There are some who say that Catherine had a fairy tale marriage to King Henry V of England. While this may be true, unfortunately it didn’t last long. After a short period of widowhood, she then made what was considered an ill-advised marriage to a man of the Welsh gentry. Although controversial, the marriage was recognized as legal and the children born to Catherine were considered legitimate and would lead to the founding of the Tudor dynasty.
Catherine was born on October 27, 1401 at the Hotel St Pol in Paris. She was the daughter of King Charles VI of France and his queen, Isabeau of Bavaria. Due to her father’s mental illness, the poverty of the royal family and political divisions between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians in France, Catherine may have experienced some instability in her early life. However, her mother was very close to her children and bought them many toys, clothes and gifts. When she wasn’t with her children, Isabeau wrote them letters and when plague broke out, she ensured they were sent to safety in the countryside away from the contagion.
Catherine’s marriage was discussed very early in her life. She was conditionally betrothed on June 18, 1403 to Charles, the grandson and heir of Louis, Duke of Bourbon. In 1404, Catherine and her sister Marie were sent to the convent of Poissy to protect them from the chaos of the infighting at court. At Poissy, the princesses were given an education suitable for their rank. In 1408, King Henry IV of England expressed an interest in promoting peace between England and France. He suggested his son Henry should marry a French princess.
Catherine’s name was brought up as a possible bride for Prince Henry again and again by diplomats for the next ten years. In 1413, King Henry IV died and his son took the throne as Henry V. Catherine returned to court from Poissy and serious discussions for her marriage began in November. In addition to Catherine’s hand, Henry was asking for the return of Aquitaine and a payment of two million crowns. A portrait of Catherine, now lost, was commissioned and brought to England in February of 1415. The French found Henry’s terms onerous and rejected them. They feared Henry would renew his claim to the French throne. This spurred Henry to plan and execute an invasion of France.
Henry won the battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415. It wasn’t a decisive victory but Henry returned to England as a hero. On December 8, 1415, Catherine’s brother Louis died. Then her next brother died sixteen months later. This left her brother Charles as the Dauphin at the age of twelve and the king’s mental illness was at its worst. Catherine and her mother became very close. Isabeau realized her daughter was a great asset to France and Catherine was now insisting she wanted to marry Henry.
Henry returned to France in 1417 and began taking territory in Normandy. At the end of 1418, Rouen had fallen and a conference was called at Melun. Isabeau made sure Catherine was there. She is described as being beautiful with a gracious manner, an oval face, a complexion of ivory and large dark eyes. The couple met on June 2 and Henry was quite taken with Catherine, making the meeting a success. Henry chivalrously kissed Catherine and she modestly blushed. They then said a respectful goodbye.
There was another meeting three weeks later but this time Isabeau made sure Catherine was not there and the rest of the courtship was conducted remotely. Henry was so enamored with Catherine he was willing to drop his earlier extensive demands, promising to pay her a dower in England of ten thousand marks and agreeing to renounce his title of “king of France”. He did demand to be named regent for the remaining reign of Catherine’s father and to be designated as heir to the kingdom of France. After some hard bargaining, the terms were agreed. Henry arrived in France and the Treaty of Troyes was sealed on May 20, 1420.
The following day, the treaty was confirmed in the cathedral. The succession to the French throne was invested in Henry and his heirs by Catherine and they were betrothed. The House of Valois was effectively disinherited along with Catherine’s brother the Dauphin Charles. Normandy was turned over to Henry and he was named Regent. Catherine and Henry were married on June 2 either in the parish church of St John or in Troyes Cathedral. Henry insisted the wedding ceremony follow the custom of France. After the wedding there was a great feast and the couple were formally put to bed.
They spent their honeymoon on a series of sieges. Catherine was with Henry when Sens surrendered on June 11 and then she returned to her parents. While Henry besieged Melun, he made short visits to Catherine. The couple both shared a love of music and in October, two harps were shipped from England to France for their use. On December 1, King Charles and Queen Isabeau, along with Henry and Catherine, Henry’s brother and Philip, Duke of Burgundy all made a state entry into Paris. They traveled from St. Denis to the cathedral of Notre-Dame through festively adorned and crowded streets. Christmas was celebrated by Catherine and Henry in high style at the Louvre while in contrast, King Charles received a few servants at the Hotel St Pol.
After the holiday celebrations, Catherine and Henry made their way to Calais and sailed for England on February 1, 1421. They arrived at Dover and the new queen was warmly greeted by the people. She was crowned at Westminster Abbey on February 23 and this was followed by a magnificent feast. The couple then undertook a tour of the country for Henry to introduce his new queen to the people of England and to muster a new army for a renewed invasion of France.
When it was well established that Catherine was pregnant, Henry sailed for France leaving her under the guardianship of his brother John, Duke of Bedford. Her son Henry was born at Windsor Castle on December 6, 1421. Catherine missed her husband and that spring, she wrote to him expressing her wish to see him. She got permission to join him and left her son in the care of Henry’s brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. She arrived at Honfleur and made her way to Vincennes where she was reunited with Henry. On May 30, the couple arrived in Paris where great celebrations were held in her honor. By this time it was pretty clear that all the fighting had greatly undermined Henry’s health. He had contracted some kind of wasting disease at the siege of Meaux which ended in May.
