Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book Review: Mistress of the Monarchy

The first book I ever read by Alison Weir was The Wars of the Roses. I had just taken History of England in my freshman year of college and the people and events of the time period captivated me. After I read the book, I was also captivated by one historical figure in particular, John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III of England.

There is just something about John of Gaunt that draws you in. I probably took notice of him because, although he himself was never king, his direct descendants peppered the throne of not just England but Europe. Every English king starting with Henry IV is a direct descendant of the greatest nobleman in England. The Wars of the Roses are essentially his descendants battling it out. John of Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster and became the Duke of Lancaster, so obviously the Lancastrians are his descendants. But Richard of York was also his great-grandson by virtue of his bastard daughter, Joan Beaufort. So his blood ran through the Yorkists as well. And not only was Henry VIII his great-great-great-grandson, but Catherine of Aragon was his great-great-granddaughter.

The progeny of John of Gaunt is captivating, but even more so because the Beauforts were his bastards with his mistress, Katherine Swynford. And the Beaufords were pretty bad-ass themselves. Katherine was the daughter of a lowly herald in Edward III's court, but her direct descendants include Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III (through her daughter Joan Beaufort); Henry VII and all the Tudors (through her son John Beaufort); and also James I and the Stewarts (though both her grandchildren John Beaufort and Joan Beaufort). Her son Henry Beaufort became a cardinal and apparently just narrowly missed being appointed Pope.

So long story short, Katherine Swynford is interesting, particularly because she was John of Gaunt's mistress for nine years before he married her after his second wife died. Mistress of the Monarchy is purportedly about her life, but really it is about her and John. Because she was of rather inconsequential birth, most the information Weir has about Katherine comes from John. For instance, Weir estimates the birthdates of the four Beaufort children based upon substantial gifts John made to her. Any insight into her personal feelings and thoughts is just conjecture, but one thing becomes abundantly clear: John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford loved each other very much. It's just a classic love story—the rich, powerful, noble hero and the beautiful, intelligent heroine. What more could you ask for?