Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir (Clipper Audiobook Edition)

Alison Weir is widely known for her historical fiction, but she researches and writes historical biographies as well. Inspired as a young woman by Anya Seton’s 1954 historical romance, Katherine, the popular novelist has always wanted to chronicle the lives of John of Gaunt and his long-term mistress and eventual third wife, Katherine Swynford. This book fulfills that dream. Despite its somewhat suggestive subtitle – “The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess” – this book was not intended to paint a lurid portrait of a couple who defied the conventions of their era, although the course their match took was anything but typical. Weir wrote it to accord to Katherine the important place in history that Swynford deserves.

John of Gaunt (1340-1399) was a member of the House of Plantagenet. He was the son of Edward III of England and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. A man of power and substantial political influence, Gaunt (whose name comes from the fact that he was born in Ghent) was Duke of Lancaster and of Aquitaine. Katherine, of humbler origin, was governess to Gaunt’s children by his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster.

Gaunt fathered many children, both within and out of wedlock. Katherine Swynford bore him four of them, whom Gaunt acknowledged and supported and who were later legitimatized by the Pope upon the couple’s marriage in 1396. Gaunt’s ancestral line, both from his wives and his mistress, figured prominently in the War of the Roses. All British monarchs from Henry IV to present can trace their lineage back to John of Gaunt, and Katherine’s son, John, was the grandfather of Henry VII.

While records relating to Swynford are scant, those of Gaunt enable Weir to engage in enough intelligent speculation that a convincing portrait of Katherine does emerge from the text. Additionally, Swynford’s sister Philippa married Geoffrey Chaucer, which allows Weir, with her customary attention to detail, to expand the scope of the biography and explore the political and cultural life of the times.

British narrator Judith Boyd is an accomplished and highly experienced audiobook reader. She has recorded Ann Granger’s mysteries and many other unabridged works of fiction and non fiction. She has a clear, pleasant, near-musical voice to which a listener naturally would want to pay attention. Her affable and expressive narration keeps the text moving briskly and helps makes a complex period of British history more approachable.