on it.

Finney does several rather odd, and often unnecessary things that compromise the novel. At least a portion--if not all of it, although that isn't clear--of the story is "told" by the Virgin Mary. I'm not sure if there is anything quite more ridiculous than choosing a Biblical figure for the narrator. It's hard to figure out a way this could actually work, but, the obvious routes were ignored in this case. You would expect that Mary may make a comment or two about the religious conflict of the day, for example, or about the obvious parallels between Virgin Mary and Virgin Queen.

The novel is also plagued by many characters that it could do without quite well. The Queen's Carey cousins appear, but, in the end, their role is too diminished to explain elongating the novel to include them. A set of circumstances surrounding one of Elizabeth's Ladies in Waiting could also have been sacrificed without any serious loss to the plot. In addition, the "secret" about Elizabeth is predictable, but, more than that, other authors have used the same plot device in much more effective, and interesting, ways.

On one positive note, I will say that Finney picked probably the perfect pace through which to reveal the secrets in the story. At first, I felt that the main mystery was divulged too early, but in retrospect, I was very wrong about that. Once the pieces start to fit together, the story became more interesting and the characters far more likeable. Finney had so many characters that she resolved a few of their stories with a bit too much brevity at the end, but, overall, the novel improved exponentially after about the mid-point. However, several times, I almost gave up the book before I got that far.

Rating: A 5. This isn't a great story overall, regardless of its improvements later on in the story.
Buy It or Borrow It: Probably neither in this case, unfortunately. Although the novel improves, I don't think that saves it. Skip this one and try some other offerings.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

Author: Robin Maxwell
Publication Date: 1997
Cost: It looks like the best way to get a hold of this book is via Kindle edition, and the price is $9.99. However, there are numerous used copies available for $6.00 or less.
Where Did I Hear About It: This is another Booksfree selection.

The Backstory

This novel follows two storylines concurrently throughout--the story of Anne Boleyn, coming to the attention of Henry VIII, becoming queen, and later being executed; and the story of Elizabeth, Anne's daughter by Henry, newly crowned queen and involving herself rather scandalously with Robert Dudley, a courtier and friend.

Both sides of this story are examined fairly equally. Elizabeth's story is confined to a short period of, perhaps, months, while Anne's attempts to cover 14 years.

In the novel, Elizabeth is approached by one Lady Somerville, the now elderly niece of Constable Kingston of the Tower of London. She presents Elizabeth with her mother's diary. The novel moves back and forth between the two stories, Elizabeth's history being interrupted by her taking time to read the diary. In the meantime, Elizabeth is confronted with the challenges associated with being head of state, conflict with Scotland, her love for Robert Dudley and the mysterious death of his wife, Amy, and the various help and problems presented to her by her faithful servants, Kat Ashley and William Cecil.

The novel ends with the diary, documenting the last days of Anne's life, and Elizabeth's desire to learn about her mother's death from Lady Somerville. It also ends with one of Elizabeth's most fateful decisions, and the fulfillment of her mother's prophesy.

What About the Book?

Robin Maxwell's "prequel" to this novel, Virgin: Prelude to the Throne, was earlier discussed here. The prequel was actually written a few years after this novel, but, I do think it is the superior of the two.

The Secret Diary surprises the reader by focusing on Elizabeth first. I think, on the whole, the involvement of Elizabeth in this novel is very positive. Maxwell built an excellent bridge between these two novels in that many strands of the plot here are matched with explanatory mentions in the prequel. However, the prequel's story is far more compelling, probably due to Maxwell's far more clever and in-depth development of the character of Thomas Seymour in the prequel.

It is clear that Maxwell is doing two things--setting the story up for Elizabeth's "revelation" at the end of the novel, and apologizing for Anne in the process. Anne is cast as willful, attempting to forge her own destiny, but still subject to the desires and uses of the men around her (which is a realistic concept). However, Anne is far from the character that many who have studied her character know--although Maxwell has Elizabeth briefly discussing how vindictive Anne was, Anne's character is far from vindictive and far from passionate as she is portrayed in the diary.

