Like many people, I first became fascinated by Katherine Swynford when I read Katherine, Anya Seton’s famous novel about her, which was first published in 1954 and has not been out of print since, although the full, unabridged edition has only ever been available in America. As a fifteen-year-old, I was utterly captivated by that novel, and all these years later, it still inspires and moves me. It inspired me back then, too – I still have the rather amateur novels it prompted me to write – and it launched me on a quest to find out more about Katherine Swynford.
Never did I for a moment think that it would ever be possible to write a factual book about her. To begin with, I didn’t become a published author until many years later. And even then, in the late Eighties, no publisher would have commissioned a biography of a relatively obscure medieval royal mistress, who left behind no quotes or letters for posterity. Indeed, she rated barely a passing mention or footnote in most history books. Only very recently, with the explosion of interest in women’s histories, did such a biography become a viable prospect. I feel very privileged to be the author who has written it, and to have had the opportunity of researching the vivid tapestry of Katherine’s life and discovering the truth about her – or coming as near to the truth as anyone now can ever get. It has been a thoroughly absorbing and enriching experience.
Mine is not the first factual book on Katherine. Last year, Jeannette Lucraft published an academic study that comprised a series of essays. My book, however, is the first full-scale biography. In fact, like my earlier works on mediaeval women, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella, She Wolf of France, Queen of England, it is more a work of historical detection, because the evidence for Katherine’s life is largely fragmentary or tantalisingly obscure, and nearly every aspect is controversial. The finished book reflects what I have been able to piece together or infer from contemporary records; surprisingly, a cohesive and ultimately moving story has emerged.
Nevertheless, nearly everything about Katherine Swynford is subject to debate: her origins, the important dates in her life, the children she bore, her character, what she looked like, and – above all – her relationship with one of the greatest princes of the Middle Ages.
She was undoubtedly beautiful and accomplished. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer was her brother-in-law. She lived through the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War and the Peasants’ Revolt. She was acquainted with all the great personalities of fourteenth-century England. She wasn’t English, but the daughter of a knight of Hainault (modern Belgium), and she was born around 1350. Most famously, she was for twenty-five years the mistress of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399), the fourth son of King Edward III of England. During that period, she bore him four children, all surnamed Beaufort, and from them were descended the Royal Houses of York, Tudor, Stuart and every British sovereign since 1461. Thus Katherine Swynford is of key dynastic importance in the history of the British monarchy. Not only that, but five American presidents are descended from her.
Katherine was an extraordinary woman, but was she a whore and a witch, as the chroniclers claimed? Did she deserve to be the object of such calumny? Or was she an intelligent, literate and discreet woman who had a gift for dealing with people and who cared about her public image?
In my book, I have tried to answer those questions, and resolve all the other intriguing issues concerning Katherine; and in the process I have arrived at conclusions that surprised even me, for I had long believed Anya Seton’s novel to be an authentic portrayal, based as it was on four years of conscientious research. But I learned a lot about that novel too, and my findings appear in an appendix, as do my reasons for not relying on it too greatly as a historical account. Given the enduring hold that this novel has exercised over the collective imagination of Katherine’s many ‘fans’, it is my sincere belief and hope that this new biography will challenge long-held preconceptions about her and John of Gaunt.
My book focuses almost as much on John of Gaunt as it does on Katherine Swynford – hence its title. The Duke was a towering, charismatic figure who was himself the object of much unjustified vilification for many centuries. He was a chivalric knight, the virtual ruler of England for many years, a king in his own right, a man of honour, and a famous lover who married three times.
The late fourteenth century is a wonderfully colourful period, and the lives of John and Katherine were played out in the sumptuous but licentious courts of Edward III and Richard II, the fabled but ill-fated palace of the Savoy, the splendours of the Lancastrian castles, the poverty of Katherine’s Lincolnshire manors, and the great cities of London and Lincoln. It is a vivid medieval pageant that builds to a poignant yet triumphant conclusion.
It is all too tempting to approach a subject like Katherine Swynford from a modern feminist viewpoint, and that raises wider issues about which I havw some firm opinions. How far should an historian go in taking such an approach? In my view, it would be inappropriate, because there was no such thing as feminism in Katherine’s day, and the subject of a biography should always be studied and assessed within the social and cultural context of the age in which they lived. I think it is perfectly legitimate to stress aspects of their life or character that have relevance for us – and particularly for women – today, but these should not be allowed to supersede or belittle the things that were important to their contemporaries. We would not wish to be judged by medieval standards, so why should we judge someone like Katherine by modern standards?
Which brings me to another aspect of historical biography. Recently I took part in a debate with other historians at the University of Cambridge. We were discussing whether it was legitimate for a biographer to incorporate fictional details into their text, namely suppositions based on sound historical research. One author had written a battle scene with fictional embellishments, which were probably pretty spot-on, given how well she knew her subject; her argument was that it was acceptable to ‘realise’ such details, even though there was no historical evidence to substantiate them. I cannot agree. I think that every piece of information you put in a biography must be supported by contemporary evidence. Therefore you cannot say it was a fine day with clear blue skies unless you have a source to support that. When it comes to theories and inferences, you must present the evidence and make it clear how you have reached your conclusions. If the evidence just isn’t there, you should say so.
It would be impossible to cite all the sources I use in my books, given that I have been researching many subjects for decades and that some passages are based on knowledge I have accumulated over the years. I always cite my main sources so that the reader knows where specific information and quotes come from, and I always give brief critiques of important sources, again so that the reader can assess their likely veracity or bias.
Over the coming months, I will be giving talks on Katherine Swynford at various locations around the country, and I am greatly looking forward to meeting many readers and fellow enthusiasts at these events. For details, please visit my website, www.alisonweir.org.uk. I know that a lot of people cherish an affectionate interest in Katherine – witness not only the websites and the thousands of hits you get if you type in her name on an internet search engine, but also the existence of a Katherine Swynford Society and the ripple of excitement I have detected at events every time I’ve announced that my next book would be about her. I lost count of the people who came up to me afterwards and said,’I read Katherine…’
Probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of my life as an author is meeting readers at events. Writing is a solitary occupation, one that I love, but it always gives me such a buzz to go out and meet people who share the same passion for history as I do. Seeing responsive and eager faces, eliciting laughter, sadness or shock, chatting with people afterwards – it’s all a joy.
If you wish to learn more about Alison Weir and the books she has written you can vist her website by clicking