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The royal bride who changed England forever

For a woman who had such a profound effect on a whole country, she is surprisingly enigmatic. Catherine of Valois changed royal history forever but even now, centuries on, the prevailing image of her is the one created by Shakespeare for whom this French princess was a pretty pawn in a political drama. But what little we do know seems to indicate that the ‘fair Kate’ of Henry V was every bit as ambitious, determined, courageous and interesting as the king she married and the royal family she later created. And it all started with a wedding, exactly six hundred years ago.

That marriage, at Troyes, on June 2nd 1420 turned the youngest, and some say neglected, daughter of a beleaguered King of France into Queen of England. This royal bride had been chosen as a conduit for the ambitions of her new husband and the future mother of a dynasty that would forever unite the thrones of two countries. However, it wasn’t her wedding with Henry V that made such a mark in England. It was Katherine’s later marriage that really changed history. For her second union, with Owen Tudor, led to a royal house that ripped up the rule book and changed England forever. The woman who gave us the Tudors caused as much as a stir in establishing her dynasty as it, itself, would do once it took power.

The story of Catherine of Valois begins in Paris on October 27th 1401. She was born as the tenth child of King Charles VI of France and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria. The arrival of another daughter did nothing to calm concerns about the succession – Charles and Isabeau had lost two sons, and their present heir was just four years old. They had other problems, too. King Charles suffered serious mental health problems Queen Isabeau was involved in the power struggles that resulted from her husband’s illness.

Meanwhile, Catherine’s eldest sister, twelve-year-old Isabella, had just returned from England where she had become queen at the age of seven. Her husband, Richard II, had died in mysterious circumstances the previous year after being deposed in 1399. The man who had taken his throne, Henry IV, now wanted Isabella to marry his own son and heir, Henry, but the young queen wasn’t interested. Isabella’s remarriage and death in childbirth left Catherine as a prime target for Henry IV’s marriage making schemes, but he died before any royal wedding could be arranged. Catherine of Valois once more takes a back seat in history.

By the time she reappears, in 1420, she is a beautiful princess of unimpeachable character and for the only time in her life, the centre of attention.  Henry IV’s son, Henry V, had been waging war in France almost from the start of his reign in 1413 but by 1420 he had the upper hand and the Treaty of Troyes, signed that year, cemented his position.  It made him the heir to King Charles VI of France and included a clause for a royal marriage between Henry, the hero king, and pretty Kate, the forgotten princess.  On June 2nd 1420, they married at Troyes Cathedral in France and Queen Catherine was crowned at Westminster Abbey on February 24th 1421 having been carried to her coronation through streets draped in cloth of gold.

These two beautiful people were seen as the start of a new phase in European politics.  Together they would form a dynasty that would rule England and France, uniting old enemies under a common crown.  Henry and Kate were the celebrity couple of their day with chroniclers praising their beauty and the few contemporary portraits of them showing them in the most fashionable clothes around.  The once invisible princess now enjoyed a comfortable life and made well-received public appearances with her husband.  By the time Henry returned to France in late 1421, he and Catherine had sent the whole country into a state of celebration by announcing a royal pregnancy.  Queen Catherine gave birth to a prince called Henry on December 6th 1421. The promise of Troyes had been fulfilled in a baby born to rule England and France.

But Catherine’s luck was about to run out.  In one letter written by her to her husband in 1422, she tells of how she ‘earnestly longed to behold him once more’.  In May of that year, she travelled to France to see him and her father.  But by now, Henry was a shadow of the handsome hero who had left his lovely bride and jubilant subjects the year before.  He was exhausted by his French campaigns, and on August 31st 1422 he died of dysentery at the age of 36.  His widow led his funeral cortege home only to discover, weeks after arriving back in England, that her father had also died.  Her baby son was now King Henry of England and of France.  And suddenly, the young queen went from superstar to shadow once more.

The 21-year-old Catherine was a major problem for the ambitious men fighting for power at the court of the baby king.  Henry V had named his brothers as regents in England and France, and they saw the dowager queen as a threat.  Young, pretty and more royal than them, she could expect to make another very good marriage very easily – especially as she was also very rich now thanks to the provisions of her husband’s will and a grant from parliament.  A new husband might threaten their influence over the growing Henry VI.  What’s more, Catherine was French, and her own brother was now making his own claim to the crown of France.

Between 1422 and 1424, Catherine was seen at different public occasions holding baby King Henry in her arms or taking part in processions with the little monarch sitting on her lap.  But while the public image was of a mother heavily involved in the upbringing of her son, behind the closed doors of Windsor, things became more mysterious.  When Henry reached the age of three, he went to live in his own household under the guardianship of the Earl of Warwick.

That, in itself, wasn’t unusual as heirs to the throne usually went to live in their own courts at a very early age, so the same process was only to be expected for a king.  What is unusual is that the queen dowager seemed to retire from public life at such a young age.  Queens were important figures at court, and Catherine was the most senior royal woman of the time.  But according to the royal records, she just disappeared from view.

