Anya Seton's Katherine has long held a spot on my bookshelf. I have read many resounding reviews and after reading Seton’s Green Darkness I expected much from Katherine. I was eager to learn more about Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, because it was through their union that the royal line of England descended; including: Henry VII, Edward IV, Richard III and the Stuarts of Scotland. So after many years spent collecting dust on the shelf, Katherine found it's way to the top of my reading list.
The novel begins with Katherine de Roet leaving the Sheppey Priory where she has been a boarder since the death of her father. Her Flemish father had served as a herald to King Edward in France and was knighted on the battlefield. Unfortunately, not long after he was killed in skirmish outside Paris and when Queen Philippa heard about the two orphans she eventually took the elder, also named Philippa, into her household and sent Katherine to the keeping of the priory. Now at last the Queen had summoned her to join her sister with the court at Windsor. Katherine is beautiful and shy and quickly catches the attention of Hugh Swynford who becomes awkwardly obsessed and determines to marry her, much to Katherine’s despair. Katherine expectantly encounters the Duke and Duchess of Lancaster after her nuptial mass. The Duke remarks that Hugh has not yet kissed his bride and takes that privilege for himself. Katherine is surprised by the physical response she feels rise within her and fears she will never feel that passion again.
The Swynford marriage is not surprisingly and unhappy one as Hugh cannot communicate his feelings and Katherine is repelled by his jealousy, his crude manners and his neglected manor. In contrast to Hugh, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the third son of the King Edward III, is ever the chivalrous knight. When he first meets Katherine he is attracted and repulsed by her and only later does he realize that she reminds him of his childhood nurse whom he dearly loved and felt betrayed by. The Duke is also, at this time, happily married to Blanche, a kind and generous woman whom Katherine also greatly admires.
Blanche is lost to the plague and is nursed by Katherine in her final days. John is again at war in Boulogne and Katherine’s husband Hugh, one of the knight’s under his command is recovering from wounds and dysentery. Katherine is sent for to attend him, but it is just a ruse so that the Duke can see her again. Hugh Swynford is later murdered at the hands of Nirac, a servant to the Duke, without their knowledge. They now find themselves free to be together, but for this reader at least, I did not understand the attraction nor feel the emotion of their relationship. I understood the physical attraction for both of them, but did not feel that Seton had provided enough background to explain the smoldering passion of their union.
I found that the consummation of the relationship with John was out of sync with the Katherine I thought I understood. This once devout girl, without so much as a moment's pause to consider, turned her mind and body on everything she believed and honored and willing became the Duke’s lover with full understanding that they could never marry. While her insulated life with the Duke and her children is a happy one, outside of the Lancaster castles she moves between she is considered a whore. Katherine has four children with John who are given the surname Beaufort. Later, Katherine accepts his marriage to the Queen of Castile as a political necessity and remains his mistress despite his marriage and though it might be a loveless union it is nevertheless fruitful.
It is during the upheaval of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion that Katherine finds herself alone and vulnerable at the Savoy. She has remained behind to nurse her daughter, Blanchette Swynford, through scarlet fever and this delay would forever change both of their lives. The women are roused to the danger by Brother William, a long serving and trusted servant of the Duke, but quickly realize there is no escape. Brother William is injured and in his dying breath curses Katherine for her sins and accuses her and the Duke of the murder of Hugh Swynford and breaking the vow of the confessional reveals to Katherine that Nirac poisoned Hugh and confessed to Brother William on his deathbed. Katherine rightfully declares that she did not know, but Brother William further condemns her for wishing for Hugh’s death and for rejoicing once he was gone. Hugh’s daughter, Blanchette, hearing this runs from her mother as the rebels lay waste to the Savoy and Katherine is unable to find her and fears her beloved firstborn lost forever. At long last the Katherine I knew and respected from the novel’s early chapters had returned. The disappearance of Blanchette causes Katherine to reexamine her life afresh. She is remorseful and regrets her behavior towards Hugh and steels herself to fully repent. Katherine finds herself reunited with her faith and eventually finds peace and forgiveness. England too has changed. Richard, son of The Black Prince, is now King and unconventional himself, he defies precedence and not only allows the Duke, his uncle, to marry Katherine, but declares their children legitimate.
I have to applaud Seton for her meticulous research and her historically accurate recounting of events. Ultimately the redeeming quality of Katherine was Seton’s accurate accounts of 14th century England; the waning of the Plantagenet dynasty and the days of Chaucer, who remarkably was brother-in-law to Elizabeth as he was married to her sister Philippa. I struggled through this novel, especially the middle complacent years of the relationship and during which the romance was the focal point of the narrative. It was no page-turner, but in the end I was glad that I endured to the end.