Magazine | February 9, 2009, Issue

Mother of Her Country

Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, by Alison Weir (Ballantine, 416 pp., $28)

The moist glow of overcome pilgrims is unmistakable. The residents of Lincoln, England, are used to seeing them trudge up the steep hill to Lincoln Cathedral to examine yellowed parchment records containing the name “Katherine Swynford,” get tickets to Katherine Swynford Study Days, join the Katherine Swynford Society, and take part in special ceremonies each year on May 10, such as, in 2003, the planting of a memorial tree on the 600th anniversary of Katherine Swynford’s death. Most of all, they want to gaze in awe at the tomb of Katherine Swynford herself. And often, as your reviewer did, they will murmur almost prayerfully, “Katherine . . . Katherine.”

All tourists visit the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey where the kings and queens are laid to rest, but why would anyone travel up to the English Midlands in search of a mere duchess? What causes these Elvis-like pilgrimages? The answer is found on the sign that Lincoln Cathedral has placed on Katherine Swynford’s tomb: “This is the Katherine of Anya Seton’s famous novel.”

Back in the 1950s, Anya Seton’s runaway bestsellers based on historical figures made her one of America’s favorite authors of popular fiction. No mere bodice-ripper, she was known as much for her scrupulous research as for her sexy (for the times) love scenes. When Katherine came out in 1954, Seton’s vast readership ate it up, mesmerized by its romantic sweep and titillating sensuality. Set in late medieval England, it’s the story of the long love affair and eventual marriage of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, son of Edward III, and Katherine Roet, daughter of a Flemish herald.

Like all of us who first read Katherine in our teen years, the English historian Alison Weir, author of the present biography, was enchanted by it and says it still has the power to move her, but she confesses that she also found it frustrating because she always wanted to know more about the heroine, who is “famous, but paradoxically, little known.”

Part of the paradox might be that, unlike most royal mistresses, Katherine Swynford was neither a pathological intriguer nor a shopaholic, and so history let her alone. Consequently, what little we know about her personal life can be quickly summed up.

She was born around 1350 and married a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford, by whom she had at least three children.

Her sister, Philippa, married Geoffrey Chaucer.

She became John of Gaunt’s mistress around 1371 while serving as governess to his three “true-born” children by his deceased first wife.

In the 1370s, while he was married to his second wife, Katherine had four “base-born” children — John, Henry, Thomas, and Joan — by John of Gaunt, who acknowledged them and gave them the surname “Beaufort.”

In 1381 she and John suddenly ended their relationship and lived apart for many years.

On January 13, 1396, when they were 45 and 55, she and John were married in Lincoln Cathedral, after which their four base-born children were legitimized by the pope.

Seton sticks to these facts but gilds the lily where a novelist must. She makes Katherine a raving beauty and describes her in detail, though we have no idea what she looked like: No likeness, no description exists. The monks who wrote the abbey chronicles castigated her as “a she-devil and an enchantress,” so clearly she was a babe, but they recorded no particulars, perhaps because dwelling on them would have violated their vows. Nor are illustrations and drawings any help. The medieval world portrayed people as types — the Knight, the Noblewoman, the Serf — human chess pieces with no distinguishing individual characteristics.

Like a lawyer thwarted of factual proof, Weir goes after circumstantial evidence. Reasoning that if the children of John and Katherine did not have their father’s famously Plantagenet features — narrow face, long thin nose, blond hair, and blue eyes — they very likely took after their mother. She hunted down carvings and brass representations of the four bastards, making some headway with tomb effigies before she finally hit paydirt: a later-15th-century painting by Jan van Eyck, a portrait of a cardinal who is thought by art historians to be Henry Cardinal Beaufort.

#page# Katherine’s second bastard took holy orders, and thanks to royal influence was named Bishop of Lincoln at the age of just 21. Shown here as an older man, he was clearly no Plantagenet. His darker, heavier Flemish side is uppermost; his eyes are brown, his face is wide, and his nose is fleshy. If John of Gaunt looked like lean, blond Peter O’Toole, we might imagine Katherine as brunette and buxom Jean Simmons.

Weir’s most impressive piece of detective work will crush romantics, but she makes a convincing case that the rumors about how John of Gaunt died were true. He supposedly had a venereal disease that caused “putrefaction of the genitals”; as he lay dying, in 1399, he showed them to his nephew, Richard II. The indefatigable Weir finds evidence for this in, of all places, a stained-glass window in York Cathedral. It shows a kneeling John, with a prayer book before him open to Psalm 38. The first verse of the psalm is a conventional invocation, but if we read on, says Weir, we come to verse 5: “My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness.” Then verse 7: “For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease.”

Weir’s most disappointing finding is the coolness between Katherine and her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer. In Seton’s novel they are great friends, but they apparently saw little of each other and maintained somewhat of an armed truce. Chaucer broke it once in “The Physician’s Tale” when he wrote that governesses with a scandalous past were like “poachers turned gamekeepers,” clearly an allusion to her position as governess of the Lancastrian children. Weir never quite settles on the reason for Chaucer’s coolness, but if he did dislike Katherine, he was the exception that proved the rule. Everyone else adored her; Henry IV, John’s oldest true-born son, called her “the King’s mother” in royal decrees, and even the paranoid Richard II liked her.

Katherine’s greatest importance to England can be discovered without recourse to circumstantial evidence. Just find her name on a genealogical chart and run your finger down her line until you come to her two dynastically significant Beaufort bastards, John and Joan. Then run your finger down their lines until you come to someone who needs no introduction.

Running one’s finger down these lines was a frequent activity during the Wars of the Roses, when Katherine had a dog in every fight. In 1485, when Henry Tudor claimed the throne for the House of Lancaster, the Yorkist Richard III issued a proclamation charging that Henry “was descended of bastard blood. . . . He is son unto Margaret Beaufort, who was daughter unto John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who was son unto John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, who was son unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of her in double adultery begotten, whereby it evidently appeareth that no title can or may be in him.”

Henry Tudor could have replied in a proclamation of his own that Richard III and his dead brother Edward IV were sons unto Cecily Neville, who was daughter unto Joan Beaufort, who was daughter unto the same Dame Katherine Swynford — Richard’s own great-grandmother.

Henry Tudor, Katherine’s great-great-grandson, ascended the throne as Henry VII, but Katherine wasn’t finished yet. John Beaufort had a daughter, also named Joan, who married James I, King of Scots. By the time the line got to James VI, England’s Elizabeth I, Katherine’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter, had died childless, and so James VI inherited the English throne as James I of the House of Stuart. After the Stuarts –

Did I just hear you say that the German-speaking House of Hanover couldn’t possibly have any connection to Katherine? Guess again. A granddaughter of James I married the Elector of Hanover and produced a son named George . . . and you know the rest. The present-day British royal family are all descendants of Katherine, and there appears to be a genetic throwback among them: Prince William looks so Plantagenet that he could play John of Gaunt in a movie.

Alison Weir has written a magnificent book that illustrates what historical research can achieve when done by the right person. There is a hard-nosed detective under the graceful stylist, and a bloodhound who leaves no scent unturned. Best of all, she has given us Katherine again, less girlish than Anya Seton’s, but still able to reach down the centuries and make us fall in love with her once more.

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