Mistress of the Monarchy
Of course I bought Mistress of the Monarchy by Alison Weir because of Anya Seton’s historical novel Katherine. I love the novel, and I thought it would be deeply interesting to take a closer look at its main characters from a historian’s point-of-view. I was not disappointed.
The love story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of the English king Edward III, is one of the most romantic real-life romances ever, and actually one with a happy ending. Katherine was born the daughter of Paon de Roët, a minor knight from the county of Hainault (now partly Belgian, partly French). He was fortunate enough to secure for both his daughters positions at the court of Philippa of Hainault, wife to Edward III of England. Katherine later became lady-in-waiting to Philippa’s daughter-in-law Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster and wife of John of Gaunt. Theirs was an exceptionally happy marriage, and John’s pain was great when Blanche died young. He went on to make a dynastic marriage, but he gave his heart to Blanche’s former lady-in-waiting Katherine Swynford, who was widowed herself by then. They spent several years together and had four children. Dramatic events caused John later to separate from Katherine, but after his second wife’s death, he married her, although this was considered a terrible mesalliance.
Considering that hardly anybody married for love during this period, least of all a member of the royal family, this marriage is truly remarkable and proves how deeply attached John and Katherine must have been. They were both middle-aged by the time they wed, and although the marriage made it possible for John to have his children with Katherine legitimized, he could have continued to provide for them without taking this extraordinary step. So as in the novel Katherine, here is everything to delight you: A charming young man who deeply loves his wife and mourns her terribly; a young woman who admires a prince from afar until she can comfort him in his grief and bring him a second chance to love; abiding love in the face of scandal and separation; caring parents; and a happy ending.
I found Alison Weir’s account of John and Katherine’s story deeply fascinating, but there are three caveats. For one thing, you must not mind if you are bogged down by details. Alison Weir follows up every clue to her protagonist’s whereabouts, including their numerous children, and every political development. As there are very few Christian names used in that period, I sometimes got lost among all the Johns, Henrys and Williams. So while I learned a lot about the second half of the 14th century, not all of it was directly connected to Katherine Swynford herself.
Secondly, there is very little historic evidence from Katherine’s life. Katherine’s will has been lost, and there is no document written by her or in her name extant. Most of what we know about her comes from chronicles written by clerics, who were inclined to condemn Katherine and blame her for John’s adultery. The other important source is lists of payments and presents for Katherine on behalf of the royal family, but there is only so much information to be gathered from those. So Alison Weir relies heavily on inference and conjecture. She is convincing in what she assumes, but after a while I began to long for something more solid for a change.
Third, the book includes some less than romantic elements. If you shy away from some of the harsh truths of life in the 14th century, and do not wish to have your positive view of John and Katherine in any way tarnished, perhaps this book is not for you. Weir leaves the overall romance intact, but some details might disturb you. In an appendix, Alison Weir discusses Anya Seton’s Katherine. I liked the fact she is not at all dismissive of the book as “just” a romance, but considers its merits and flaws dispassionately.
Mistress of the Monarchy is a deeply interesting look at what can be found out about the true lives of two beloved characters from historical fiction. I have to admit, though, that it has mostly made me wish to revisit Katherine, the historical novel.