Katherine  Swynford

The Iconic 14th Century Love Affair of Katherine, Lady Swynford and John, Duke of Lancaster

Although there are well documented portraits of John, Duke of Lancaster, known to history as John of Gaunt, one of the sons of Edward III, there are few that can be positively identified as Katherine Swynford, his mistress and ultimately his wife.  This is a painting by Ford Madox Brown, one of the nineteenth century pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, showing John Wycliffe reading from his translation of the Bible into English to John of Lancaster.  Also in the picture is a woman and child, believed to be a rare depiction of Katherine Swynford and one of their children, probably their eldest son, John Beaufort.  The man in the red hood is Geoffrey Chaucer, who was part of the Lancaster household and married to Katherine’s sister Philippa.



I have decided to write the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Lancaster, to be released in Spring 2014.  Am I mad to do so?  What is it that has made me take on such a sacred subject, to step onto such hallowed ground?

Katherine, that beautiful love story written by Anya Seton, was first published in 1954.  It is considered to be a classic novel of its kind, read and adored by all aficionados of historical fiction.  I read it in the 1970s and was entranced, carried away by the vivid depth of accurate historical detail and the sheer romance of the relationship.  I could not envisage a better historical novel.

Here, of course, the hero of the hour, John of Lancaster, looking suitably magnificent in what is thougth to be a copy of a contemporary portrait.  His tabard depitcts the leopards of England as well as the French fleur de lys and the emblem of Castile of his second wife Constanza.


It has to be said that most colourful historical characters and events in English medieval history have been written and re-written over the years from every possible angle and every point of view.  There are only so many suitable female medieval protagonists for a dramatic novel.  No point in writing about a woman who is loving and beautiful but does very little between birth and death.  Thus the dynamic ones are well subscribed.  But Katherine Swynford?  No one as far as I am aware has made any attempt to repeat the magnificent story of Katherine and John.  So why is that?  Is there a belief that the story was so well told at the hands of a master in the first place that it could not be bettered?  Most likely that is true.

Beware anyone who attempts a re-telling.  It is enough to make a tempted author step carefully in a different direction …

This is the Troilus Frontispiece from Chaucers’s Troilus and Criseyde.  The lady in blue, kneeling at the front, second from the left, it is believed may be Katherine.  it is a nice thought.


So what made me decide to place my head on the block and write about these most famous of 14th century lovers?  Certainly not a desire to do a better job than Ms Seton.  I would not presume.  But perhaps to write something different.  And Katherine Swynford fits so perfectly into my project of medieval wives and mistress, following on from Alice Perrers and Katherine de Valois.  As I was writing about Alice, Katherine Swynford crossed my path more than once and, comparing her situation to that of Alice, she intrigued me.

So, now in need of a new project, I felt that I must unpick this splendid pair because it seems to me that the relationship between John and Katherine was far more than just a simple love affair.  How could a simple falling in love cause this unlikely couple to cast aside all they knew, accepted, and believed to be morally right:

– Katherine was, based on all evidence, strongly religious.  A respectable widow, highly principled, raised under the influence of that remarkable woman Philippa of Hainault who was known for her staunch beliefs, Katherine seems to have been the last woman to cast aside away all morality and slip into a role that would destroy her reputation and bring her under the dire judgement of God.

– John was equally known to hold to strong religious views with a powerful sense of duty and a reputation for high chivalry despite his affairs outside marriage.  Chaucer made him immortal as the man in black who worshipped his dead wife Blanche, in The Book of the Duchess.


Yet both Katherine and John were prepared to abandon all moral tenets, all sense of responsibility, all thoughts of God’s grace, when embarking on an affair that lasted on and off for almost 30 years, producing four illegitimate children as evidence of their sin.  John was perfectly willing to place Katherine in the ducal household as magistra to Blanche’s daughters – Philippa and Elizabeth – in effect forcing Constanza, his second wife, to accept his mistress.  This was deliberately flaunting Katherine under Constaza’s nose, an action that defies most attempts to explain or forgive.  Their relationship became increasingly indiscreet, and when discovered the outcry was so great that John was forced to reject Katherine, publicly and terribly.  And yet they were to be reunited, John finally marrying Katherine in 1396 a mere three years before he died.

Here is Kenilworth, one of the great Lancastrian castles where the affair between John and Katherine blossomed.  But they were equally intimate at Hertford and Tutbury, at Leicester, at Kettlethorpe, Katherine’s own estate in Lincolnshire, and of course at the magnificent Savoy Palace that was destroyed in 1381 during the Peasants’ Revolt.  Discretion became less and less a goal for the lovers although they started out with good intentions.  Their love affair became quite blatant.


Then was this just a love affair?  I think not.  I think it was far more powerful, a Grand Passion in effect, difficult, edgy, sometimes uncomfortable for both of them in its demands and overwhelming in its power.  Without doubt they had a great need for each other.  It forced them to abandon all conscience.  Remorseless, relentless, it was not a romance but an emotion beyond their control, driving all before it – morals, responsibilities, duties, all sense of right or wrong.  But it must have been exhilarating too, breath-stopping in that it destroyed their will-power to hold apart.  It proved to be impossible to escape, even when Katherine might have wished she could, after what she could only see as John’s cruel rejection of her.  John was her love, her life, her reason for being, as she was John’s.  How did Katherine square this with her staunch belief in God?  I’m not sure, but undoubtedly she did.

And so I consider it to be a tale of compulsive desire and need, sweeping all before it with the force of a tsunami, and so much stronger than love.  I have to write it.  I will be delighted to do so, and my editors are very pleased too.

Here is Katherine’s tomb in Lincoln Cathedral, fitting of course for a Duchess of Lancaster as she ultimately became.  It is many years since I visited it.  It will demand another journey to the north for me.  John was buried next to Blanche, and their tomb was sadly destroyed in the Fire of London.

