Catherine of Valois (1401–1437)

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Catherine of Valois (1401–1437)

Queen of England, by her peace-treaty marriage to Henry V, who was widowed at 21, maintained a secret liaison with Welsh commoner Owen Tudor, and became the grandmother of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII. Name variations: Catharine; Catherine de Valois; Katherine of France; Fair Kate of France. Born Catherine on October 27, 1401, at the Hôtel de St. Pôl, Paris, France; died of breast cancer on January 3, 1437, at Bermondsey Abbey, London, after a lengthy illness; buried in Westminster Abbey; daughter of Charles VI the Mad (1368–1422), king of France (r. 1380–1422), and Isabeau of Bavaria (1371–1435); sister of Isabella of Valois (c. 1389–1409) and Charles VII, king of France (r. 1422–1461); married Henry V, king of England (r. 1413–1422), at Troyes, France, on June 2, 1420 (died, August 31, 1422); secretly married Owen Tudor (Owen ap Meredyth ap Tudur) sometime before 1429; children: (first marriage) Henry VI (b. December 2, 1421), king of England (r. 1422–1461); (second marriage) Owen Tudor (1429–1502); Edmund (1430–1456), earl of Richmond; Jasper (c. 1431–1495), earl of Pembroke; Tacinda Tudor (who married Reginald Grey, Lord Grey de Wilton); Margaret (1436–1436).

Sent to a convent at Poissy when young; first chosen as a wife for Henry V (1413), but no dowry could be agreed upon; finally engaged to Henry V after the Treaty of Troyes (May 21, 1420); crowned queen of England in Westminster Abbey, London (February 24, 1421); publicly supported her son, the child monarch, until 1428; spent the rest of her life in seclusion, away from the public eye.

Catherine of Valois spent her earliest years in the Hôtel de St. Pôl where her father Charles VI, king of France, suffered from prolonged and increasingly frequent bouts of insanity, and her mother Isabeau of Bavaria carried on a life of deceit and greed. Stories circulated that Queen Isabeau had an affair with the king's brother Louis, duke of Orléans, and that together they pilfered money from the royal household. Eventually, Isabeau was imprisoned at Tours, and Catherine was removed from the influences of her mother. It is believed that Catherine was then raised at the convent of Poissy, where her sister Marie (1393–1438) became a nun.

As early as 1413, the idea of a peacekeeping marriage to unite England and France was being discussed. An English embassy arrived in Paris on April 8, 1414, to arrange a marriage between Henry (V) and Catherine, with the sole intent that both the crown and kingdom of France be yielded to England through this union. King Henry demanded the outrageous dowry of 2,000,000 gold crowns, in addition to Normandy and the territory that had belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine , making the conditions for marriage totally unacceptable to the French. Charles VI refused to pay more than 600,000 crowns. A second embassy returned in March 1415. By then, Henry had reduced the dowry to a mere 1,000,000 crowns, but with the addition of a trousseau of clothes and jewels. Again, Charles countered with a lower offer of 800,000 crowns. A truce between the English and French lasted until June 1415, but by July of that year all negotiations were completely broken off. By October, though seriously outnumbered, Henry V had decimated the French army at Agincourt.

After numerous defeats, the French were eager, if not desperate, to settle on this marriage for the sake of peace. On June 1, 1419, the princess Catherine, wearing apparel supplied by the Bergundians at a cost of 3,000 florins, was escorted into the English king's presence just outside the west gate of the French city of Meulan. Henry had never met his intended face to face, though Isabeau had sent him her portrait. As described by one chronicler, he was immediately struck by Catherine's charm and beauty. Following this initial meeting, Henry sent her a gift of jewelry worth 100,000 crowns, which, early sources claim, was later stolen by robbers.

After the signing of the Treaty of Troyes on May 21, 1420, the royal couple became officially engaged. The mad Charles VI would retain the French crown during his lifetime, but, because of his marriage to Catherine, Henry would inherit the throne. Twelve days later, their marriage took place at the nearby parish church of St. Jean, a humble site for such a monumental union. Catherine was only 18, while Henry was 33. The marriage did not put a stop to war, however, and Henry began the siege of Sens in July 1420. Special quarters were built near Henry's tent to accommodate his bride.

The newly married couple delayed their ceremonial entrance into Paris until December 1420, where, during Christmas festivities, they stayed at the royal palace of the Louvre. But the celebrations were cut short when the English Parliament sent Henry, who had been absent

from England for more than three years, an urgent request to return home with his wife. The royal party slowly made its way to Calais for the channel crossing, stopping at Rouen for an official welcome on New Year's Eve, and did not arrive on English soil until February 1, 1421. Twenty days later, they were welcomed in London by extravagant medieval pageantry, including minstrels, jesters, and decorations. Free wine was dispersed to the public. After spending the night in the royal palace of the Tower of London, Catherine was crowned queen of England on February 23, 1421, at Westminster Abbey. Following her coronation, a great banquet was held in Westminster Hall, and, since it was Lent, all manner of fish and shellfish were on the menu. As was the custom, Henry absented himself from the festivities so that all eyes could be focused on the new queen, who was accompanied by the bishop of Winchester, King James I of Scotland, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Beaufort. The king and queen then traveled together for several months through the midlands and north of England, visiting many sacred shrines. In addition, Henry used this trip to raise both money and men for his next campaign in France (the Dauphin still controlled most of France south of the Loire), while Catherine donated £1,333 to the cause.

