Audiobook Review: Katherine Swynford, by Alison Weir

Katherine Swynford:  The Story Of John Of Gaunt And His Scandalous Duchess, by Alison Weir

If you are reading (or listening to) this book, a few things could likely be said about you.  For example, you could be fond of the obscure goings on of the Plantagenet dynasty [1], or you could be the sort of person who appreciates Anya Seton’s roman a clef novel about the late medieval royal mistress.  For the record, I have never read the novel myself, but the author comments frequently that people talk to her about it all the time because they love the novel’s coy sexiness.  This book is not particularly coy at all, but rather a work of a serious historian whose lack of subject material forces her to make reasonable surmises that she is candid enough to admit.  It should be noted that this is a serious historical work, much longer as an audiobook than the paper copies of the book that I have heard of that are only a couple hundred pages long.  This audiobook goes on for 14 lengthy and very detailed discs that gives as much information as anyone would want to know about Katherine Swynford.  Is it a worthwhile book though?  Absolutely.

Whether you know a little or a lot about Katherine Swynford, and I must admit I only knew a little bit, this is a worthwhile book on several levels.  This book goes the extra mile in trying to uncover the limited record of Katherine Swynford in history while dealing with her massive historical importance as just about the only royal mistress before Camilla Parker Bowles (strangely, not mentioned as much here as one would expect) to be risen to the place of Duchess.  Katherine Swynford began her life as Katherine De Roue, the daughter of a lesser Hainault knight related (perhaps distantly or by affinity) to the English queen and Hainault ducal house, who was brought up with the children of Edward III of England and later became a part of John of Gaunt’s household, and later her mistress.  Rather than playing up the tawdriness of her behavior with the Duke during his disastrous second marriage with the de jure queen of Spain in exile after the brutal death of her father, this is a book that soberly looks at property investments, appeals to the Pope for pardon, and the clothing given by various kings to people for various events.  Most impressively of all, the reader (or listener) ends up feeling sympathetic to Katherine Swynford as a result, aware of her faults, including a certain self-interest, but impressed with her loyalty and savvy and her winsome charm and her ability to land a marriage that is a rare example of the plot of romance novels [2] being true in reality.

Still, there are a lot of ironies about this book that make it of serious historical interest.  For one, the obscure birth of Kathrine Swynford, and her obscurity within the surviving texts of the time—even her will has not survived, and the payments and gifts of her royal paramour were usually not on his ledger and openly acknowledged—clashes with her immense importance as an ancestress of every English monarch after Edward IV and five US presidents.  Her being the mother of the House of Beaufort alone is sufficient to make her worth knowing about, given the importance of that house in English politics and its survival, through the female line, into later royal dynasties all over Europe.  Her life and career is an example of the alchemical processes that the Renaissance period was so fond of imagining, by which the base metals of adultery and illegitimacy and obscurity were turned into the noble metals of matrimony, legitimacy, power, wealth, and influence.  The author manages to make a compelling book in part by exposing the importance of personal behavior and talents within a world finely balanced between change and stability, featuring dramatic shifts in status with a belief in the unchangeable nature of identity.  Katherine Swynford is the sort of woman a moralist would like to hate, but she apparently was also a gracious and warm enough person, gentle with children, witty in conversation, and having her ambition tempered with genuine love and loyalty, that she was well-liked by most in her time, spending many years of her life living near Lincoln Cathedral, where she is buried.  She’s the sort of woman who is worth getting to know about, and a fitting example of the worth of forgiveness and grace among the splendor and corruption of late medieval England.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Love & Marriage and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Audiobook Review: Katherine Swynford, by Alison Weir

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: The Plantagenets | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: A History Of England From The Tudors To The Stuarts: Part 1 | Edge Induced Cohesion

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