Book review: The Scandalous Duchess by Anne O’Brien
Their right royal affair was the scandal of the age but it was a love that survived against all odds and gave birth to the Tudor dynasty…
When John of Gaunt, the 14th century Duke of Lancaster, fell head over heels for destitute widow Katherine de Swynford, he defied protocol, politics and pious condemnation to keep her by his side until death parted them.
It’s a love story made in heaven for historical novelists and Anne O’Brien brings to vivid life the full force of a legendary, illicit liaison in an epic and romantic tale of daring, determination and danger.
Little is known of Katherine’s life – apart from gifts made to her in John of Gaunt’s Register and the outraged footnotes to history penned by moralistic and often malicious male chroniclers – but O’Brien has set her imagination to work to bring us a very human woman torn between conscience and desire.
What is for certain about John and Katherine’s relationship is that it produced four Beaufort children whose Lancastrian line would play a key role in the Wars of the Roses nearly a century later.
Taking the bare bones of a love that broke all the rules, O’Brien weaves a sultry and compelling tale of a royal duke’s flamboyance, pride, ambition and moral integrity consumed by his need for one remarkable woman… and an adulterous affair that lasted for 25 years.
In 1372, Lady Katherine de Swynford presents herself for a role in London’s Savoy Palace, the magnificent household of the arrogant, handsome John Plantagenet, Duke of Lancaster, and third son of ageing King Edward III.
She has left her crumbling home in Kettlethorpe, Lincolnshire, hoping to find money to finance her late husband Hugh’s estate and provide for their children but the duke, who knows Katherine from her service with his first wife Blanche, has a scandalous proposition which leaves her reeling.
Despite a life of hitherto pious integrity and dignity, Katherine is seduced by John’s declarations of adoration and agrees to become his mistress even though the momentous decision goes against all she has learned as a child.
Katherine’s dilemma is that her conscience is ‘a lively creature’ and she fears that this great sin will endanger her immortal soul, but the ‘bright happiness’ offered by the duke could be her only chance of fulfilment.
Tormented by uncertainty, John’s frequent absences and the presence of his new duchess, Constanza of Castile, Katherine becomes part of a deadly triangle of husband, wife and lover.
But no court amour can remain secret and soon the whispers – whore, harlot, vile temptress – reach the ears not just of Constanza but of John’s most dangerous political enemies and the powerful church establishment.
With unrest running through the country, separated from the duke by the Peasants’ Revolt and with claims of witchcraft and heresy swirling around her, Katherine will have to face the wrath of England, the king and the Church…
Once again O’Brien proves herself a medieval history magician, conjuring up a sizzling, sweeping story of two fabled lovers and the perilous, pitiless, political world they inhabited over 600 years ago.
Theirs was undoubtedly a grand passion and O’Brien gives us a fascinating window onto a courageous and resilient woman who was prepared to defy convention, reputation, scandal and danger for the love of her life.
Unashamedly romantic, packed with powerful emotions and the tumultuous unfolding of an affair that changed the course of royal history, this is a novel in which to enjoy the past in all its rich colour and dramatic detail.
(Mira Books, paperback, £7.99)