Title: Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster
Author: Alison Weir
Release Date: January 5, 2010
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Biography
Source: Curled Up With a Good Book
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Duchess Katherine Swynford, immortalized in Anya Seton’s historical novel Katherine, is given a biography by noted British historian Alison Weir. In this book, Weir relays the life story of Katherine Swynford and her epic love story with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
The basics of the life story of Katherine Swynford are well known to most people that have an avid interest in British royal history. She was married young and widowed at twenty-one, after which she became the mistress of John of Gaunt. Their scandal-ridden relationship lasted through most of John’s second marriage, during which Katherine bore John numerous children. They separated for some time, but then after John’s wife passed, John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford obtained papal dispensation and married, making their years-long relationship official.
Weir notes the difficulty in creating a biography of Katherine Swynford because there is such little documentation about her that has survived through present day. As a result, much of this biography is actually about John of Gaunt, because much more information survives about him. Weir makes inferences through Gaunt’s ledgers and accountings about Katherine - for example, when he bestowed a large gift upon Katherine, it was likely because she bore him a child. It makes for a lot of guessing, though Weir provides solid reasons for the assumptions she makes.
Mistress of the Monarchy is impeccably researched and is up to the standard that Weir’s readers have come to expect from her. Though she expresses a love for Katherine Swynford at the beginning of her history, Weir is largely impartial and unbiased in this book. It’s also a fascinating look into how historians do their work; Weir painstakingly details her sources and interpretations, ensuring that the reader fully understands where her thoughts are coming from. While this can make for a dry read at times, there is no doubt that Weir really has done an exceptional job bringing Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt to life for the reader.
While this is a great book for fans of Katherine Swynford and those who have read much about British history, someone with a very casual interest in the subject may want to look elsewhere. While it’s an unparalleled look at Katherine and John, as a whole, it’s not the most engaging of histories. If you are specifically looking for a book about Katherine Swynford, especially if your curiosity has been piqued after reading Katherine by Anya Seton, don’t hesitate in picking this book up. Otherwise, readers may want to start with one of Weir’s other, more engaging histories as an introduction to her writing and research style.