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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess
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on 27 December 2013
A very informative and revealing book about John of Gaunt's mistress. Very little is known about her, as unless you were a Queen or of some other very high rank, women weren't considered to be that important. It is a proper history book and not a novel, but all the same Alison Weir makes it very interesting.
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on 11 June 2017
I enjoyed reading this, but completely agree with the long review of 2007. Far too many probablys, possiblys and maybes with regard to Katherine, rather is an interesting biography of John of Gaunt.
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on 17 August 2017
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on 1 November 2016
This explains perfectly the medieval background - in great researched detail - to the following Tudor dynasty. A Riveting Read.
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on 24 March 2017
An excellent and well written book. I bought a second hand copy and it was in beautiful condition. Very happy with my purchase.
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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.
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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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 May 2009
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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 28 November 2008
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.
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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".
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