History’s royal Kates have taken part in some of the best-known stories in Britain’s regal history but while royal Katherines can be found in England as far back as the 13th century, it’s a name that has gone in and out of favour as a regal choice. A handful of kings and queens have used it for daughters and, sadly, some of them their princesses’ lives end far too early. This part of the series looks at the tragic royals who bore the name and whose stories ended too soon.
The name Katherine first entered English royalty in 1253 when King Henry III and his wife, Eleanor, gave it to their a daughter who had been born on the feast day of one of the Middle Ages’ most popular saints, Catherine of Alexandria. Using saints’ names was a common custom at the time and the very pious Henry had already named his eldest child after his favourite saint, Edward the Confessor. Henry III was in France when his little girl was born but he was sent word of the safe arrival of a ‘beautiful daughter’.
But the young royal never enjoyed good health and in 1256 the chronicles speak of ‘Katherine the king’s daughter who has recently been ill’. Famous commentators of the time, like Matthew Paris, mention that the little princess was almost certainly completely deaf and Paris hints that she may have had learning difficulties. She died on 3 May 1257 at Windsor and her parents were plunged into mourning. Queen Eleanor was so overcome with grief that she became ill and King Henry was so devastated at the loss of Katherine and at his wife’s illness that he, too, became unwell. The young princess was given a huge funeral and a magnificent tomb at Westminster Abbey.
She obviously made a big impression on her big brother, Edward, for he named one of his own daughters Katherine. Edward had been married to Eleanor of Castile in 1254, soon after the birth of the first Katherine, and although his marriage was an arrangement to settle a dispute over European lands the young heir to the throne was very happy with his bride. When they welcomed a daughter, around 1264, they named her Katherine. But she, too, was poorly and only lived for a few months. Like her aunt before her, she was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Almost four hundred years later, another little Princess Catherine arrived. The baby royal was the seventh child of King Charles I and his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria and she was born on 29 January 1639. This little Catherine died not long after she was born and days later she was buried at Westminster Abbey – like the two young Kates who had been princesses before her.
The next royal Katherine was the daughter of a very controversial couple. Her father was James, Duke of York who would eventually rule as James II while her mother was his second wife, Maria of Modena. Their marriage, in 1673, hadn’t gone down well as the new Duchess of York was a Catholic and England was staunchly Protestant at the time. The wedding also led to the revelation that James had converted to Catholicism.
The Duke of York was heir to the throne and likely to be king as his brother, Charles II, had several illegitimate families but not legitimate children to claim his crown. Religious dissent meant that a Catholic king with Catholic heirs would not be welcomed by some parts of society and so when Princess Catherine Laura of York was born on January 10th 1675, her arrival didn’t get the usual rapturous response associated with the birth of a royal baby. In the years to come, the crisis over her Catholic father inheriting the throne would lead to Parliament being dissolved and in the end, a revolution. But little Catherine didn’t live to see that. She died on 3 October 1676 and was buried at Westminster Abbey.
These little lost Katherines are a poignant reminder that even royalty was affected by the dreadful tragedy of high rates of infant mortality through the centuries. But it’s not just their brief lives that they have in common. It is clear from the royal records that each of these princesses was truly loved by their parents and deeply mourned when they died. These royal Kates remain very special, centuries after their deaths.