Review: Katherine, Anya Seton vs. Katherine Swynford, Alison Weir

While in a very silly mood nearly a decade ago, myself and a friend bought Katherine by Anya Seton for 75p from a market stall because we had heard it was a Rude Book and we were teenagers having a silly moment.  Well, it was a Rude Book … in the 1950s.  Back then it was their equivalent of Fifty Shades, but by contemporary standards it’s pretty buttoned up and prim.  So myself and my friend spent a rather annoyed half hour or so trying to find the frankly non-existent Rude Bits – Katherine is carried to the bedroom and then mysteriously four children are born in quick succession.  So, my friend gave up in disgust and I actually read the thing because I don’t like to leave a book unfinished and all of a sudden, the way that I’d loved the Tudors was a distant memory compared to the Plantagenets – they were weirder, wackier and there were more of them and – best of all – they had John of Gaunt.

So, had I not read Katherine by Anya Seton, I would probably never have read Katherine Swynford – aka The One With All the Accuracy.  The latter is the only biography I have ever read twice.  Mainly for the John of Gaunt bits admittedly, but it’s very well done.  I read it one summer when I was doing tour guiding for teenagers from overseas where my history enthusiasm tended not to translate well – while at Canterbury Cathedral, I tried to explain how the Black Prince (John of Gaunt’s elder brother Edward) as being ‘like Samuel L. Jackson only from the Middle Ages and white’.  Dragging the kids around the British Museum (amazing place), I found that Alison Weir had written a biography, bought it and then we nearly missed our stop on the Tube on the way back because I got into it so fast.

The rough plot outline for both books is roughly similar, given that they both deal with the same principal characters.  Katherine Roet is the daughter of a minor knight, she comes to court as a young girl and marries Hugh Swynford, the knight of Kettlethorpe in the service of John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III.  Katherine also served John of Gaunt’s wife Blanche of Lancaster, particularly while that Lady was dying from plague, for which Katherine was commended with an annuity.  Hugh Swynford also died at some point from some sort of ailment.  Katherine had roughly three children with Hugh, John had had three surviving (approx) children with Blanche.  John made a “dynastic marriage” (aka for political gain) to Constanza of Castile, but at roughly the same time he took Katherine Swynford as his mistress.  They had four children together, John, Henry, Thomas and Joan.  These children were given the last name Beaufort (slight double entendre there) – one of their direct descendants is Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII.  So basically, every British monarch from Henry VII onwards is descended from Katherine Swynford.  And also five US Presidents.  Plus Geoffrey Chaucer was her brother-in-law and she like knew him and stuff.

It isn’t this though that made this story come alive to me though – accidents of birth are fascinating but history is littered with them.  It was the story of John and Katherine – it’s a real romance.  The two of them had a shockingly indiscreet affair for well over a decade during which time she was engaged as a governess to his daughters by Blanche of Lancaster.  The Peasants’ Revolt kicked off, burning down the Savoy Palace, John of Gaunt’s principal residence.  This was seen as being largely due to the public disgust at his lifestyle.  He and Katherine publicly renounced their relationship, he returned to his wife and begged her forgiveness (and Constance begged his, showing that the guilt was not one-sided).  Katherine trundled on alone but when Constance died, John of Gaunt waited a short but tactful amount of time and married Katherine.  Their children were made legitimate by Act of Parliament and Everybody Lived Happily Ever After.   Sort of, well, the Duke didn’t last that many years after and there was that whole mess with John of Gaunt’s son Henry knocking Richard II off the throne but essentially it worked out ok in the long run.  This is that rarest of things, a real Love Story that changed history.  Thinking about all of the Hollywood costume melodramas there have been that relied on a very vague interpretation of events, it’s odd to think of this forgotten story that has never been brought to film.  

It’s John of Gaunt!

