This isn’t a real review, but I wanted to register how much, overall, I enjoyed this biography of Katherine Swynford that I read recently.
I have read a lot of Alison Weir’s work. I know she sometimes gets accused of writing populist history; personally I find her a really intriguing mix between populist and academic. On the one hand – what’s wrong with being populist if you’ve done your research?? Making intriguing women like Swynford accessible to a general public is something to be lauded very, very highly. On the other hand, there were bits that I absolutely skimmed over because they were so dense; I’m sorry, I just don’t find descriptions of household objects and suchlike that riveting. Maybe that makes me a bad historian… or just not a good domestic historian. Anyway – this was largely very readable and enjoyable, and I think would be found so by reasonably educated people with little detailed knowledge of medieval England.
And then there’s the subject. Katherine Swynford! Attendant to Philippa of Hainault when she marries the English Edward III; governess of some sort to John of Gaunt’s (third some of Edward III) children; then (after his beloved first wife dies, and her possibly lamented but not so much husband also) John of Gaunt’s mistress and mother of at least four of his children; then repudiated for some time when he gets a bit thing about maybe becoming king of Castile, plus pious; then, finally, John of Gaunt’s third wife. Which also wrangles the legitimacy of her children by him. All of which doesn’t include the building works she manages in various places, the bringing up of a number of children, possibly being involved in politics at different stages, oh and her sister married Geoffrey Chaucer.
She’s a major reason the Tudors had a connection to royalty, before forcibly taking the crown (they’re descended from the Beauforts, who are the legitimised children mentioned above). She’s also the progenitrix of six American presidents.
Katherine Swynford was clearly a remarkable woman. She was on good terms with a large proportion of the English nobility – admittedly, partly because she was widely known as John’s mistress and thus had access (heh) to his ear, but nonetheless she was clearly highly regarded. She was also on good terms with most of the clergy with whom she came into contact, for example in Lincoln where she appears to have lived right next to the cathedral for many years. She must have been a remarkable housekeeper – in the very broadest and most impressive sense, since it appears that the place she first lived in with her first husband was a bit crap, frankly, and she was largely responsible over many years for making it a good place to live. Plus, she lived through remarkable times: this is the Hundred Years’ War, and also the time of Wat Tyler’s mob rampaging through London and burning the Savoy Palace… which would be the palace belonging to John of Gaunt. Fortunately, not while he – or she – was in it.
It’s brilliant to see such a woman getting a biography. I love Weir’s introduction to this which confesses that pretty much this is the biography she’s been working towards for years – she just had to have the clout to manage to get her publisher to agree to it. Way to go to get what you wanted!