“Katherine” by Anya Seton, is a book I read every few years. It is a historical novel, which type of book is, for what ever reason, out of fashion. To me, historical fact makes this story more compelling. It actually happened. All of the characters can be “googled.”
Anya Seton researched Katherine Swynford’s life for four years. She made a trip to England and found information at Katherine’s own home of Kettlethorpe Hall in Lincoln. The information clarified and actually differed from accepted history, which has often been written by chroniclers who had contempt for Katherine and the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. Ms. Seton found kinder pieces of their history by the Duke’s biographer, Sydney Armitage-Smith and in Sir J. Froissart’s Chronicles, and many others.
Much is known of the fourteenth century in England; although, most written history is about men. When Katherine was mentioned, she was often labeled as a witch, because by all historical evidence, she was beautiful and therefore, an enchantress. For whatever reasons medieval historians vilified the Duke and Katherine, jealousy, spite, religious indignation and so on, their true nature came through from many different sources. Anya Seton did a fine job of piecing all the fascinating bits together and produced a historically accurate and beautiful story. She made the fourteenth century real with her portrayal, down to the small details of daily life. It is easy to imagine a day on the manor, at court or in a peasant’s home, through Anya Seton’s writing.
All of the romantic notions about medieval times, chivalry, knights in shining armor, pageantry, coronations, jousts, ladies in elaborate gowns, nuns in their little convents and clergymen scribing and upholding the laws of the Church, come alive on the pages. Anya Seton (Chase) was the daughter of Ernest Thompson Seton, the naturalist and founder of The Boy Scouts. She passed away in 1990, author of several fine novels.
Katherine was born in Picardy, France in 1350. Her mother died in childbirth. Her father took her, and her sister, Phillipa, to be cared for by their grandparents. He went off to wait upon Queen Phillipa, whom he named his oldest daughter after. He was made a herald to King Edward and later fought well and earned knighthood, though he did not live much longer. His dying wish for his daughters to be cared for, was answered by the kind, motherly Queen Phillipa.
Katherine, aged ten, had become ill with the plague, her grandparents died from it. Queen Phillipa sent Katherine, with gifts, to the convent of Sheppey, for healing, and took young Phillipa into her own household.
When Phillipa was old enough, she was allotted an acceptable husband, Squire Geoffrey Chaucer. (You may have heard of him. He wrote “The Canterbury Tales,” among other things. It is rumored that Katherine inspired some of her brother-in-law’s work, especially in the passages of Trolius and Criseyed.)
At age sixteen, Katherine was summoned to the royal court, to either be given a suitable husband or to permanently take the veil. Katherine’s beauty caused an ordeal amongst the knights that St. George’s Day. A country knight, Sir Hugh Swynford demanded to have her as his wife, even with no dowery.
At Windsor Castle, The Lady Blanche of Lancaster looked kindly upon Katherine and made friends with her. She gave her nicer clothes and a small wedding gift. The women visited each other a few times. Katherine named her first daughter Blanchette. When the Duchess became ill with the plague, she sent for Katherine to care for her children. Lady Blanche died, her lovely tomb is still at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Through many years of war and an arranged marriage, the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt) remained a part of Katherine’s life. She became nursemaid to the Lancaster children and gave birth to four children with the Duke. She spent their youngest days with them, and her two children from Sir Hugh, at Kenilworth Castle. The Duke married Costanza of Castile, to be King in that land and to do his duty as a prince of England.
Katherine persevered and took care of her children through all the upheavals of the age, the Good Parliament and the Peasants Revolt, finally taking her children to live at Kettlethorpe Hall in Lincoln, where she lived a simple life on the small manor. Her children with John were given the name of Beaufort.
In the last three years of his life, John of Gaunt, finally married his life long love. When he died, he was entombed next to his first wife, Blanche.
Katherine spent her final years in Lincoln. She died in 1403. Her tomb is still there, in Lincoln Cathedral, along with her daughter, Joan’s.
Although Katherine was born to a lowly knight from Picardy France, she grew to be a great lady, even the First Lady for a time. She is the ancestress of Henry the Seventh and the Tudor line, also the Royal Stewart line of Scotland. She was great-grandmother to Edward the Fourth and Richard the Third.