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

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  The Life of Katherine Swynford,

  Duchess of Lancaster


  A Reader’s Guide

  Question and Topics for Discussion

  What are the challenges facing an author who undertakes a biography of a medieval woman such as Katherine Swynford?

  Having read the book, what impressions have you been able to form of Katherine as a person? Has the author succeeded in bringing her to life?

  Did Katherine deserve her bad reputation? Why did her contemporaries censure her? Did they all censure her for the same reasons? How is it that we can take a kinder view of her today? Do you think that Anya Seton’s sympathetic portrayal in her bestselling novel Katherine has something to do with this?

  Why is Katherine now finding favor with feminist scholars? How far did she take control of her own destiny and make her own choices?

  “This is a love story.” What evidence is there in this book to support that claim? Do you think that the author has been influenced in any way by Anya Seton’s romantic portrayal?

  The story of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford has often been compared to the relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. What parallels can be drawn?

  Has the author made a convincing case for John’s affair with Katherine beginning in the spring of 1372? Some writers have concluded that his renunciation of her in 1381, after the Peasants’ Revolt, was purely a smokescreen. Would you agree with the author’s assertion that their parting was genuine, and that they only resumed their affair after John’s return to England in 1389?

  Is the evidence for John of Gaunt suffering from a venereal disease in his closing years convincing? Could any other construction be put upon this evidence?

  In the 1950s, Hollywood was going to film Katherine with Charlton Heston as John of Gaunt and Susan Hayward as Katherine Swynford. If Katherine’s story were to be filmed today, which actors would you like to see in the leading roles?

  Why is Katherine Swynford considered a controversial character? Why is it that no one thought to write a biography of her until recently?

  Further Thoughts on the Causes of the Deaths of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford

  In Chapter 9, I discuss the theory that John of Gaunt suffered from, and died of, a venereal disease, and suggested the possibility of his having contracted gonorrhea, although I did stress that the evidence is, of course, inconclusive. Since this book was published, I have been fortunate to have the benefit of the medical opinions of two experts, which may throw some light on the Duke’s final illness, and Katherine Swynford’s death, and are an essential addition to this book.

  If we believe the evidence for a disease affecting the sexual organs, then we should perhaps look beyond the assumption that it was venereal. Dr. Susanne Dyby is a biologist, and she thinks it unlikely that John of Gaunt suffered from gonorrhea; certainly it is very rare to die from it, for it is usually relatively benign as diseases go. Dr. Cynthia Wolfe has confirmed that gonorrhea, and today’s most common type of chlamydia, do not cause “putrefaction of the genitals and body,” as Gascoigne described. They do cause rather mild discomfort (if any), some pus from the urethra or vagina, and infertility, but never ulceration or putrefaction outside the body. The symptoms, if any, tend to show up within a month, and sexual contacts are almost always also infected. So it is almost certain that neither gonorrhea nor chlamydia was the cause of John’s diseased groin.

  Dr. Wolfe believes that I could be right in speculating that John of Gaunt had a venereal disease, or that he could have contracted a rare type of chlamydia trachomatis disease called lymphogranuloma venereum, which does cause swelling of inguinal lymph nodes, ulcerations, skin breakdown and putrefaction, is slow in onset, and is not so easily transmitted, thus accounting for the fact that Katherine did not seem to suffer. Dr. Dyby thinks that, after their separation in 1381, it is certainly possible that John contracted gonorrhea, and that, when the couple reunited, this could have caused sterility in Katherine, sterility being a common by-product of sexually transmitted diseases. Even so, it is unlikely that an STD killed either John or Katherine, given that syphilis had not yet arrived in Europe and that the Duke’s mental state was clear at the very end.

  Dr. Dyby believes it far more credible that he contracted malaria in Aquitaine, in the marshes and the mosquito-ridden summers of southwest France. The intermittent high fevers that he suffered might suggest this diagnosis.

  Both experts suggest that John could have had a cancer that was slow-growing and destructive, and Dr. Dyby offers the convincing theory that he suffered from prostate cancer, whic
h could have been responsible for the putrefying—and possibly stinking—genitals that John had allegedly displayed to Richard II. It can also cause many other ghastly effects on the body, if the disease is allowed to run its course over a long time without any effective treatment, as must invariably have been the case in medieval times. It would not be surprising if the Duke’s contemporaries concluded that such a disease was the consequence of fornication.

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