Catherine of Valois – A Forgotten Queen

Catherine of Valois (Catherine de Valois) a key figure in medieval European history and served as an important link between the French and English royal families. Born into the court of King Charles VI of France, her life was a whirlwind of politics and personal trauma. As Queen to King Henry V and mother to Henry VI, her influence went beyond her lifetime, and through her secret marriage to Owen Tudor, she set into motion a legacy which ushered in a new era for English history.

Catherine’s story is one of survival and strength, navigating the treacherous political landscape of both France and England. Her marriages were more than personal relationships but rather political alliances that shaped the world around her. Despite the obstacles she faced – the early death of her husband Henry V and the issues surrounding her son’s minority – Catherine managed to expertly navigate these impossible situations.

Early Life and Background of Catherine, Daughter of Charles VI of France

Catherine of Valois was born on October 27, 1401, in Paris, France. She was the youngest daughter of King Charles VI of France, known as “Charles the Mad” because of his frequent bouts of madness, and Queen Isabella of Bavaria. Catherine’s early life was overshadowed by her father’s mental health issues, which made the French court an often volatile place. Charles VI’s reign was marked by episodes of psychosis, which meant he couldn’t rule for periods of time, leaving the kingdom in a state of uncertainty – despite a stable regency in place.

Additionally, her mother Isabella of Bavaria was embroiled in her own political and power struggles and faced numerous challenges managing the unstable court. Due to this environment, it is said that Catherine’s childhood was lonely and some scholars have noted notably loveless.

To ensure her religious education and possibly to distance her from the court, Catherine was sent to the convent of Poissy at a young age. This convent, known for its strict discipline and high standards, provided Catherine with a refuge from the political intrigues and family feuds of her early life. At Poissy, she would have received religious instruction and a basic education, which was the norm for young noblewomen of her time. This was arguably the most stable part of her life up to this point

Betrothal and Marriage Negotiations

In 1403, when Catherine was just two years old, she was briefly betrothed to Charles, heir of Louis, Duke of Bourbon, but in time this betrothal was broken off. The marriage negotiations for Catherine of Valois to the English heir began in earnest after Henry IV proposed a peace treaty with France in 1408. This was part of a broader plan to end the war between England and France, which had been ongoing since 1337. King Henry IV’s idea of peace was a dynastic marriage that would unite the two kingdoms and bring a lasting truce.

Then, in 1413 Henry IV died and subsequently his son Henry V succeeded him. Henry V, known for his military skills and ambition, wanted to assert his claim over French territories, which meant restarting the war between the two countries. Despite the renewed hostilities, the idea of a marriage alliance remained attractive to both courts. Henry V continued the negotiations, seeing the advantage of marrying a French Princess. Moreover, this marriage would strengthen his claim to French lands and potentially weaken the opposition by creating a family tie between the two royal houses.

The new marriage negotiations included serious demands from Henry V, such as the return of Aquitaine and Normandy to English control. These were economically and strategically important territories and would make England more powerful and influential in France. The negotiations were lengthy and of a delicate nature as both kingdoms had a lot to lose. Finally, these talks culminated in the drafting of the Treaty of Troyes, a watershed moment in Anglo-French relations.

Catherine of Valois: A Tale of Love, Politics, and Legacy
Image: Caxton Master, “The Beauchamp Pageants”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Marriage to Henry V and the birth of Henry VI

The negotiations concluded with the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, a pivotal agreement that not only arranged the marriage of Henry V and Catherine but also recognized Henry as the regent and heir to the French throne, disinheriting the Dauphin Charles (later Charles VII). On June 2, 1420, the 33-year-old Henry married the 18-year-old Catherine in the French village of Troyes. This marriage was politically motivated and aimed at solidifying Henry’s claims in France following his military victories, including the famous Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Catherine’s transition from a French princess to the Queen of England was marked by her coronation at Westminster Abbey on February 23, 1421. Despite the political nature of their marriage, the couple had a brief period together before Henry returned to military campaigns in France. During his absence, Catherine gave birth to their only son, Henry VI, on December 6, 1421. Tragically, Henry V never met his son, as he succumbed to dysentery in August 1422 during the Siege of Meaux. After his death, his body was embalmed and rested for a time in Rouen Cathedral before being transported back to England, where he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Children of Catherine of Valois

