Authors: Anya Seton
This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king's son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.
Copyright (c) 1954 by Anya Seton
About the author
Anya Seton was born in New York City and grew up on her father's large estate in Cos Cob and Greenwich, Connecticut, where visiting Native Americans taught her traditional dancing and woodcraft. One Sioux chief called her Anutika, which means 'cloud grey eyes', a name which the family shortened to Anya. She was educated by governesses, and then travelled abroad, first to England, then to France where she hoped to become a doctor. She studied for a while at the Hotel Dieu hospital in Paris before marrying at eighteen and having three children. She began writing in 1938 with a short story sold to a newspaper syndicate and the first of her ten novels,
was published in 1941. Her other novels include
Green Darkness, The Winthrop Woman
Exalted be thou, and thy name
Goddess of Renown or Fame!
"Madame" said they "We be
Folk that here beseechen thee
That thou grant us now good fame . . ."
"I warn you it" quoth she anon
"Ye get of me good fame none
By God! And therefore go your way."
"Alas" quoth they, "And weylaway . . .
Tell us what your cause may be?"
"For me list it not," quoth she.
House of Fame,
by Geoffrey Chaucer
In telling this story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, the great Duke of Lancaster, it has throughout been my anxious endeavour to use nothing but historical fact when these facts are known - and a great deal
known about the fourteenth century in England.
I have based my story on actual history and tried never to distort time, or place, or character to suit my convenience.
For those who are interested in sources, I append my main ones below; while for those who may wish to know something of the book's background and the writing of it, here are some brief notes.
My interest in Katherine began one day nearly four years ago when I read mention of her in Marchette Chute's charming biography,
Geoffrey Chaucer of England.
I subsequently came to know Miss Chute and am extremely grateful for her encouragement.
I then began my research on the fourteenth century, preparatory to the necessary trip to England for more intensive delving and a view of the places associated with Katherine.
Four years of my life have been spent in England, my father was English born, and I have always loved the country dearly, but this special research trip in 1952 was particularly delightful, for it combined the beauties of an English spring with the zest of a treasure hunt.
I visited each of the counties; I studied the remains of John of Gaunt's numerous castles, and searched ever - in the British Museum, in town libraries and archives, in rectory studies, in local legend - for more data on Katherine's life.
Of her little was known, except when her life touched the Duke's and there are few details of that. The
Dictionary of National Biography
sketch is inadequate, the contemporary chroniclers were mostly hostile (except Froissart), and in the great historians Katherine apparently excited scant interest, perhaps because they gave little space to the women of the period anyway.
And yet Katherine was important to English history.
When, on the English tour, I visited Lincolnshire, I was rewarded with new light. And here I must express my fervent thanks to J. W. F. Hill, Esq., for his cordial help and for his scholarly, comprehensive book,
I wish also to thank all the kind people in Lincoln who interested themselves in my project, and especially the owners, and the former occupants, of Kettlethorpe Hall Air Vice-Marshal and Mrs. McKee, where I spent charmed days in Katherine's own home, trying to reconstruct the past. Though but a portion of the gatehouse and cellars remains from Katherine's time, the rectory contained one of those invaluable local brochures that are compiled by learned clerical gentlemen.
The Manor and Rectory of Kettlethorpe,
by R. E. G. Cole, M. A., Prebendary of Lincoln, had a wealth of new information on the early Swynfords, on Hugh and Katherine; and dates - such as the one I have used for Hugh's death - which differ from the accepted ones, but seem incontrovertibly documented. This date suggested the explanation I have used for Hugh's mysterious end.
The names of the major characters in this book will be familiar to students of English history, but I have also tried whenever possible to use actual people for the minor ones; and here John of Gaunt's own registers were invaluable.
For instance, Brother William Appleton, the Grey Friar's, official capacity and eventual fate were as I have shown them. Hawise Maudelyn
Katherine's waiting woman, Arnold was the Duke's falconer, Walter Dysse his confessor and Isolda Neumann his nurse. I have given him no retainers, officers or vassals who are not listed in the "Registers".
