What Is It About Katherine Swynford?

Like most lovers of historical fiction, I’ve read Anya Seton’s novel Katherine, about John of Gaunt’s mistress, and enjoyed it thoroughly, though in retrospect, I’m inclined to think it romanticized its hero and heroine quite a bit.

The historical Katherine is an enormously popular figure in some circles, and I confess I’m at a bit of loss to understand why. If the chroniclers can be believed, she and John conducted their adulterous relationship in a blatant manner calculated to humiliate Constance of Castile, John’s wife. John supposedly ended the relationship with Katherine after the Peasants’ Revolt, or at least put it on a more discreet footing, but after his quest for the throne of Castile ended, he took Katherine back into his household and took little interest in Constance, who lived her remaining years separately from John. The best thing that can be said of John’s conduct was that when Constance conveniently died in 1394, he gave her a lavish funeral and upon his own death provided for a chantry for her. As the beneficiary, financial and otherwise, of John’s blatant neglect of his wife, Katherine surely must be regarded as complicit in the matter.

In 1396, as readers of Katherine know, Gaunt married Katherine, who as his new duchess and the mother of his newly legitimated children conducted herself with credit. It would have hardly been to her advantage to conduct herself in any other fashion, however. She does seem to have been on good terms with the children of John’s first wife, Blanche, but it was not, of course, their mother who had been publicly slighted by John and Katherine.

All in all, then, I can’t see much in the historical Katherine to love or even to admire. Perhaps it’s the idealized picture painted by Anya Seton that appeals to so many people? Or perhaps I’m just a hopeless unromantic? Anyway, I’m eager to see what Alison Weir will make of Katherine in her soon-to-be-released biography of her.

On an entirely different note, I was thrilled to see that the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., is performing Marlowe’s Edward II this season! It’s the first time, as far as I know, that the play has been produced within driving distance of me, so I’ve bought my ticket and am eagerly waiting for the end of November to hurry up and get here. Ed rules!

12 thoughts on “What Is It About Katherine Swynford?”

  1. I really loved reading Katherine but I think you raise some good points. For me, I think it’s more the idea that someone actually got to marry for love (not come to love the person they were forced to marry but they loved that person and chose to marry them). It seeed to happen so rarely back then. It appeals to the romantic in me!

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    That’s true–I hadn’t thought of that aspect of it.

    It’ll be interesting to see the tack Alison Weir takes.

  3. I really enjoyed Katherine too, but it does present a very idealised view of the couple. The reality was less pleasant, IMO – although it was hardly unusual for a nobleman to take a mistress, John and Katherine seem to have taken pleasure in flaunting their affair, which must have been pretty humiliating for Constanza. I don’t really get Katherine’s immense popularity, either.

    Ed rules!

    He certainly does! 🙂

  4. My best guess is that the story of Katherine and John of Gaunt appeals as a classic romantic love story, complete with HEA. It was common for a nobleman to take a mistress but not to marry her, so it has rarity value and a sort of Cinderella marrying-the-prince appeal. In a romance with a HEA, the protagonists’ rivals (in this case Constanza and Katherine’s husband) tend to get marginalised to demonstrate how the two protagonists are right only for each other despite being trapped in unhappy marriages to other people – without this the HEA might not deliver the necessary emotional punch. Anya Seton’s novel is charming, and that’s probably how a good many people first encounter Katherine, hence her enduring popularity. I have to confess I first came across her in the novel, and I still haven’t got round to finding out much more about her. I may look out for the biography to fill in the gap!

  5. Maybe Constanza was some sort of b-ch who more or less asked for the lovers to openly live their relationship. Why is it always the mistress who carries the blame? 😉

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks for stopping by, everyone! It’s a shame so little is known about Constanza as an individual–that would certainly help in explaining the dynamics going on!

  7. Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    Hi Susan,

    It’s so funny, I just posted a piece on Katherine just a few minutes ago. About the chroniclers, many of them were not fans of John of Gaunt, so I’m would take their words about Katherine and John of Gaunt flaunting their relationship with a grain of salt. His marriage to Constance was one of ambition. Jeannette Lucraft wrote a very interesting article on Katherine in History Today which she expanded into a biography which came out last year.

  8. Constance was the daughter of Pedro the Cruel and his mistress (who later became his wife). Supposedly, Pedro eventually had his wife killed. Constance might very well have considered herself lucky.
    Susan A.

  9. Susan Higginbotham

    Hey, Elizabeth! I’ve heard of the Lucraft book, but haven’t read it–waiting to see if the university library I frequent gets it. Have you read it? I’m sure there was some bias against John of G on the chroniclers’ part–though I do wonder if John might have been more attentive to Constance if she had proven to be as fertile as Katherine.

    Susan, that’s a good point! I read somewhere that since Constance was herself the daughter of a mistress, she was at least used to that sort of situation.

  10. elena maria vidal

    I think the appeal is that it is like a fairy tale, in that John eventually married Katherine. It was almost unheard of for a royal prince to marry his mistress. And he did not marry her until they were older, so there is also the element of enduring love in the story. He did not marry her until after they had lived apart for a while; Katherine had gone to a monastery to do penance. Hopefully, she felt sorry for having humiliated John’s wife, but I don’t know. It is a true story of love lost and found, which is why people like it so much, I think.

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