The London Lunch

It’s cold out. Really cold—it feels like -29°C (-20°F) with the windchill. All I want is to be able to go outside and not feel my nose hairs freeze. Is that too much to ask?

On days like today, memories of summer feel a bit like a fever dream. Did that really happen? Will it ever come back? I start to crave sunshine, fresh air, leisurely strolls, and heat. I know I’m not alone. So how about a post on picnicking to remind us that winter doesn’t last forever?

I love a good picnic lunch, especially when traveling. It’s even better when you can go to a market to find fresh goodies and then grab a spot with a beautiful vista to relax and eat. A bit of bread, fruit, meats, and, if possible, some wine can make me just as happy as a fancy multi-course restaurant meal. 


Picnicking doesn’t have to farm-to-table fresh to be good, though. When S and I were in London, we knew that we’d have to watch our spending with meals. Sticker shock is very real there for just about everything. We spent one day walking through the city, with no real purpose other than seeing stuff. I had a map app on my phone that showed us nearby attractions, so we let that guide us and didn't make any concrete plans. 

Around lunchtime, we found ourselves standing in front of Big Ben. As we were squinting into the sun, looking at the beautiful clock tower, the hunger started. It was as if my stomach was saying “Oh, look at the time. Lunch. Now.”


I took note, but we kept walking and decided to keep an eye out for somewhere to eat. We went past the Palace of Westminster, detoured into a little park overlooking the Thames, went to Westminster Abbey, and just continued our wandering along back streets until my stomach piped up and reminded me that it was now past lunchtime. Things were going to get hangry soon. 

Big Ben says it's 20 past hungry.

Big Ben says it's 20 past hungry.

No one really likes hangry me, so we got more serious about food.

We hadn’t really seen a good place to stop and eat, though. Then I had a brilliant idea. Just in front of Big Ben is Westminster station with a very small Tesco (a British grocery chain) Express. Surely they would have something for us to eat. And that little park behind Palace of Westminster, Victoria Tower Gardens? It would be perfect for a picnic. In fact, we saw a bunch of people having lunch on the grass. We also saw people napping, a photoshoot, and someone working out.  

The Thames from Victoria Tower Gardens

The Thames from Victoria Tower Gardens

We walked back to the Tesco and found out that not only do they have food, they have a lunch deal: £3 for a main, drink, and snack. A deal! 

We quickly learned that we while we thought we had discovered something great, just about everyone else in London already knew about it. A good chunk of them were in line in front of us. It snaked through the tiny store and out the front door. 

The line moved quickly, though. Everything that was part of the £3 lunch deal was marked clearly and there were lots of choices. Before we knew it, we both had a wrap, chips and drink in-hand.

Victoria Tower and the view from our picnic spot. Apparently its a decent sort for half-naked nap, too!

Victoria Tower and the view from our picnic spot. Apparently its a decent sort for half-naked nap, too!

We made our way back to Victoria Tower Gardens and picked a prime people-watching spot under a shady tree. It was like we found this perfect, quiet little haven with a lovely view in the midst of the London craziness. It wasn’t our most expensive meal, our healthiest meal, or even our tastiest meal. But it was, by far, my favourite meal in London.

History Love: Katherine and John of Gaunt

I like to do a little genealogical research whenever I have some spare time. It’s taken a few years to get a handle on my family tree. For the most part, it’s full of brick walls that I slowly pick away at. One line, however, is easy to trace. I find something new every time I work on it. The other week, I discovered that King Edward III is my 18th great grandfather and his son, John of Gaunt, is my 17th great grandfather. 

John of Gaunt? That name sounded familiar. Then I remembered a famous book I’ve been meaning to read, Katherine by Anya Seton. It’s a novel based on the love story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt. Katherine, it turns out, is also my 17th great grandmother! So I knew I had to pickup the book at the library immediately. I started it over the weekend. I’m not very far in, but I’ll come back and do a review when I’m finished. 

I thought it would be fun to do a short post about Katherine and Gaunt today since Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. 

A lot of Katherine’s life before John of Gaunt seems a little hazy. She was born in Hainaut (now in Belgium) around 1350. Her father, Paon de Roet, was a herald and knight who had access to the court of King Edward III, which meant that his daughters likely grew up in court.* She married Sir Hugh Swynford. Together they had at least one son, Sir Thomas Swynford, one daughter, Blanche, and possibly a second daughter named Margaret. In November of 1371, Hugh Swynford, died fighting in Aquitaine. 

And John of Gaunt? He was born in 1340 in Ghent (hence, “of Gaunt”) to King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He married his third cousin, Blanche of Lancaster, in 1359, but she died 10 years later of the bubonic plague. In 1371, he married Infanta Constance of Castile, which gave him the grand idea that he could claim the kingship of Spain (spoiler: he set off to make his claim 1386 and failed). 

Now that you know some basics, on to the juicier stuff. Katherine, was governess to Gaunt and Blanche’s daughters, Phillipa and Elizabeth. It was during this time that Gaunt and Katherine likely began their relationship. 

In an excellent article about Katherine Swynford, “Missing from History,” (History Today, May 2002), Jeannette Lucraft writes about critics of Gaunt like Thomas Walsingham, a benedictine monk, using Gaunt’s blatant affair with Katherine to exemplify his immorality and attack his ability to be a good leader. Walsingham, for example, wrote:

[Gaunt] deserted his military duties and was seen riding around his estates with his abominable strumpet Katherine, once called Swynford, holding her bridle in public, not only in the presence of his wife, but even with his people watching on. He made himself abominable in the eyes of God.
— Lucraft, Jeannette. "Missing from history: Jeannette Lucraft recovers the identity and reputation of the remarkable Katherine Swynford." History Today 52.5 (2002): 11+. General OneFile. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

A monk railing against adultery and moral failing doesn’t seem crazy or out of the ordinary, right? Of course not. 

