Anne O Brien

The King's Sister

Posted on August 25, 2014

Celebration of The King's Sister and Giveaway

My Giveaway to celebrate my completion of The King's Sister,

which will be released in hard back in the UK on 1st November 2014,

is now closed.

Delighted to meet up with so many lovers of medieval history and historical friction.

I will post the two winners in due course.

Here you can still read about my inspiration for telling the remarkable  story of

Elizabeth of Lancaster.


My compulsion to write about Elizabeth of Lancaster, younger daughter of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, was born out of my own initial ignorance about her (for which I am ashamed), followed by a visit to the Church of St Mary, a tiny rural church in the hamlet of Burford, Shropshire, close to where I live.  This is the little church, full of interesting memorials, most belonging to the Cornewall family.



It all began when I was invited by a local historical society here in the Welsh Marches to give a talk on Elizabeth's life together with a guided tour to her tomb for society members.  Being a recent 'incomer' to the area, I was forced to admit that I knew nothing about her other than her Plantagenet connections, her illustrious parentage, a sister who became Queen of Portugal, and that Katherine Swynford had been employed as her governess. Not enough for an informative or even an interesting lecture. 

Some investigation and a personal visit to her tomb were essential.  

And there she was at Burford, the heroine of my new novel, in vivid colour.  This tomb is very much a 'Hereford type', set low into a wall with a reclining figure beneath a decorative arch.  There is one for Lady Joanna de Bohun in Hereford Cathedral, and one for Blanche Mortimer in Much Marcle.  But this one immediately took my eye. 



I think I knew that I must write about Elizabeth as soon as I saw her effigy.  Clad regally in red with a purple cloak trimmed with ermine, she was every inch a Plantagenet Princess (the tomb is referred to locally as the Princess tomb).  Her hair is fair, her face oval and her nose long. Plantagenet features, I suppose. She wears a ducal coronet and her hands are raised in prayer, an angel supporting her pillow and a little dog holding the edge of her cloak in its mouth.  She is quite lovely, although it has to be said that the tomb was probably repainted when it was given a Victorian overhall in the late 19th Century.  Still I imagine that it kept the original colours, and here is the inscription carved around the edge of her tomb: 

Here lyeth the body of the most noble Princess Elizabeth, daughter
of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, own sister to Henry IV, wife of
John Holland, Earle of Huntingdon and Duke of Exeter, after whose
death she married John Cornewayle, Kt. of the Garter and Lord
Fanhope, and died in the 4th year of the reign of Henry VI, 1420.


But to write about her as a heroine I needed to discover more.  And how little there was, either in contemporary sources or compiled by modern historians.  Even the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography grants her little space, and barely more than I already knew, other than that she had three husbands.  But one comment, written in 1994 intrigued me when it damned her with the only opinion given about her as 'frankly wanton and highly sexed.'  Another historian, of higher repute, dismissed her as 'of less serious temperament' than her siter Philippa who became Queen of Portugal.  And yet another had little more to add about Elizabeth other than her 'unseemly conduct' and strong will. 

Was there nothing more to say about Elizabeth of Lancaster than this, that she was a feisty women whose morality was open to question?  But where was the evidence for the rest of her life which was a long one?  Was this simply based on the fact that she had three husbands during her lifetime of fifty years.  And that John Holland, her second husband, 'was struck down passionately, so that day and night he sought her out,' while she was still not free to wed him.  And, furthermore that she became pregnant with his child before her first marriage was annulled.  I expect that such events had a bearing on the judgement but surely there must be more to say about this daughter of Lancaster.


Here is John Holland, youngest son of Joan of Kent, and Elizabeth's second husband, superbly clad in blue, not to mention the hat.  This is when he was Earl of Exeter, attempting to negotiate between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke in the usurpation upheavals in 1399.  And here lies the exciting core of Elizabeth's life.

