Book Review


by Anya Seton

A Novel Published by  Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, of Boston & New York

Copyright 1954, renewed 1982

ISBN 978-0-544-22288-5 (pbj)

593 pages

Review by Carolyn Leonard

This wonderful book has been a best-seller for ages, based on the life of Katherine (Roet) Swynford, mistress and later wife of King John of Gaunt (Ghent), Duke of Lancaster, and son of King Edward III.  This classic novel tells the most romantic love story in British history – the true tale of Katherine and John, ancestors of the current British Royal family.  It is set in the 14th century England, leading up to the Wars of the Roses.

Daughters of a Saxon knight, Payn de Roet, Katherine and her sister Philippa were orphaned young and placed in the household of John’s mother, the Queen. The deRoets were of Hainalt, a province of what is now SW Belgium that stretches from the Flanders Plain in the north to the Ardennes in the south. Historical events in the book are very well researched, as are the fashions and the physical locales. (I had to look up the castles and the maps to understand it.) The author uses language and words of the era which need to be looked up to be understood, but I liked that and felt it gave authenticity. The real life people of this historic period added even more interest to me. Philippa went on to marry the famous Geoffrey Chaucer. The Duke defended John Wycliffe, who attacked the privileged status of the clergy, until he finally had to abandon him.

Katherine’s marriage to a  knight, Hugh Swynford, was arranged when she was about 14.  Hugh was in service to John and the King, so their lives were intertwined.  Katherine’s arranged marriage to this man who she considered repulsive, creates a sympathetic character.  I was impressed by her fortitude through her early years at the Swynford Kettlethorpe manor, alone in the cold and damp with no friends, and giving birth to her first baby with only her insane mother-in-law present. 

After Hugh dies, (the author enhances that story a good deal) John rescues the impoverished widow Katherine and moves her to his castle to serve his wife, the beautiful Lady Blanche, and be governess to their children. Blanche becomes close to Katherine. In time after Blanche’s death, John falls in love with Katherine and she with him.

John of Gaunt defied conventions and expectations and openly flaunted his love affair with Katherine even though he was married at the time to his second wife, Constanza of Spain. The four illegitimate children born to Katherine and John were called the Beaufort bastards. The children were legitimized when John and Katherine finally married after the death of Constanza. It should be noted that the Beauforts are ancestors of the future Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I and all of the subsequent kings and queens of England down to the present day.

While on this fascinating historical journey, you will learn how people actually lived in the 1300's and how dangerous it was to be part of the royal family. The period was not just a romantic and chivalric period of castles, knights, courtly manners,  beautiful and elaborate clothing. I loved the book and plan to read it again!