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?!
Published by Hachette UK, Random House Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, History, Medieval, Romance