As a candid confession – I love John of Gaunt, he’s like Sir Gawain except he actually existed. I lived in Lancaster last year because I was doing a course and although said course was recommended by one of my parents who is an expert in the field of education, a major excitement for me was that this was Lancaster, Home of John of Gaunt.  They have pubs named after him, one of which I was asked to leave when myself and a friend got asked by a man about Christianity (the only time I can think of when I have felt Persecuted for my Faith).  John of Gaunt is still kind of a Big Deal down that way and rightly so, he is The Greatest King that Britain Never Had.  Some think that he was manipulative and took advantage of the political situation – The Black Prince died youngish of a wasting illness, then so did Edward III except he wasn’t young so the Black Prince’s son inherited while still a child.  I disagree, John of Gaunt was very loyal to his brother’s son – Richard II was just a tyrant who refused to listen to good advice, married a five year-old and acted like a petty child.  Petty children don’t get thrones, or at least they don’t get to keep them.

In deciding between Katherine and Katherine Swynford, I would have to say that I preferred the latter.  It’s not just because historical romance is not really my thing.  I don’t think that Katherine is as well respected as an ‘accurate historical novel’ as people think – it was out of print until 2004 when it did well in the Big Read (remember that?).  Anya Seton writes a story with a lot of hand-wringing and introspection about the poison of the sin of adultery but this has a lot more to do with Anya Seton’s own personal history than what was actually going on.  More worryingly, the plot also turns on the notion that Katherine’s husband Hugh was in fact murdered by one of John of Gaunt’s serving men so that Katherine would be widowed and therefore willingly sleep with John who burned with lust for her.  There is no evidence for this and it is a wee bit libellous even if everybody involved has been dead for over 500 years.  I was far more caught by Alison Weir noting that Katherine applied for and was given permission to have an altar in her own home.  Katherine was a sincere and devout Christian woman – how on earth did she justify her openly adulterous lifestyle to herself and to God?

At its heart though, Alison Weir’s book is the story of a family, a step-family that worked.  Katherine’s son was the same age as the young Henry IV and the the two of them were close throughout their lives.  On a less cheery note, Thomas Swynford very probably starved Richard II to death to make his stepbrother easier on the throne.  Henry IV granted Katherine the title of My Lady the King’s Mother, despite the fact that his father had died before he became king.  Henry did this purely due to his personal affection and loyalty to Katherine.  Henry’s son Henry V certainly did not grant this privilege to his own stepmother (Henry IV’s second wife Joan of Navarre was v. unpopular with her husband’s children).  A chronicler noted that Katherine Swynford ‘loved the Duke and the children she had by him and she showed it’.  It is those kind of details that make these people come to life to me.  They were powerful people, frightening people at times, but they were also people who lived and loved and grieved together.

Lady Margaret Beaufort, descendant

Ultimately, that is what I didn’t like about Anya Seton’s book – she emphasised the divisions between the different factions (Beauforts, Swynfords, Lancasters) rather than what united them.  These were a group of people who recognised that they were stronger together than they were apart and they changed the face of history.  Still, when Henry IV took the throne from his cousin Richard (with fairly good reason), he confirmed the legitimacy of his brothers and sister for all things ‘barring the crown’, this is why Henry VII’s claim was shaky.  Henry IV did this not because he doubted his siblings’ loyalty – they had proved that on the field of battle but he was thinking of what their children might do.  In this he was astute.  But then he was John of Gaunt’s son.

So, read either and you’ll get a decent story but I love Alison Weir’s book.  Particularly her explanation of the quitclaim.  During the years of their separation after John of Gaunt returned to his wife, he issued a quitclaim to Katherine Swynford which was often interpreted as meaning he was telling her to go take a hike.  Weir disagrees, pointing out that what the quitclaim actually meant was that the person issuing it (e.g. John of Gaunt) was in fact formally terminating any rights he might have had over any property or money he had given Katherine Swynford in the past (and he’d given a lot).  That was actually a very friendly gesture, but it is made much more poignant by the fact that he sent her it on the 14th of February that year.  Even during the years when he knew he could not be with her, the love continued.  Oh John of Gaunt – why did you have to die?!



