Friday, 3 January 2014

England's first queen Catherine

That most intriguing of medieval heroines, Catherine of Valois, died on this day in 1437.  The dowager queen of England, otherwise known as Mrs Tudor, had retired to Bermondsey Abbey, probably to give birth. but soon after her arrival there, she died.  However, her death is mysterious because of some reports of words attributed to her as she made her will.  They refer to release from the pain she is suffering, release from her long standing malady and this has led some historians to question the cause of the queen's death.  The first Catherine to rule England continues to fascinate.

Catherine of Valois, queen consort of England, was the mother of one king and the ancestress of a ling of monarchs who would shape her adopted country to their own ends and to great success

It is generally thought that Catherine died in childbirth.  She is known to have had three sons by her second husband, Owen Tudor, and at least one daughter.  Whether the baby she is believed to have died delivering in 1437 is that girl or another child is a mystery.  But then whether Catherine was actually pregnant when she entered Bermondsey is still something of a mystery.  Because of the circumstances of her second marriage, the births of all her children by Owen Tudor happened away from court and so aren't really documented.  We know that her three sons with him existed because they exist in later records .  Edmund became the father of Henry Tudor, late Henry VII, although he died before his only child was born.  Jasper helped raise Henry and fight for the crown for him.  Owen became a monk.  But the existence of a fourth and fifth child is little more than a link in one history or the other.  

Henry VII, King of England, and grandson of Catherine of Valios

The fact that her second husband, Owen Tudor, was arrested so soon after her death (even though he managed to talk his way out of that tight spot) shows that the acceptance of their union was superficial and lasted only as long as this French princess turned English queen consort then English queen dowager and French king mother was alive.  And it also shows how marginalised Catherine and her second family had become.  Her son by her first husband was king of England and of France and held his second crown partly thanks to descent from Catherine but her role in his life was limited and despite her royal pedigree and the importance her blood line had played in claiming the French crown for England, the queen was a person of little consequence at her boy king son's court.

A later imagining of the marriage of Catherine of Valois and Henry V of England - their union led to their son, Henry VI, being king of both England and France

But her blood line also brought problems with it.  Her father, Charles, had suffered a serious bout of mental ill health which had turned him from a dynamic and energetic ruler into a puppet.  And there is no doubt that Catherine's eldest son, Henry VI, suffered similar problems.  His illness was shown in almost exactly the same way as his grandfather's - both fell into a stupor and refused to communicate at some point in their lives.  But did this genetic inheritance of mental health issues affect Catherine as well?  Those words that are sometimes attributed to her at her death, of freedom from a long standing illness, are taken by some to indicate that this pretty princess who changed the course of European history and founded a dynasty that would do the same all over again less than a century later, was also suffering from psychological and emotional ill issues.

An earlier interpretation of the marriage of Catherine of Valois and Henry V - did the queen suffer from the same mental health problems as her father and her son?

The almost overnight change in the personality of Catherine's most famous descendant, her great grandson Henry VIII, perhaps also shows the strength of the genetic predisposition to psychological problems.  Henry was a strong, dynamic king in the early part of his reign but from 1536 became almost tyrannical in his determination to rule England the way he saw fit.  Is it possible that Catherine, too, suffered torments and realised she was becoming like her father before her?  

Henry VIII, Catherine of Valois' most famous descendant, underwent a change in personality in his late thirties and early forties

She left no writings of her own so we will never know.  And she was carefully edited out of history, first by the court of her eldest son who saw her marriage to a servant as little more than a scandal that must be permitted to limit its damage and then by the Tudors who had had enough of independent women like Catherine by the time they came to cast their story in pen and ink.  But the little we do know of this fascinating queen indicates a passion and determination that can be seen at work in her brilliant, bright and short lived dynasty of kings and queens in the 16th century.  And leaves enough of a question mark over what that mysterious illness was that claimed her life on January 3rd 1437.


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