Catherine of Valois was born on October 27, 1401, in Paris, France, to King Charles VI and Queen Isabella. At the time of her birth, the royal Valois family was split between two factions that vied for power: the Armagnacs and the Burgundians. The power struggle had begun a decade prior as the king began to show signs of madness. As Charles’s mental illness worsened, the Armagnacs and Burgundians began fighting amongst themselves for control of the kingdom. As the two sides engaged in a vicious civil war, England invaded a fractured France.
In April 1413, the Lancastrian King Henry V succeeded his father, Henry IV. The new king was a seasoned warrior who sought to continue the Hundred Years’ War in France. Recognizing the kingdom’s vulnerability, Henry raised an army and invaded France in 1415. Upon his victory against the French army at the Battle of Agincourt in October, the king pursued a marriage with the royal family. In May 1420, Henry signed the Treaty of Troyes with Charles VI. In turn, Henry became Charles’s heir and married Catherine.
Although Henry V was a foreign invader who forced her father to disinherit her older brother, Charles, Catherine viewed her upcoming marriage positively. The princess saw the marriage as an opportunity to become queen and escape her unhappy family life. On June 2, Catherine married Henry in Troyes Cathedral. The newlyweds subsequently returned to England. In February 1421, Catherine was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abby.
Queen of England
By March 1421, Catherine of Valois had reached the pinnacle of power. For years, the 17-year-old French princess had been neglected by her parents and left to languish in obscurity. However, her marriage to Henry V had catapulted her to new heights as England’s queen. Before returning to France in June, the king had unknowingly impregnated his wife. Unfortunately, Henry would never see his son.
While on campaign, Henry V became infected with dysentery. On August 31, the king succumbed to the disease, leaving Catherine a pregnant widow. Two months later, the dowager queen’s father died. On December 6, Catherine gave birth to a son, Henry. Per the Treaty of Troyes, the infant was now the king of both England and France. However, the situation in France prevented the English from enforcing Henry VI’s claim to the French throne.
During the first few years of Henry VI’s life, Catherine took an active role in her son’s life. As the king got older, his importance grew. Eventually, Henry would be taken from Catherine and placed under her brother-in-law, Humphrey’s supervision. Since the dowager queen was still young, her next marriage was of great concern to parliament. In the late 1420s, to maintain control of Catherine, the government passed a bill prohibiting her from marrying without the king’s consent. Since Henry was only six years old, Catherine stood little chance of getting approval.
While still a member of Henry VI’s household, Catherine of Valois became close with her Keeper of the Household, Owen Tudor. Tudor was a Welsh squire of modest standing. It’s unknown when their relationship began, but the two secretly married around 1428. After becoming pregnant with Owen’s child, Catherine left Henry’s household to give birth. On June 11, 1430, the dowager queen gave birth to her second son, Edmund. The following year, Catherine gave birth to her third son, Jasper.
Over the next few years, Catherine would give birth to several more children. When parliament discovered Catherine’s new marriage, members were outraged but couldn’t punish Owen due to Catherine’s protection. In 1436, she retired to the Abbey of Bermondsey, either due to another pregnancy or illness. Regardless, Catherine later died in the abbey on January 3, 1437. The dowager queen was only 35.
Although her life was short, Catherine of Valois’s legacy would impact the future of the English monarchy. After Henry VI died in 1471 during the Wars of the Roses, the Lancastrian dynasty ended. Through her son Edmund, Henry Tudor overcame Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and established the Tudor dynasty in 1485. As a result, Catherine became the ancestor of the British royal family.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Catherine of valois. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catherine-of-Valois