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Catherine of Valois being presented to King Henry V of England at the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Original print at the Rijksmuseum. Source: Rijksmuseum / CC0

Catherine of Valois: Political Pawn, Dowager Queen and Life in the Shadows

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Catherine of Valois was a French princess who lived during the 15 th century. Catherine is an important female figure in medieval English history, being the wife of one English king, and the mother of another. On top of that, she was the grandmother of a third king (though through another husband), who was also the founder of a new dynasty. In addition, she played a role in the Hundred Years’ War , which had begun in 1337, decades before her birth. Like so many other medieval women , Catherine is largely forgotten today.

Political Pawn: Catherine of Valois Used to Secure Peace Between England and France

Catherine of Valois was born on the 27 th of October, 1401 in Paris, France. She was the daughter of Charles VI of France (whose epithets were ‘the Beloved’ and ‘the Mad’) and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria. The royal couple had a total of 12 children, and Catherine was one of the eight who survived into adulthood. One of Catherine’s older sisters, Isabella, was the second wife of the English king Richard II . When the marriage took place in 1396, Richard was 29-year-old widow, whilst Isabella a six-year-old child. This marriage was a political one, as it was meant to secure peace between England and France. Like her sister, Catherine was destined to be a pawn in the political game in the shared history of England and France .

Catherine of Valois did not have a happy childhood. Her father, Charles VI, suffered from infamous bouts of insanity. One such episode occurred when crossing the forest of Le Mans during an expedition, when the Charles mistook members of his retinue for enemies and attached them. Image from the 15th century Froissart’s Chronicles. (Public domain)

Catherine of Valois did not have a happy childhood. Her father, Charles VI, suffered from infamous bouts of insanity. One such episode occurred when crossing the forest of Le Mans during an expedition, when the Charles mistook members of his retinue for enemies and attached them. Image from the 15 th century Froissart’s Chronicles. ( Public domain )

Although Catherine was not a child bride, she seems to have had an unhappy childhood. Her father, true to his title “ Charles VI the Mad ”, suffered from periodic bouts of insanity. On one occasion, for instance, the king had completely forgotten his own identity, and fled from his wife in terror. Charles also believed that he was made of glass, and would sometimes roam his palaces howling like a wolf. Catherine did not receive much attention form her mother either, as Isabeau is said to have been indifferent towards her daughter. Catherine’s neglect is also reflected in the fact that she was not well-educated, as the only education she received was at a convent at Poissy. The princess’ childhood was made even more miserable by the political factionalism that plagued the French court at that time. At one point, Catherine, along with three of her siblings, were carried off by their uncle, Louis VII, Duke of Bavaria, as a result of power struggles at the royal court.

Medieval Strife: The Hundred Years’ War and the Treaty of Troyes

At the time when Catherine was born, medieval France and England were engaged in the Hundred Years’ War . A three-year truce, however, had been signed in 1389. Additionally, whilst a final peace treaty had not been concluded, relations between the two kingdoms were improving, so much so that the achievement of a lasting peace could be hoped for.

The Battle of Agincourt in a miniature from Enguerrand de Monstrelet’s Chronique de France. (Enguerrand de Monstrelet / Public domain)

The Battle of Agincourt in a miniature from Enguerrand de Monstrelet’s Chronique de France. (Enguerrand de Monstrelet / Public domain)

War between France and England resumed in 1415. Two years before that, Henry V succeeded his father, Henry IV , to the English throne . After putting the affairs of his kingdom in order, Henry invaded France, with the intention of asserting his claim on the French throne. Although Henry utterly routed the French army at the Battle of Agincourt , he was unable to press his advantage, and returned to England. Although the two sides were at war, negotiations continued regarding the marriage of Henry and Catherine. These negotiations had begun during the time of Henry IV, and renewed in 1413, soon after Henry became king. In 1415, Henry demanded a large dowry (two million crowns) and the restoration of Normandy and Aquitaine under English rule as part of any marriage agreement. Unsurprisingly, the French rejected these demands.