Maxwell clearly wanted to cover the length of Anne's story in a rather short novel, so, in many cases, the diary entries' dates are few and far between, especially earlier on. Maxwell spends more time on periods of Anne's life that were particularly significant, and that seems appropriate. However, she also leaves out some important parts of Anne's story that we do know from a historical perspective, and, in other cases, a few important events are only given a line or two.

I think this novel suffers from a huge number of missed opportunities. There were moments when you really think there is going to be a remarkable revelation of some kind, and you end up disappointed. For example, Anne meets up with Henry Percy at one point prior to her marriage to King Henry, and it is implied that they had a romantic tryst. This reader immediately thought that perhaps Anne's first child would have been the product of Anne and Henry Percy, and that would have been a fascinating revelation with multiple implications....that never happens. It's as if her meeting up with Henry Percy had absolutely no purpose at all.

This novel also has some significant historical accuracy issues. At one point, Henry's past prior to his being marked out as his father's heir is discussed, and it is literally said that Henry VII predeceased his first son, Arthur. It is well known that Arthur died long before his father, and that Henry lived for many years as his father's designated heir as a result. In addition, Anne's last pregnancy is far too long to match up correctly with the historical record. She first mentions this pregnancy in May 1535, but she miscarries in January of the next year. This would have brought her very close to term. In reality, her January miscarriage (which is true) was estimated to have been the culmination of a 15 or 16 week pregnancy, and this was why it was so difficult to determine the gender of the child. If the child had been conceived in May, it would have been a miscarriage at between 7 and 8 months, and the gender of the child would have been quite obvious by that time (not to mention that miscarriages that late are extremely uncommon--at that point, the delivery of a child at that age would have been classified as a stillbirth).

The sections focusing on Elizabeth are far superior to Anne's diary, which is a disappointment given the diary is the focus of the novel. The reader can't but wonder if Anne had been cast as a more complex, and perhaps a more malevolent, character, the novel would have been a far more interesting read.

Rating: An easy read, actually, and not very long. I'll give it a 7.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow this one. I doubt you'll read it again after your first go around the block. It would be useful, though, to read this before you read Maxwell's other novel.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Autobiography of Henry VIII

Author: Margaret George
Publication Date: 1987
Cost: The book is available new for just over $12.00 on Amazon, but the book has been in print for so long that, among used copies, the least expensive is a mere $0.20. The Kindle edition is on offer for $9.99.
Where Did I Hear About it: I found this on offer at Booksfree.

The Backstory

Henry VIII was a rare man. He was also king during a rare time in history. Born in 1491 to usurper Tudor king, Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York, Henry was the "spare heir" to his brother, Arthur. As with many younger brothers in this time period, he was originally intended for the church, but his fate altered drastically when Arthur died in 1502 having recently married Catherine of Aragon. All attention turned to Henry, who would succeed his father seven years later.

Henry VIII was a very intelligent man who enjoyed both learning and intellectual debate. It is clear that there were high hopes for him when he became king. In addition to his exceptional talents, Henry's world was a place of upheaval and change in political, social, and religious order. Henry used his overbearing personality to get what he wanted from Parliament, and his domestic practices both bankrupted the country and damaged the economy. Henry's court was dominated by "new men": people who rose to prominence through force of will rather than by wealth and traditional family connections. Often, their rise corresponded to an eclipse of those who felt it was their hereditary right to be in the king's inner circle. It was during Henry's reign that the first effects of the Protestant Reformation could be felt in England. Although Henry zealously prescribed to the orthodox practices of the Catholic Church, his decision to renounce the authority of the Pope and declare himself "Supreme Head of the Church in England" invited a unintended reconsideration of Catholic Church practices. Henry built a cult of personality around himself as king, involving himself in these, and many other, aspects of the operations of his kingdom.

It is clear that England, and perhaps the Western World, was a very different place in 1547 when Henry died. Since Henry's world, the kingdom of England, was very much about Henry by that time, it makes sense that a successful monarch post-Henry would be someone who understood this and could fill his large, undeniable place. Edward showed signs of some of these traits, but he perished long before he could exercise any personal control. Mary is consistently criticized for not understanding what she had to be to be a successful Queen of England. Elizabeth, however, perhaps more like Henry than any of his other children, did understand, and in doing so, became the first successful female monarch in England and ushered in the country's first Golden Age.