All became clearer for me when I came to appreciate the political setting in which Elizabeth lived.  Her first marriage was to a child of 8 years, a political alliance, which was never consummated.  Her second marriage and her own family connections took her into the heart of the dangerous events of 1399 and 1400.  These were the years of the overthrow of King Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, Elizabeth's brother, who became Henry IV, followed by the Rising of the Earls in which John Holland, the Duke of Exeter, half-brother to King Richard, was majorly implicated.  Elizabeth was in the very centre of this maelstrom.  First cousin to Richard, sister to Henry, wife to John Holland, how difficult were family loyalties for her within that setting.  What would be her role in the dynamics of this vital Plantagenet family?

Here is Richard in happier days, receiving a book from the chronicler Froissart. 


What a marvelously emotional story this would make, mapping the pressures of blood and loyalty and duty within a family torn apart by noble ambition and a wayward king.

This was to be the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster in The King's Sister. 

My thanks must go to the local historical society for highlighting my initial ignorance and presenting me with the opportunity to discover more about Elizabeth.  How much I enjoyed the experience.  I hope that you, eventually, enjoy the reading of it. 




 I am giving away a copy of either:

The Scandalous Duchess ( the iconic love story of Katherine Swynford and the Duke of Lancaster)

or The Forbidden Queen (my tale of Katherine de Valois, wife of Henry V and Owen Tudor).

If you are interested and wish to leave a comment, click on 

Click here to read comments below,

And leave a message, and tell me which historical novel you would prefer if you are the lucky winner.

Good luck!





Categories: Elizabeth of Lancaster, Giveaway!, medieval matters, Plantagenet, The King's Sister, Women in History,

New Year Gift Giving

Posted on December 31, 2013

New Year Gift Giving in the House of Lancaster 1392.

New Year Gift Giving in the House of Lancaster 1392

Jewels all the Way


What value do we put on a man who is more than happy to buy gifts for the members of his family?  A man generous with the amount he spends, and with exquisite taste?

John, Duke of Lancaster and his son Henry, Earl of Derby (later to become Henry IV after the deposition of Richard II), were both open-handed and generous gift givers, and were also fairly meticulous record keepers. 

My interest in this family developed through my novel of Katherine de Swynford, The Scandalous Duchess, and my present writing about Elizabeth of Lancaster, Henry's sister.  Henry plays a major role in Elizabeth's relationship with John Holand, Duke of Exeter.

So to return to gifts ...

In the late fourteenth century, the time for exchanging gifts was New Year's Day rather than Christmas, and the giving of gifts by an important man was more than simply a way to mark the special day.  One purpose of it was of course to bind the lucky recipient in an unbreakable bond of loyalty with the giver.  Another was to exhibit the power of the giver through the value and ostentation of the gift.  But some gifts were simply to give pleasure and show affection to a loved one.

And how open-handed Earl Henry was on New Year's Day in 1392 when a large number of the Lancaster family had met to celebrate Christmas at Hertford, Duke John bringing his own minstrels with him to swell the musical offerings.

These are Henry's gifts on record:

- To the King, Richard II, Henry's first cousin - who was not at Hertford - a gold brooch in the style of a panther with sapphires and pearls.

- To his father the Duke of Lancaster, a gold swan with a ruby and pearls.

- To Mary, his young wife of years, a golden hind covered in white enamel with a gold collar.

- To Dame Katherine  de Swynford (not yet married to the Duke but who clearly had a very close association with the whole family and was present at Hertford) a gold ring set with a diamonds.

- To Joan Beaufort, daughter of Dame Katherine and the Duke, a pair of paternosters - rosary beads - of coral and gold.

Jewels were also given to Constanza, the Duchess of Lancaster, who was not one of the party.

Also to Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester, Mary's sister.

And to Elizabeth, Countess of Huntingdon, Henry's sister. 

