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Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of…
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Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of… (2008)

by Alison Weir

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5982716,394 (3.6)18
  1. 40
    Katherine by Anya Seton (avalon_today)
  2. 00
    The Three Edwards by Thomas B. Costain (ccrown)
    ccrown: history of the Plantagenets
  3. 00
    The Conquering Family by Thomas B. Costain (ccrown)
    ccrown: history of the Plantagenets (trilogy)
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Having been absorbed by two of Alison Weir's works of fiction I commenced reading this non-fiction biography of Katherine Swynford with high hopes. Unfortunately, I found this a tedious experience. At times it was engaging but on the whole it read more like an English research essay.

To be fair to the author, she had little to work with, as hardly any conclusive evidence of Katherine Swynford's life has been preserved. This is a great pity, for she is ancestor to many members of European monarchy throughout the ages, including England's Elizabeth II, plus six American presidents.

Because of the lack of info available, it's virtually impossible to write a bio on Katherine. This book would have been better titled as, "Katherine Swynford and Her Circle", or "The Elusive Katherine Swynford and Her Times", or even "John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford". There's much more historic info available on John of Gaunt, him being Edward III's brother, and as a result the majority of this tome is about him.

Lengthy sections of this volume don't feature Katherine at all, other than tagging a sentence at the end of numerous paragraphs, stating something like, "Could Katherine have been present on this occasion?"

I also felt the in-depth descriptions of buildings where Katherine had lived or visited should have been summarised, or failing that include them in an appendix. I found myself skipping over these sections.

Being a huge admirer of Ms Weir's works of fiction, I feel she would've done better to write a fictional account of Katherine's life and added an author's note at the end, explaining the lack of info available to her. That said, the author does include details of Anya Seton's 1954 novel of Katherine, thus I suspect - owing to the success of that book - Ms Weir would not want to compete with it.

Although I am disappointed with this historic account, owing to its essay-feel and lack of info on its main subject, I maintain my respect for Alison Weir's authorship and will read more of her works. ( )
  PhilSyphe | May 22, 2014 |
The life of Katherine Swynford is a fascinating and mysterious one. Born in what is now Belgium, she actually spent much of her childhood in the English court of Edward III. Widowed in her early 20s, she would become the lifelong mistress of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and brother to the king, sparking one of the most renowned and scandalous love stories in European history. Katherine and her children by John (who would ultimately be legitimized by royal edict) are ancestors of the Yorkist kings, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and every other British sovereign since, as well as nearly every monarch in Europe and no fewer than six U.S. presidents.

Nearly everything that has been discovered about Katherine Swynford must be indirectly inferred and deduced from the records of others, as virtually nothing from her personal effects survives today. As a reader, I was alternately amazed by the great deal we can still learn about someone who lived more than 600 years ago, and dismayed by how much has been lost and that we will never know. It's unfortunate that Katherine, due to the era in which she lived, gets a bad rap merely for falling deeply in love and acting on it, something we might all do in a similar situation. Like me, it seems that many readers come to this book having previously read Katherine, the popular 1950s work of historical fiction by Anya Seton. Weir references Katherine in her book, but gently reminds us that, although popular and well-researched, it was nevertheless a work of fiction. Mistress of the Monarchy is a compelling read, particulary as a companion to Katherine. ( )
  ryner | Jan 9, 2014 |
As of today, I've only made it through the first hundred pages. I don't think I'm going to continue with the book, for reasons I'll explain momentarily, but the pacing has improved (or perhaps I have shifted into a mood where I'm more tolerant of long-winded biographies) so I may continue.

In what I've read thus far, Katherine is barely mentioned, and when she does appear the words "should have" and "may have" appear liberally. Granted, the historical record about medieval women is scanty, and all the more so when the woman isn't a princess. But I really don't think this biography does much to illuminate her personality or what her daily life was like.

In order to pad what would otherwise be the content of a lengthy essay, the book is heavily padded with stories about John of Gaunt, Katherine's lover, and Geoffrey Chaucer, a relative to Katherine by marriage. These men are interesting, to be sure - but the fact that Katherine cannot be the focus of her own biography makes me wonder if this book should even exist. Maybe an essay about Katherine, perhaps placed in a book with other essays about women of the time a la Women of the Cousins' War, would have better served those seeking to learn about the duchess.

The one thing that shines in the book is the detail about medieval life. You definitely feel immersed in a world set apart from us by time and space - it just isn't necessarily the world of Katherine Swynford. ( )
1 vote makaiju | Jul 14, 2013 |
In this book, Alison Weir attempts to create a factual narrative about Katherine Swynford, based on what she admits are very limited sources. As she states up front, her subject was brought to vivid ife by Anya Seton, in her novel Katherine, and Weir is at something of a disadvantage when she is forced to stick with reality. Like so many other readers, I loved "Katherine," and I was interested to see how much of it was grounded in reality.

As I read this book, I was reminded of two other histories. The first was "Son of the Morning Star." While this is in theory about the Battle of Little Big Horn, a perceptive reviewer remarked that it was more accurately about everything Evan S. Connell knows about Custer, the American West, 19th century cavalry and military matters, geography, politics, and random other facts tangentially connected to that battle. In the same way, "Mistress of the Monarchy" is really about how the House of Lancaster pushed the larger Plantagenet dynasty aside, with comments on architecture, the Hundred Years War, the build up to the Wars of the Roses, 14th century English political history, and Geoffrey Chaucer, all weaving around a hundred or so contemporary references to Katherine Swynford.

