Richard Barber

Devil or Demure?

Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess


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Katherine Swynford’s fame is largely due to Anya Seton’s Katherine, one of the best historical novels of the twentieth century, published just over fifty years ago. Alison Weir acknowledges that this book ‘made a tremendous impact on me as an adolescent’, and in a sense her biography is a homage to Seton’s novel, an attempt to portray the Katherine of history rather than of historical fiction. But the material available is extraordinarily thin, as is so often the case with medieval lives. Even the Black Prince, for all his fame, is an enigma; we have only one letter in his hand, and very little reliable report of his personal characteristics.

As to Katherine Swynford, we know that she was the daughter of a knight from Hainault who served Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, and that she was born about 1350. The first record of her is in the service of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster,

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