Catherine of Valois married King Henry V of England in 1420. 16th century posthumous portrait of Henry. (Public domain)

Catherine of Valois married King Henry V of England in 1420. 16th century posthumous portrait of Henry. ( Public domain )

The war went on until 1420, when the Treaty of Troyes was signed on the 21 st of May. The treaty brought peace to the two kingdoms, and arranged for the marriage of Henry and Catherine, which took place on the 2 nd of June. Like the marriage of Richard and Isabella, this was also a political one, as it was “intended to set up a dual monarchy based on a personal union of the French and English crowns under which each of the kingdoms would retain its separate institutions and character”. This, however, failed to materialize. The treaty also disinherited the Dauphin, Charles, as the heir to the throne. Instead, Charles VI recognized the English king, Henry V, as his heir.

In the aftermath of Henry's successful military campaign in France, during The Hundred Years' War, the Treaty of Troyes aimed to bring peace to England and France. The treaty arranged for the marriage of Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France, to Henry V of England. (Public domain)

In the aftermath of Henry's successful military campaign in France, during The Hundred Years' War, the Treaty of Troyes aimed to bring peace to England and France. The treaty arranged for the marriage of Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France, to Henry V of England. ( Public domain )

Hopes for Peace and Dual Monarchy Are Dashed

After the marriage, Henry laid siege to several cities, spent Christmas with his new wife at the Louvre Palace, and left with her for Rouen. They stayed in the Norman capital January 1421, after which the royal couple returned to England. Catherine was crowned in Westminster Abbey in February, and gave birth to a son, the future Henry VI, in December that same year. As for Henry, he sailed back to France just a few months after returning to England. One of the king’s brothers, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, had been killed at the Battle of Baugé, so Henry returned to France to take command of his army. Although the campaign was progressing well, the king’s health was deteriorating, and he died at the Château de Vincennes on the 31 st of August, 1422, possibly as a result of dysentery. Catherine, who had joined Henry in France in May 1422, returned to England after his death.

King Henry VI of England, was the only son of Catherine of Valois and Henry V. He was crowned King of France in 1431 at just 10 year of age. (Public domain)

King Henry VI of England, was the only son of Catherine of Valois and Henry V. He was crowned King of France in 1431 at just 10 year of age. ( Public domain )

On the 21 st of October, 1422, the French king was also dead. The deaths of Henry and Charles in a span of less than two months dashed the hopes of a dual monarchy under a strong ruler like Henry. Instead, their deaths led to a succession crisis in France. Henry and Catherine produced a son, Henry VI, who, according to the Treaty of Troyes, would succeed his maternal grandfather as King of France. The new king, however, was a mere infant, and the disinherited Dauphin seized the opportunity to claim the throne for himself, becoming King Charles VII of France in 1429. As a consequence, war broke out once again between France and England.

The Dowager Queen: Life and Love in the Shadows for Catherine of Valois

As Henry was a minor, a regency council was established to rule England on his behalf. Despite being the mother of the king, Catherine wielded little power at court. In fact, her role as dowager queen seems to have been mostly ceremonial. For example, Catherine sometimes took part in state processions, during which her infant son would be seated on her lap. Although Catherine was not considered to be a threat, there were fears that should she remarry, her new husband may gain control of the young king. There were rumors circulating that Catherine was romantically involved with Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. In 1428, one of Henry V’s brothers, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, secured the passing of an Act of Parliament regarding this issue. The Act prevented the dowager queen from remarrying without the consent of the king and the regency council. In effect, Catherine was not allowed to remarry until her son came of age.

There were also rumors that Catherine was involved with a Welshman by the name of Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudor, more commonly known as Owen Tudor. Owen’s father, Maredudd (or Meredith), was involved in a Welsh uprising against the English in 1402. Although the rebellion was crushed, Maredudd’s life was spared. Nevertheless, much of the Tudor family’s lands were confiscated by the English. Subsequently, Maredudd left Wales for London, hoping to improve his fortunes. He also changed his son’s name to Owen Tudor. When Owen was seven years old, he was sent to the court of Henry IV to serve as a page. In 1415, he fought on the side of the English at the Battle of Agincourt, and distinguished himself.

Engraving of Catherine of Valois published in the 1875 book “The Queens of England or Royal Book of Beauty” edited by Mary Howitt. (Public domain)

Engraving of Catherine of Valois published in the 1875 book “The Queens of England or Royal Book of Beauty” edited by Mary Howitt. ( Public domain )

In 1422, after the death of Henry V, Owen was appointed as the keeper of Catherine’s household or wardrobe. The pair eventually became lovers, though the details of the affair are murky. According to one legend, for example, the Welshman is said to have caught the attention of the dowager queen when she saw him swimming. Another claims that Owen tripped and fell into Catherine’s lap whilst he was dancing. It is commonly believed that the affair began at Leeds Castle in Kent. Although it is certain that they were married by 1432, no documentation of the marriage has survived. Consequently, historians are divided as to when exactly Catherine and Owen got married. Some argue that they were already married before the Act of Parliament was passed, whilst others claim that they married in secret after that.

