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Title: Mistress of the Monarchy
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Status: royally unamused
From: USA

(Date Posted:02/18/2011 10:56)
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British historian darling Alison Weir presents us with Mistress of the Monarchy, a bio of Catherine Swynford, John of Gaunt's mistress.  Let the Alison Weir rant commence ROFL

Is it just me, or is this woman just sliding by on the coattails of her fame with her last several books?  I especially enjoyed her Henry VIII: The King & His Court because it was fairly accurate, as even Weir can't dispute the validity of household accounts & rolls of the Board of the Green Cloth, etc.  And even though she's definitely not a Ricardian, her Wars of the Roses book wasn't bad.  It did make me scratch my head when her Children of Henry VIII had Jane Grey on the cover of the US edition rather than Fitzroy   But her fiction dabbling has been terrible & her earlier books don't read like she's phoned it in, despite playing spot the historical inaccuracy in them.

At not 100 pages into the Swynford bio it was already irking me.  I'm one of those folk who think history needs to be in chronological order, especially when it's a biography.  Weir's jumping from speculating about Catherine's probable date of birth to chatting about Blanche of Lancaster & then jumping back to what Catherine & sister Philippa are doing at Queen Philippa's court & then she's talking about how John of Gaunt appealed to Rome regarding the validity of his marriage to Catherine because he allegedly stood godfather to one of her Swynford children & it created a degree of affinity & then back to Catherine's place in the Lancaster household & then to the probability of Gaunt pulling a Henry VIII & sleeping with Philippa Chaucer & then to Catherine's marriage to Hugh Swynford & I got dizzy LOL  Someone's life needs to go in a straight line, for Pete's sake!

Then there's the coy asides, when Weir refers to something that's going to happen 30 years in the future & says "as we shall see".  Don't tease folk in advance, just get to it at the proper time.  By page 35 she'd already repeated herself twice while relaying info on John of Gaunt & it's like, wasn't this on pg 19 & why does it bear repetition?

I was really looking forward to this as Catherine Swynford & John of Gaunt are two very interesting characters in the Plantagenet line, plus Catherine is one of the mothers of all Tudors, as we shall see (o the irony ROFL), but from the get-go it made one wish Weir would dust off her notes & get to the point already!

And FYI BTW, Gaunt is yummy ;-P   Since early portraiture wasn't all that flattering to the subject, when one sees one that makes said subject hot tamales, one has to slurp indelicately ROFL thinking on how very delectable he must've been.  Gaunt's surviving portrait actually isn't contemporary, but it's said to be taken from his now non-existent tomb effigy (alas there was a fire in St Paul's in 1666, if you recall, so he was inadvertantly cremated well after his demise).  Those were usually created from taking a "death mask" of plaster from the intended subject of the effigy to get it right.  Here's Gaunt & is it any wonder chicks were throwing themselves at this guy?  I mean, just check out those bedroom eyes on him!

I'm really beginning to hate this "new" publishing practice where footnotes are now endnotes.  One either has to keep flipping back & forth, breaking one's reading flow, or be totally clueless at the end if one doesn't & have to keep going back.  Plus one tends to miss footnote numbers with their tiny print if it's not immediately present at the bottom of the page.  This is not Weir's fault as I've noticed this trend in other books in the last several years, but it's annoying just the same.  It also drives me nuts when the begats (family trees) are at the end instead of the beginning.  Now I know I know the begats fairly well, but maybe other folk don't & knowing the cast of players early on would make for easier reading.

Weir is, however, really annoying at times.  She'll spout something like "this happened in 1396, though other historians state it was either 1393 or 1397" & never explains WHY she gets to contradict previous assessments.  She'll say something I've never seen before & I look for the footnote thinking she's obviously going to verify said outrageous statement, but nope, there is none.  Sometimes I think SHE thinks her "opinions" ARE "facts".

As far as her biography subject, it's one of those books like the bio of Jane Rochford.  "Catherine may have...." sort of thing.  She spells it with the K but we don't like that so we ignore it.  The vast majority of John of Gaunt's personal records were destroyed when his palace of the Savoy was pillaged & burnt down during the Peasants' Revolt, so there are wide documentation gaps in the pertinent years of Catherine Swynford's involvement in his life & therefore one needs to suppose. 

