Catherine of Valois Forgotten Tudor Matriarch

When Henry VII won the Tudors the English throne at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, his claim was tenuous at best.    He was also the last English king to win his crown on the battlefield.  Henry’s pushy mother, Margaret Beaufort, no doubt thought that her son’s rise was “God’s will” but it was actually quite a lucky break.  Luckier still is that a French princess ran off with her servant 50 years prior.  Otherwise there would be no Tudor dynasty to speak of today.  Enter stage left Catherine of Valois.

Catherine of Valois

Catherine of Valois

Catherine was born on 27th October 1401 in Paris, the youngest daughter of King Charles VI of France and Queen Isabeau of Bavaria.  Charles’ mental state deteriorated over the course of his reign to the point where Isabeau acted as regent for her son Charles.  Catherine’s older sister Isabella was Queen consort of England as the second wife of Richard II.  Catherine’s marriage to King Henry V on 2nd June 1420, effectively united the kingdoms of England and France, or at least they did on paper.  Isabeau agreed to make Henry the heir to the French crown over her son if he and Catherine had no children, or until they had their own heir.  The marriage was also a source of great joy and patriotism in England.  A beautiful blonde and virginal French princess marrying the hero of Agincourt gave English subjects a sense of relief that God had blessed the couple.

Catherine and Henry’s honeymoon was on military campaign.  Henry was now fighting Catherine’s brother for his right to rule as regent of France as decided by Catherine’s mother.  And when Henry wasn’t directly fighting the French, he was fundraising for his wars back in England.  The couple returned to England for Catherine’s coronation at Westminster Abbey on 23rd February 1421.  Theirs was a fairytale marriage, if contemporary reports were to be believed.  Modern historians consider the pair too different in personality and temperament (Henry was a serious warrior-king, Catherine was lighthearted and liked to enjoy herself) to be very into each other.

The marriage of Catherine of Valois and Henry V

The marriage of Catherine of Valois and Henry V

Regardless, the crown jewel in Catherine in Henry’s marriage was their son the future Henry VI, born on 6th December 1421.  Unfortunately the proud father never got to lay eyes on his baby son.  Henry V died of dysentery fighting in France on 31st August 1422.  Although Catherine was in France during the period of Henry’s illness, he did not summon her to his deathbed.  Read what you like into that.  So now Catherine was a widow at the young age of 21.  A few months later, Catherine’s father died which made her baby son the king of both England and northern-occupied France.

In her new role as Dowager Queen of England, and queen mum to Henry VI, Catherine was kept at arms-length from government.  No doubt her brother-in-law Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was also Lord Protector, was suspicious of her foreign birth.  Catherine was allowed to live with her son, and played a large role in his early upbringing, however the young widow was a prime target for seduction of any man at court who wished to get closer to the crown.  What ambitious courtier wouldn’t try to wrangle his way into Catherine’s heart so that he could become stepfather to the king?  And Catherine was a bit bored.  There weren’t many pastimes for her at court, besides falling in love. Enter stage right Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Henry V’s cousin.

Catherine and Edmund started a romantic relationship, much to the chagrin of Catherine’s brother-in-law, Duke Humphrey.  As the highest ranking man in the land, the Lord Protector couldn’t stomach Edmund’s illegitimacy getting too close to the crown.  In order to restore the rightful order of things, Humphrey convinced Parliament to pass an act that any man who married the Dowager Queen of England, without the consent of the king, would forfeit all of his lands and possessions.  But how could Catherine get consent from her 5 year-old son?  If would take years before he was old enough to make such an important decision.  Edmund promptly scuppered off the scene which either shows that he wasn’t so in love with Catherine, or at least not enough to give up everything.  It seemed that that was the end of that, and the powers that be could breathe a sigh of relief that Catherine’s reputation as respectable mother to the king was intact.

Catherine of Valois played by Dame Judi Dench in 1960

Catherine of Valois played by Dame Judi Dench in 1960

However, there was one man who loved Catherine, who didn’t have much to give up.  His name was Owen Tudor and he was the keeper of Catherine’s wardrobe, after the death of her husband.  The pair married in secret around 1430 when Catherine was already pregnant with their first son, Edmund.  To say that Catherine and Owen’s marriage, when it was finally uncovered, was the scandal of the 1430s is a major understatement.  As a Welshman, Owen was lower than low, and a servant of the Dowager Queen to boot.  Because of the English oppression of Wales, Owen was not allowed to carry weapons, which made him vulnerable to attack.  He was a target to those who despised his marriage to Catherine and the fact that he could not defend himself was a serious problem. Owen was naturalised as an English citizen in May 1432, which helped to make him an appropriate husband for Catherine and stepfather to the King.

Catherine and Owen had four children together during their seven year marriage.  Shortly before Catherine gave birth to their last child, she entered Bermondsey Abbey, as was the custom for prior dowager queens.  It was a strange move considering Catherine’s second marriage flouted the established norms.  She may have felt that her life was drawing near to an end with her pregnancy or perhaps the history of mental health in her family made her feel that she should retire from public life.  She died shortly after childbirth on 3rd January 1437, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.  It is not known what happened to her infant daughter, Margaret.  Catherine’s death was sad for her family and resulted in turmoil. It was a big year for Henry VI, who had to deal with losing his mother, and finally taking over the reigns of kingship all in the same year.  The newly widowed Owen had to run for his life as his enemies who had been against his marriage to Queen Catherine came out of the woodwork.  Owen and Catherine’s two older sons, Edmund and Jasper, went into the care of Katherine de la Pole.

Catherine and Owen's grandson and great-grandson Henry VII and Henry VIII

Catherine and Owen’s grandson and great-grandson Henry VII and Henry VIII

As time passed, Catherine’s eldest son, the King, improved the lot of his stepfather and half brothers.  Henry VI brought his half-brothers to court, legitimised them, ennobled them, and gave them lands.  To his stepfather, Henry gave Owen positions, and an annuity for life.  Unfortunately both Owen and Edmund were early casualties in the War of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York.  Henry VI’s rule was generally a disaster, his poor mental health being the biggest contributing factor.  However, his half brother, Jasper Tudor, fought tirelessly to put his nephew Henry (Edmund’s son with Margaret Beaufort) on the throne.  And in 1485 he succeeded.  And that was the start of the Tudor dynasty, sewn from the seeds of love of Catherine de Valois and Owen Tudor.  Who doesn’t love a good love story?

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