Catherine of Valois is yet more proof that being born a Princess isn’t all it is cracked up to be. She was born on 27 October 1401, the youngest daughter of Charles VI of France (who was intermittently mad as a march hare) and his queen Isabeau of Bavaria.
France was being ripped to shreds by civil war and English invasions. Her older sister Isabella had gone to England as a little girl to marry Richard II in 1396, but she was returned to her parents in 1399 after Richard was deposed by his cousin, Henry IV. Now the usurper’s son, Henry V, was in France and decimating the countryside in his attempts to take the French throne.
Two days before Catherine’s 14th birthday in 1415, Henry V won the Battle of Agincourt (worst birthday gift ever!) and started marching toward Paris. It took him years, but he finally arrived outside the city in August of 1419. What did Catherine think of it all? Was she afraid of what he might do to her parents? What would become of her when the English monarch, famed for his lack of mercy, stormed the city? Did she know Henry wanted her for his bride?
King Henry IV had made overtures for her marriage to his heir before his death, and now that heir was going to see Catherine with his own eyes. The romantic legend is that Henry V became besmitten with the pretty teen and wanted her for his bride, but others have insisted that it was only her blood connection the French crown that put hearts in his eyes. Regardless of his motivation, the king wanted her and he meant to have her.
Was Catherine impressed with this tall warrior-king from across the channel? Or did she hate him on behalf of her country? How could she NOT have hated him? Not only was he stealing her brother’s birthright, he had been employing the practice of chevauchée as he swept through France, raiding the surrounding countryside in order to weaken the opposition, “primarily by burning and pillaging enemy territory in order to reduce the productivity of a region”. He was notorious for killing noncombatants, including women and children, as well as prisoners of war. Some of those prisoners were her nobles, her kinsmen, and may have been people she loved.
Regardless of Catherine’s feelings, she had little choice in the matter. On 2 June 1420 the 19 year old princess wed Henry V, now officially heir to the throne of France.
A few months later Henry brought his new wife to England, where she was crowned queen in Westminster Abbey on 23 February 1421. Henry got her pregnant soon after, and leaving his gravid heir-bearer in England, headed for France to wage war on her brother for their first anniversary.
They were so romantic back then, no?
On 6 December 1421 Catherine gave birth to the Prince of Wales, who became King Henry VI before his first birthday when his father died of dysentery on 31 August 1422. She gave birth to to her son at Windsor Castle, in spite of a prophesy proclaiming that “Henry born at Monmouth, shall small time reign and much get, but Henry born at Windsor shall long reign and lose all.” Her husband had supposedly forbidden her to go to Windsor for the birth because of it. Did she do it in hopes of thwarting Henry V’s abitions in France, preferring the ‘true’ royal family to rule France rather than an English invader’s son, even if it were her own son as well? Or was the ‘prophesy’ written after the fact, when Henry VI lay dead and the 3rd Duke of York’s son was in ascendance?
After the death of Henry V, the Dowager Queen Catherine was a beautiful young widow and a great marriage prize for any English lord. To prevent a step-father from having too much influence over the baby king, the English regents — especially the infant monarch’s uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester — became obsessed with preventing her remarriage. They kept a close eye on her, and fretted about the intentions of every well-born man who smiled at her. They not only passed a law to prevent her from marrying without the king’s permission, they made it so that any man who married her would forfeit their lands.
What they had not counted on was a handsome young Welshmen who worked in her household, Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur. He was a veritable “nobody” from the English perspective, a mere upper servant without noble blood, so he was no more suspected of being able to seduce a queen than a deer would be suspected of wooing a lioness.
What the English regents didn’t seem to grasp was that Tudur was a descendant of Welsh nobility equal to any. The man the English referred to as Owen Tudor was the grandson of Tudur ap Goronwy and Margaret ferch Tomos, so his maternal great-grandfather was Thomas ap Llywelyn ab Owain of Cardiganshire, the last male of the princely house of Deheubarth. Moreover, his grandmother and Owain Glyndŵr‘s mother were sisters, descendants of Llywelyn the Great, and it was that linage that helped Owain Glyndŵr to declare himself the Last Prince of Wales.
By all accounts, Tudor fell in love with the delicate French dowager queen, he married her in secret sometime between 1428 and 1431. As a Welshman, he was a second-class citizen in England and thus had no reason to be playing politics, so his only motivation for marriage was love. He also had no reason NOT to wed where his heart led him. Since Owen had no lands to be confiscated by the council of regents, the threats of disenfranchisement meant nothing to him.
Faced with the proof of Catherine and Owen’s relationship in the form of multiple children blessing the union, the king’s regents gave in and in May of 1432 Parliament granted Owen the rights of an Englishman. They also recognised the Tudur offspring as the legitimate half-siblings of the king.
Catherine and Owen were reportedly very happy together, but sadly they had less than a decade together as man and wife — Catherine died on 3 January 1437. Nonetheless, in those few years the former queen and her former steward had (so far as can be winkled out of the historical record) a total of three sons and one daughter who would live to adulthood.
Apparently Henry VI loved his half-brothers and his mother’s husband, and they seem to have loved him in return. Henry welcomed his siblings and step-father to court, eventually giving Owen the stewardship of a French castle and paying for the young Tudor’s education and training. The king made Edmund the Earl of Richmond on 15 December 1449 and later created Jasper the Earl of Pembroke on 23 November 1452. The third brother, who was theoretically named Edward or Owen, is believed to have entered a religious order, as did the only Tudor daughter, whose name is likewise not know for sure.
King Henry also arranged for Edmund to marry Margaret Beaufort, grand-daughter of John of Gaunt and thus great-granddaughter of Edward III. Margaret was a child bride but Edmund broke with custom and consummated their union anyway, probably to make sure the marriage could not be annulled. Perhaps he was hoping to secure her vast fortune with an heir, but she was so young this would have been a dangerous long shot.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on perspective), the overly-young bride became pregnant, resulting in the birth of a son, Henry, on 28 January 1457. Although her age isn’t know for sure, Margaret may have only 12 or 13 years old when had her baby. Edmund died before Henry was born and Margaret was married off again not long after, but she never had another child. It was assumed she had been damaged internally by her childhood pregnancy.
Before Jasper could also secure a rich wife, his half-brother’s throne came under attack. Richard, 3rd Duke of York, rebelled against Henry VI and demanded to be named heir in place of Henry’s biological son, Edward of Lancaster. The king’s step-father Owen and half-brother Jasper fought valiantly for him. Nonetheless, Jasper and Owen’s forces were defeated in January 1461 at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross by Edward of York (future King Edward IV). Owen was captured and beheaded, but Jasper escaped.
He continued to fight for the Lancaster cause, and after both Edward of Lancaster and King Henry VI were slain, Jasper escaped to the continent with his nephew in tow. On August of 1485, more than 20 after they fled for their, Jasper and his nephew met King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard III died on the battlefield, and Henry Tudor – grandson of Owen Tudor and Catherine of Valois – became King Henry VII.
Thus Catherine’s grandson sat on the throne of England after all, even though he wasn’t the grandson of Henry V. The rise of Henry VII also fulfilled the supposed prophecy of Welsh mystic Myrddin Wyllt (turned into Merlin the Wizard in the Arthurian legends) that a Prince of Wales (which he was through the bloodline of his grandfather, Owen Tudor) would one day be crowned King of England. The red dragon had vanquished the white one. The Tudor dynasty had begun.