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(Visited 8,561 times, 18 visits today)
by Alison Weir, Anya Seton
Published by Hachette UK, Random House Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, History, Medieval, Romance

48 thoughts on “Review: Katherine, Anya Seton vs. Katherine Swynford, Alison Weir

  1. Okay, third time is the charm. WordPress hates me! I found your post when I was googling a question about Seton's Katherine. I first read the book in the late 70s in high school (wow, did I just admit to my age?) I was unaware of Weir's book, but now I can't wait to read it. I'm listening to Seton's Katherine right now on I'm hearing things I must have forgotten I had read!

  2. Hehe, thanks for commenting despite that hassle! I liked both of these books, but it's true that the Alison Weir book was a huge hit. It's just an amazing story whichever way you look at it – Anya Seton is a talented writer while Alison Weir is very gifted at reading between the lines and making the facts come to life – definitely try her book out if you liked the novel! Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. Just wanted to say that I am about 80% through Alison Weir's "Mistress of the Monarchy" and was thrilled to see someone else enjoyed it as much as i am.

  4. I first read Katherine when it was published in the fifties (sneaking my mothers books). She was always an obsession with me, so I bought it myself in 2000. Soon after that, I inherited the family genealogy and started my research. Imagine my shock when I found that I was a direct descendant of these two people!

  5. Wow! That's very exciting – they had a lot of kids and their descendants got around but that is such an awesome thing to find out. I am rather jealous 🙂 John of Gaunt is my favourite Plantagenet (we all have one haha). Thanks for reading! 🙂

    1. I know these are old comments but couldn’t resist adding mine! Read Seton’s Katherine in the 70’s-one of my favorites of all time and turned me onto historical bios. Regarding Susan Howatch, her novels, Penmarric & Cashelmara are some of the best generational sagas I have ever read.

  6. First read “Katherine” by Anya Seton 30 years ago,and instantly fell in love with the book…and with John of Gaunt! A true love story,sigh! I was impressed by Alison Weirs' book,but I always return to my first love and read it over and over.I own 2 copies,just in case I lose one!

  7. Haha – John of Gaunt is the Mr Darcy of the Plantagenet era … although I kind of picture him more played by Richard Armitage. It's an amazing story, I loved both books for different reasons, don't blame you for keeping a back up copy! Thank you for reading!

  8. Richard Armitage – now there's a stunning picture to conjure with and I totally agree. So, who could possibly do justice to Katherine? It is definitely a film, or better still, a television series waiting to happen.

  9. Hmm … tough question. Really tough. I remember Sophia Myles being surprisingly good in Tristan and Isolde – you just wouldn't want somebody just turning up to flounce about and pout. It would need to be someone who could put across the matriarch side of things too. It would be an amazing TV series – I watched the White Queen over the summer but this would be even better!

  10. just read your blog – just read the Alison Weir book today -think I read the Anya Seton one in 1950something and that it was serialised in Women's Journal (which my Dad got free at work). But I do like books that describe a research process and Alison Weir has worked miracles with deductions from account books.
    Like the picture of Margaret Beaufort – now she was quite something – Katherine's great grand daughter – and Elizabeth's great grandmother

  11. Hi! Just caught both of these last two comments. Like I said in the review, I think that the Alison Weir bio has the edge for me – as you said, it does some amazing things with the research to create a very compelling narrative but the Katherine book is still a really lovely read. It's a strangely old-fashioned love story given that it's all about adultery! John of Gaunt is a fantastic romantic hero and he actually existed!

    Thanks for reading!

  12. The Anya Seton books were such a find for me as we moved from one Navy base to another in the late 50's and early sixties and I searched the base libraries for 'readable' history. I named my first daughter Kathryn after my favorite historical person

  13. I am now seventy five years old and first read about Katherine Swynford in 1954, and over the years I have introduced ' Katherine' to my daughter, and granddaughters. With great success we are all true romantics and admires of John of Gaunt. and Katherine.

