Saturday, April 17, 2010

John of Gaunt: The Biography (With Footnotes About the Swynford Affair)

Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir (Ballantine Books, 2009, 416pp.)
Historian Alison Weir crafts a biography of Katherine Swynford, medieval mistress, and later wife, of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of England’s Edward III. A love story most notably portrayed in Anya Seton’s 1954 novel Katherine, the widowed Swynford served as a governess to the duke’s children. She bore him four children, all of whom were legitimized when the couple married after the death of Constance, John’s second wife. Weir covers a fair amount of territory, including the Plantagenet family, the Peasants’ Rebellion, and the infamous Black Death, with a cameo appearance by Geoffrey Chaucer. Very little is actually known about Katherine, however, and unfortunately for the author, it shows. What she lacks in terms of Katherine’s physical appearance, hobbies, or personality, she makes up for in speculation, including her reactions to certain historical events. (Was Katherine fearful of catching the Black Plague? Did she really believe that John of Gaunt wasn’t off seducing other women in addition to herself?, etc.) What purports to be an account of a passionate love story reads more like a biography of John of Gaunt (a more historically known figure) with the love affair penciled in the margins. It is by no means a poorly written biography—far from it, in fact. It’s simply a well-written one with a tragically misleading title.

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