To the development and motivations of the story, it has sometimes of course been necessary to bring my own interpretations, but I trust they are legitimate, and backed by probability.
John of Gaunt has been much vilified by historians who have too slavishly followed the hostile chronicles, particularly the Monk of St. Albans' consistently spiteful
I have naturally preferred the view of his character which was held by his great biographer, Sydney Armitage-Smith, and certainly an impartial look at the facts seems to warrant it.
My "psychological" treatment of the changeling slander arose from several clues. Most of the historians have been puzzled by the Duke's actions at the "Good Parliament" and sudden reversal thereafter; one source ties this in with the probable deep unconscious effect on the Duke of that type of slander, and it seemed to me logical.
In covering a field so vast as the history and politics of this period, I have had to confine myself to those events which would have affected Katherine, but in showing these national events I have tried to extract the truth from the welter of conflicting data and points of view. For the actual accounts of the Good Parliament and the Peasants' Revolt, I have read all the authorities, but have leaned chiefly on the
of St. Mary's Abbey, York, which gives information not available to the earlier historians.
The existence of Blanchette has been entirely overlooked, but it is documented by Armitage-Smith and also by the "Registers".
These registers have also, by inference, provided me with much of the story, since many entries bear on the personal life of Katherine and the Duke, such as their parting in 1381, attested by a Latin Quit Claim - as well as by those assiduous monkish chroniclers who never lost a chance to attack the Duke - for reasons I have tried to show.
My Latin was not adequate for all this research and various amiable people have helped me, but with Middle French and Middle English I have perforce become familiar and one of the great personal pleasures in writing this book has been the reading of much medieval literature - and Chaucer. It has occurred to me, and here I know I am treading on dangerous ground, that Chaucer may have had his beautiful sister-in-law in mind in occasional passages, particularly in the
Troilus and Criseyde.
That I have not invented Katherine's beauty for fictional purposes is borne out I think by the references. John of Gaunt's (now destroyed) epitaph in St. Paul's referred to her as
"eximia pulchritudine feminam,"
an unusual tribute on a tombstone, while the disapproving monk of St. Mary's Abbey called her
"une deblesse et enchanteresse"
Lady Julian of Norwich was one of the great English mystics. All her quotations are verbatim from her
Revelations of Divine Love.
I hope it has been possible to rebuild the little church to which her anchoress' cell was once attached; when I visited it, it was in a pathetic state of demolition as a result of enemy action.
In closing I want to thank again all those who have helped me and particularly my dear friend Isabel Garland Lord, and my English cousin, Amy C. Flagg, of Durham.
I have consulted all standard histories and source books for the period, and most of the Chronicles, but my debt to the following is greatest:
John of Gaunt's Register.
Camden Third series, in four volumes covering 1372-1383. These comprise the actual French (occasionally Latin) documents issued by the Duke.
The Genesis of Lancaster,
by Sir James H. Ramsay.
John of Gaum,
by Sydney Armitage-Smith. The definitive biography.
compiled by Edith Rickert.
The Anonimalle Chronicle,
1333-1381, of St. Mary's Abbey, York. Edited by V. H. Galbraith.
translated by Thomas Johnes.
It would be tedious to list all the other chronicles, or the biographies of Chaucer, Wyclif, the queens, the Black Prince, Henry IV, Richard II, etc. But I must mention a few of the background books like J. J. Jusserand's
Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages;
Waning of the Middle Ages;
all of Eileen Power's vivid and exhaustive works, particularly
Medieval English Nunneries;
all the fine books by G. G. Coulton;
Life on the English Manor,
by H. S. Bennett; and Walter Besant's fascinating and beautiful volumes on
London, March 18, 1954
"If no love is, Ah God what feel I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good from whence cometh my woe?
If he be wicked, a wonder thinketh me .. ."
(Troilus and Criseyde)
In the tender green time of April, Katherine set forth at last upon her journey with the two nuns and the royal messenger.
The invisible sun had scarcely risen as they quitted the little convent of Sheppey, and guiding the horses westward towards the Kentish mainland, rode gingerly down the steep hill. Dripping dun clouds obscured the minster tower behind them and thick mists blew from the North Sea.
