Who was Catherine of Valois?

Who was Catherine of Valois?

Yet another enigmatic Medieval woman, whose role in life seems set in stone from birth but who manages through sheer will and determination to change the course of her life.

So who was Catherine of Valois?

She was the daugher of a king, the tenth child of King Charles VI of France and Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria. The Princess Catherine was born in the royal palace, the  Hotel de Saint Pol in Paris on 27th October 1401. As a tenth child it might be thought that little would be expected of her beyond a useful marriage but Catherine was born into an age when France was in chaos, not least because King Charles was becoming increasingly mentally ill. Both the country and the family were in turmoil.

Finally the King was kept away from the public and placed in the Hotel de Saint Pol, with his children. Queen Isabeau was an ambitious woman with a cruel and ruthless determination to advance her own affairs. She was not interested in pursuing any gains for her children, her intention was to seek gain for herself. She had many affairs and used her brother, Louis, Duke of Bavaria, and her brother-in-law Louis, Duke of Orleans, to seize control of the government of France from the the King’s cousin John, Duke of Burgundy.

Catherine of Valois
15th Century Manuscript Hotel St Pol

Having achieved that, she spent both King and country’s money on herself and her favourites. She cared little for the King or her children. It was recorded that the children were kept in a poor condition with little to eat and dirty ragged clothes. She turned her back on the palace, forgot or never intended to pay those who attended to her family, so they were left in appalling conditions.

It was hardly the life of a Princess for Catherine of Valois, with a negligent mother and and insane father. The children were the companions of the Duke of Burgundy’s children, were they also subjected to this level of neglect? King Charles however made a complete and most dramatic recovery and quickly evaluated the situation. Queen Isabeau and her admirer the Duke of Orleans, fled to Milan.

The King took back command but then did a very strange thing, he made the Queen’s brother follow her with all the children, including his heir the Dauphin Louis and the Duke of Burgundy’s children. Why did he do that?

The inevitable happened, her brother kidnapped the children, including the heir to the throne. The plot was quashed by the Duke of Burgundy and the children returned to Paris.

Catherine of Valois was sent to Poissy Convent

At last some sense seems to have come to the court of King Charles and his advisors and Catherine and her sister were sent to a convent at Poissey, safe at last from their mother. But all was not well in France, King Charles became ill again and the various dynastic houses in France saw an opportunity to take power.

By 1411 Catherine was still only ten years old and yet had been through so much. The Burgundians and the Armagnacs fought for control, the Armagnacs eventually winning out, the Queen still playing politics at every turn.

King Henry IV in England was watching the French implode considering his options. In 1413 King Henry proposed a match between his son and Princess Catherine, now 12 years old and considered a valuable asset to her family.

Catherine of Valois and King Henry V

There was a reluctance on part of the French to agree to a marriage between Prince Henry and Catherine. Then King Henry IV died and the young King Henry V proved to be a very different man. The French knew their vulnerability. They rebuffed Henry’s proposal and Henry decided to invade France. Before he invaded Henry sent a letter to Catherine’s father demanding her hand and a huge dowry of 2 million crowns. He also wanted Normandy restored and a number of the southern provinces.  The French were furious with this marriage proposal, made under threat of invasion.

Catherine of Valois
King Henry V

King Henry V carried out his threat and the blow he struck the French at Agincourt stunned them. He now appeared disinterested in seeking Princess Catherine’s hand. Her mother, the twisted Isabeau was beside herself when she heard King Henry was seeking the hand of another princess, the Princess of Aragon. Maybe this was just a very clever game that Henry was playing?

Yet another blow struck the French household, the heir to the throne and his brother died. Could their mother have been responsible? It played into her hands, she was able to manipulate the surviving heir Charles who was only twelve years old. Amidst the chaos of the King’s illness and unrest in France she became regent. She gathered her children to her but it was Catherine she now concentrated upon. Catherine was a valuable asset and although it may seem odd in retrospect, Catherine developed a close bond with her mother at this point. What else was she supposed to do?

Catherine of Valois
Marriage Henry V and Catherine of Valois

Catherine and Queen Isabeau set their sights on making Catherine Queen of England.

The Queen sent her ambassadors to Henry with a portrait of her young daughter. Regarded as a beautiful young woman, ‘Catherine the Fair’, the Queen thought it unreasonable for the King of England to demand such a high dowry. Henry however was unbending. Even when he met Catherine at the peace conference following the fall of Rouen, Henry refused to reduce his dowry demand. The Queen’s next ploy was to remove Catherine from the King’s sight and tempt him that way. This seemed to do the trick Henry declared to Philip of Burgundy.

‘Fair cousin, we wish you to know that we will have the daughter of your King, or we will drive him and you out of his kingdom!’

Things were spiraling out of control in France and after the murder of the Burgundian Duke his son Philip vowed revenge on the Armagnacs and turned to Henry for help in achieving this, agreeing a treaty with him, Henry set out his terms and asked that he deal only with Catherine. Sensing the moment had come to push home her advantage, Queen Isabeau agreed to the marriage of Catherine and Henry in the Treaty of Troyes. She clinched the deal by giving away her husbands and her sons sovereignty, she would ensure that after the death of the mentally ill King Charles, the crown of France would pass to Henry, Catherine and their heirs.

