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Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster    by Alison Weir Amazon.com order for
Mistress of the Monarchy
by Alison Weir
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Ballantine, 2009 (2009)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Mistress of the Monarchy, Alison Weir (author of another royal biography, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and historical fiction including Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth) gleans from slim pickings in the historical record her biography of the life of a remarkable woman, Katherine Swynford (13501403). First mistress of John of Gaunt, she later became his wife, the Duchess of Lancaster, and her descendants range from a long list of British sovereigns (including Queen Elizabeth II) to Princess Diana, Winston Churchill and five U.S. presidents.

But it's not just an account of royals and their affairs. Katherine's brother-in-law was Geoffrey Chaucer, and it seems that his position and influence were greatly enhanced by his relationship to her - and hers to the royal family of the day. John of Gaunt was the third son of Edward III and grew to become the most powerful man in England, as well as a serious contendor for the Spanish throne (based on his second marriage to Constance of Castile). Their lengthy love affair - and particularly the fact that John of Gaunt eventually married his mistress in an era when this was just not done by such a highly ranked figure - is quite remarkable.

The lovers lived in what was a particularly eventful era, when England had territory - and increased territorial ambitions - on continental Europe, when the plague was rampant (killing close to three quarters of the population just before Katherine's birth), and oppressed lower classes rose up in the Peasants' Revolt. Alison Weir points out that, though Katherine Swynford was villified by some royal chroniclers, she remained close to the English royal family all her life (odd if she was truly a despised mistress) and appears to have been generally well liked in her time. She bore John of Gaunt several children, who were legitimized when she became Duchess of Lancaster, and whose own families by 1450 'would be linked by blood and marriage to every noble family in England.'

At the center of the book are sixteen pages of color photographs of carved figures, effigies, paintings, castle ruins, coats of arms, and so on. At the back, Alison Weir critiques Anya Seton's popular novel, Katherine, generally 'commended for its historical accuracy.' Nevertheless, Weir explains the ways in which Seton's fictional Katherine is not 'a valid portrayal of the historical Katherine Swynford.' Overall, Mistress of the Monarchy is the fascinating story of one of the great love affairs of the ages, not to be missed by anyone interested in British history.

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