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Mother of Her Country

by Florence King

Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, by Alison Weir (Ballantine, 416 pp., $28)

The moist glow of overcome pilgrims is unmistakable. The residents of Lincoln, England, are used to seeing them trudge up the steep hill to Lincoln Cathedral to examine yellowed parchment records containing the name “Katherine Swynford,” get tickets to Katherine Swynford Study Days, join the Katherine Swynford Society, and take part in special ceremonies each year on May 10, such as, in 2003, the planting of a memorial tree on the 600th anniversary of Katherine Swynford’s death. Most of all, they want to gaze in awe at the tomb of Katherine Swynford herself. And often, as your reviewer did, they will murmur almost prayerfully, “Katherine . . . Katherine.”

All tourists visit the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey where the kings and queens are laid to rest, but why would anyone travel up to the English Midlands in search of a mere duchess? What causes these Elvis-like pilgrimages? The answer is found on the sign that Lincoln Cathedral has placed on Katherine Swynford’s tomb: “This is the Katherine of Anya Seton’s famous novel.”

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