There are some records remaining & from these Weir conjectures what's happening.  Gaunt made many grants of coin & properties to Catherine "for her service to our-well beloved duchess", in reference to Blanche of Lancaster.  The ennoblement, careers, & legitimization of the Beauforts are from other public sources, not personal records, as is Gaunt's papal petition to have his marriage to Catherine in 1396 legitimized in the eyes of the church.  Weir has a whole section at the end regarding the Beauforts & what happened to them after Catherine's death.

Pausing for a begats's rather sad to see how the Wars of the Roses absolutely decimated the male line of the Beauforts in just a couple of generations.  Margaret Beaufort was essentially the sole survivor of that side.  If they weren't killed in battle, they were captured & executed.  I blame Margaret of Anjou, as if she hadn't been so petty & vindictive with Richard of York's & Edmund of Rutland's corpses (displaying their heads with paper crowns on York's gates), maybe the Yorkists wouldn't have lopped the head off every Beaufort to cross their path.  Also interesting, I'd completely forgotten about the female Beaufort legacy....daughter Joan was Cicely Neville's mother, & Cicely in turn was the mother of Yorkist kings Edward IV & Richard III.  Makes you wonder if Cicely, or her nephew "the Kingmaker" were conflicted at all, coming from staunch Lancastrian lineage.

Also interesting to think of is that the Tudors never mentioned their female Lancastrian ancestors of dubious repute (though Margaret was hardly pristine despite her alleged saintliness).  Elizabeth of York's great-great-grandparents were Catherine Swynford & John of Gaunt every bit as much as they were Margaret's.  Catherine of Valois, despite her questionable liaison with Owen Tudor, was lauded by the Tudors merely by virtue of being a princess of France & queen of England, but Catherine, Duchess of Lancaster doesn't so much as get a nod from her Tudor descendents.  At least there's proof of Gaunt's marriage to her & of their children being made legitimate, whereas there's no proof Owen Tudor married Catherine of Valois.

There was one thing I hadn't seen before regarding bastard offspring....anyone ever heard the phrase "mantle children"?  On February 6, 1397, the King's Patent Letters were read out at Parliament & a "mantle ceremony" was performed, involving John, Catherine, & their 4 children standing together under a "care cloth", as was supposedly done when parents of bastard children married.  However, Weir points out that "mantle children" could not inherit property despite this recognition of legitimacy.

Parliament passed an act confirming the legitimacy of the Beauforts, declaring them "fully capable in law of whatsoever dignities, honors, preeminences, status, ranks, office public & private, perpetual & temporal, feudal & noble, there may be, as freely, fully, & lawfully as if you were born in lawful wedlock".

So where does the prohibition to the Beaufort line being barred from the throne come in, were they declared totally legit? 

Weir makes the case for there being "great affection" between Catherine, the 4 Beauforts, & all Gaunt's legitimate children (3 of the 7 with Blanche, Henry of Bolingbroke, Philippa, & Elizabeth survived to adulthood, as well as 1 of the 2 with Constance of Castile, named Catherine; poor Gaunt had 3 sons all named John who died in infancy, so it's ironic the one that didn't was the bastard John Beaufort).  Weir's evidence is all the great honors & ennoblements Henry IV lavished on his bastard half-siblings after taking the throne from Richard II, which seems reasonable. 

But despite that, it was the Tudors' own Lancastrian forebear, Henry IV, who tinkered with their full legit status.  On February 10, 1407, 10 years after the fact, Henry IV confirmed the statute of Richard IIs reign legitimizing the Beauforts, but added in the words "excepta dignitate regali" in his Letters Patent, denying them the right to succeed to the crown.  Weir speculates this was because even though Henry IV had 4 adult sons of his own & got on well with his Beaufort brothers, he could not rely on the fealty of subsequent generations.  How ironic that all the later generations of Beaufort males died defending the right to the throne of Henry IVs grandson, Henry VI, & the Tudor claim went through the matrilineal line as well as the bar sinister.

