Katherine Swynford is one of English history’s best known mistresses. Her attractions were clearly so strong to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, that he eventually broke all tradition and gave up the prospect of marital advance in order to marry her, a knight’s daughter who offered very little at that point in her life. But who was Katherine and what do we know about her?
As it turns out, the answer is not much, and this effort by Alison Weir ended up as a disappointment for me. I’ve never really enjoyed the history that is virtually all speculation. I understand some of it is necessary in many pursuits, but I went through this book feeling that Weir didn’t really need to write an entire book on Katherine’s life when she had so little to work with. As always, it ended up being a book about the men in Katherine’s life and bits about her more illustrious relations and children. Large sections are devoted to Chaucer, who had an absolutely tiny role in Katherine’s life, but because he’s a well known figure in history and was married to Katherine’s sister, he gets a role, even after Katherine’s sister dies. I have to say I was disappointed in that; I thought a book based solely on John of Gaunt or Geoffrey Chaucer would have been far more interesting, as Weir could have dug deeper into their lives and drawn a few more relevant conclusions. It’s a sad reality that medieval women’s lives are so little documented, something we all wish we could fix, but that’s not a case to make a book out of something.
I was also disappointed with the level of scholarship I found in the book. Weir’s analysis of her sources seems very uneven. Virtually all first hand medieval sources are unreliable to a degree – you have to take into account bias, propaganda, and so on, just like you would when deciding whether to believe someone today – and she seems to use this when it suits her and ignore it when it doesn’t. This is especially true in the case of Froissart – I thought she should have addressed his unreliability from the start, so readers had a solid background going in. I like that she uses so many primary sources, but I would prefer a bit more depth of analysis, even in popular history like this.
I also really disliked how she drew conclusions from what may have been and then just went with them, without considering other options as the text went on, as it severely limited the depths of her continual analysis throughout the book. It also led to flimsy conclusions built on flimsy assumptions, which all historians should do their best to avoid. There genuinely isn’t enough here for a book, which is what’s caused this problem. Some of the assumptions are necessary to keep the history going as a fairly steady narrative, and possibly helps for people who are unfamiliar with the Middle Ages, but I just wanted more from it. I remember enjoying Weir’s earlier books a great deal more than I liked this one.
That all said, I do think Katherine Swynford is a decent choice for getting a nice, reasonably accurate picture of fourteenth century England. Weir’s work is very readable, although at times devolves into lists and dates. For the most part she paints a nice picture of the time in which Katherine lived and how she might have thought or felt. Sadly, it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about Katherine herself, and despite Weir’s flimsy guesses we end up with little picture about the woman herself. I ended up feeling like the book was lacking, even though I liked it while reading it, and would only really recommend it to someone interested in these few years of English history and not necessarily looking for much detail about Katherine herself.
I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.