In an era where women were constrained by their sex and status, royal mistresses managed to have outsized influence of English history through their connections with kings and the children that they bore them.
As I got into this book, it occurred to me that when you learn about history, the various favorites of kings and queens are left out except in very few instances where the story would make no sense without their inclusion (Anne Boleyn of course comes to mind). Instead their illegitimate children burst onto the scene to support or supplant their legally born siblings as though like Athena they sprang from one source only. This book purports to try and supply the other half of their DNA.
To some extent, it even succeeds. The author presents various mistresses of English kings throughout the medieval period, both before and after the Norman conquest, and discusses how their role and the public’s perception of it changed throughout the generations – from a dynastic strategy and even an honor to a private indulgence. It was interesting to learn how the mistresses slotted into the moral mores of the day, and the consequences that stemmed from when they did not.
However, I did feel that the book fell prey to the same flaws it was trying to avoid. There’s very little information available about these women, who were often relegated to history’s shadowy places for propriety’s sake. Unfortunately, the author then filled those pages discussing their men and their children, relating more broad strokes of English history that didn’t tell me much about the mistresses themselves. As such, I did not end up learning what I had decided to read this book for in the first place.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley. This is my honest and voluntary review.