Wednesday, March 18, 2009

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

I first discovered Anya Seton when I was a teenager and I bought her novel The Hearth and the Eagle at a used book sale at a library in Vicksburg. I was hooked by that one book and have spent the years since scouring used book sales to collect all of her works. I now own them all . . . except for Smouldering Fires (If you'd like to sell me a copy - I'm game!). I was very happy in the past few years to see most of her novels come back into print again and for people to rediscover what a great historical fiction author Seton was. One of my favorite novels by Anya Seton is Katherine, a historical fiction story of Katherine Swynford, mistress and then wife of John of Gaunt in the 14th century.

I was very excited to see that Alison Weir has just published a historical non-fiction biography that looks into the details on Katherine Swynford's life. I was even more excited to see that she not only discusses how Anya Seton's novel has shaped what we know and think about Katherine Swynford, but she has a small section about the novel at the end of this book. Fantastic!

Katherine Swynford was the daughter of a knight who grew up in the court of King Edward's wife, Queen Phillippa in the 14th century. She marries a knight, Sir Hugh Swynford and has a few children by him. After Sir Hugh's death, she becomes mistress of John of Gaunt, King Edward III's third son. John is married to his second wife Constance during this period of time. Katherine has four children with John. After a period of separation and the death of Constance, the two marry and their children are legitimized. It is an amazing story - no one married their mistress . . . and having a relationship that lasted for as long as it did was also unique. Katherine's brother-in-law also just happened to be Geoffrey Chaucer. Katherine and John's children grew up to become great people and to shape much of England's history. The current Queen is descended from them as were six American Presidents including both George Bushs.

I enjoyed reading this book. I liked learning about the politics and happenings of 14th century England and how they shaped the next century and the War of the Roses. It was amazing to me that so much information was known about a time period 700 years in the past. As much as there was known, there was a lot unknown about Katherine's life and there was a lot of conjecture. I liked the genealogy tables and information about their descendents at the end of the book. I did not like the constant use of the phrase "as we will see" or something like that was used throughout the novel.

This is a must read for fans of Katherine, or for history buffs that would like to learn more about 14th century England or the politics that shaped the War of the Roses.

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