168 of 173 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2008
I don't think I can be the only reader who, although very eager to read this book, felt a certain amount of trepidaton and yes, that is because one of my all-time favourite historical novels is Anya Seton's Katherine. Alison Weir has been very kind to me, I think: although her own research has clearly shown Seton's errors and conjecture and she has not swerved from presenting the facts as she has found them, at the same time she has not callously tried to destroy my rose-tinted images completely. So while I would rather believe, for instance, that John of Gaunt married Katherine entirely out of love, and that he had always been faithful to her, I can accept Weir's far more realistic point of view. Yes, many things about Katherine in this book are still speculation, due to the huge gaps in time when there is no record of her, but they are intelligent, considered speculation and offered to us as such. I enjoyed this portrait of Katherine Swynford immensely and was able to appreciate even more than before how extraordinary her life was. But I was still able to read Seton's novel with great pleasure, although I did have to suspend belief just a little more than I used to.
178 of 186 people found the following review helpful
on 9 October 2007
I enjoyed this book. It's interesting and informative about the time and the courts of Edward III and Richard II. It's fairly well researched about the time and Weir writes in an engaging style.
However Katherine Swynford left nothing behind, we have nothing written by her and nothing about what she thought or said. We know so very little about her and it shows. Countless times throughout the book Weir has to use phrases such as 'Katherine might have been here or there', 'She may have done this or that' and 'We can only imagine what she felt' because we simply do not have enough evidence about what she was doing or where she was. It's because of this that Katherine's voice simply does not come through in the book. We do not really get much of an idea of what she was like, or what she felt or thought.
Also I noticed that Weir relies heavily (especially in the first few chapters) on the chronicler Jean Frossairt and yet on page 104, when she disagrees with something he's recorded, she tells us that "his sources can hardly have been reliable. He was, after all, writing long after these events." and yet she is happy to rely on him at other times in the book, I'm assuming because there is no other information available.
So although I've taken issue with a couple of things I did, nevertheless, enjoy reading the book and it's as thorough as it can be with so little evidence.
56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on 21 November 2008
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: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England; but detested Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England and Innocent Traitor (Weir doesn't do fiction all that well). I put Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess in the "like somewhat" 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 old water with that one).
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
The late Queen Mother is supposed to have said that titled and powerful men do not marry their mistresses. Well, we know that she was very wrong on this as her brother-in-law and her grandson did. But she had point as such men usually did or do not as like the late Sir James Goldsmith said that this "leaves a job vacancy".
One of the few exceptions was Katherine Swynford: she made it from royal mistress to royal wife. She had been for more than 20 years the mistress of Prince John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and titular King of Castile, before they were married and she became even for a very short period only - England's first lady. What caused scandal today was even more scandalous in the 14th century and this reputation sticked to Katherine. However, the reality of it all was quite different. Katherine was a well educated woman of her time, who managed her own destiny and estates, managed to hold the love and esteem of the royal duke, her children by him, the Beauforts, were not only legitimated but became well respected and highly intelligent members of England's ruling class and their off-springs became England's monarchs. On top she was held in high esteem by King Richard II and her step-son king Henry IV. This alone, is already quite an achievement.
Alison Weir follows the destiny of Katherine in a brilliant way. She simply has indeed a unique talent to tell a story. Her reputation as one of the foremost popular historians is well justified. As there are limited sources available she put things into perspective, analyses the sources and the "agenda" of the writers. She re-creates the life of Katherine in an understandable way and is academically correct without being scholarly. All this helps to understands better life and times of Katherine Swynford.
I appreciated very much the whole of the book: genealogical tables, the illustrations and the appendix on Anya Seton's novel "Katherine" made the book a great reading experience.
I do not share the criticism other reviewers' on the maybes because Katherine Swynford left nothing behind, we have nothing written by her and nothing about what she thought or said. Well, this is not the 18th century when people tended to write long letters. We are in the 14th century and direct evidence is scare. We have to fill gaps by deduction. And here Mrs. Weir is honest by pointing out when she makes an informed guess. I find it usually more irritating when a guess is presented as a fact.
I feel less happy that she portraits the Duke of Lancaster in a too favourable light. It is a bit of a whitewash. This applies as well to the relationship of Katherine and the Duke which was against the public morale of the time. Maybe she is a bit too one-sided.
But this does devaluated this great book. I enjoyed to 100% and can only recommend it.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
I really enjoyed reading this book but, as other reviewers have pointed out, the `history' is frequently very dubious. Weir isn't just uncritical in her use of sources (Chaucer's poetry, for example, taken literally and biographically), but sometimes appears wilfully biased. For example, she happily uses Froissart liberally and freely throughout her work but only as long as she agrees with him - the moment he says something about John of Gaunt that she dislikes, she dismisses him by saying that he wrote 100 years later and didn't know any better. She also admits that there is centuries worth of negative writing about John but rather than confronting it and, perhaps, easing through to a more balanced reading, she simply sweeps it away by saying it's untrue: well, yes, it might be, but she certainly hasn't convinced me of that after reading her book.
At heart Weir is completely in thrall to Anya Seton's fictionalised Katherine and refuses to entertain anything that might marr that portrayal of devoted and passionate `true' love. In her afterword, she ironically castigates Seton for her depiction of a Katherine who `believes that a marriage based on love is a normal aim for any woman, a concept quite foreign to the fourteenth-century mind' (p.280), and then in her own work asserts that `she [Katherine] must have come to believe that she was an accepted and permanent part of his [John's] life, the love of his heart and the sole focus of his desire' (p.168)... hmmm, a case of the kettle etc?