The bell began tolling for Prime and Katherine heard through its familiar clangour the bang of the priory's gate and the faint voice of the little wicket nun calling again through the mist, "Adieu dear Katherine, adieu."
"Farewell, Dame Barbara, God be with you," Katherine answered, hoping that her tone was not too gay. She had tried to make herself feel the requisite doleful pang at parting from this convent where she had spent over five years, but her heart would not obey. It bubbled, instead, with excited anticipation.
She had been a puny child when the good Queen had sent her to Sheppey Priory as a boarder, now she was a marriageable woman, for she would be sixteen next October sometime after Michaelmas. And she had had her fill of the cloisters and the hovering nuns, kindly as most of them were. She was sick of the inexorable bell that ruled their lives, tolling for Matins and Lauds and then every three hours throughout the day until Compline at eight o'clock and bed. She was sick of lessons and plain-song, and the subdued admonishing murmurs of women.
No matter how dutiful one tried to feel, it was impossible to be sad at leaving this behind, when the blood ran hot and rich in the veins, and when out in the world there were all the untried beckoning enchantments: dancing, sensuous music, merriment - and love.
Now at last it had come, the summons to court, when Katherine had almost given up hope, and it seemed that the Queen had totally forgotten her early interest in the little orphan. Perhaps the Queen had forgotten but at least Philippa had not. Katherine thought of the coming meeting with the sister whom she had not seen in all these years and gave a sudden bounce of joy, which the old white horse instantly resented. He stumbled in a muddy rut, recovered himself, then stood stock still, his long lips thrust out.
The Prioress Godeleva resented the bounce too, for Katherine was riding pillion behind the prioress.
"What possessed you to jump like that, Katherine!" snapped Godeleva over her shoulder, while she flapped the reins and tried to induce the horse to move. "Bayard hates double weight, and you're not a child to play the fool. I thought we'd trained you better." She flapped the reins again futilely.
"Forgive me, Reverend Mother," said Katherine reddening.
Dame Cicily, the other nun, came fluttering up to them crying, "Oh dear, oh dear, Reverend Mother, what's the matter?" She was riding a decrepit nag borrowed from the convent's bailiff and had perforce dropped behind.
"As you see," said the prioress coldly, digging her heels into the horse's belly and slapping his neck with her small white hand, "Bayard is baulking."
Long Will Finch, the Queen's messenger, who had been riding on ahead and singing a bawdy song to himself suddenly noticed the silence behind him. He turned his roan and peering through the mists came back to investigate. "God's nails - - - " he muttered when he saw the trouble. "These holy old hens should stay in cloister. We'll not reach Windsor till Whitsun at this rate."
He dismounted, hit Bayard a powerful swat on the rump with the flat of his dagger while savagely jerking the bridle. The horse gave an indignant snort but he jumped forward and Katherine clung to the prioress's plump waist.
"You need a switch, Reverend Mother," said Long Will, breaking a branch from a hazel bush and handing it to Godeleva.
The prioress inclined her head in gracious thanks. She was the daughter of a Saxon knight, proud of her lineage, and most anxious that the royal messenger should not think them ill-bred for all that they came from such an insignificant convent.
Long Will was not thinking of the prioress, he was looking at Katherine. Sunlight, now glinting through the fog which hung above the Swale, gave him his first good view of her. A tasty wench, he thought, cocking a practised eye at the face beneath the green hood.
He noted large grey eyes fringed by dark lashes; and two glossy burnished braids, near thick as his wrist, and so long that they swung against the horse's croup, while the loose tendrils, dark red as an autumn oak leaf, clung to a broad white forehead. That one wouldn't have to pluck back her hair to broaden her brow like the court ladies. Nor would she have to rub lead paste on her face. The girl's skin was milky smooth with a rose flush on the cheek-bones - and no blemishes. Her full mouth was wider than the pouting lips admired at court, yet it beckoned a lustiness any man would find challenging, as did the flare of her nostrils and the cleft in her round chin.