It’s even more mysterious when her later character is considered.  However, little was written about her relationship with Owen Tudor, the fact that it happened at all shows that Catherine of Valois was a determined woman with spirit and ingenuity.  In fact, the complete opposite of the meek and subservient creature of the early 1420s who seems to give in without a fight as her husband’s brothers take over.  Maybe she was consumed by grief for Henry V and for her father, Charles VI.  Maybe she was concerned that she would end up dragged into the terrible fights that her own mother seemed to thrive on as she had battled for power at the court of Charles VI.  Or maybe she was plotting a power base of her own

In 1428, rumours surfaced that she had fallen in love with a young noble – Edmund Beaufort – who was a grandson of John of Gaunt and a member of one of England’s most powerful families.  An alliance with Edmund would give the Beauforts access to the young king and give Catherine the support she needed to assert her own power at court. And Edmund was as handsome as Catherine was beautiful.  He was also nineteen – six years younger than the dowager queen. Some historians have disputed whether a romance between the two ever existed and some argue that the rumours were spread to discredit Catherine and allow those who feared her to put even more restraints on her behaviour.  In 1428, a law was passed forbidding the marriage of a dowager queen without the express permission of the king himself.  And with her son around eight years away from his majority when he would be allowed to make his own decisions, Queen Catherine looked to have a long wait in front of her to secure an alliance whether she wanted it for power, money or love.

That’s when her character really seems to have come into play.  For not long after the law was passed, the queen’s shadowy life becomes more mysterious still.  Catherine went to live in her son’s household, which gave her more chance to be with her little boy but which also gave his regents more chance to watch over her.  They either didn’t watch very well, or they turned a blind eye because, by 1431, King Henry VI had a little half brother.

No one knows for sure how or when Catherine of Valois, Queen of England began a romance with one of her servants.  But the maths show that around 1430, Katherine gave birth to a boy called Edmund Tudor.  His father was Owen Tudor who had made his name at the Battle of Agincourt and won a good job in the royal household as keeper of the Queen’s wardrobe.  Parliament may have banned her from marrying without her son’s consent, but Queen Catherine quite clearly didn’t play by the royal rules.

Some versions of Owen and Catherine’s story have it that the relationship wasn’t discovered until 1436 as they lived a quiet life in the countryside.  But given the paranoia about the queen’s marriage options and the chances of her forming alliances which might threaten the balance of power at court, it seems highly unlikely that this union wasn’t known about from almost the very beginning.  Besides, in 1432 Parliament granted Owen Tudor the ‘rights of an Englishman’ which was important as Welsh people had had their rights severely curtailed by Henry IV.  There seems little reason to bestow this on Owen in such a grand manner unless his role in society had somehow changed.

It may well have suited everyone for Catherine, Queen of England to marry Owen Tudor.  He was descended from Welsh princes, but his family was now without a title, and he had made his name fighting at Agincourt with Catherine’s first husband, Henry V.  By entering into a relationship with him, Catherine took herself off the marriage market and made an alliance with a family that could never threaten the powerful magnates running the country for the boy king, Henry VI.  Catherine found happiness and fulfilment, and they found a way of ensuring they kept control of her eldest son.

And this is when Catherine really disappears from the records.  The court of her eldest son, Henry VI, had no interest in letting it be known that the dowager queen was living with one of her servants while the later Tudor historians didn’t want too much digging done partly because of a rumour that Catherine and Owen never actually got married.  There is no documentary evidence of a wedding, but that in itself isn’t that surprising as churches didn’t have to keep records of births, deaths and marriages until 1538. Whether the marriage was actually legal given that Parliament had banned the queen from marrying without the permission of her son is another question mark over any wedding.  What is known is that by the time the relationship became common knowledge, Catherine was very ill and in danger of dying.

The queen entered Bermondsey Abbey at the end of 1436, heavily pregnant and very unwell.  She wrote, while at Bermondsey, of a ‘long, grievous malady in which I have long and yet am troubled’.  She died on January 3rd 1437 shortly after giving birth to a daughter who also died.  And yet the nature of that ‘long, grievous malady’ has never been clear leading to speculation that Catherine, Queen of England may have begun to experience some of the psychological issues that so troubled her father.  Those problems were definitely passed to her eldest son, Henry VI, who suffered serious mental health problems throughout his adult life.

Queen Catherine was given a magnificent funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey.  When her grandson, Henry VII, became king he started building works at the abbey and Catherine’s tomb was accidentally disturbed and the coffin lid raised.  For decades afterwards, the queen was a tourist attraction and the diarist Samuel Pepys boasted of kissing her on the lips when he visited the abbey on his birthday in 1669.  Catherine was reburied in 1878, and her tomb can now be seen in the Henry V Chantry Chapel.  The wooden effigy carried at her funeral and showing the queen as she was known to her contemporaries is also on display at the abbey.

Relatively little is known about the first Queen Catherine of England.  But the fragments that survive show a fascinating woman with spirit and a will to do things her own way.  She was chosen by a conquering king to help found a new dynasty but ended up forming one of the most famous royal houses ever through love and a determination to be happy despite the force of Parliament being used against her.  Catherine of Valois remains one of England’s most fascinating royals, and that story started with a royal wedding. For without Troyes, there are no Tudors. The royal marriage that took place 600 years ago today really did change history forever.

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About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.