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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

“Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster”, by Alison Weir

416 pages, Ballantine Books, ISBN-13: 978-0345453235

First things first: in spite of the title, Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, this book is NOT a biography; rather, it is a look at life as it was at the time that this one woman was alive, using what is known about her as a linking theme. Too little is known about Katherine Swynford (nee Röet) for even the most meticulous researcher to write a biography, but Alison Weir found enough material to build a book around her. The second half of the 14th Century was an eventful period: the Black Death first struck England (and Scotland, then still a separate country thanks to the Scottish victory at Bannockburn earlier that century) in the 1340’s, but continued to claim victims in large numbers at various times later in the century; there was the Hundred Years War with France, which also started earlier in the 14th Century and which France seemed to have won during Katherine’s lifetime, but battle started again in the next century; the Peasants Revolt broke out, in which the people burned the Savoy Palace to the ground; England was still a devoutly Catholic country, and still mostly agricultural. This was the world in which Katherine lived.

Katherine Röet was born circa 1350 in Hainault (a part of Europe that loosely approximates to modern Belgium). King Edward III’s wife was also from Hainault and employed Katherine’s father in the royal household. Even though her father appears to have died when Katherine was very young, she ended up spending most of her life in England, especially in Lincolnshire. The main part of the book focuses on John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III, and: his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, a political marriage that John wanted anyway for love, and he was completely faithful to her until she died aged 26; his second wife Constance of Spain, another purely political marriage that was unsuccessful in every aspect but nevertheless lasted until she died in her turn; and Katherine Swynford, whom John eventually married, but even this was partly political because he wanted their children and their various relatives legitimized. Those relatives include the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who was married to Katherine’s sister. I get the impression that Chaucer didn’t make money out of his poetry, as he had to do other work for a living. Then as now, families weren’t necessarily harmonious units, although the author gives the impression that Katherine was good with people generally and with children in particular.

The author seems to do a fair job of trying to uncover the truth about Katherine, though we will never know how close to the truth she came. In the end, Katherine’s legacy seems to rely on her success in passing on her genes to successive generations, though she would have decidedly mixed feelings about that legacy. As a devout Catholic, I don't think she would be impressed by Henry VIII, nor with the way he treated his wives and the mass destruction of the monasteries, but there have been plenty better than him. One might wonder what she would make of Winston Churchill (hugely successful in World War II, but a controversial politician before that) or the various American presidents among her descendants, including the George Bushes. Katherine might prefer the current royal family, or Princess Diana, although one could argue that she would have a particular soft spot for Camilla, also Katherine’s descendant, as the nearest equivalent to her position in the modern world.

Apart from her many descendants, Katherine doesn’t appear to have left much of a legacy, and that may be one reason why there is so little information about her; there aren’t even any images that can be categorically said to be of her, though the author found two paintings that each feature several people (pictured in the book) where she suggests the one that might be Katherine while also suggesting who else may be shown. The author writes very positively about Katherine, so I hope that this is what she was really like, but who knows? This is a fascinating book on many levels. There is the love story and the scandal, but there’s also the history, the politics and the genealogy. The world today is very different in many ways from the world as it was 600+ years ago, but throughout the book, I could see that some things never change and probably never will.

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