Like Alison Weir, I was first introduced to the story of Katherine Swynford through Anya Seton’s romanticized 1954 novel, Katherine. Weir’s biography is a pretty comprehensive look at this enigmatic, lesser-known medieval woman.
I have a love-hate relationship with Weir’s books: I loved The Six Wives of Henry VIII; liked Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, and Eleanor of Aquitaine; but detested Queen Isabella and Innocent Traitor (Weir doesn’t do fiction all that well). I put Mistress of the Monarchy in the “like for the most part” category.
Katherine Swynford was born Katherine de Roet in 1350, one of the daughters of Sir Paon de Roet. She then married Hugh Swynford, and spent time in the Lancastrian household as the governess to John of Gaunt’s children. Katherine’s affair with him probably began around the year 1372, and, after producing a number of illegitimate children, married John in 1396. Katherine is the ancestor of most of the royal houses of Europe, plus at least five American presidents. History has seen Katherine as bit of a homewrecker, but in this book, Weir attempts (and mostly succeeds) in portraying her in a more sympathetic light.
This biography of Katherine Swynford is, as with all of Weir’s books, meticulously researched. It’s less overtly feminist and partisan than some of her other biographies. Pay attention to the subtitle of this biography: the book is more about John of Gaunt than it is about Katherine (in fact, we don’t even get a physical description of Katherine until after one is given of John). We also get very detailed biographies of everyone who was related or connected to her, especially Geoffrey Chaucer, her brother-in-law. After finishing this book, I still didn’t have a concrete impression of what Katherine was really like. And, because so little is actually known about Katherine’s life, Weir makes an awful lot of assumptions here about what her subject “might,” “perhaps,” or “probably” have done/ thought/ felt.
However, Weir does a wonderful job bringing the details of the period to life. It’s an accessible, readable work of history that doesn’t get bogged down in pretentious language. For someone who doesn’t know medieval Latin or Norman French, Weir does an incredible job of interpreting her sources. And the style of this book is far more lively and engaging than other books written on the Lancasters that I’ve read. I look forward to reading what comes next from Weir (according to her website, the next book is about Anne Boleyn, though she may be re-treading familiar water with that one).
Also reviewed by: Tanzanite's Shelf