What About the Book?

Generally, scholars and authors take one of two directions when they choose to write about Henry: either they focus on the political and religous transformations during Henry's reign or they focus on Henry's remarkable marital history. Margaret George takes the latter approach to Henry's life in her rather extensive novel. The book is framed as a gift sent to Mary Boleyn's daughter, Catherine Carey, by Henry's former professional court fool, Will Somers. The implication, of course, is that Catherine is actually Henry's illegitimate daughter by the rather infamous sister of Anne Boleyn. The novel begins by setting these relationships in place through epistolary correspondance. The rest of the book is the text of Henry VIII's supposed autobiography with occasional notes written by Will throughout.

First, this is a very long book--it is nearly 1,000 pages in length, although it is a rather easy read. Any book that attempts to cover six marriages in sufficient detail would inevitably turn out to be rather long. I have to admit that I was definitely drawn in by the first few chapters of the book focusing on Henry's experience with his father. If not compelling, there is no question that George frames this time period in Henry's life in a very interesting way. However, I will admit that this is the first book on this blog that I didn't actually finish. I got to the point where Henry VIII is considering a relationship with Catherine Parr, his sixth and final wife. Then, I stopped. Honestly, I had grown rather bored with the book, and I didn't feel like reading through yet another marriage for Henry, even if it were his last one. Although the novel does draw the reader in, it doesn't keep the reader's rapt attention after a certain point. In examining where my interest stopped and my desire to finish the novel began, the line would probably fall somewhere between Henry's marriage to Jane and Jane's death.

The main problem with this novel is that, in an attempt to cover everything, not everything gets covered well. George gives color to earlier characters in ways she does not when it comes to later ones. For example, Wolsey and More are presented as both interesting and complicated people, but Cromwell could either be present or not be present and I'm not sure the reader would care either way. In addition, the book was clearly developed from a list of significant events in Henry's life rather than any deep consideration of those events. In an attempt to include everything, George doesn't develop very much of the story beyond the simple facts. Lengthy dialogue can be skipped by the reader without feeling as if something important were missed. Many people come and go in Henry's life without much of a mention or a thought. This approach would work depending upon what kind of a character Henry himself was given by the author. George clearly attempts to apologize for Henry--it is never actually Henry's fault if he has to kill off his closest advisors and wives. However, George's light character development does extend to Henry himself, and it is rather unbelievable that someone as "nice" as George's Henry would be so completely unaffected by the significant events, gains, and losses in his life. If George had instead painted Henry as a more ruthless, sociopathic character, this kind of approach would certainly be believable--and perhaps a bit more interesting to read.

Will's commentary throughout the book features prominently in some places and is completely absent for chapter after chapter in others. In most cases, it is actually a very interesting footnote to the events in the novel, and I wish George had applied this with more regularity throughout.

Rating: A 5. Any book I don't feel compelled to finish after spending so much time reading it clearly did not keep my attention or interest even to the point that I cared to ensure I completed it.
Buy It or Borrow It: I understand that this was a bestselling novel, but that isn't an argument for reading anything at all. I'm not sure this book is worth reading, but, if you are interested, check your library first before peeling through a bookstore.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Author: Eric Ives
Publication Date: 2004
Cost: The book is available on for just under $14.00, and the Kindle edition is slightly less expensive.
Where Did I Hear About It: I looked this book up about two years ago, but I did not get a chance to read it cover to cover until now, although I have used it as a reference book several times.

The Backstory

About a year and a half ago, I read Joanna Denny's biography of Anne Boleyn, and you can see the discussion of Anne's life here.

What About the Book?

If I appreciate anything about this book, it is the fact that Eric Ives clearly knew the limitations of the sources available to compose a biography of his subject. Ives created an excellent analysis of what he had, but he did not offer any particular insight into his subject. If Joanna Denny ran amock with her theory that Anne was England's Protestant savior, Ives used all of the same sources, and more of them, without offering much new analysis. This is almost the exact opposite approach Ives took in his later work about Jane Grey.