Of all these gifts, from an aesthetic point of view, the white enamelled hind is the most interesting.   The use of white enamel was rare in jewellers' art, requiring great skill, and although there is no trace of Mary's golden hind, we have the famous and absolutely exquisite Dunstable Swan jewel which is made in the same manner.  In the same account of these New Year's Gifts is a reference to Henry paying Ludwing the Goldsmith for the mending and enamelling of a gold swan of his own, which he had broken.  Was this the Dunstable swan jewel?  Or something very like it?  The swan was one of the heraldic symbols of the Bohuns, Mary's family.  It may be that the swan brooch too belonged to Henry. 

Henry continued to give generously.  In future years - such as 1393 - he ordered the making of two suits of armour which were then sent on to Hertford for himself and Thomas Beaufort, the youngest son of Katherine and Duke John.  Tournaments were part and parcel of the celebrations for this family and the new armour was to be displayed in the jousts.

In that same year, Mary and Dame Katherine were each presented with four lengths of white damask silk for gowns for the celebrations. 

What a pleasure it is to see these personal touches, when much of history is taken up with politics, battles and thwarted ambitions.  How fortunate that John and Henry kept personal accounts.

The jewels I have included in this post, apart from the Dunstable Swan jewel, are part of the Fishpool Hoard, discovered in Nottingham, and thought to date from the mid 1400s, so they are roughly contemporary and give us an idea of the quality and craftsmanship in the production of such gifts.  They can all be seen in the British Museum.  The originals noted by Henry have sadly all disappeared. Perhaps they are waiting somehwere to be discovered.  How wonderful!


All the above characters appear in The Scandalous Duchess, my novel of Dame Katherine de Swynford, which will be released in the UK in march 2014.


If you are interested and wish to leave a comment, click on

Click here to read comments below.

Categories: medieval matters, Plantagenet, Work in Progress,

The Elusive Face of Katherine de Swynford

Posted on November 3, 2013

So what did Katherine de Swynford look like? We have very little to help us from contemporary sources. Or do we have one tantalising clue ...?

Celebratory Giveaway!


My Giveaway is now closed (Monday 11th November).  Thank you to all who enjoyed Katherine and left a comment. 

I will post the names of the two fortunate winners of a copy of The Forbidden Queen by the end of the week.


A Celebration of my completion of The Scandalous Duchess, to be released in March 2014 in the UK.

The story of Katherine de Swynford and John, Duke of Lancaster.


What can we say about the Face and Figure of Katherine Swynford, eventually Duchess of Lancaster.  What did she actually look like?  

Katherine de Swynford might be the most well known, and perhaps the most well-loved, by readers of historical fiction, of all medieval mistresses, but what did this elusive woman actually look like?  Some historical figures, particularly from the Tudor era, are easily recognisable. Would we recognise Katherine de Swynford if we passsed her in the street? 

The documentary evidence for Katherine's life is limited to sparse entries of gifts made to her in John of Gaunt's Register and the writings of monks and clerics who were far more interested in her scandalous behaviour and sinful life than in her appearance.  It is possible to glean some thoughts about her character, but nowhere is there any comment on her appearance.


With John of Gaunt there is, of course, no difficulty in imagining this powerful Plantagenet prince.  This famous portrait is not contemporary, but still it is thought to be a copy of one that existed from his lifetime.  It gives us an excellent and detailed idea of his stature and features, and certainly his pride.  There are also written contemporary comments on his appearance at different stages in his life.

 But what of Katherine?

The memorial brass on Katherine's tomb in Lincoln Cathedral is not helpful.  There she lies with her head on a pillow, hands together in prayer, wearing the veil of a widow, a simple robe and a cloak.  It does not give us much of a clue.  Nor is it a medieval.  The brass on Katherine's tomb was destroyed in 1644 and the present one created from a description of the original.  Like many medieval brasses or memorials, it shows no definite facial features. 

In their memorials, women were invariably shown as the epitome of slim, serene, attractive womanhood.  The memorial to Philippa of Hainault in Westminster Abbey is unusual and remarkable for its honesty, as Philippa herself wished.  Katherine's brass follows the usual uniform trend of telling us nothing of her true appearance.