Catherine and Owen managed to keep their relationship a secret even from the court and the public eye. As a matter of fact, their relationship was only discovered in the summer of 1436, shortly before Catherine’s death. This is somewhat extraordinary, considering the fact that the pair had produced at least five children. Catherine gave birth to her children away from the court, which allowed her to keep her relation with Owen a secret. When the children were eventually discovered, it caused a scandal in England. In addition to being considered as illegitimate, they were also regarded to be an insult to the memory of the dead king. When the relationship was discovered, Catherine retired to the isolation of Bermondsey Abbey. By that time, the dowager queen had fallen gravely ill. It is unclear if Catherine was sent away to the abbey, or if she chose to go there to spend her last days. Catherine died there on the 3 rd of January, 1437, at the age of 35.

Descendants of Catherine of Valois: Her “Love Children" With Owen Tudor

Catherine’s story would have ended there had it not been for Owen Tudor and their children. After Catherine’s death, Owen lost the protection of the dowager queen, and was imprisoned. Some accounts, however, claim that Owen was imprisoned even before Catherine’s death. Eventually, however, he received a pardon from Henry VI. During the Wars of the Roses , Owen fought on the side of the House of Lancaster. At the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, the Lancastrians were defeated, and Owen was captured as a prisoner. He was subsequently beheaded.

As for the children of Catherine and Owen, the historical records of their lives are unequal. For instance, of their two daughters, Margaret and Jacina (or Tacinda), little is known about their fate. Some sources, for instance, state that Margaret died in infancy, whilst others claim that she became a nun. As for Jacina, it is speculated that she married Reginald Grey, Baron Grey de Wilton. Little is known also about their third son, Owen, who is recorded to have become a monk.

Portrait of Henry VII of England (1457-1509), who established the House of Tudor, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. (Public domain)

Portrait of Henry VII of England (1457-1509), who established the House of Tudor, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. ( Public domain )

On the other hand, much more is known about their first two sons, Edmund and Jasper. It is known, for instance, that Jasper was made Earl of Pembroke by Henry VI, was involved in the Wars of the Roses , and eventually became Duke of Bedford. As for Edmund, he was made Earl of Richmond, and, like his father and brother, was a supporter of the House of Lancaster. Although died of the plague on the 3 rd of November, 1456, he left behind a 13-year-old widow who was pregnant with his child. This was the future Henry VII , who established the House of Tudor, and became the first English king from this dynasty.

Catherine of Valois: The Hunt for a Final Resting Place

Catherine of Valois was initially buried in the Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey. When the chapel was pulled down by her grandson, Henry VII , however, her remains were moved, and placed above ground beside the tomb of her first husband. Catherine’s body, which had been mummified, was placed in an open coffin of loose board, and was on display for almost three centuries. One of the people who saw Catherine’s mummy was Samuel Pepys, best known for the diary he kept between 1660 and 1669. Pepys’ account of his encounter with Catherine is as follows,

“here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had her upper part of her body in my hands. And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.”   

Catherine of Valois and Henry V of England Portland stone figures at Westminster Abbey, sculpted by Denis Parsons. (Sjukmidlands / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Catherine of Valois and Henry V of England Portland stone figures at Westminster Abbey, sculpted by Denis Parsons. ( Sjukmidlands / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In 1778, Catherine’s remains were moved once again, and buried in a vault under the Chapel of St Nicholas. A century later, they were moved one last time, and buried under the altar erected by Dean Stanley in Henry V’s chantry. The inscription for Catherine on the altar is translated as follows,

“Under this slab (once the altar of this chapel) for long cast down and broken up by fire, rest at last, after various vicissitudes, finally deposited here by command of Queen Victoria , the bones of Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI, King of France, wife of Henry V, mother of Henry VI, grandmother of Henry VII, born 1400, crowned 1421, died 1438.”

Top image: Catherine of Valois being presented to King Henry V of England at the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Original print at the Rijksmuseum. Source: Rijksmuseum / CC0

By Wu Mingren

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