Beauforts aside, this is as much a a bio of John of Gaunt & Geoffrey Chaucer as it is of Catherine Sywnford.  Other than the fact that her sister Philippa married Chaucer, really not seeing why his life should be given such preeminence in a volume on his SILs life, especially as Weir keeps emphasizing the little contact Catherine & Chaucer had because he was mostly estranged from Philippa after the 1st few years of their marriage.  I can justify the Gaunt details as he was Catherine's lover & subsequently husband; I think Weir "padded" as the bio barely reaches 300 pgs as it is.

It's just one of those cases where there really isn't much on the record involving an historical figure.  Catherine's birth date (probably 1350, says Weir) is open to debate, as well as when she entered both the household of Queen Philippa & the Duchess of Lancaster's household, married Hugh Swynford, & even how many legitimate children she had by him.  Weir does give a nod to Anya Seton's novel Katherine (who as I recall gave her 2 Sywnford offspring, Blanchette & Thomas), but says there was a 2nd daughter, Margaret, who became the Abbess of Barking, & likely a 3rd daughter, Dorothy. 

I want to know what is this thing where offspring kept getting the same names.  I get John of Gaunt repeatedly naming sons John as 3 of the 4 died in infancy, but Thomas Swynford didn't, so why is there Thomas Beaufort? 

And no one's sure of what Catherine died of in 1403, either.  Weir states Henry IV had her titled "the King's Mother" & therefore thought very highly of her.  That does seem to indicate a loving relationship with the stepmother who used to be Daddy's mistress.  Catherine did, after all, raise Gaunt's 3 eldest legit children (being in charge of their nursery) after Blanche of Lancaster died so young.

Weir terms this "a great historical love story", saying Gaunt would never have married Catherine if he didn't love her; but he DID marry Constance of Castile after his relationship with Catherine was consummated, so to speak, in elusive pursuit of a throne.  So one makes the surmise that was a tad more important to Gaunt than the supposed love of his life.

Henry IV was the only one of his 5 legitimate sons to survive, & Weir states in his youth he was just as much a warrior as his son Henry V, running off in a mercenary-like fashion to fight other folk's battles, being none in England at the time.  It was at the time of Gaunt's marriage to Catherine that the question of making the Beauforts legit first arose.  Gaunt was already old for his times & not well.  I wonder if he married Catherine & approached nephew Richard II about legtimizing their offpspring so that the Duchy of Lancaster would have heirs in the event Henry IV popped his clogs?  Henry IVs sons turned out to be remarkably unfertile in the end.

O, & Weir decides maybe John of Gaunt died of the clap!  She cites an Oxford chronicle that stated "John of Gaunt died of putrefecation of his genitals & body, caused by the frequenting of women, as he was a great fornicator"; this further went on to say that Richard II visited Gaunt as he lay dying & Uncle John showed off his putrid parts.  Umm, yuck. 

Weir says this could be why Catherine only outlived Gaunt by 4 years despite being at least 10 years younger, because maybe she had it, too.  Quite the leap there, Alison.  Weir "corroborates" this with a stained glass window at York Minster featuring Gaunt kneeling at prayer with a Latin prayer book on the desk in front of him quoting the 1st line of Psalm 38: "O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy wrath, neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure".

Weir finds this compelling because the rest of this psalm goes on to talk about "corrupt flesh" & "stinking loins".  Umm, yuck.  How about he was pushing 60 in an age where folk generally shucked off their mortal coil a bit earlier than that?  I hate when Weir lunges for the sensational.

OK it wasn't terrible (Weir does NF better than her horrendous fiction debut on Jane Grey that I despised), but as always, Weir needs to be taken with a grain of salt on some issues, Chaucer tangents were unnecessary, & it was more about Gaunt than Catherine anyway.  I like Gaunt, so fine, but details of his Castilian campaigns etc while neglecting to mention what Catherine may have been up to in his absence doesn't fly in a bio of his 3rd wife.  Weir should've just called the book "John of Gaunt & His Mistress".

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