By June 1421, Henry had returned to France with his armed men to continue his campaign through the country. A pregnant Catherine stayed behind and gave birth to a son, Henry VI, on December 2, 1421, at Windsor Castle. That winter, the troops in France were ravaged by a dysentery-like disease. It is believed that this debilitating illness eventually caused Henry's death on August 31, 1422. On October 5, Catherine joined the extensive procession of mourners for Henry in Rouen. By early November, the funeral cortege finally reached Calais and crossed the channel. After a funeral in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, Henry was buried on November 7, in Westminster Abbey. Catherine later commissioned a silver effigy for her husband's tomb.

King Henry had died before laying eyes on his heir and namesake. Thus, at the age of nine months, Henry VI became king of England. Just a few months later, on October 21, 1422, he would become king of France on the death of King Charles VI. Turning from mourning to a preoccupation with her young son, Catherine accompanied him to all public appearances and to Parliament, where he sat on her knee. While she held the title of dowager-queen, the country was actually run by the protector of the realm, Henry VI's uncle Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and the royal council. Catherine, as a young widow, quickly developed the reputation of a vivacious and passionate woman. Instead of returning to her native land, she remained in England and took an interest in Edmund Beaufort, nephew of Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester. But this relationship was discouraged and judged an undesirable match for the young queen, because Edmund had a lower social status. Indeed, in 1428, possibly to prevent a union between Catherine and Edmund, Parliament enacted a statute prohibiting a dowager-queen of England from remarrying without consent of king or council. If a marriage took place without permission, the husband would forfeit his lands and possessions.

From 1427 to 1430, Catherine lived in the royal household. The issue of social status did not stop her from falling in love with a Welsh royal servant by the name of Owen Tudor who was either keeper of the queen's wardrobe or household. Their liaison was kept secret from the public for many years, even though it led to four children, three sons and a daughter Margaret who died shortly after her birth. Their marriage, which was never revealed until after Catherine's death, has never been verified by church or legal documents. It is believed, however, that they were married before the birth of their first child in around 1430.

Soon after her fourth pregnancy, with Owen Tudor imprisoned in Newgate (he would later escape), a despondent Catherine fell ill and entered Bermondsey Abbey in London to rest and recover. She never left the abbey alive. On January 1, 1437, she had her last will drawn up, then died two days later on January 3. In her will, Henry VI is the only descendent recognized; no mention is made of Owen Tudor or her three sons. In 1452, Parliament officially would declare Catherine and Owen's marriage valid, to remove any doubt about the legitimacy of their offspring. Catherine and Owen's first son, Edmund Tudor, eventually married Margaret Beaufort , and was the father of Henry VII, the first monarch of the Tudor line.

Until an effigy could be prepared, Catherine's body lay in state at St. Paul's Cathedral, before being interred in Westminster Abbey's Lady Chapel, her corpse loosely wrapped and open to view through the lid of the coffin. But the inscription on her tomb only mentioned her marriage to Henry and their one son. After her grandson Henry VII became king in 1485, he had the Lady Chapel destroyed, and Catherine's remains were placed at last beside the tomb of her first husband Henry V. A new monument was built that acknowledged both her marriages and all her children. No doubt, this was done not only for historical accuracy but also to legitimize Henry VII's new position as king. Her corpse could still be seen in this new location. Diarist Samuel Pepys recorded on February 24, 1668, that on his birthday he took the liberty of kissing the queen on the lips. It was not until 1878 that Catherine's body was hidden beneath a marble altar slab.


Griffiths, Ralph A., and Roger S. Thomas. The Making of the Tudor Dynasty. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Hutchison, Harold F. King Henry V. NY: John Day, 1967.

Jarman, Rosemary H. Crispin's Day: The Glory of Agincourt. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1979.

Strickland, Agnes. Lives of the Queens of England. Vol III. Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1857.

Williams, Jeanne U. "Katherine of Valois, 1401–1437," M.A. diss., University of Washington, 1966.

suggested reading:

Griffiths, Ralph A. "Queen Katherine of Valois and a Missing Statute of the Realm," in Law Quarterly Review. Vol. 93, 1977, pp. 248–58.

Jacob, E.F. The Fifteenth Century (1399–1485). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

related media:

Henry V (138 min. film), adapted from the play by William Shakespeare, directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Kenneth Branagh as Henry V and Emma Thompson as Catherine of Valois, with Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench , produced by the BBC, Samuel Goldwyn Co., and Renaissance Films, 1989.

Karen E. Mura , Assistant Professor of English, Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania

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Catherine of Valois (1401–1437)

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