Catherine of Valois had children from both of her marriages, reflecting her significant role in the lineage of English royalty. Although most scholars believe that she had two daughters, there is also some historical debate and limited evidence about the existence of Tacinda Tudor:

  1. King Henry VI of England (December 6, 1421 – May 21, 1471)
    • Born to Catherine and Henry V, Henry VI became the King of England and King of France. His reign was marked by the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars for control of the English throne, which eventually led to the rise of the Tudors.
  2. Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond (c. 1430 – November 3, 1456)
    • The first child of Catherine and Owen Tudor, Edmund was a key figure in the foundation of the Tudor dynasty. He married Margaret Beaufort, and their son would later become, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. Catherine of Valois was thus the grandmother of Henry VII.
  3. Jasper Tudor, 1st Duke of Bedford (c. 1431 – December 21, 1495)
    • Also a son of Catherine and Owen Tudor, Jasper played a crucial role in supporting his nephew, Henry Tudor, in his quest for the throne. He was instrumental in the eventual success of the Tudor claim during the Wars of the Roses.
  4. Owen Tudor (c. 1432 – ?)
    • Another child from Catherine’s marriage to Owen Tudor, though less is known about his life compared to his more prominent brothers.
  5. Margaret Tudor (c. 1433 – ?)
    • Believed to have become a nun and died young, having lived a relatively obscure life away from the political turbulence that defined her brothers’ lives.
  6. Tacinda Tudor (exact dates unknown)
    • Little is known about Tacinda, and her existence is sometimes subject to historical debate. She is believed to have lived a quiet life, largely away from the public eye.

Although the exact number of children is unknown, three sons played significant roles in the political landscape of England, particularly through their influence in the Wars of the Roses and the establishment of the Tudors.

Widowhood and Dowager Queen

Henry V and Catherine’s father Charles VI died within a few months of each other in 1422, leaving Catherine a widow and her infant son as both King of England and France. As a young widow and the mother of Henry VI, Catherine’s role was predominantly ceremonial. She resided in England, living in various royal residences such as Windsor Castle and Baynard’s Castle in London.

During her widowhood, there were rumours of a romantic connection between Catherine and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. These rumours were significant enough that they led to a parliamentary statute in 1428, which forbade the dowager queen from marrying without the king’s consent. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was the protector of Henry VI, was particularly concerned about the political implications of her remarriage. He feared that if Catherine married a powerful noble like Edmund Beaufort, it might create a faction that could undermine the young king’s authority and Gloucester’s own position of power. It is important to note that although the rumours were significant enough to lead to a parliamentary statute, there is no evidence to suggest that an affair ever took place.

Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor

Despite the restrictions, Catherine of Valois married Owen Tudor, a young man from a noble family who was a member of Catherine’s household and a Welsh Squire. Their secret relationship began when Catherine was at Windsor Castle. There is no concrete evidence of the exact timing of their marriage but it is believed they married in secret around 1429.

They had at least six children including Edmund and Jasper Tudor who would play important roles in the future of the English monarchy.

Catherine’s relationship with him was kept secret for political reasons. But this union would shape English history as it was the foundation of the Tudor dynasty. Their grandson would eventually be King of England and start a new era in English history.

Later Life and Death “Catherine de Valois”

In her later years, Catherine of Valois faced many challenges. In 1436, the court learned of her marriage and her growing family, leading to Owen’s imprisonment. Heartbroken by the separation, Catherine retired to Bermondsey Abbey, where she soon fell ill. She died on January 3, 1437, likely from childbirth complications.

After her death, Catherine was initially buried in the Old Lady Chapel. Her funeral procession included a painted wooden funeral effigy, a common practice for royalty at the time, where horses drew it on a bier.