Did the criticism change anything? Not really. Katherine and Gaunt’s relationship continued. Lucraft writes that there may have been a cooling off after the Peasent’s Revolt of 1381. There is evidence that Gaunt provided Katherine with a pay-off and drew up legal documents stating that  their children had no claim on the Lancastrian line. There’s also evidence, however, that they were still close and exchanging gifts after 1381. Maybe they were just keeping their relationship under wraps. 

In 1394, Gaunt’s second wife died. In 1396, he did something unprecedented. He married Katherine, his mistress of over 25 years. The Pope and King Richard II legitimized their children, who took the surname Beaufort. This would become a very powerful act later when the Tudors made their claim to the throne in the 1480s. Henry VII was the great grandson of Katherine and Gaunt’s eldest son, John Beaufort, and, therefore, a descendent of King Edward III. So, in some ways, you can thank Katherine and Gaunt for the Tudors. 

Beyond the romance and drama of it, I found how Katharine navigated her position fascinating. She was heralded as a “strumpet” by Walsingham when she was a mistress, but what happened after her marriage to Gaunt? Katherine took a new coat of arms and affiliated herself with Saint Katherine of Alexandria, a popular medieval saint that was often associated with royalty. In my favourite passage of Lucraft’s “Missing from History,” she underscores just how intelligent and savvy Katherine was:

These discoveries provide sharp contrast to the vitriolic animadversions of Walsingham et al. Katherine was clearly educated, excelling in court etiquette and the fineries of dancing, embroidery and courtly literature. But she was also pious and sensible, able to run a household and deemed suitable to control two young girls, while still in her teens or twenties herself. The records of Leicester show that she was approached for patronage, but she appears to have kept a low profile in political matters, with no public scandal to be found in the chronicles. Moreover, indirect evidence provides an idea of the way in which Katherine wished to be viewed by others. Despite not being of noble birth, she was able to assume the character and bearing to infiltrate the highest echelons of the nobility and the monarchy. Her ability to conduct herself at the highest level of society offers a significant model of fourteenth-century social mobility. Her example also suggests that women were able to have agency over the construction of their images and referred to female `role models’ to achieve this.
— Lucraft, Jeannette. "Missing from history: Jeannette Lucraft recovers the identity and reputation of the remarkable Katherine Swynford." History Today 52.5 (2002): 11+. General OneFile. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

And just to wrap this up neatly, when Gaunt died in 1399, Katherine became dowager Duchess of Lancaster. She lived in Lincoln until her death in 1403.

It seems like something from a fairytale, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is a love story for the ages and they did live happily ever after. The historian inside me wants to investigate them both further, and the romantic in me can’t wait to get further into Anya Seton’s Katherine and report back!

*As a neat little side note, Katherine's sister, Phillipa married famed poet Geoffrey Chaucer. 

Book Review: The White Queen

Rating: *** of 5 

Right before we ran off on our Christmas adventures, I did a last-minute run to our tiny library to find something to read. I was in a hurry and Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen caught my eye. 

I’ll be honest, I stayed far, far away from her books because of The Other Boleyn Girl. The movie came out while I was still in university and was a pedantic history snob that couldn’t read or watch historical fiction without a lot of fact checking, eye-rolling, and general snark. Thankfully, I don’t have to be a pedantic history snob all of the time anymore. I just do it when it’s fun for me, like when I watched Braveheart for the first time a couple of months ago.

Anyway, back to the book. Something about The White Queen said “read me,” so I picked her up and took her on vacation.

The book, set in the late 1400s, tells the story of the Plantagenets, the War of the Roses, and the rise (and fall) of King Edward IV through the eyes of Elizabeth Woodville, a widow who would become Edward IV’s queen. 

Elizabeth Woodville was beautiful and ambitious. She was said to be a descendant of Melusina, a female water spirit who entered into an ill-fated marriage on land. Elizabeth, therefore, inherited a special connection to rivers and waters along with “sight” and other magical powers. 

When her first husband, Sir John Grey, died fighting for King Henry VI and the House of York, she waits with her two Grey sons in the forest for the new king, Edward IV of the House of Lancaster, to ride through so she can make her case for dowry land. Using her wiles (and a little witchcraft) she wins Edward’s favor. Not long after, they marry secretly in the middle of the night and Elizabeth becomes the Queen of England. She and Edward contend with almost constant family drama and battles for the throne. Nearly everyone is power-hungry and underhanded. 

Oh, and you know the famous Princes in the Tower? The ones that were locked up in the Tower of London who died from mysterious causes? Those are Elizabeth and Edward IV's boys. And Richard III? The one who was said to be the evil hunchbacked killer of the Princes in the Tower? Yeah, well that’s their uncle and Edward IV’s brother who took the crown for himself after Edward’s death.  

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in this book, which made it a quick and engaging read. I will be clear, though. I didn’t love it. I found most of the characters unlikeable, especially Elizabeth. I found her vindictiveness became annoying, partly because it seemed like any powerful move she made came from a spell. I know this is fiction and I’m fine with some of the supernatural. I just think when you reduce a historical woman to actual witch, you undermine a better story of how she maneuvered in a world of relative power as queen—compared to other English women—and relative powerlessness—compared to the high-ranking men of her life. 

Somehow, despite all of this, I was very tempted to go straight to the library and get the next book in the series, The Red Queen, which follows Elizabeth and Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth and Henry Tudor, to the throne.