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As a big history fan I enjoy reading historical biographies, particularly of women. The Tudor period is my favorite but I was also keen to learn about the Plantagenet that preceded them and one of the key characters is Katherine Swynford. Hence, this was bio by Alison Weir, was one of the books my friend purchased for my Christmas present. Alison Weir is a well know author of both historical biographies and novels. She mainly writes the former and specialises in the Tudor period.
The book is 366 pages, of which 278 are the actual biography. The rest is notes, acknowledgments, family trees, citations and an index. The text, however, is very small, so the book feels somewhat longer than 278 pages.
Many may wonder who Katherine Swynford is, as she is not that well-known and in fact not a huge amount in known about her early life, including her exact date of birth (estimated about 1350). She was the daughter of an usher to the court of Philippa of Hainault (what is now within the confines of Belgium) who came to England when she married Edward III. Katherine's family came too and she grew up within the royal court and was later placed with the family of John of Gaunt (Edward & Philippa's third son) and his wife Blanche of Lancaster where Katherine no doubt helped Blanche and looked after their daughters. Newly widowed after the death of her husband, Sir Hugh Swynford, Katherine became John's mistress (and later wife), although this happened much later. Weir looks at Katherine's journey within the royal courts and the scandal that her affair caused as well as the political machinations of the day.
As was mentioned, not a lot was known about her early life, and in fact a lot of her life is a mystery up to (and often during) her scandalous affair with John of Gaunt (The tag-line on the cover calls it "The story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess"). This is a bit of a misnomer as although Katherine was no saint, she was one of many mistresses and lovers John reputedly took during his second marriage. Weir has extensively researched Katherine's life, albeit the resources available are limited. The main reason for this is because Katherine was not significant enough within the royal court until later in her life, plus as a female, she was not considered significant generally. Add into this the length of time that has passed and we are lucky to have the records available that we have (parts of John of Gaunt's register are missing which listed gifts sent and where to, which helped a lot). Of course, with so many gaps there is some degree of speculation required, and not all sources could be considered reliable as Katherine became so notorious, people's opinions of her were biased and reports written two hundred years later reflected this rather than the truth.
I thought Weir's approach to this very good as she presented the evidence to you clearly and explained why certain aspects may or may not be valid depending on the source. In some cases the evidence was fairly conclusive but in other instances, more speculative and we will never really know for sure. To make up for this, Weir adds details on surrounding characters in the Court, as well as discussing John, his children by his previous wives and his nephew King Richard II. This background information in relevant to the period in history and is interesting in its own right, but does make Katherine seem a bit of a supporting character in her own book.
Alison Weir is not one of Britain's most read historians for nothing. The book has been well researched (as much as possible) using new and more contemporary resources. Weir presents this information neatly and concisely and thus it is easily accessible for the layman and history fan to enjoy without coming across as too 'academic-y'. If you are a fan of historical biographies, women in history or this period in history, then I do recommend this book. Overall I enjoyed it and found it interesting and informative, but other readers may be frustrated by the lack of definitive evidence.
Things I learnt:
Kathrine's brother-in-law was Geoffrey Chaucer.
Her descendants include our current Royal Family as well as many of Europe's Royal Families and 5 US presidents. With this in mind, it is such a shame that so little is known about her and the key role she has played in our history.
One of my all time favourite books is a novel written way back in the Fifties by Anya Seton about the life of Katherine Swynford who became first the mistress and later the third wife of John of Gaunt. The perceived wisdom at the time Anya Seton's novel was published was that there was little historical documentation about Katherine Swynford's life but that was over fifty years ago and Alison Weir, in her introduction to her biography of Katherine, claims to have used only contemporary or near contemporary resources in this work and to have also found fresh evidence which had since come to light. Having read Anya Seton's novel about Katherine, it came as no surprise that Alison Weir begins her book with the statement that "This is a love story, one of the greatest and most remarkable love stories of mediaeval England" and despite not being a huge fan of Mrs Weir's historical novels, most of which concentrate on the Middle Ages and the Tudors in particular, I was interested enough in the subject of this biography to borrow the book from the library.
Price and availability:
This book is widely available, not only free to borrow from public libraries but also online with prices beginning at 1p plus postage.
My knowledge of this period of English history is, admittedly, very limited largely because it never seemed to be particularly well covered at school by history teachers who just wanted to skip more or less straight from the Normans onto the Tudors and Stuarts with a brief stop at the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt. Published historians, too, seem to have only produced either very learned text books or cover this time period as part of a broader picture and I suspect this is because there is little in the way of documentation remaining from that time. In this book I was hoping to learn not only about Katherine Swynford's life but also something of the England of the 14th century which was a time of considerable political unrest and Alison Weir has certainly written an interesting account of the time.