This is a painting by Ford Madox Brown, one of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, in which  the main figure is john Wycliffe, reading his translation of the Bible. Chaucer is obviously there, and so is John of Gaunt, but if the female figure with the child is Katherine with one of her Beaufort children, probably the eldest, John, she has been pushed into the back ground as a pale figure and just  a 'woman in the audience'.  Clearly the artist was not interested in her. 

 The man in the red hood is Geoffrey Chaucer, who was part of the Lancaster household and married to Katherine's sister Philippa.

Do can we do any better for Katherine?

 This image is clearly labelled Katherine de Roet, but it is a frivolous image with no claim to authenticity of either appearance or clothing.   What a strange hat she is wearing.

But we can probably do better. 

Perhaps the nearest we can get to catching a glimpse of the real Katherine is from the Frontispiece of Chaucer's work Troilus and Criseyde

Produced in early 15th century, it looks back and depicts Chaucer reading to the major figures of the reign of Richard II. There is Richard in dull gold in the centre, his face rubbed out, and beside him in pink Anne of Bohemia, his first wife.

But at the front of the gathering ...

Is this a little family group at the front of the illustration on the left?  It has been suggested that John of Gaunt is the impressive figure in red.  In front of him are two kneeling women  On the right of the pair - is this Katherine herself as Duchess of Lancaster, splendidly dressed in Lancaster colours of blue and white, trimmed with fur and gold and wearing a ducal coronet?  She is turning with arm outstretched to the younger woman, also dressed in blue.  Might this be her daughter Joan Beaufort? 


I like to think so.

(It has to be said that the lady in blue and gold and fur has been identified as Joan of Kent but there is as little evidence for this as there is that it is Katherine.)

Except that perhaps the evidence is weighted in favour of the elusive Katherine.  This manuscript has an interesting history. It is said to have been made a few years after Chaucer's death, perhaps for Joan Beaufort who was of course Chaucer's niece, for it was later recorded to be in the possession of Joan's daughter, Anne Neville, Countess of Stafford.  If it had been commissioned by Joan, then she and her mother might well have taken centre stage with her father in this family group.  Joan was strongly of the mind to reinstate her mother into respectability.

There is no definitive evidence but if this is so, then we can at last make some comment on Katherine.  She has a round face, a long, slender and very elegant neck.  Her figure is well developed, even voluptuous, as it might be after her years of childbirth, and her hair is very fair.  A comely woman indeed, as she must have been to take John of Gaunt's eye and keep it for all the years of their life together.  Royal Dukes did not marry their mistresses, yet John loved Katherine enough to wed her and restore her to the respectability she forfeited when she became his mistress.  She must have had something to take the eye.  This lady, by now in her forties but still very attractive, might just be Katherine de Swynford.

 So since we know so little about Katherine, what do editors do when considering book covers? They have of course to make the most of romantic and chivalric images.  This can be best seen with the various printings of 'Katherine' by Anya Seton.

This is the very familiar painting The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton which was used on my own Hungarian printing of Virgin Widow.  It is beautifully romantic, even though it bears no similarity with any scene either in Katherine's life of that of Anne Neville in Virgin Widow


This is Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another glorious Pre-Raphaelite portrait.  The woman does not look medieval but does it matter?  She is beautiful and emotional and highlights the mood of the novel.



What would we do without the romantic Pre-Raphaelites?

And what about my own cover for The Scandalous Duchess?  I have not been admitted into the secret yet.  I'll post when I know. 

Glorious Giveaway:

A Celebration of the completion of The Scandalous Duchess, to be released in March 2014 in the UK.


2 signed copies of The Forbidden Queen 

Click, below on the right, on 'Click here to read Comments' and leave a message. 

Two fortunate winners will receive a signed copy of the Forbidden Queen.  The Giveaway is international and will run from Monday 4th November until Monday 11th November.

Good Luck!



Categories: All Things Romantic, Giveaway!, Katherine Swynford, medieval matters, Plantagenet, Women in History, Work in Progress,