Henry V as played by Tom Hiddleston in the BBC Two adaptation of Shakespeare's most famous royal playNo one expected Henry V to die. He had been king for nine years and was just approaching his 36th birthday. He had won famous victories in his campaign to claim the French throne and in 1420 had been named heir to the crown of Charles VI, cementing the deal by marrying Charles' daughter, Katherine of Valois. His lovely young wife gave him a son the following year and in the summer of 1422, Henry V was again campaigning in France expecting to be its king very soon as his father in law became older and more infirm. And then suddenly he became ill, most likely suffering from dysentery, and died on August 31st in the Chateau of Vincennes near Paris.
Laurence Olivier as Henry V in the famous 1944 adaptation of Shakespeare's plays. He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal but lost to Frederic March
His death left his widow pretty powerless. She was the mother of a nine month old boy who was now monarch of England and next in line to rule France. But Henry's brothers, John and Humphrey, quickly put themselves in charge of the regency with no place for Katherine. She lost her father soon after the death of her husband but her brother's decision to challenge for the throne of France weakened her position even further. She was now queen dowager and sister of a man claiming a crown that didn't belong to him after the Treaty of Troyes signed it over to Henry V and his descendants. Charles VII' campaign went from bad to worse as John and Humphrey's power increased. All the while, Katherine was kept close to the court but allowed little or no say in the upbringing of her son, either as a child or a king. For a brief moment in time, the House of Lancaster looked rock solid and the pretty widow played the part of Cinderella to her not so ugly brothers in law.
Katherine of Valois was a bit part player for most of her first five years in England
A law preventing her marriage unless she had the permission of the king further cemented her imprisonment - her son was solely responsible for allowing a wedding and what he said on the matter had no legal currency until he reached the age of around fifteen. Katherine was stuck. Her own family was dispossessed of its powerbase and her brother was skirmishing away from Paris while her son was in the control of his uncles and she was the blood relative of a usurper. But if there was any doubt where the Tudors got some of their pluck from, what this Katie did next should answer that.
Renee Asherson as Katherine of Valois in the 1944 film version of the Shakespeare play
The appearance of Joan of Arc fighting for the French cause in 1428, soon after the marriage law was passed, sent shockwaves through the English regency and led to a major escalation in fighting. It also made France the centre of affairs and this miniscule opportunity gave Katherine the tiny breath of freedom she needed. Sometime soon after that she took up a member of her household. By the time Katherine revealed her relationship with Owen Tudor, they had children and claimed to be married. With her brother, Charles, in the ascendancy over the English in France her brothers in law had more important things to think about than the wedding of a queen and a servant. She was forgiven her marriage - although there is still no evidence to show whether it ever actually happened - and she and Owen formed a family. She had taken the only chance she might ever get to do what she wanted. That seizing of opportunity stood her Tudor descendants in good stead.
The famous painting Henry VIII commissioned to show the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Its ascendancy began 691 years ago today
Twenty years after the death of Henry V, his widow was also dead and her Tudor sons were at the court of their half brother. But the government of England was in tatters and France was ebbing away. Katherine's first child was already showing signs of the mental health problems that would plague his adult life. And the nobles who had seen the first Lancaster king take a throne by force began to check their family trees to see if their claim might be strong enough to justify an attempt of their own. Henry V's great double kingdom was about to dissolve in war and civil war. But the legacy of Katherine was already proving far more useful for power builders and without it, The White Queen might never have existed at all.
A Victorian telling of the crisis years of Henry VI's reign - the king is shown as submissive and powerless as his realm crumbles around him
Jacquetta of Luxembourg had arrived in England around the time that Katherine had died. She had married one of the brothers in law who had kept Queen Kate caged in the early years of Henry VI's reign. On the death of John, Duke of Bedford in 1433 she was ordered back to England but while the court was expecting a grieving widow they instead got a jolly twenty year old who had copied her recently dead queen. Jacquetta had married a servant sent to help her on her journey home and as they'd forgiven the first lady of the realm, they had to forgive the second. Jacquetta and her new husband kept much of the cash owed to her as a royal widow and lived a very comfortable life with great contact with court. While their daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, may have been a commoner she was a very well connected one. Without the precedent set by Katherine of Valois, Jacquetta would most likely never have been allowed away with her marriage to Richard Woodville which means no pretty daughter to seduce a York king beneath an oak tree and no princess Elizabeth to unite the two houses with her marriage to Henry Tudor.
Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
The husband and wife parted today in 1422 both played a role in bringing about the most famous royal house in English history. But while the king may have dreamed it would be his descendants claiming the crown for centuries, it was his wife's genes which determined royal history long after they were both gone.