In June, the Duke of Burgundy requested his help in relieving a siege by Catherine’s brother Charles in the Loire valley. He said what would be his final farewell to Catherine at Senlis. Catherine went to Paris to visit the tombs of her ancestors in St. Denis and then returned to Senlis to be with her parents. By July, Henry knew he was dying but Catherine was not summoned. Henry died in Vincennes on August 31, 1422. During a marriage that lasted twenty-six months, Henry and Catherine were together in England only five months.
Catherine would act as chief mourner for her husband. Over two months, the embalmed body traveled through France and across the sea to Dover. A magnificent funeral was held on November 7. Catherine commissioned a fine Purbeck marble tomb for a chantry near the tomb of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. Henry’s death was followed by the death of Catherine’s father King Charles in October. Catherine’s son was now King of France as well as of England and two regency councils were formed.
Henry’s will denied Catherine any political role during the minority of their son so her primary function was to look after the young king. Parliament allotted a substantial dower to Catherine of £6000. After Henry’s funeral, she took her child to Windsor where they lived in seclusion for about a year. She then spent time at either Hertford Castle or Waltham Palace, staying at Westminster Palace only for state occasions. She never interfered in politics and was accorded all honors due to her as a dowager queen and mother of the king. She was called “Queen of England, the King’s mother”. She appeared with her son at ceremonial occasions and for entertaining guests such as James I, King of Scots who was a prisoner in England at the time.
The matter of Catherine marrying again was of great concern to the regency council of England. She was still young and attractive and would most likely want to take another husband. If she married an Englishman, the couple might want to have a bigger role in the regency of the king. If she married a foreign prince, it could cause political disruption to the realm. In 1425, rumors began to circulate that Edmund Beaufort, Count of Mortain and future Duke of Somerset was courting the Dowager Queen and they were contemplating marriage.
This attachment to Beaufort created a stir. There is disagreement among historians whether an actual statute was passed in Parliament forbidding marriage of a dowager queen without royal consent and forfeiture of lands for life. If there ever was a statute, it has disappeared from Parliamentary records. Regardless of the existence of this statute or not, Catherine and Beaufort never married.
Sometime between the years of 1428 and 1432, Catherine formed a romantic attachment with a Welsh squire named Owen Tudor who was from a gentry family from Anglesey in Wales. Many legends have grown from their relationship but in actuality, very little is known about how they met. Owen may or may not have been a part of Catherine’s household.
King Henry VII’s biographer, historian S.B. Chrimes says they were canonically married by a priest but no date is given and there is no actual documentation of the marriage. Chrimes says there was no Parliamentary statue forbidding the marriage. There was a statute barring marriage between a person from Wales and a person from England. But Catherine was not from England. Their marriage was well known by 1432 and in May of that year, Owen was given the status and rights of an Englishman so this statute did not apply.
In March of 1434, Catherine granted Owen favors from some of her lands in Flintshire. Several children were born to Catherine and Owen. Edmund was born c. 1430 at Much Hadham Place in Hertfordshire. Jasper was born c. 1431 at the Bishop of Ely’s manor at Hatfield. Catherine may have had a son who was born in Westminster Abbey and stayed there to become a monk but this is disputed. A daughter is mentioned by the Tudor historian Vergil. Little is known of her. She may have died young or became a nun. Edmund and Jasper would later become loyal supporters of the house of Lancaster. Edmund’s son by Margaret Beaufort, Henry, would found the Tudor dynasty of kings.
In 1436, it was obvious Catherine was very ill. She withdrew to the Abbey of Bermondsey during the late stages of her last known pregnancy to be nursed by the women there. William de la Pole was made guardian of her children by Tudor and the King was given updates on her health. On January 1, 1437, Catherine knew she was dying and made her will. In the will she says she had suffered a “long and grievous malady”. The truth is we don’t know what her illness was. It could have been cancer. The Valois were known to suffer from consumption (tuberculosis) and from mental illness. There is also the possibility she suffered from the metabolic disorder called porphyria which is a disease other English monarchs may have had such as George III and possibly Mary Queen of Scots and her niece Arbella Stuart.
In her will, she never mentions Owen or her children by him. She appointed her son King Henry VI as her executor. She gave birth to her child and then died on January 3 after much suffering. She was buried in a magnificent tomb in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey. This tomb was destroyed when the chapel was torn down to make way for a new chapel commissioned by King Henry VII, Catherine’s grandson in 1509.
Her coffin was open and on display after it was disinterred and visitors were allowed to view it for two hundred years. Samuel Pepys mentions in his diary that he viewed the remains and embraced and kissed the corpse. Up until the 18th century, her bones remained intact with a thin layer of leather-like skin. She was buried in a vault in 1778. Finally in 1878, she was reinterred beneath an altar slab in the chantry chapel of King Henry V.
Further reading: “The Sister Queens”: Isabella & Catherine de Valois” by Mary McGrigor, “The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria” by Tracy Adams, “Jasper Tudor: Godfather of the Tudor Dynasty” by Debra Bayani, “Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens From Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York” by Lisa Hilton, “The Wars of the Roses” by Alison Weir, entry on Catherine of Valois in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Michael Jones, “Henry VII” by S. B. Chrimes, “Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415” by Teresa Cole, “King and Country: England and Wales in the Fifteenth Century” by Ralph A. Griffiths, “The Making of the Tudor Dynasty” by Ralph A. Griffiths and Roger S. Thomas