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Member Name: Essexgirl2006
Katherine Swynford - Alison Weir
Advantages: Well researched biography
Disadvantages: Some gaps due to time 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.
Summary: Worth a read for history fans.
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