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Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster Hardcover – January 27, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 145 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Veteran royal biographer Weir (Eleanor of Aquitaine) resurrects the life and times of the remarkable woman who was mistress and eventually the wife of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, third son of the charismatic and accomplished king of England, Edward III. Through John and Katherine Swynford (1350–1403) descended centuries of British sovereigns, including Queen Elizabeth II. Weir makes use of meager contemporary sources to build a convincing case for an intelligent, poised and talented woman who flouted convention and took control of her destiny in a male-dominated age. After the death of her first husband, one of John's knights, Katherine embarked on an illicit and notorious liaison with John, married to the queen of Castile; the connection survived separations and calamities, and she bore him four children. Repentant in the wake of the Peasants Revolt, John broke off the liaison, but after his wife's death, he risked censure to marry her, making her stepmother to the future Henry IV. Weir's well-researched, engrossing and perceptive biography gives a gutsy beauty her due while vividly describing the age of chivalry and its many players, including Katherine's renowned brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer. 16 pages of color photos. (Jan. 27)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Praise for Alison Weir

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“An extraordinary piece of historical scholarship.”
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“Weir succeeds in making Elizabeth and her subjects come to life in this clearly written and well-researched biography.”
Library Journal (starred review)

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“The finest historian of English monarchical succession writing now is Alison Weir. . . . Her assiduousness and informed judgment are precisely what make her a writer to trust.”
The Boston Globe

“Conspiracy, treason, perjury, and forgery, along with . . . political assassination, and several deadly sins . . . While Ms. Weir does not stint on the sensational details, she is above all a historian and dogged researcher. She sifts through sources, which were often compromised, and thinks like a forensics expert.”
The Wall Street Journal

Eleanor of Aquitaine

“Extraordinary . . . as delicately textured as a twelfth-century tapestry . . . exhilarating in its color, ambition, and human warmth. The author exhibits a breathtaking grasp of the physical and cultural context of Queen Eleanor’s life.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Evocative . . . a rich tapestry of a bygone age and a judicious assessment of her subject’s place within it.”

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1st US Edition edition (January 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345453239
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345453235
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (145 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #388,989 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Billed as a look the the life and times of Katherine Swynford, first mistress and later wife to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and third son of Edward III, this carefully-crafted history necessarily emphasizes Katherine's "times" rather than her life, very little trace of which remains today.

It is a tribute to Weir's historical research skills and writing ability that only rarely does this prevent the reader from savoring the story of Katherine, her extended family and the dramatic times in which she lived. It's a glimpse inside the final decades of the 14th century, a time in which feudal society was changing in response to the devastation of the Great Plague of 1348. Katherine inhabited that world, and her rise to prominence was part of the social upheaval against which the privileged and the conservatives reacted vehemently. (John of Gaunt's siblings and the Benedictine monks who chronicled the era were just some of those who reacted with incomprehension and fury to John's 1396 decision to wed his erstwhile mistress and make her the de facto first lady of England.)

Many of the female readers of this book will pick it up because, like Seton and myself, they discovered Anya Seton's famous historical novel about Katherine Swynford, nee Katherine de Roet. This could have been a feeble attempt to capitalize on that novel's enduring popularity, but instead stands on its own as a strong work of history. Indeed, I found it to be as lively a work of history as Seton's novel is a work of historical fiction, and far from spoiling my pleasure in the novel, Weir's careful winnowing out the likely truth of Katherine's youth and marriage added to my enjoyment of both books.
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Format: Hardcover
Like Alison Weir, I was first introduced to the story of Katherine Swynford through Anya Seton's romanticized 1954 novel, Katherine. Weir's biography is a pretty comprehensive look at this enigmatic, lesser-known medieval woman.

I have a love-hate relationship with Weir's books: I loved The Six Wives of Henry VIII; liked Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, and Eleanor of Aquitaine; but detested Queen Isabella and Innocent Traitor (Weir doesn't do fiction all that well). I put Mistress of the Monarchy in the "like for the most part" category.

Katherine Swynford was born Katherine de Roet in 1350, one of the daughters of Sir Paon de Roet. She then married Hugh Swynford, and spent time in the Lancastrian household as the governess to John of Gaunt's children. Katherine's affair with him probably began around the year 1372, and, after producing a number of illegitimate children, married John in 1396. Katherine is the ancestor of most of the royal houses of Europe, plus at least five American presidents. History has seen Katherine as bit of a homewrecker, but in this book, Weir attempts (and mostly succeeds) in portraying her in a more sympathetic light.

This biography of Katherine Swynford is, as with all of Weir's books, meticulously researched. It's less overtly feminist and partisan than some of her other biographies. Pay attention to the subtitle of this biography: the book is more about John of Gaunt than it is about Katherine (in fact, we don't even get a physical description of Katherine until after one is given of John). We also get very detailed biographies of everyone who was related or connected to her, especially Geoffrey Chaucer, her brother-in-law.
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Alison Weir's new biography of Katherine Swynford (1350-1403) is compelling and almost novelistic in detail, fleshed out with information about the people around Katherine, including the English royals and Geoffrey Chaucer (her brother-in-law).

Weir paints a nicely detailed picture of the late fourteenth century (including feudalism, the plague, the Church, capitalism, national and international politics, and social mores)--and an impressionistic portrait of Katherine and even her character emerges. (This is a pleasant contrast to Jeannette Lucraft's continual complaints about the paucity of information about Katherine and her character in another recent, but much less enjoyable, book on Katherine.) Weir weaves in details of the royals' financial records to good effect, for instance, drawing out patterns associated to the births of Katherine's illegitimate children. Weir also speculates candidly and sometimes persuasively on details that can't be ascertained from the sources.

Katherine was born into the knightly family of Roet in Hainault (a historical county in what is now Belgium and France). The Roets probably had connections to the ruling family of Hainault, and Katherine traveled to England as a young girl in the train of Philippa, daughter of the Count of Hainault and future queen of Edward III. Thus Katherine had the best upbringing possible in the 14th century--one in the royal court--and that she was able to rise to such an important position from relatively humble birth.

In her late teens, Katherine also married a knight in the royal circle, Hugh Swynford, who had a little property and by whom she had three or four children. Around this time Katherine became attached to the household of Blanche, heiress to the Lancastrian duchy and cousin to the King.
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