  14. Thank you so much for this blog, I found it really useful and I have just downloaded Alison's book, prompted by your comments. I thought I was the only person "disappointed" in Anya Seton's book on Katherine, for me it didn't quite hit the mark and the comments you made about it made me realise why. I look forward to more of your posts. Kind regards.

  15. I have read neither, now I will have to. I like Shakespeare’s versions, which I know well. Not that I’d claim they’re accurate.
    If you want to read a really fascinating book, read ‘Flight Behaviour’ by Kingsolver. I think it’s as good as Poisonwood Bible. I can barely put it down to put up a blogpost or two.

    I think I might follow for a while to see other recommendations. I like this review.

  16. I love the way that this post has provoked so much discussion about the Plantagenets! I'm also so glad that this has pointed people towards Alison Weir's biography – it's one my all-time favourite non-fiction books! Thank you for visiting!

  17. I have read both, along with Jeannette Lucraft's Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress. I write what I write, historical romance set around the court of Edward III, because of Anya Seton's book, so there is no question it is among my all time favorites. As you say – it's a love story that changed history. I've never had the courage, however, to put Katherine in one of my books, even in a walk-on role. Maybe someday, in homage…

  18. Hi! It is such a compelling story, I'm not surprised that it has inspired you. I read Anne O'Brien's book recently and actually really enjoyed it – I was kind of surprised how much. I think that there is a great deal of potential for further exploration of Katherine and John's story. It's weird – I get a lot of traffic to this blog from people searching for information about Katherine Swynford and one of the things that they are looking for most of all is whether there is a film … I can't quite believe that nobody has ever made one.
    Thanks for commenting 🙂

  19. As a Lincolnian I frequently pass the places that Katherine and John knew so well – how lucky am I ! There is a Katherine Swynford Day held in Lincoln every year. Anne O'Brien gave a lecture in our Museum lecture auditorium and the place was packed to the rafters ! The good people of Lincoln gave her a bit of a grilling, but she is a very nice lady, doing her best with scant information. But would a film/TV play really be a good idea. I have seen too many of these adapted for the 'international market where the characters are not truly represented eg Henry Eighth with black hair, still slim and virile in middle age ? The beautiful love story of Katherine and John owes much to its mystique and mystery, don't you think ?

  20. Oh I know what you mean! Jonathan Rhys-whatsisname was ridiculous! Even Eric Bana who I normally love was a bit so-so. Still, with the right cast it would be a nice change from the repeated Tudor adaptations. You are indeed very lucky to be so close to Lincoln – I semi moved to Lancaster for a year because of the John of Gaunt connection (there were other reasons but that was the one that I was excited about). I would have loved to have heard the Anne O'Brien lecture, I read her novel a little while ago and I actually enjoyed it. And reread it shortly afterwards. I do love John of Gaunt.

    I think that Katherine and John had one of the most epic love stories in medieval history and although yes, the mystique is a big part of the appeal, for me it's also the fact that it was so real. Despite the scant information, there is so much evidence of the love they had for each other – a love that lasted all their lives. So much of history is romanticised, their story has never needed to be.

  21. I agree with you wholeheartedly on the Richard Armitage playing John of Gaunt front, I would personally suggest Hayley Atwell as Katherine Swynford. I would also recommend reading John of Gaunt by Anthony Goodman and The Burning Book by Bruce Holsinger for further historical and fictional inspiration.

  22. Just came across this post – thank you, it’s great! I am reading Katherine by Seton, and I too am now totally caught up in the Katherine/John of Gaunt story and the Plantagenets. Had heard bits & pieces about their story, but am so into the Tudors that I never really looked into it further. But that all changed reading this book. Now I have to get Alison Weir’s book also. And yes, my first question was – WHY has no one ever made a film about their story????

    1. I love that this post still generates so many strong reactions after all these years! 🙂 It is an amazing story – like you, I was dimly aware of bits and pieces but the Anya Seton story did rather blow me away. I will say this though – the Alison Weir book adds a lot of depth and interest to the story. And also, there’s an Anne O’Brien version that’s been out a few years and that’s great fun too. Happy reading!