Was Catherine so infatuated by Henry that she did not give a second thought for her brother?

Henry and Catherine were betrothed on 21st May 1420 and a few weeks later were married in a ceremony at Troyes. Henry and Catherine returned to England and on 24th February in a magnificent ceremony Queen Catherine was crowned at Westminster, followed by an elaborate feast held in her honour.

Catherine of Valois Queen of England

Whatever Catherine had imagined life with Henry would be like, she was bound to be disappointed. Henry was a military man, and still preoccupied with France. When his brother Thomas was killed in France, Henry took troops and went to France. Catherine was pregnant and gave birth to her son Henry whilst the King was away. Henry did not return and the child was christened in his absence. Queen Catherine asked for leave to go to France and meet with her husband leaving the young Prince Henry in the care of King Henry’s brother. Catherine  left England with thousands of troops to reinforce Henry’s army. Henry came to meet her, along with her parents. They advanced to Paris but her arrival here, made with great pomp and circumstance, did little to impress the Parisians who found her aloof. They were angered by her flagrant wealth and the sight of her pitiful father and overlooked father.

But Catherine had far more important things to concern her

King Henry had contracted dysentery and it was soon obvious that he had little time to live. King Henry V died on 31st August 1422. Catherine was distraught with shock and grief but accompanied her husbands body back to England. His death brought out thousands of mourners and they took pity on the young Queen.

Not long after his funeral, Catherine received news that her father had died. Her baby son was King of both England and France. Catherine immersed herself in her sons life and was frequently seen at ceremonies with him, maybe recalling her own sadly pathetic childhood.

The Queen Dowager was in an incredibly powerful position, she was young, attractive and wealthy and the mother of the King of France and England. It was a difficult position for the Council, another marriage could spell disaster for either country.  In 1425 it was decided that the King should be removed from his mother’s care into a separate household. Catherine seemed to accept this and be content with her role.

And yet in 1428, the Duke of Gloucester, heard rumours that Catherine intended to marry Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, a cousin of the late King. Such was the fear in Council that Parliament were persuaded to pass a law prohibiting any person from marrying the queen-dowager without the consent of the King and Council.

If Catherine had been in love with Edmund Beaufort, it soon became obvious to those around her that she had started an affair with a Welshman, Owen Tudor. Tudor had been in the employ of King Henry V and had then been in the service of the baby, King Henry VI. Catherine then appointed him Clerk of her Wardrobe. Those around her warned her of the folly of such an affair. She continued despite the warnings, removing herself from court life, she and Owen Tudor retreated to the countryside and in the 1430’s place and date unknown, they married.

By this time the Queen and her lover were inseparable and although barred from remarrying without the consent of the Council, Catherine would not hear of giving up her lover. Unwilling to end the relationship yet unable to remain at court where there was a constant threat of exposure, Catherine’s response was to retreat further from court life by retiring to the countryside. And free from the prying eyes of the court, the besotted Queen not only continued her affair, she went one step further and on an unknown date in the early 1430s, Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor were supposed to have married. No evidence exists for this marriage but five children were born of it including sons Edmund, Jasper and Owen.

It seems incredible that all this happened quietly. King Henry VI was crowned King of England in November 1429 and as King of France, in December 1431. Catherine appears at neither ceremony but Henry was not estranged from his mother, he gifted her a valuable ruby ring in 1428. Did he know of his mothers affair and his half brothers and sisters at this point? It seems impossible he did not.

Catherine of Valois
Bermondsey Abbey South London

The Duke of Gloucester was paranoid about the possibility of Catherine re-marrying, when he learnt of the marriage between herself and Owen Tudor he separated her household removing Tudor to Newgate and herself to Bermondesy  Abbey. The children were placed with the family of Catherine de la Pole. Catherine was once again pregnant and unwell and shortly after being removed to the Abbey gave birth to a daughter who died. Catherine’s health deteriorated and she died aged just 36 years old.

King Henry VI was deeply  saddened by his mother’s death, he was only 16 years old himself. All due regard was given to her at her funeral. Her body lay in state at St Catherine’s Chapel at the Tower of London and on 18th February 1437 she was buried in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. King Henry VI erected an altar tomb and included an inscription describing her as his father’s widow. The King took care of his mother’s other family, Owen Tudor was given an annuity of £40 a year and he took Edmund and Jasper Tudor under his care, they were created Earl of Richmond and Pembroke. Their brother Owen became a monk and there is uncertainty about the other child. In what appears as a hugely caring move towards Catherine’s honour, in 1453 he declared his half brothers legitimate. Edmund had a royal marriage arranged for him with Lady Margaret Beaufort, heiress of the House of Somerset and thus was raised above all the other peers.

Catherine of Valois
Catherine of Valois Tomb Effigy

Catherine of Valois Incorruptible body

And on a last note, Catherine’s body was termed an ‘incorruptible’ body whether by some process of embalming or other. Her grave was deliberately destroyed by her grandson King Henry VII and her body was found to be strangely intact. Catherine was left exposed to the elements for hundreds of years and became a sort of tourist attraction. Samuel Pepys recalls this event;

“On Shrove Tuesday 1669, I to the Abbey went, and by favour did see the body of Queen Catherine of Valois, and had the upper part of the body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it I did kiss a Queen: and this my birthday and I thirty-six years old and I did kiss a Queen.”