Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir

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Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: As ever, Weir is interesting, educational and accessible. As details about Katherine Swynford are sketchy, the book's focus is split between Katherine and her Plantagenet lover, but is nonetheless a fascinating and revealing read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: September 2007
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224063210

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The name Katherine Swynford may not quite have the historical resonance of the names of other royal mistresses such as Madame de Pompadour or Lily Langtree or Nell Gwynne, but she is perhaps the most significant other woman in royal history. Aside from representing an amazingly anachronistic love affair that spanned thirty years, Katherine Swynford's descendants are both illustrious and widespread - among them our present Queen Elizabeth II, Diana Princess of Wales, almost every European monarch and five American presidents, including George Washington and George W Bush. Her thirteenth century affair with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, lasted for half their lifetimes and by the end, they were married, she was his Duchess and their bastard children had been legitimised - something which had never happened before in royal circles and has never happened since.

Like Alison Weir, I discovered Katherine Swynford by reading Anya Seton's romantic novel about her. I was about twelve, and it made an enormous impression on me. Seton's books pre-date the bodice ripper and, while intensely romantic, are quality stuff; on a par with Mary Renault or Dorothy Dunnett. Seton brought the fourteenth century alive for me, and her books, together with Dunnett's and Renault's, are probably the biggest reason I enjoy historical biographies today.

Katherine Swynford was born Katherine de Roet in Hainault in about 1350. Her origins were relatively humble; her father was knighted just before he died. She came to England with the household of Edward III's queen, Philippa, and eventually married another relatively humble English knight, Hugh Swynford. Her sister, Philippa, was married to the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Some time shortly after Hugh's death in 1372, Katherine began an affair with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, which was to endure on and off for over thirty years, until after the death of the duke's second wife, when they eventually married. For a duke to marry a relatively humble mistress and for their children to be legitimised was unheard of. This romance in an era of arranged marriages makes her life great reading for people with today's sensibilities. Katherine lived through the Black Death, the Peasant's Revolt, and her children and grandchildren were pivotal throughout the Wars of the Roses. It's about time we got a biography!

Source material on Katherine is sketchy. So much of the book is inference, and much actually talks about John of Gaunt and external events, rather than Katherine herself. But Weir has a great talent for making snippets of information interesting by setting them into the context of daily life in the periods about which she writes, so we are able to get a good sense of Katherine and how she lived and the impact she must have had both as a person and a notorious figure. I'm all for accessible history and I think Weir writes some of the best around. She avoids sensationalism and while her obvious lively interest in her subject makes the book a joy to read, she doesn't intrude into the story as some (televisual, wink, hint) popular historians are wont to do. It's fairly dense but not difficult to read, the prose flows, and while specific details on Katherine are a little thin on the ground, the wealth of vivid information about fourteenth century life more than makes up for it.

My thanks to the good people at Random House for sending the book.

Chris Skidmore's biography of the Tudor King Edward VI is equally accessible and lively.

Buy Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir at Amazon.com.


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