She'd be a fine wench for bed-sport, once she'd learned a bit, Long Will thought, as he walked along beside the white cob and stared at Katherine. Ay - she was exceeding fair, though as yet somewhat thin and small-bosomed. If only her teeth were good. Missing or rotted teeth spoiled many a beauty. He determined to make her smile.
"Have ye visited the fine new castle, damoiselle?" he asked pointing to the north where the crenellated towers of Queenborough loomed against the clearing sky.
"Certainly not," cut in the prioress. "I've permitted none of my house to go near the castle, swarming as it has been with lecherous men - workmen and soldiers - and but three miles from the convent."
"To be sure, Reverend Mother," said Long Will grinning, "holy flocks must be guarded, but I thought the Damoiselle Roet being a secular, perhaps she'd wandered that way-"
He winked at Katherine but the girl lowered her eyes as she had been taught. She was thinking that this Will Finch's bold stare was a little like that of the young squire who had come to the convent to see her a year ago. It made one feel warm and embarrassed but not unpleasantly so. The only other men she had ever talked to, the old bailiff and even older convent priest, had no such look in their eyes.
"Then ye didn't see the great Duke of Lancaster when he came himself to inspect the building last year?" persisted the messenger. "A pity. He's the most knightly, and many think handsomest too, of our King's sons, except, to be sure, Edward, Prince of Wales, God gi' him grace."
Katherine was not interested in the Duke of Lancaster, but there was a question she ached to ask. So she leaned forward whispering, "May I speak, Reverend Mother?" and peered around to see that the prioress's face was again bland beneath the fluted white wimple. Godeleva nodded, torn between the impropriety of gossiping with a servant, albeit a royal one, and her own curiosity about what would await them at Windsor.
Katherine turned to Long Will. "Do you perhaps know my sister, Philippa de Roet? She's one of the Queen's damoiselles."
"By cock's bones - of course I do," said Long Will. "Since it was she gave me the Queen's purse and sent me on this trip."
"What's she like then now?" asked Katherine timidly.
"Small, dark and plump as a woodcock," said Long Will. "They call her La Picarde. She's a bustling little body who has charge of the pantry maids and rules them stoutly.
not light-minded as some of the Queen's ladies, by God!"
"That sounds like Philippa," said Katherine, smiling at last. "She ruled me stoutly enough when we were children."
"In truth you aren't much alike," cried Long Will, having just discovered that when she smiled Katherine was the fairest maid he had ever seen. Her teeth were small and white as daisy petals, her smile had a radiant charm, and yet a wistfulness that would melt your heart. It was a sad pity she could hope for no great marriage. No doubt the Queen had some one of her yeomen in mind or a squire. Long Will knew little of the background for his mission to the little Kentish priory except that it was like a dozen others he had performed for Queen Philippa, whose heart and charities were large. She always concerned herself with orphaned children, particularly those, like the de Roet girls, whose fathers had been her own countrymen.
"Are many of the royal family now at Windsor?" asked Katherine presently. She thought of them as clothed in misty glitter, King Edward and Queen Philippa, and their princely sons and daughters; vague names seldom heard at Sheppey where the talk was all of the proper observance of saints' days, the shiftlessness of the priory serfs or the recurrent fits, perhaps divinely inspired, which afflicted one of the novices.
"Most of 'em'll be at Windsor for the Saint George Day's feasting and jousting," said Long Will, "but I don't know just which ones. They all move so much from place to place, and now there's this new talk o' war."
"War?" cried the prioress sharply. "But we've been at peace with France these six years." Blessed Mary - not war again, she thought, knowing from bitter experience how war increased her administrative problems. Labour was scarce and grudging enough on the manor as it was. After the terrible Black Death in forty-nine there had been no strong serfs left at all to do the work. The nuns had laboured in the fields themselves - those of them that survived the plague - and Sheppey had nearly gone under. Godeleva had been a novice then, and too young to realise the stark anxieties of her superiors. But they had struggled through. A new generation of serfs had grown up, though not the gentle biddable types of the old days, for these new ones flocked off to war by preference instead of waiting to be called. It had been so before the Peace of Br6tigny, it would be so again if war came and no one left to labour except feeble old men and gloomy women.
