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

1 comment:

Judy said...

Small boo-boo: the son of Hugh and Katherine Swynford was Thomas, not Henry (Henry would be her son with John of Gaunt; well, one of them).

I have more info on her and her life a and