Mastodon The Writing Desk: Revisiting Katherine Swynford: The Scandalous Duchess, by Anne O'Brien

26 July 2016

Revisiting Katherine Swynford: The Scandalous Duchess, by Anne O'Brien

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The Scandalous Duchess brings to readers of historical fiction one of the most famous - and certainly most infamous - love stories in medieval history.

Here are the two protagonists:

Lady Katherine de Swynford, nee Roet: widowed, respectable, highly principled; a woman with a firm faith and a strong sense of duty to her young Swynford family.  A woman of education, dignity and integrity who had spent much of her young life at the Plantagenet court in the service of the impeccable Blanche of Lancaster, wife of John of Gaunt.  Why would a pious, moral woman put her reputation and her immortal soul at risk to indulge in so scandalous a relationship in becoming a prince's mistress?  And what's more, at the very centre of the royal court where such a relationship could not be hidden for long?  Where it would be unforgiveable.

John of Gaunt
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster: a man with all the pride and arrogance of a Plantagenet prince, and a reputation for outspoken opinion that brought him as many enemies as friends.  An ambitious man with England's destiny in his hands after his brother's tragic death in 1376 and his father's decline, as well as a new royal-born Castilian wife to help him further those ambitions as King of Castile if he could seize the crown.  Why would a man of such political standing and such flamboyant ambition risk all to take a woman of his household so publicly as his mistress?  Was his reputation as a Plantagenet prince of no account to him?

And yet Katherine Swynford and John of Lancaster become lovers.  With no apparent sense of sin they lived together intermittently, Katherine giving birth to the four illegitimate Beaufort children.

This was a love affair that broke all the rules.  Abandoning all moral integrity, all sense of responsibility, all thoughts of God’s grace, they embarked on an adulterous affair that lasted for twenty five years, by which time neither of them was young and foolish.  Katherine destroyed her reputation under a deluge of vicious censure that labelled her she-devil and enchantress, seducer of Lancaster.  The Duke was attacked by church and state for placing his mistress before the demands of England in a time of war and flaunting her, disgracefully, before his new wife.  The ills of England during the Peasants' Revolt were placed firmly on the Duke of Lancaster's shoulders, England being punished for his sins.  Adultery was not something to be embraced lightly in medieval times. 

Hounded by scurrilous condemnation through the pens of the chroniclers, their relationship battered and broken by political and clerical enemies, the lovers were ultimately forced to live apart.

But this was no ordinary, light-hearted romantic emotion that would die under the lash of public disgrace.  This was a passion, remorseless and relentless in its power, perhaps not always comfortable, particularly for Katherine, since society was quick to label her a sinful Daughter of Eve.  Yet, sweeping all before it, all sense of right or wrong, this love affair brought them ultimately together again. 

But at what price?

We might consider that marriage would ultimately put the lovers right in the eyes of the world.  Not so!  It might be inappropriate for the Duke of Lancaster to ride through the streets of Leicester, his mistress's hand in his, but to marry her was even worse.  Princes did not marry their mistresses.  Rather they kept them in discreet circumstances out of the public eye.  Once again John of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford trampled on the mores of the day by making their relationship public and legal and having their children legitimised.  As Gaunt's wife, Katherine became the most influential woman at court in the absence of a queen of mature years.  How easy it is to imagine the vicious  twittering in the courtly dovecotes.

What determination the lovers exhibited in the face of outraged opinion.  Could Katherine retain the dignity and integrity that was so much part of her character in the face of hostility from the Duchess of Gloucester?  Even more importantly, could Duke John of Lancaster be restored to his place as uncle and chief adviser at the side of the young king, Richard II? 

The Scandalous Duchess is the story of a very personal relationship, set against the hotbed of medieval politics, driven by the final uncertain years of a failing King Edward III and the uneasy challenges posed by the young King Richard II.  Told by Katherine Swynford herself, it is the story of a compulsive desire and a need that could not be denied.

Anne O'Brien
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About the Author

Anne O'Brien was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. After gaining a B.A. Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Masters in Education at Hull, she lived in the East Riding for many years as a teacher of history. After leaving teaching, Anne decided to turn to novel writing and give voice to the women in history who fascinated her the most, beginning with Virgin Widow, which told the story of Anne Neville, the wife of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Today Anne lives in an eighteenth century cottage in Herefordshire, an area full of inspiration for her work. Find out more at 
and follow Anne on Facebook and Twitter @anne_obrien.


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