On a smaller scale, some of her analysis is very suspect: having a child a year is evidence, for her, of John's `happy sex life' with his first wife Blanche - possibly, but in a time before contraception when to prevent pregnancy was a religious crime, this was the norm for women. Equally, she reads gifts to Katherine from church and other pensioners as evidence of personal affection, when they are more likely to be requests for patronage from the woman who was mistress to the richest and most powerful man in the country.
This is, inevitably, a book more about John than Katherine, but what little Weir does give us is also very contradictory: she says that Katherine was probably able to read but possibly not to write, and then spends the rest of the book telling us how cultured, intelligent and fitting she was to be governess to the royal girl children. She's also frequently described as `pious': but everyone in the C14th was what we would call religious, it wasn't really an option not to be, and the fact is, that as a life-long adulteress, Katherine must have believed she was committing a serious sin against her so called piety.
Some may disagree or consider these things unimportant and that's a personal choice. But overall I would have been far happier if this book had called itself honestly what it is, a mix of fiction and fact pulled together by the author's imagination. So, for me, a great and enjoyable read, but really dodgy history.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 30 January 2013
Having read Anya Seton's book 'Katherine' and being fascinated by the life of John of Gaunt, I was eager to read Alison Weir's book about Katherine Swynford. However, I was disappointed, not by the massive amount of research the author put into her subject, but by the fact that I finished the book feeling I knew little more about Katherine (although more factually correct) than I did after reading Seton's book. The title is misleading because the main content is about John of Gaunt, his contempraries and other characters such as Geoffrey Chaucer in great detail.
This book is, I think, given the amount of detail and pages of reference at the back, more of reference book. The author starts by giving information about one of the characters then completely digresses into minute detail about not only where they lived but the architecture, what they wore, etc. This is fascinating but eventually becomes tiresome unless you are a student of the period as well as the people who lived then. I haven't read any of Alison Weir's other books so don't know whether this is a known trait of hers.
One last point. I was also disappointed when, in her reference to Anya Seton's book on Katherine which is known to be semi-fictionalised, Weir becomes personal in her criticism of that author to the point where she was rather scathing about Seton changing the spelling of her Christian name.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Katherine Swynford is a bit of enigma. She's arguably one of the most important figures in British history; she's the ancestress of every monarch since Edward IV, no less than five US presidents and Winston Churchill, among others; and yet most people, if they know of her at all, have only heard of her because of an historical romance, Anya Seton's Katherine. That's largely because so little is known of her, and Alison Weir does a good job piecing together what few fragments of information can be found about her. It's clear she has an affection for her subject, which I always like to see in biography. It may not be entirely unbiased, but I hate reading biographies written by people who clearly have an axe to grind or preconceived conceptions. This is a very good book and, as I said, brings to life a pretty obscure character from medieval England.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 29 October 2011
Alison Weir- that is all. Classic Weir. Wonderful, charming, beautiful and thoroughly entertaining.
Having picked off the real plums (Henry VIII's wives, Mary Queen of Scots, Eleanor of Aquitaine), Alison Weir turns in her new biography to a royal mistress of huge genetic influence. "The Scandalous Duchess" Katherine Swynford (c.1350-1403) was the long-term mistress and short-term wife of Edward III's third son John of Gaunt (1340-1399), made wealthy by his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster.
The royal houses of York, Tudor and Stuart descend from their children - as do Tennyson, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth II and five American presidents, including George W Bush. However, the star-studded family tree is no help to the biographer. Clerical chroniclers were inevitably biased against the duke's "unspeakable concubine", and Weir has to manage without a single letter by or to Katherine, no details of her clothes, books, or will.
Instead, she combines imagination, good judgement and common sense in delving into legal documents and earlier biographers, then sets what she can deduce about personal lives against dramatic events: wars, the troubled reign of Richard II and the 1399 usurpation of the throne by Gaunt's heir, Henry of Derby. Her smooth narrative belies her skill in weaving together incidental facts and cautious surmise.
The surviving registers of Gaunt's household provide colourful details, and Weir reconstructs the cultured life of the royal court in Gaunt's Savoy palace. She explains how the 1381 Peasant's Revolt led to the Savoy's destruction and "the she-devil and enchantress" Katherine being renounced until the death of Gaunt's second wife. She handles the Chaucer connection (Katherine's sister Philippa was married to Geoffrey) well.
What makes her task uniquely difficult is that Swynford is the heroine of Anya Seton's famous novel Katherine. Although it was reading Seton that made her want to research the true story, Weir is determined to escape from fiction's shadow, and discards myth in favour of the mundane. But she gives her lovebirds the benefit of the doubt. Gaunt has "aristocratic good looks... and an attractive personality", even if he is also promiscuous, and probably died of gonorrhoea. Katherine's "fair Hainaulter voluptuousness" may have been her first appeal, but their 25-year affair suggests that it was "a marriage of true minds".
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Although Weir has written historical biographies of women who were intrinsically interesting -- Eleanor of Acquitaine and Isabella (the She Wolf) of France -- I have always found them a little dry. It's surprisingly, then, that her most lively and readable book so far should be about a woman about whom so little is known.
We can conjecture who Katherine de Roet's father was but the identity of her mother remains unknown; we cannot be sure how many children she bore, assuming that some died young, as was almost inevitable; Weir makes silly statements such as 'Katherine may well have been there that day but there is no evidence of it' a little too often.
Even so, the character of Katherine shines through, the first royal mistress ever to achieve the status of wife, ancestor of every English monarch since 1461, loving the larger-than-life John of Gaunt.
Weir mischievously quotes the late Queen Mother as saying that men of status do not marry their mistresses.
I suspect that most British people would say 'Katherine Who?' I'm delighted that Weir has introduced Katherine back into history, where she belongs and whence some of her descendants, a little ashamed of her humble birth, tried to expunge her.