Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mistress of the Monarchy

We live in an age in which public figures have difficulty facing up to their mistakes. Not only celebrities, but all of us in general have trouble admitting our failures, blaming our sins on psychological wounds rather than taking full responsibility for our actions. In Alison Weir's biography entitled Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster we are shown examples of how in medieval times those with wealth and power were aware of their mortality and not afraid to make public restitution for their sins. Not only does the book relate the facts behind a famous love story but it offers many details about medieval life in general, especially about how the Church was at the heart and center of existence.

Made famous in modern times by Anya Seton's novel Katherine, the real Katherine Swynford steps from the pages of Weir's book amid the pageantry and social upheaval of fourteenth century England. Daughter of a Flemish herald, she was raised in the household of Edward III's wife Queen Philippa until she married Hugh Swynford, an obscure knight. Being educated and especially gifted with small children, Katherine served in the household of the king's third son, John of Gaunt, who through his fruitful marriage with Blanche of Lancaster became the richest and most powerful man in the realm. When John's beloved Duchess Blanche died, and he found himself unhappily married to Constance of Castile, he began a life long love affair with Katherine, who was the governess of his daughters. At first the lovers were discreet and few knew about their liaison. As the years passed, however, they became more open, with John holding Katherine's horse's bridle in public, and a great scandal ensued. 

During the Peasant's Revolt in the reign of Richard II, the London residence of John of Gaunt, called the Savoy palace, was ransacked by a mob and totally destroyed. The safety of John's family was threatened and many of his faithful retainers were killed. John saw the events as a sign of Divine displeasure at his adultery and separated from Katherine. John publicly repented while Katherine went to live a quiet life at Lincoln Cathedral. The most beautiful part of this story is that after many years of living apart in penitence, John and Katherine were reunited, John having become a widower, and they married at last at Lincoln Cathedral with their children present.

It is amazing to me at how meticulously the accounts of expenditures were kept in medieval times, times which we foolishly characterize as backward. Everything about daily life can be gleaned from them. I admire Alison Weir for sifting through so many archives and being able to draw a coherent portrait from so much loose information. One can only imagine the magnificence of the liturgies based upon the descriptions of the vestments given by generous donors, and recorded in cathedral and monastic archives. Timber and casks of wine were considered among the finest gifts a lord could give a vassal. Nobles were duty bound to care for their servants in old age. Men had to provide for their children, both legitimate and illegitimate. It is interesting how children were often fostered out at infancy to be raised away from their parents, parental love being seen as a hindrance to children learning how to deal with the realities of life. Katherine Swynford was adept at raising other people's children as well as her own. I wonder if it was the strong nurturing trait that made her so appealing to John who sought her out to be his companion even when her youth was a thing of the past.

(Image Source



Mel is Swell said...

I just finished reading this last night and I must say I enjoyed the book very much. I went into it not knowing very much Katherine (and embarrassingly little about John of Gaunt, I was familiar with him mostly as Richard II's uncle). After reading this I feel I have not only a greater understanding of these two lovers, but also of the age in which they lived. It was well-written, thoroughly researched (of course), and a very quick read. Thanks for posting this review, it is always nice to read other people's thoughts on books after I read them, particularly when the review comes from someone whose opinions I like and respect so much.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you! That's very kind of you!