And those who will undoubtedly say that I should not take on the story of Katherine and John?  That my new novel can never hold a candle to Ms Seton’s Katherine?  Well, that is their right.  As it is mine to re-engage with this wonderful relationship after sixty years.  I will enjoy every minute of writing about this unbreakable bond that was capable of bringing as much heartbreak as happiness, and that was to have such an impact on the future history of England.

I have made no attempt to re-read Katherine since I first discovered it in the 1970s. Nor will I.  I think it would not be a wise move …

8 responses to ““Katherine Swynford”

  1. Dear Anne,
    I have just finished reading your book, The Scandalous Duchess. It was one of my Christmas presents from my husband and I have read it in under two days!
    I first read Anya Seton’s Katherine when I was about 16 years old, my mother gave it to me. I am now 52 and I have since read it twice more. It has always been my favourite book of all time. I read more historical novels than anything else, my love and knowledge of history springs mainly from reading novels such as yours.
    I think I enjoyed reading The Scandalous Duchess just as much, if not more than Katherine. I found your style of writing very informative, with enough description to be interesting but I loved the dialogue and thoughts that you gave to Katherine and John of Gaunt……I agree, their love must have been something quite incredible.
    I have been to Lincoln Cathedral to see Katherine’s tomb but I think after reading your book another pilgrimage is necessary, and also may be one to Kettlethorpe!
    Thank you for being brave enough to tell their story.

    1. Dear Alison,
      Thank you so much for your kind words, and for taking the time to write to me. I am delighted to know that you enjoyed the exploits of Katherine and John of Gaunt. Anya Seton’s Katherine casts a long shadow but I though that the story needed writing after sixty years. There has been much research done in the intervening years.
      Thank you again, and all best wishes for 2017.
      Warm regards,

  2. Dear Anne, I read “Katherine” by Anya Seton around 1971 when I was about 21. I thought it was one of the best books I have ever read, so I held on to it. I have been working on my family ancestry and if my research is correct, Katherine was my 19th great grandmother. I was startled to discover that one of my favorite books was about her, so of course I took it off of the shelf and re-read it. When I discovered that you had also written a book about Katherine, I was very excited to read that one also. I have to say after reading them both back to back, I enjoyed your version of her story as much as, or better than, Anna Seton’s version. “Katherine” by Anna Seton got a little bogged down in the middle for me this time. I loved how you both took the known facts and filled in the story with your imaginations. I cried when your book ended, and I truly think that you did their great romance justice with your beautiful words. If I ever get to England I would love to visit Katherine’s tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. She had to have been a proud, strong and beautiful lady. Thank you so much for bringing her to life for me.
    Vicki Pardoe

    1. Dear Vicki, I am delighted to know that you enjoyed The Scandalous Duchess. Katherine was a fascinating woman and certainly strong willed to survive her relationship with John of Gaunt. It is the strength of true love, I suppose! Thank you for taking the time to contact me. And you must visit Lincoln if you ever find yourself in England. And also Kenilworth Castle, of course, which Katherine would have known very well. All best wishes, Anne

  3. Hello Anne
    Your portrait of a strong yet passionate woman is an example for us 21 century women to aspire to!
    Do we know what happened after Henrys accession to the throne? There seems to have been some 3 years while Henry was on the throne until her death. Did she go to the coronation…..do we know anything about her after John died?
    Thank you for such a magnificent piece of work.

  4. Hello Eve,
    Katherine led a very retired life, choosing to live in Lincoln rather than at one of her dower properties in the years between John’s death and her own. She was well thought of by Henry Bolingbroke, receiving New Year gifts from him, so I expect that she was at his coronation. So pleased to know that you enjoyed The Scandalous Duchess.
    Warm regards,

  5. Dear Anne.
    Thank you very much for writing your novel The Scandalous Duchess, featuring the life of Katherine Swynford. I very much enjoyed reading it and was captivated by your story. Much to my surprise, it must be said for the normal historical novels that I read are military in nature as opposed to romantic. Books by authors such as Bernard Cornwall or Simon Scarrow, where the main part of the story centres on a battlefield instead of in a bedroom.
    So when I started to read your work I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it much. How wrong I was! Like all of the best historical authors not only was I thoroughly entertained by your words I was also educated, I discovered a great deal about this very real figure who played quite a major role in medieval England. And as for the “Gaps,” after all you had written a novel not a documentary, you work inspired me to discover more about Katherine.
    So over all, well done, a magnificent work that I totally enjoyed. This may have been the first of your works that I have read, but I can assure you it will NOT be the last!
    “You stir my loins, Katherine Swynford!” You bought her to life in such a joy-full and vivid manner that it damn near had the same effect on me!

    Best regards

    Phil Robinson

  6. Dear Anne,
    I have just purchased your book on Katherine Swynford while searching for another book on that magnificent lady. Katherine as she is presented in Anya Seton’s truly memorable novel cast such a spell on me when I read it at age 10 that I became a Professor of Medieval Literature as much for her as for her brother in law Geoffrey Chaucer whose works I studied under the greatest Medievalists. Each class I taught I credited Katherine with my reason for being there and for my modest scholarly reputation career and my love of the the Middle Ages that I would now have the honor of passing on to them.Chaucer’s Troilus was part of my dissertation and I was so charmed to see the frontispiece where I am sure Katherine is the Lady in Blue. I cannot wait to begin your book so I may return to my dearest Katherine again and I will start it tonight.I thank you deeply for taking up her life again as she is truly one of the most historically important women of the Middle Ages and still casts a royal shadow in our century as well.

    With sincere thanks,

    Gail C. Holian, Ph. D.
    Professo of English

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