      Ps – yes, there totally needs to be a film – I don’t know what Hollywood is playing at.

  23. Loving your work…I read AS Katherine first as a child about ten then at 18 and really enjoyed,I was named after Katherine as my mum had been reading the book just before I was born….I visit Lancaster every week to shop and so pleased you enjoyed your time there…If only I had the time I would like toread the other books and perhap the first again,maybe one day…and yes what a film or tv series!!

    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting! 🙂 I would recommend Anne O’Brien’s book The Scandalous Duchess – it is quite different to the Anya Seton one and a really fun read. I think my favourite remains the Alison Weir book though!

  24. I agree…John you are still greatly missed!!
    Their story brought me into the 14th-15th century, most fascinating!

  25. Loved both books, read “Katherine” years ago as a teenager, I spent many years with my head in a book…!!
    If only books like these could be used to get children interested in history, as part of a reading list maybe.
    I know more about medieval history now, as I read widely after my imagination was fired by Anya Seton,
    John of Gaunt would be the person I would want to meet if you could time travel…..

    1. I agree – really interesting man, probably the greatest king we never had. Such an amazing story. I think that parents can help a lot in guiding children’s interests in reading – that is certainly how I got interested in history myself.

  26. I read Katherine by Anya Seton in 1970. I was 13 years old. Knights in White Satin (Moody Blues) and From the Beginning (Emerson, Lake, & Palmer) both had a medieval sound to them. It was in the fall which made it even more romantic. Alison Weir’s book has had some very good reviews. But I have not read it. Why? you may ask. Alison Weir is an egotist. She changed Katherine’s date of birth to her very own date of birth. Whereas, Seton has her born a little after Michaelmas which would clearly have been around the middle of October, not November 25th. I did the math. I went back to the year that Katherine is alleged to be born and calculated that. So, I am inclined to respect Seton’s work more. (Seton was not born in the middle of October.) Check out these facts.

    1. Interesting. I never heard that about the date of birth. I did enjoy the book though. Also – it’s Nights not Knights in White Satin – but a lot of people have that misconception. I prefer to think of the knights in white satin though – they would get rather grubby.

  27. I was given Katherine by Anya Seton (in hardback) when I was about 15…I am now 70.. and it’s reamiained one of my very alltime favourite books… ever!!! I fell deeply in love with John of Gaunt and if I had to pick 10 people (alive or departed) to join me round the table at my Last Supper.. he and Katherine would be top of my list.
    My eldest daughter is named Kathryn, after Katherine Swynford..
    Also I can so relate to Katherine by some events in my own life.. she loved him so much , as he did her.
    I also have Alison Wier’s book, which I love and for Christnas I was given Red Roses by Amy Licence .. about the Lancastrian women, from Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort. Highly recommend it. Katherine & John feature a good deal in the in first patrt of this book.
    NB…If anyone who has read and loved Katherine by Anya Seton… then read Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch…. you will realise it is a modern day take on Ms Seton’s book and a cracking good read it is too.

    1. That sounds like an interesting read (the Amy Licence book) – haven’t heard of Wheel of Fortune but it sounds well worth checking out too! The John and Katherine story is a very beautiful one – I can completely understand why it has meant so much to you 🙂
      Thank you for commenting – always good to hear from more fans!

  28. Actually, Katherine was the great-grandmother of Richard III and Edward IV, and the great-grandmother of Edward V, all of whom preceded Henry VII, so the statement that she’s been the ancestress of every monarch since Henry VII isn’t really accurate…she’s been the ancestress of every monarch since Edward IV. This was through a different line of descent than than Henry VII. However, since’s Henry VII’s wife was Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV, she would still be the ancestress of every monarch since Edward IV even without Henry’s contribution.

    Sorry if I seem pedantic, it’s a crazy quirk of mine. If and when I see an error of fact, I just have to correct it.

    “Katherine” is a great book, one of my all time favorites. I first read it as a teenager, back in the 1970s. I found the Fawcett Crest paperback in my friend’s basement, and asked if I could borrow it.

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