John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, has been one of my favourite historical characters ever since I read (too many years ago!) Anya Seton’s Katherine, which tells the story of John and the mistress who in the end became his third wife and ancestor of the Tudors among others. It (Katherine) also paints an unforgettable picture of the second half of the fourteenth century from the Black Death to the deposition of Richard II, the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (who was married to Katherine’s sister), the wars in France (the Black Prince, who was John’s bother, and the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers) and the Peasants’ Revolt (during which John’s great house in London was burnt to the ground and Katherine narrowly escaped with her life); and I have noticed that most people who read it are, like me, hooked on that period for ever after.
A Distant Mirror, a history of the same period but based on the life of Enguerrand de Coucy VII, “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France” who lived from 1340 to 1397. He married the eldest daughter of Edward III of England, thus becoming John’s brother-in-law, and was Duke of Bedford for several years until he and the princess separated and he renounced his allegiance to the English Crown. The Last Knight is, however, nowhere near so ambitious, and, unless you have a lot of time on your hands, a far easier read. This may be partly because of Cantor’s style which is often so laconic we seem to be reading the preliminary notes not the finished work.