In honor of National Princess Day, we’re studying the real life of Princess Catherine from Shakespeare’s Henry V.
Catherine of Valois was born in Paris on October 27, 1401, to King Charles VI of France and Queen Isabella of Bavaria.
Sounds like a classic start… until you read the next part.
In 1380, King Charles VI was crowned at just 11 years old. Due to his reform efforts, he became known as “Charles the Beloved”; that is, until “Beloved” was swapped for “Mad.”
In 1392, years before Catherine’s birth, the king’s episodes began. At times he turned violent, at others, alarmingly confused. Examples include thinking himself to be Saint George and believing he was made of glass. While today, many believe the king had schizophrenia, 14th-century professionals suspected melancholia.
Due to his mental instability, his wife often served as regent… and engaged in numerous affairs. Her political and personal choices led to both France and England despising her. Quite the accomplishment after she basically gave England France’s throne in place of her own son. (More on that later!)
Charles VI Bedridden with His Physician - Artist Unknown, 1400s
So it seems like everybody thought the world of her parents, no? It’s curious to ponder how all of this affected young Catherine.
Fun Fact: Contrary to the years-old popular belief that young Catherine was neglected, modern research reveals Isabella cared deeply for her children: She frequently bought them gifts, toys, and clothes. And after sending them away for protection from political unrest and plague, she never failed to write.
Below is a chart of King Charles VI’s children.
Due to serious quarrels within the court, in 1404 Catherine and her sister Marie were sent to a convent at Poissy. There, they received an adequate royal education.
Whom to Wed
As with many royals, Catherine’s parents discussed her marriage early on. Among others, they seriously considered Henry IV’s offer of his son to promote peace between France and England. After years of discussion and Henry IV’s death, the newly-crowned son (King Henry V) adjusted the offer. In addition to Catherine’s hand, he wanted a hefty dowry and restoration of some land that was once England’s. As you can imagine, France did not take these new conditions too well, and war broke out.
October 1415 - Henry V wins the Battle of Agincourt.
December 1415 - Catherine’s brother Louis dies. Then, another brother would die about a year later. In Catherine’s mommy’s eyes, France is left with an underage heir and a king/father mentally at his worst. Perhaps Catherine’s marriage could settle some things…
1417 - Henry misses invading foreign countries and returns to take some of France’s land.
June 1419 - Henry & Catherine meet for the 1st time. It is said he was taken with her beauty and kissed her hand, a gesture at which she blushed.
May 21, 1420 - The Treaty of Troyes gets signed. Henry V now leads France for the rest of Charles VI’s life, and the English throne is passed down the French line - disinheriting Dauphin Charles. If you’d like to learn more about this treaty or Shakespeare’s version of events versus reality, check out this video: https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/two-crowns-one-king-henry-v-and-the-treaty-of-troyes/ (Transcription is provided below the video.)
June 2, 1420 - Henry & Catherine wed.
February 1421 - Catherine is crowned at Westminster Abbey.
Marriage of Henry V of England to Catherine of Valois - Illumination, Jean Chartier, 1494
Henry V Kicks the Bucket
In June of 1421, Henry left to continue his military campaigns in France. After giving birth to their son Henry that December, Catherine joined her husband. And, long story short, he died in Vincennes on August 31, 1422. Their marriage had been short, and they had only spent five months together in England.
Also, Parliament supplied her with a generous dowry after Henry’s death. Just in case anyone was wondering.
Continuing… Due to Henry’s will, Catherine was not to take on a political role during their son’s youth. Her job was simply to look after the growing king. And that she did, escorting him to all sorts of special occasions. This resulted in her nickname: “Queen of England, the King’s mother.”
Next Man, Please!
Catherine was a dowager queen, widow of a late king. As such (plus her part in raising Henry V’s heir), England’s regency council kept its eyes on her. She was still young and beautiful… Would she marry an Englishman? If so, would they want more power? How about a foreigner? Oh goodness - from which country? While they busied themselves with worry, rumors began to circulate. Was Catherine interested in Edmund Beaufort, Count of Mortain and future Duke of Somerset?
Interestingly, historians disagree on whether Parliament reacted by passing a statute forbidding the marriage of a dowager queen without royal consent and forfeiture of lands for life. It’s not in Parliament’s records… was it ever there to begin with?
Anywhoo, for one reason or another, Catherine and Edmund never married.
Now here comes the biggie: Owen Tudor, a Welsh squire. Did they marry? Their marriage is not documented (or at least, discovered as such.) But it does look like it. And they had a handful of children too. When the scandal was discovered, it was declared an insult to Henry V’s memory. Owen was arrested and a distressed Catherine fell ill.
She died of that illness in disgrace on January 3, 1437, at the age of 35.
Catherine's Funeral Effigy - Westminster Abbey Library
We hope you found this article interesting & insightful! We’d love to hear how this information impacts your viewing / reading / performing of Shakespeare’s Henry V - especially your interpretation of Catherine’s character!
Jeffrey Hamilton, The Plantagenets: History of a Dynasty, (Continuum, 2010), 205.
Jonathan Sumption, Cursed Kings: The Hundred Years War IV, (Faber and Faber Ltd., 2015), 103.
Marriage of Henry V of England to Catherine of Valois British Library, Miniature of the marriage of Henry V and Catharine de Valois: Jean Chartier, Chronique de Charles VII, France (Calais), 1490, and England, before 1494, Royal 20 E. vi, f. 9v.
The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson,
Cover - Henry V. Kenneth Branagh. 1989.