My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am a huge fan of Alison Weir. Her writing style is engaging and friendly, and it is obvious she knows her way around the contemporary historical texts concerning her subjects. However, this biography of Katherine Swynford, née de Roët, Duchess of Lancaster, shows without a doubt Weir’s talents as a historical researcher, assiduously checking and cross-checking everything available to her in order to get as close to the truth as possible.
Much about Katherine’s life must be construed from a tiny handful of documents, and without a vast knowledge of the customs and mores of the period, a biographer would be totally at sea. Weir’s conclusions are carefully outlined and logical, and she takes pains to address (and refute, if necessary) the conclusions come to by other, earlier chroniclers. Katherine sits at the root of a large genealogical tree, and the influence of her relationship with John of Gaunt had ramifications on late 14th century English culture and continues to influence Anglo-American culture, literature, and politics today. But so little is known of her. Her will does not survive (but we know she made one), no letters in her hand survive (but we know she was highly educated and most likely incredibly literate for her day), and there are no contemporary likenesses of her left to us. Her children, those legitimate from her first marriage and those made legitimate after her marriage to their father, the Duke of Lancaster, played enormous roles in shaping 14th, 15th, and 16th century England, with her blood continuing to run in the veins of the present English monarchs. John of Gaunt has been called the “grandfather of Europe,” for the descendants of his three wives married in to practically every ruling house in Europe, from Portugal — England’s oldest standing alliance, thank you John of Gaunt — to Germany. Ever heard of Geoffrey Chaucer? Say thank you to Katherine: he was her brother-in-law, and attained much of his fame through oblique preferment by John and other members of the royal family who held Katherine in high esteem and sought her favor or the Duke’s by promoting her relatives.
And yet Katherine was practically expunged from the rolls of history within a generation of her death, and she is almost a total unknown today. We’ve all heard of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Elizabeth the First, Mary Queen of Scots, and Isabella of Castile who commissioned Christopher Columbus to sail west from Europe in search of a new route to the Indies; many are familiar with the suspicious death of Richard II, with Henry the Navigator and the Wars of the Roses, or know the significance of the marriage of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. But very, very few can name the man and the woman from whom all of this sprang.
It is about time, and I think the culture is right, for such an excellent biography of Katherine Swynford to be brought forward. She was the daughter of a humble Hainaultier knight, but she rose to be the second lady in the land, second only to the Queen of England, and her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to the nth degrees became towering figures of English history, continuing to shape the modern world. The story of her love affair with the powerful Duke of Lancaster is almost exactly the story of another royal love affair, a modern day one, and like Weir I will gracefully avoid pointing fingers, but as Weir does I shall quote the late Queen Mum: Men of title and privilege simply do not marry their mistresses. Such a marriage as John and Katherine had, one made for love after the end of a marriage made for political and dynastic reasons, especially when the groom was such a powerful, wealthy, influential man and a good catch, and the bride relatively low-born though extremely well-bred — “Even in our own time such marriage would cause comment” if such a man married such a woman, his long-time mistress, for love.