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The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

by Alison Weir

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-345-45323-5
Publisher: Ballantine

Accomplished royal biographer Weir (Queen Isabella, 2005, etc.) delves into a touching medieval love story.

The romance between John of Gaunt, middle son of England’s Edward III, and the lesser-born Katherine Swynford endured nearly 30 years over the last half of the roiling 14th century. The daughter of a Flemish knight who served Queen Philippa, Katherine de Roët was brought up with her sisters in Edward and Philippa’s lavish, chivalrous court. She was well-educated and cultured, and was married off early to one of John of Gaunt’s knights, Hugh Swynford. (Her sister Philippa married Geoffrey Chaucer, ensuring a close relationship that runs as a fascinating parallel to the main protagonists’ lives.) Assigned as governess to John’s children when he was married to the exquisite Blanche of Lancaster, Katherine earned the protection of the royal family. After Blanche’s death, John married a Castilian princess in 1371; he and the newly widowed Katherine probably became lovers the next year. She bore him four children, given the surname Beaufort, and was his increasingly visible consort, to the detriment of both her contemporary and historical reputations. John, for his part, was blamed for England’s failure to beat the French during the middle period of the Hundred Years War and for a truce his countrymen deemed craven. He became a scapegoat for all the realm’s difficulties, she was his “she-devil and enchantress” and they were direct targets of the 1381 Peasants Revolt. Swearing to reform his profligate life, John broke with Katherine for a time, but two years after his second wife died in 1394 he actually married his mistress, an unheard-of act for a member of the royal family. The Pope legitimized their children, and Katherine was his legal widow when John died in 1399. Bowled over by this tale of true love, Weir recaptures its glow in a fluid, artfully assembled narrative.

Quite beguiling—but not for the genealogically challenged.