Ives truly used every source available to him, and more, to write this book, which makes it an extremely admirable effort. No other work about Anne Boleyn is a better piece of reference material. For example, the images he includes are absolutely remarkable and extensive. In addition, he explores Wyatt's poetry for references to Anne, and one gets the sense that he went through Wyatt's work poem by poem before coming to the conclusion that there wasn't very much to be found, whether direct or veiled references. He also discussed the varying images indicated to be Anne Boleyn and which ones were likely or unlikely accurate candidates.

Although well-researched, Ives's work lacks insight. I think everyone who picks up a biography of Anne Boleyn is looking for insight into her personality and into why she captivated Henry VIII. Obviously, the sources are very much lacking here, but Ives does not offer anything new into the equation. The only exception is Anne Boleyn's fall, coming at the end of the book. Ives includes a lot of detailed information about Jane Seymour's appearance in Anne's and Henry's lives and whether or not Henry VIII had grown tired of Anne. However, Ives could have wrapped up the book a bit more completely with perhaps some information about references (or non-references and/or the destruction of references) to Anne after her execution and how Elizabeth's accession affected the public memory of Anne. Instead, Ives ends his biography with Anne's physical life, and this feels like a missed opportunity to the reader.

Ives's book, for all of its research, is actually a very easy, and a fairly enjoyable read. It is also an excellent reference book on Anne Boleyn--a more complete resource does not exist. Although also well-researched (although less specific), Ives improves upon Starkey's rather salesman-esque writing style. This biography of Anne will be extremely hard to best, even by an exceptional scholar, unless new, undiscovered information comes to light.

Rating: A 9 for writing style and use of a wide range of resources.
Buy It or Borrow It: I would certainly buy it. It is extremely unlikely that a better biography will be published about Anne within the next generation. After reading it, if you're really interested in Anne or in Tudor history in general, this book will be an excellent resource to refer back to when considering historical fiction, television or film, or other scholars who consider a related subject.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Author: Anya Seton
Publication Date: Originally published in 1954, but the edition of the book I read is 2004
Cost: You can find this edition new for $10.95, but this book has been out a very long time, and there are many other editions available to you at varying prices. There is no Kindle edition.
Where Did I Hear About It: I put this book on my library list.

The Backstory

Katherine Swynford is most famously known for being the longtime mistress of John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III. Their four illegitimate children were surnamed "Beaufort," and, it is in part through Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort, that he claimed the English throne and began the Tudor dynasty in 1485.

Regardless of some more detailed, recent research, there aren't many clear details about Katherine that are certainly known. Katherine was the daughter of Paon de Roet, a retainer from modern-day Belgium who became one of many people who moved to England when Edward III married Philippa of Hainault. Paon was knighted for his service to Philippa's new English family, and he died with the corresponding title "sir." Nothing is known about Katherine's mother. Historians believe that Katherine was brought up in court--perhaps at more than one court, and at least partially under the care of Queen Philippa, starting in 1352 when her father returned to Hainault. Katherine was joined by her younger sister, Philippa, who would later marry the famous Geoffrey Chaucer.

Katherine married Sir Hugh Swynford sometime in the 1360s. Sir Hugh was the owner, by inheritance, of the small manors of Kettelthorpe and Coleby in Lincolnshire. Their children probably included Blanche (perhaps the eldest), Margaret (who would later become a nun in Barking Abbey), and Henry. Katherine was probably born around 1350, which would have made her a rather young bride, although it was rather common for the gentry to marry in their teens at the time. Their relationship did not last very long, and it was punctuated by long absences while Hugh fought abroad in France. Hugh died in 1371 while he was abroad leaving Katherine a very young widow.

John of Gaunt was the third son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. The "of Gaunt" surname is an Anglified reference to Ghent, the place of his birth in 1340. John first married Blanche of Lancaster in 1359, and, after her sister's death three years later, he inherited control of all of the Duke of Lancaster's lands and his father conferred upon him the proper title. John was heavily involved in the Hundred Years War in France starting in 1369 to help his older brother, Edward the "Black Prince" in Aquitaine. Blanche died in the same year, and John married Constance of Castile in 1371. Constance was the rightful heir to her father, Peter the Cruel of Castile, who had been overthrown by Henry of Trastamara in 1368. Through his marriage to Constance, he was recognized as the King of Castile, although he never actually ruled there. By Blanche of Lancaster, John had Philippa (later Queen of Portugal), Elizabeth (later Duchess of Exeter), and Henry of Bolingbroke who would later overthrow his cousin, Richard II to become Henry IV of England. By Constance, he had a daughter, Catherine, who later married Henry III of Castile, ending the dynastic struggle in the country.

