Review: Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir


Acclaimed author Alison Weir has been prolific with her books on English royalty covering everything from the Houses of York and Lancaster to the reigns of the Tudors and beyond. Now this remarkable historian brings to life the extraordinary tale of the woman who was ancestor to them all: Katherine Swynford, a royal mistress who was to become one of the most crucial figures in the history of the British royal dynasties.


I’m pretty sure that if you go to the dictionary and search the word “boredom,” you’ll find the traditional entry, i.e., state of weariness due to lack of interest, and a new second entry: reading a 400 page biography of an obscure 14th century minor English noblewoman who becomes a duchess in less than 48 hours.

Or maybe I’m less bored than I think during these 5 months of vacation I’m currently living, and Mistress of the Monarchy, a biography of Katherine Sywnford, is actually a more thrilling story than it first appears. Of course, as author Alison Weir informs us in the introduction, very few sources from the late 1300s remain extant. Funnily enough, this vigorously researched work with footnotes aplenty is likely more “fictional” than certain über-biographical acts of modern “fiction” that we may read today. Amateur and professional historians, beware, but to anyone less obsessed with the futile search for fact and more concerned with the uncovering of hiSTORY, there’s a great story to be found here.

Because, as Weir says in the introduction, the story of Katherine Swynford is a love story. And for a life that was lived 700 years ago, when marriage was about who owned which duchy and which Count was warring with which Duke who was warring with which King, a marriage for loooove was decidedly rare. Primary sources scant as they are, it’s impossible to say with certainty that John of Gaunt, a veritable English prince and, as the Duke of Lancaster, the wealthiest landowner in all of Europe, married a minor noblewoman from modern day Belgium because he loved her. But it does seem that he married her for true sentiment, after, of course, engaging in a decade long extramarital affair that resulted in four bastards.

Do you remember in school being assigned a 10 page paper on some esoteric subject and wondering how you’d ever find enough material to make word count? Instead of getting down and dirty with your bibliography, you’d spend time making every period size 14 font, fiddling with the margins, and artfully tabbing your paragraphs to maximize page potential. Well Alison Weir, and indeed any Medieval biographer, should have been our god to worship. Because here is a woman who noticed an extreme paucity of historical resources and said, “Well, I think I’ll write a 400 page biography!” Consequently, there are pages where Weir simply lists English castles and landholdings and complex noble genealogies, simply because these greedy feudal lords recorded more information about what they owned and who had the right to own it when they died more than anything else.

Katherine Swynford is an extremely important woman, but sadly, this is for reproductive reasons more than anything. Her bastard children with John of Gaunt will complicate the English monarchy so much that it will lead to the War of the Roses. But once Henry Tudor gains the throne as Henry VII, every subsequent English monarch (and several American presidents!) will be descended from her. This is fact, but strangely, it’s hard to care about that when we see Katherine Swynford and only think of mythical love stories.

<h2>3 out of 5 stars</h2>

Review: Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox



When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape.

Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.


Although I normally find it reductive or even counterproductive to proclaim how far feminism has come in mere centuries when things like this still exist, after finishing Julia Fox’s biography of two Spanish queens–Juana the Mad and Katherine of Aragon–I have to say, oh my GOSH, isn’t it great how far feminism has come in mere centuries?

Because these women suffered. And even though sometimes their suffering equated to “I might have to sell my bejeweled golden plate because my prince husband widowed me and now my father-in-law, the King of England, won’t pay for new dresses (#royalproblems),” they still suffered acutely simply because of their gender. But as I’ve observed again and again in pre-feminist times, women found subtle ways to fight back.

By examining the cases of these two sisters—the younger daughters of famous Spanish power couple Ferdinand and Isabella—we find many of the textbook sexist tactics used to deny women their personhood. From birth, princesses are told they ought to have been princes, a nasty bit of belittling caused by ridiculous male primogeniture laws. But no matter, princesses can also serve the kingdom by marrying foreign princes. They are raised as such, to recognize that their supreme role is to move to a faraway land, sometimes as young as 14, to marry a man, sometimes much older, that they’ve never met, and to abandon their home country likely forever and always.

It stretches the limits of my imagination to even consider that: packing up at age 14 saying goodbyes that will last forever.

Once married, the women must breed breed breed. Produce as many princes and princesses for the kingdom; princes are, of course, de rigueur, a job that Queen Juana does magnificently well as the consort in Burgundy and a job that Queen Katherine fails at miserably. The queens must watch as their husband inevitably chooses one of their ladies to be his mistress and must pretend not to be offended by any bastard children given titles.

