Katherine by Anya Seton (1954)

Katherine is a fictionalised account of Katherine Swynford (1349-1403) the woman who was John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster’s mistress for twenty years. Gaunt was the fourth son of Edward III and the Tudor dynasty descended from their illegitimate children.

Katherine and her older sister Philipa, daughters of a knight, in what is now Belgium, are left orphaned. Philipa is sent to serve the queen at the English court while Katherine is placed in a convent in England and is educated there for a number of years until she, too, is summoned to court.
Katherine unwillingly marries Sir Hugh Swynford, a retainer in the Duke of Lancaster’s service, and bears him two children. When the Duke is away on a campaign, his wife Blanche contracts the plague and Katherine takes care of her and is with her when she dies. John hears of her kindness and courage and engages her as governess to their children. John is devastated by his wife’s death and turns to Katherine for comfort but she refuses a relationship as his mistress as long as Sir Hugh is alive.
John has to marry again, and of course, he cannot marry a woman who is not of noble birth, so he marries a woman he does not love, Constance, the Princess of Castile, for political expediency. He does love Katherine and takes her as his mistress after the death of her husband. She bears the Duke’s four children, the ‘Beaufort Bastards,’ and after Constance’s death she marries the Duke after many years as his paramour.

There were aspects of this book I loved and then there were other aspects I didn’t. A number of historical figures and events are featured in Seton’s story – Edward III, Richard II, Wat Tyler and the Peasant’s Revolt, the Black Plague, John Wycliff, Julian of Norwich, and Geoffrey Chaucer (who was married to Katherine’s sister, Philippa) to name a few, which gave the book added interest, but as is usual with historical fiction, it’s difficult to sort out how much is actual historical fact and how much is the author’s imagination.

Parts of the story are highly romantised and I became a bit tired of the love affair between the two main characters and Katherine’s agonising, ‘He loves me, he loves me not…’ while she disregarded the fact that she was monopolising him and his poor Constance was neglected.
Katherine’s first husband, Hugh, loved her in his own way but she found him repelling and he felt this keenly. Their first child, Blanche Mary, was born while he was away on a campaign and she loved the child. I thought that this would soften her attitude to Hugh when he returned, but she remained remote.
Her later relationship with the Duke deeply affected the children from her marriage to Hugh. The Beaufort’s, up until they were legitimised after Katherine and John’s marriage, had very little prospects and uncertain futures. The couple were often thoughtless about those who were adversely affected by their relationship.

Alison Weir has written an historical account of Katherine Swynford (Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess) that I’d like to read but in the meantime this article she wrote sheds some light on the real life of this woman who ended up bearing John of Gaunt’s Beaufort children and later married him.

The Middle Ages was a brutal time. Life was cheap, fortunes rose and fell depending on who was in power, life expectancy was short, infant mortality was high. Marriage was often a tool to gain political power and all sorts of unsuitable alliances were made for children of the nobility in order to add to their estates or elevate their status, and many women died in childbirth.
Reading books like this do make me thankful that I’m living now and not back then. To be sure, I would have died at sixteen from appendicitis if an infectious disease hadn’t taken me out before then.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth…

-John of Gaunt ‘s speech (from Shakespeare’s Richard II)

Anya Seton (?1904-1990) was an American best-selling author of Romantic and biographical novels. Her father was the English naturalist and author, Ernest Thompson Seton, and her mother an American travel writer. Writing was obviously in her genes 🙂 and apart from my comments above about what I didn’t like about the book, I found it very well-written and engaging.

Book 2 in the Historical Fiction Challenge 2023

12 thoughts on “Katherine by Anya Seton (1954)

  1. Hello,
    I really appreciate you sending these out. I am a homeschooling Mum of 4 here in Australia. I grew up in the USA and found that it was easy to source books. However, I have found it more difficult here. Would you be willing to share how you find books here? Thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Katie,

      I’ve picked up a lot of books from Lifeline Book sales but I think they’re mostly held in the capital cities. I usually check out a whole lot of places & compare prices.

      https://www.wob.com/en-au (World of Books) is a secondhand book seller I sometimes use.
      Occasionally, if I want a particular book, I look on eBay but it’s hard to get a bargain there.
      New books – https://www.bookdepository.com/ which has free postage; https://www.booktopia.com.au/ – every now and again they have free postage.

      https://www.amazon.com.au/ They often have the best price but sometimes not. They don’t always pack their books well which annoys me no end.

      Booko gives you a comparison of prices e.g. https://booko.com.au/w/1830488/Katherine_by_Anya-Seton

      BookFinder is another way to check prices but you just need to check it’s in Australian $ – https://www.bookfinder.com/

      I used to use Abebooks but now we get taxes added so it isn’t as good as it was.

      Occasionally I pick up books our local library is getting rid of. They never charge more than $2 and children’s books are 50c

      Are you in a rural area? If you’re after anything in particular I can keep an eye out for you. Let me know via email if you like:

      Hope this is of some help. 🙂


      • Hello~
        Thank you for your quick reply and very helpful response. I had used some of the websites that you mentioned. However there were a few I wasn’t familiar with. I’ll be sure to have a look and see what I can find. We live in the Perth area. I really appreciate you being willing to keep your eyes open for books! I’m good now but if something comes up I’ll let you know. My goal has been to build a library for my kids and then their kids in the future. It seems like good quality books are not as readily available.
        Again thanks for all the work that you put into the blog. I’ve just started to follow you and appreciate your work.
        Take care,

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this book, but I was quite young when I read it and didn’t mind that it was so romanticised. I’m not sure what I would think of it now. I would like to read the Alison Weir book too as I’ve never read any non-fiction about Katherine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read a few of her books in my late teens and I remember enjoying them – can’t remember which ones, though 🙂
      I really enjoyed Weir’s book The Six Wives of Henry VIII and on her website she credits Seton’s book for sparking her interest in history. She read it when she was in her teens, I think.


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  4. Totally new author to me. (Daughter of Ernest Thompson Seton, took. Interesting!)

    She ought to be a fascinating person and it is a fascinating period. Pity about the excessive romanticizing, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is one of my all time favorite books! I remember bringing it home from the school library when I was about 13 and found Katherine the most romantic heroine. I think it would be hard to soften toward a husband so brutal, especially as she was bullied into the marriage. However, it is true she needed to make the best of it, once married.

    I think it is Seton’s best book – some are very depressing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would like to know more about Katherine Swynford & how true Seton’s portayal of her first husband was.
      I was put off a bit at first by what seemed to be a positive view of adultery but later on in the story I think it was more realistically treated, especially the effect on the children involved.
      I can’t remember which of her books I read in my teens – not Katherine – but I do remember I liked her writing style.


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