It is conjectured that John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford began their affair between the death of Blanche of Lancaster and John's marriage to Constance of Castile. John would have known Katherine as governess to his two daughters, a position she took before Blanche died. By 1373, Katherine was working in Constance of Castile's household, and but their affair probably had already started. Katherine had the first of her four children probably in 1373: John Beaufort (1371
3), Henry Beaufort (1375), Joan Beaufort (1377), and Thomas Beaufort (1381). John of Gaunt, however, was not a popular figure in England--he, like his father, was at the center of a government that had become increasingly unpopular due to high taxes and few military successes to show for them. John's London palace, the Savoy, was almost entirely destroyed by the Peasant's Revolt, led by Wat Tyler, in 1381. Soon afterward, John of Gaunt made a public renunciation of Katherine and their lives together. Constance of Castile died in 1394, and John of Gaunt married Katherine Swynford two years later. However, their marriage would not last long--John died in 1399 and was buried, by request, next to his first wife in St. Paul's Cathedral. Katherine, then Duchess of Lancaster, died in 1403 and was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, where she still rests.

What About the Book?

I have to say that although I was originally daunted by the length of the book (500 pages in very small print) and by its very early publication date, I was pleasantly surprised and very much enjoyed reading it.

Katherine Swynford's story has not been too closely examined by too many scholars. The most notable biography is extremely recent (2007) by Alison Weir, and it was clear to me when I read this book that Katherine's life would make a much better novel in which literary licence could fill in the numerous blanks. In fact, it seems in retrospect that Weir was very familiar with Seton's novel. Weir makes may references to life events in Seton's novel, either to prove or disprove them, without actually mentioning the book. I wasn't aware of Seton's efforts when I first read Seton's biography, and I am very impressed by her novel. For the most part, she stayed true to the history and threw in many references to other, contemporary people and events, and this was written in an age where historical information about women was more than simply difficult to find.

Seton is true to many historical events in the novel, including the Peasant's Revolt and the destruction of the Savoy Palace, Edward III's involvement with mistress Alice Perrers, and John of Gaunt's campaigns in the northern part of England. She did incorporate what details she had about Katherine Swynford's life fairly accurately. She does take a few liberties, but with so little concrete information, she can be forgiven for that. For example, she places Katherine at the Savoy when it was destroyed, which is unlikely. She also places Katherine with her husband abroad when he dies, which isn't completely improbable. She incorporates some very interesting characters--a very long list of them in fact, but they are much easier to keep track of than you might think given how many there are. I think that Geoffrey Chaucer would probably rank as the most underused interesting character of the bunch--Seton paints a very good picture of him, and it would have been great to have seen more of him in the narrative.

One of the challenges with this novel is its length. Seton starts her book when Katherine is 15 and coming to court for the first time after being raised in an abbey (which Weir doesn't think was the case), and it ends just after Katherine and John have married. Although this is a long period of time to cover, it is more about how it is covered--the novel is divided into sections that correspond to years of Katherine's life, and each chapter is extremely detailed in its descriptions and interactions. I also found myself rather unconvinced by how Seton painted the beginnings of Katherine and John's affections. Their relationship felt far more solid to me as it was portrayed later on, but I didn't think some of the earlier stages were truly believable.

I have to admit, though, that I regularly came back to this book when I had the opportunity, and I truly enjoyed it from the beginning to the end equally.

Rating: A 9 as an interesting historical fiction. In the light of Weir's book, published much later and probably as well-researched as a biography of someone as relatively unknown as Katherine would be, it is about a 7 for historical accuracy.
Buy It or Borrow It: Given how long this book has been around, I am sure you could find a copy of it for a very reasonable price somewhere, so it is worth buying. You may find it is hard to come by in a library.

List of Images:

Possible image of Katherine Swynford from the Troilus Frontispiece showing Chaucer reading his works to the court of Richard II

John of Gaunt, ascribed to Luca Cornelli c. 1593