Sometimes, if all the boys in the family happen to die (literally the WORST thing these people could imagine happening in the entire UNIVERSE—European royals of the sixteenth century are wonderfully dramatic), a queen will inherit actual power. Normally, however, one of her own relations—a male cousin, a father, even her own son—will attempt to wrench control of the power from her, as happens in the case of Juana, who is imprisoned and labeled “loca” to invalidate her claim to the crown. Calling a woman crazy to deny her autonomy…Sexist Playbook Rule #1, although the Hapsburg kings were not the first to use it nor would they be the last.

There’s a terrible amount of death. Dozens of miscarriages, perfectly healthy bridegrooms keeling over in under a week, heads rolling for questionable allegations of treason. Widowed queens marry their widower nephews. This time period is literally incomprehensible to me. Again and again throughout the story of these two tragic Spanish queens, I had to stop to wonder, “Why the hell did these people care? Who cares about ruling Castile when you already rule half of Spain, Navarre, Sicily, and Naples? WHY?”

This time period is incomprehensible to me, not only in terms of outdated gender ideologies but governmental and religious ideologies as well. It’s frustrating and confusing and crazy stupid fascinating, and I was so glad to try to understand it (for I will never actually understand it) via the stories of these two regal but oh-so-very-doomed women.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand


On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.


The best way to get you to read this story is to tell you the story. Louie Zamperini is a carefree Californian on the brink of running a mile in less than four minutes and training for the 1940 Olympics. Bombs fall on Pearl Harbor and Louie abandons his dreams to join the military. He becomes a bombardier and completes a few thrillingly dangerous missions in the Pacific Theatre. If the story ends there, it’s already remarkable; it doesn’t. Louie’s plane crashes into the Pacific, and only he and two other men survive. They float on a raft for weeks, avoiding sharks and overhead Japanese fire, only nourished and hydrated by what they can procure with their own hands. Again: if the story ends here, it’s amazing; again: it doesn’t. Eventually Louie finds his way back to land but faces immediate capture by the Japanese. From there he endures years of forced labor, starvation, physical beatings, and mental degradation in various POW camps. And in August 1945 finally: The End.

Amazing, right? And I’ve technically spoiled nothing—that entire story is recounted in the Unbroken’s blurb—yet all you want to do after having this story spoiled is to read the actual story, because sometimes real-life is more incredible than any fiction can ever be. Louie’s story is literally unbelievable, and I don’t use “literally” lightly; it frequently defies the limits of believability but author Laura Hillenbrand, who recounts Louie’s tale with passion and empathy, cites hundreds of interviews, military documents, and newspaper clippings in Unbroken’s bibliography. And you realize, as you turn each page growing more and more horrified: holy crap, this all really happened!

Reading Unbroken I discovered two things about myself: 1. I will read any book featuring shark attacks and life rafts in the Pacific 2. I would die—quickly, painfully, wimpily—in any real-life situation featuring shark attacks and life rafts in the Pacific.

Fortunately I am not the protagonist of Unbroken. All the people who actually lived this experience dealt much better with the situation than I ever could, and their demonstration of human dignity and fortitude inspired my normally withered heart. What I especially appreciated was how Hillenbrand gave voices to individuals other than Louie. His pilot friend Phil, who shares the raft and POW captivity with him, was my particular favorite, mostly for his stoic devotion to his sweetheart back home. Even the “villains” of this story, though Hillenbrand would never be so crass as to classify a real person as a villain considering how grey wartime situations can be, are complexly rendered. Louie’s greatest antagonist, a Japanese prison guard nicknamed “The Bird,” is a towering, terrifying figure, but he still manages to seem human, instead of a simplistic and prototypic symbol for Evil and Other and Enemy.

One word that continually occurred to me while reading Unbroken was miracle. There are so many miracles here, bizarre coincidences that accumulate until you’re a little bit speechless. I was prepared to dislike Unbroken: normally I loathe war books and the only reason I was giving it a go was because my mom and dad repeatedly urged me to “just read it.” If a brief summary of Louie’s story hasn’t already convinced you to read it, I’m going to quote my mom and dad: “Just read it.”

(And if that didn’t convince you, there’s also an upcoming film adaptation slated for Christmas 2014 directed by none other than Angelina Jolie!)

4 out of 5 stars