"Not war with France, but with Castile, I hear," answered Long Will. "The Prince o' Wales, God gi' him grace, interests himself in the matter at Bordeaux." Suddenly bored with the women and his mission, Long Will spurred his horse and rode ahead cursing the plodding priory nags. If war came he'd not be sent on silly errands like this - herding virgins through the countryside.
"Come up, come up, my reverend dames," he called back impatiently turning in his saddle. "I see the ferry waiting."
Long Will's patience was further tried by the crossing of the Swale. Bayard baulked again, refusing for half an hour either to swim or board the ferry. Dame Cicily, who was even more afraid of water than she was of horses, managed to slip off the foot-plank and was hauled out weeping, her black robes soaked and clinging to her skinny legs. And the ferryman, seeing the royal badge on Long Will's tunic, naturally tried to extort double fares. The Queen was thrifty like all Flemings and the purse she had provided for the journey would barely cover expenses, so that the messenger had to subdue the ferryman with a rough and practised tongue.
Katherine sat on a mossy stone on the farther bank of the Swale and listened dreamily to a spate of oaths she had not known existed, while waiting for their guide to finish with Bayard and the ferryman. She was happy to be on the mainland at last, and a little frightened too. The April sun shone warm on her back, blackbirds sang in a wild cherry tree, and from over the hill on the road to London she heard the confused baa-ing of sheep and the tinkle of the bellwether.
She gazed across the Swale at the Isle of Sheppey where she had spent most of her conscious years. She could see the battlements of the unfinished castle but not the priory's squat little minster, nor hear the bell which must now be calling the nuns to Tierce, and she thought of the first day she had heard that bell over five years ago when she had been delivered at the convent from a cart, along with a side of beef and half a tun of wine sent as gifts to Sheppey by the Queen. The Queen sent three gold nobles as well for Katherine's keep and Prioress Godeleva had been jubilant.
True, Katherine was neither a royal ward nor a well-dowered novice, nor even nobly born; she was simply a child, like many others, for whom the motherly Queen felt responsibility; but the prioress had been elated by this unexpected mark of royal interest, for Sheppey had never before been so honoured. Usually it was large aristocratic foundations like Barking or Amesbury that were chosen.
It was because of Queenborough Castle, to be rebuilt on an old Saxon stronghold to guard the Thames, that the Queen had thought of the nearby priory - thought of it, and then apparently forgotten all about it again.
Katherine grew tall and strong; she had soon eaten up the gold nobles, and become an expense to the convent, but nothing more came from the Queen or from Philippa, Katherine's sister, except the young squire's message last year.
Royal personages, however kind, may be forgetful, Katherine had learned early, yet the Queen had said that she would never fail in remembrance of her compatriots and especially one who died in battle, as Katherine's father had.
Payn de Roet came from Hainault, the Queen's wealthy little Netherlands country, but he had married a French girl from Picardy who had died in childbed. After her death Payn had left his two little daughters with their grandparents when he followed the Queen to England. Payn had been a dashing, handsome man inclined to dress above his station and thus well fitting his nickname of Paon, the peacock.
He found favour with King Edward, who appointed him one of the royal heralds - King-of-Arms to represent the province of Guienne - then finally so distinguished himself fighting in France just before the peace in 1360 that King Edward had knighted him on the field, along with many other deserving soldiers.
Sir Payn did not live long enough to enjoy either his knighthood or the truce, for a Norman arrow pierced his lungs during a skirmish outside the walls of Paris, and he expired with an anguished prayer for the future of his two little daughters in Picardy.
Queen Philippa heard of this later when the King returned to England, and was saddened. Soon she had occasion to send a messenger across the Channel with letters to Bruges and she entrusted him with various other commissions along the way.
So the messenger stopped at the farm in Picardy and found that Sir Payn's family was indeed desperate for help. The plague, as it returned that winter for its second great smiting, had recently struck the household. The grandparents had died of it and all the servants. No one was left but Payn's two small daughters, and one, the younger, had been stricken too, but miraculously recovered, though she continued to ail. They were being reluctantly tended by a neighbour.