The second book is "Franks, Moravians, and Magyars: The Struggle for the Middle Danube" by Charles Bowlus. I did some work in Central European history and wanted to use his argument, but it was rejected by my professor because, as he put it, "there isn't anything here without could have, might have, must have, or probably." Bowlus and Weir are both in this position because they are working with a very limited set of facts, and trying to work from there. Weir's task in some ways is easier, she is only trying to flesh out one woman's life, rather than an entire clash of civilizations, but the problem is the same - there is simply too much that isn't known.

Weir clearly likes Katherine (she admits to also loving Seton's novel), and early on asserts what she is trying to show - that Katherine was intelligent, charming, well-liked and loved by all who knew her, gracious, dignified and kind. As I read along, each time Weir stated that some event "must be" because of Katherine's good qualities, I entertained myself by inventing a narrative in which Katherine was evil and despised, but these events still took place. It wasn't hard, but that is more because the source material is so scanty than because I have any great facility with storytelling.

All that said, Katherine's story is a good narrative frame to examine an interesting and complicated period, and Weir uses it well. She does a good job of weaving different strand together, of clearly stating when she is using which sources, and what she sees as their biases and strengths. I recommend this as an introduction to the period for anyone who isn't familiar with how it all works.

A minor quibble is Weir's treatment of Richard II. She is somewhat notorious in Edward II fandom (yes, there is such a thing) for her homophobic interpretation of his character. She does the same here, with far less justification. There is enough negative to say about Richard without inventing more. (To be clear, my objection is that, having brought up existing interpretations that Richard was gay, she assumes that therefore he was deceitful, perverted and debauched. It doesn't follow.)

Overall, however, I enjoyed this book quite a lot. The only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is that, if you take away the conditional mood, there is nothing left. ( )
  teckelvik | Jun 24, 2013 |
Should be titled “The Times of Katherine Swynford. . . “ since, as with all Medieval women, little or no direct record of her existence exists. She isn’t mentioned in the court records to speak of; she left no diary; there is no mention of her in John of Gaunt’s (her lover/ 2nd husband) papers; and her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer, doesn’t immortalize her by name, either.

Nevertheless, I like this book because it is chock full of lineages, relationships, political connivings, domestic machinations, and details of life in the England of the Middle Ages. That we know of Katherine at all, indicates she was impressive enough that her “scandalous” behavior has survived today in spite of the Church and her husband’s rivals' attempts to besmirch her reputation and erase her memory.

Weir makes no bones about letting us know that we should be favorably impressed by the third and last wife of John of Gaunt and that she was a positive influence in major and minor events in the lives of her family and her husband’s circle. And I was. ( )
1 vote Limelite | Jun 6, 2013 |
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This book is dedicated to
Bruce and Sandy,
Peter and Karen,
AND
John and Joanna
To Mark Their Marriages.
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I have used the form "Katherine" (rather than "Catherine") throughout, as Katherine's name is usually spelled with a K in contemporary sources.
Introduction
This is a love story, one of the greatest and most remarkable love stories of medieval England. It is the extraordinary tale of an exceptional woman, Katherine Swynford, who became first the mistress and later the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, one of the outstanding princes of the high Middle Ages.
Prologue
Spring 1378
In March 1378, putting aside "all shame of man and fear of God," John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the mightiest subject in the realm of England, was to be seen riding around his estates in Leicestershire "with his unspeakable concubine, a certain Katherine Swynford." Not only was the Duke brazenly parading his beautiful mistress for everyone to see, but he was "holding her bridle in public," a gesture that proclaimed to all his possession of her, for it implied that the rider thus led was a captive, in this case one who had surrendered her body, if not her heart. And as if this were not shocking enough, the fact that the Duke was flaunting his mistress "in the presence of his own wife" created a scandal that would soon spread throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom and beyond. Even today, echoes of that furor still reverberate in the pages of history books.
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Panetto's Daughter
Katherine Swynford, that "famous adulteress,"¹ was set on the path to notoriety, fame, and a great love at the tender age of two or therabouts, when she was placed in the household of Philippa of Hainault, wife to Edward III of England. This would have been around 1352, and Katherine's dispositon with the popular and maternal Philippa was almost certainly due to her father, Sir Paon de Roët, having tendered years of faithful service to the Queen and the royal family of Hainault.
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Historian Alison Weir brings to life the tale of Katherine Swynford, a royal mistress who became a crucial figure in the British royal dynasties. Born in the mid-14th century, Katherine experienced the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death, and the Peasants' Revolt, and crossed paths with many eminent figures, among them her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer. At age ten, she was appointed to the household of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of King Edward III; at twelve, she married Hugh Swynford, an impoverished knight. Widowed at 21, Katherine, gifted with beauty and charms, later became John of Gaunt's mistress. Throughout their illicit union, John and Katherine were devoted to each other. In middle age, after many twists of fortune, they wed, and her children by John, the Beauforts, would become direct forebears of the Royal Houses of York, Tudor, and Stuart, and of every British sovereign since 1461 (as well as four U.S. presidents).--From publisher description.… (more)

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