Emma Thompson has played her. Shakespeare conveyed her great beauty in his plays. She bore Henry V his only son. She was the daughter of Charles VI King of France and his queen consort Isabelle of Bavaria. Yet odds are good few of us really know her. She was Catherine de Valois and she was far more than just a lovely French princess and royal breeding machine to an English warrior king.
Born on October 27, 1401 the youngest of Charles VI’s children, Catherine was barely 19 when Henry V first met her following his October 25, 1420 victory on the field of Agincourt. A few months later, on June 2, 1420 Catherine wed Henry in France. On February 23, 1421 she was crowned as queen of England. On December 6, 1421 she gave birth to their son, Henry, the future Henry VI. But her husband was not to stay in England to rule and enjoy their marriage. Henry V died on campaign the following May, making her son the youngest English monarch crowned.
Her story did not stop there. At 21 Catherine was Europe’s most eligible royal widow. Parliament tried to control her life after, requiring that her son, still an infant at the time, approve any re-marriage she might make. She defied them and by choosing her own path, set the stage for her to become matriarch of two future dynasties.
Catherine’s choice for her second husband was a Welshman. His name was Owen Tudor. She would die on January 3, 1437, shortly after giving birth to their daughter Margaret. But between Henry VI and daughter Margaret she gave Owen two sons, Edmund and Jasper. All three of her sons would be caught up in the War of the Roses which divided England. In the end, Edmund’s son, Henry, would become the lasting king of England, founding the new Tudor dynasty. This grandson would become Henry VII.
Elizabeth of York gave Henry VII seven children with four surviving childhood: Arthur (first husband to Catherine of Aragon), Henry, Margaret, and Mary. We think of great-grandson Henry’s notable reign as Henry VIII, but it would be Margaret’s descendants who would ultimately carry on Catherine de Valois’s special legacy. Henry VII married daughter Margaret to James IV of Scotland. Their son became James V of Scotland who married Marie of Guise and sired Mary Queen of Scots whose son by Henry Stuart Lord Darnley produced a son, James, the future James VI of Scotland-and James I of England.
Thus Catherine de Valois became matriarch to both The Tudor and Stuart dynasties which, in James VI/I, eventually came to become one and the same once more. Henry VIII was her great-grandson. Margaret Tudor was her great-granddaughter. Mary Queen of Scots was her great- great-great-granddaughter who produced her great-great-great-great-grandson James VI/I of Scotland and England, the unifier of England, Wales, and Scotland. Catherine’s final descendant to rule England was Queen Anne of Great Britain, the final Stuart monarch.
It is easy to think of the beautiful French bride of Henry V as a mere coda, a trophy to the Battle of Agincourt. It is easy to ignore the contributions of matriarchs like Catherine. And yet we would do well to remember Catherine de Valois and the powerful way her choice to marry, against the will of parliament, the man she loved in Welshman Owen Tudor. Through her courage of convictions she shaped the history of all of Britain-England, Wales, and Scotland-for centuries. She was, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of those rare women whose deeds need to be sung and yet, like so many women of courage and conviction, largely ignored by history. Yet without Catherine de Valois, there would have been no Queen Elizabeth I, no Mary Queen of Scots, no Queen Anne. So many of the 16th and 17th century women we honor count her as matriarch.
Perhaps it is time we re-open the history books and discover these beautiful and amazing women whose lives shaped history more than any of us can ever know. She was mother to sovereign kings and queens from two countries who became united. Can we achieve any less in our lives?
For more information on all this history, see http://harlotsharpiesharridans.com/blog/2011/10/27/catherine-de-valois/, http://tudorhistory.org/henry7/, http://tudorhistory.org/people/margaret/, http://englishhistory.net/tudor/relative/maryqosbiography.html, and http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/anne.html