It seems Katherine was set upon her path to glory, or infamy depending on your point of view, at the tender age of two or three when she was placed into the household of Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III. Katherine was herself from Hainault (and we're not talking here about the tube station almost at the end of the Central Line but about Hainault which was a principality situated mostly in what is now Belgium). Alison Weir spends most of this first chapter trying to establish who Katherine's ancestors were, and the identity of her mother, but draws the conclusion that this isn't known. In fact, all that is definitely known is that her father was Sir Paon de Roët who had been a loyal servant to the royal family of Hainault. Though it's believed the de Roët family were fairly lowly in status, there is a faint possibility that they may have had some royal blood in their veins but, again, there's no documentary proof. Even Katherine's year of birth is unknown, but historians are roughly agreed this was around 1350. Mrs Weir asserts that Katherine was probably named after St Katherine of Alexandria and that Katherine de Roët was likely to have been born on or around 25th November in 1349.
This lack of information about Katherine Swynford sets the tone for this book and the author admits that "no letters survive, no utterance of hers is recorded." which leaves a biography that has been largely based on supposition and the writings of people not contemporary to Katherine Swynford and even when contemporary sources are used, these opinions are flawed at best, having been written by clerics whose Christian ethics would not make them well disposed to adultery or by people with a political axe to grind against John of Gaunt whose popularity rose and fell throughout his life. The only contemporary account of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford as a couple was written by Thomas Walsingham who disliked John of Gaunt because of his support for the religious reformer, John Wycliffe. Walsingham's 'Chronicon Angliae' is a vilification of John of Gaunt in which he refers to Katherine as "a witch and a whore" but despite Walsingham's vituperations, the offspring of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, were given the family name of Beaufort, were legitimised after their parents' marriage and it is from these Beaufort children that the monarchies of Edward IV, Richard III and the Tudor dynasty have been founded.
As a consequence of the dearth of information about Katherine, the book is very padded out with details about the period which, though interesting, don't tell the reader anything about Katherine. The most predominant words used throughout this book are ones such as "probably", "unsubstantiated", "no documentary proof", and the like. Another problem I had was the fact that it's peppered with dates which are all but meaningless and mostly pertain to people other than Katherine herself and only link to her or John of Gaunt in the most tenuous manner. In fact, when this book is analysed, there is very little actually written about Katherine and much of the information given is then paraphrased and repeated later in the book anyway. This would be better described as a biography of John of Gaunt.
It seems to me that what this book truly lacks is a little objectivity. It's pretty clear from the outset that Mrs Weir has cast both John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford into somewhat heroic moulds and there is much made of their piety and of John of Gaunt's love for his first wife, Blanche. Alison Weir is not a trained historian and on her website she defends her populist historical biographies by saying, "History is not the sole preserve of academics, although I have the utmost respect for those historians who undertake new research and contribute something new to our knowledge. History belongs to us all, and it can be accessed by us all." Whilst I acknowledge there is much truth in this view, it has to be said that as part of their training, academic historians learn how to look at documentary and historical evidence with objectivity and draw their conclusions from what is definitely known, whereas I feel that Alison Weir, certainly in this particular book, has tended to bend what little historical evidence there is to suit her own beliefs. As to her claim that this is "one of the greatest and most remarkable love stories", she writes very little about this and I'd argue there is more information here about the relationship between John of Gaunt and his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, than there is about his relationship with Katherine.
The new information the author is supposed to have uncovered must have been very well hidden because, quite frankly, what information she imparts seems to be little more than a rehash of the few facts that are known and were already incorporated into Anya Seton's novel. Which brings me to another bone of contention. In the introduction to this biography, Alison Weir claims that her interest in Katherine Swynford was sparked by reading Anya Seton's novel which she says Ms Seton took several years to research and that she never compromised historical fact for the sake of a good story. However, in an appendix at the conclusion to this work, she proceeds to do almost a character assassination of Anya Seton, who she states was a beautiful socialite, herself involved in illicit extramarital affairs and who wrote autobiographical rather than biographical fiction. To my knowledge, Anya Seton never pretended that her book was anything other than a novel, however well researched it may have been, and her personal life can surely have very little bearing on the quality of the book itself, so I have to wonder why Alison Weir felt the need to write this appendix at all.
There are several photographs accompanying the text but these are mainly of tomb effigies and non-contemporary paintings. In total this book is 366 pages long but almost 100 of those pages are taken up with appendices, notes and genealogical tables and in all honesty the amount written about Katherine herself could probably have been condensed into about 50 pages.
I really don't like writing bad reviews and there's no denying Alison Weir has produced a well written, interesting and readable history of the late 14th century and the life and career of John of Gaunt but it could in no way be regarded as a biography of Katherine Swynford and as such, I found it very disappointing. There simply isn't enough information about the lady included or about her love story and much of what is written seems to be purely conjecture which still leaves Katherine Swynford as very much a historical enigma.
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