During the reign of her grandson, Henry VII, renovations of the abbey led to the disturbance of her tomb in the Old Lady Chapel. Her remains were temporarily displayed in a wooden coffin above ground, leading to the famous incident recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1669, where he saw and even kissed her remains on his birthday while they were displayed.

Her remains were finally deposited in the Henry V’s Chantry Chapel, at Westminster Abbey, as part of the ongoing efforts to respect and preserve royal remains during subsequent renovations and restorations. In the 19th century, Dean Stanley, the Dean of Westminster, played a significant role in the preservation of Catherine’s legacy. In 1878, he arranged for her effigy to be moved to a more prominent position within the Abbey, ensuring that it was preserved and respected as part of the abbey’s historical heritage.

Legacy and Impact on the Tudor Dynasty

The House of Tudors

Catherine of Valois’ legacy is most profoundly felt through her descendants which laid the groundwork for the Tudors’ dynasty. Her son with Owen, Edmund Tudor, became the first Earl of Richmond and married Margaret Beaufort, a significant heiress with a strong claim to the English throne. This union was crucial in consolidating the Lancastrian claim to the throne, combining the bloodlines of two powerful families and enhancing the legitimacy of their progeny.

Their son, Henry Tudor, would emerge victorious in the Wars of the Roses, defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and becoming Henry VII. This victory marked the end of the Plantagenet rule and the beginning of the House of Tudor, which would transform England’s political landscape. Henry VII’s reign established a new era of stability and strong monarchical rule after decades of civil strife.

Under King Henry VII and his descendants, the Tudors would become one of the most renowned in English history. Monarchs such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I would lead significant religious, political, and cultural changes, including the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Era. These transformations would shape the course of English history and leave an indelible mark on the world.

Catherine’s influence extended beyond her immediate descendants. Her strategic marriages and the alliances they forged played a crucial role in shaping the political landscape of medieval Europe. The Tudors would dominate England for over a century, heralding an era of unprecedented change and development.

Catherine in Historical Fiction and Pop Culture

Catherine of Valois has been a popular subject in historical fiction and pop culture. Shakespeare wrote about her in his play “Henry V,” where she is portrayed as the charming and dignified French princess wooed by the victorious English king.

This romanticized depiction highlights her role as a bridge between the French and English royal families. In more recent adaptations, such as Kenneth Branagh’s film “Henry V,” Emma Thompson plays Catherine, further solidifying her image in popular culture as a figure of beauty and historical importance. Additionally, the Netflix film “The King” features Catherine, emphasizing her significance in historical drama.

Many novels and TV series have been written about her life, often focusing on her marriage to Henry V and her marriage to Owen Tudor. These portrayals showcase the drama and intrigue of her life and how her personal choices shaped English history. The Netflix film adaptation of “The King” is one of the latest portrayals that brings her story to a contemporary audience, demonstrating the enduring fascination with her legacy.

Historical Records and Myths

What we know about the life of Catherine of Valois is a mix of historical records and myths and as a result, is the subject of ongoing research. While many details of her life are well documented, her marriage to Henry V and her coronation as Queen of England, other parts of her life, particularly her relationship with Owen Tudor are less clear. The secrecy of their marriage and the politics that followed have led to much speculation and debate among historians.

For example, there is no record of the exact date of her marriage and yet interestingly contemporary accounts rarely disagreed on the legitimacy of their children.


Catherine of Valois’s life was marked by personal struggles, political marriages, and a legacy that significantly shaped English history and that of the Royal Family. From her early years in the volatile French court to being crowned Queen at an elaborate coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey and becoming the mother of the infant king Henry VI, her story is one of resilience and influence.

Her marriage to Henry V briefly united the French and English crowns, while her secret marriage laid the foundation for the House of Tudor. Through her son the future Henry VI and her Tudor descendants, Catherine’s impact on the course of English history endured long after her death.

*Feature Image: Wikimedia

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