On January 3, 1437 Katherine of Valois, Dowager Queen of England, died in Bermondsey Abbey in London. It was not until after her funeral that news began to trickle out, far beyond the inner circle of the English court, that somewhere in the last years of her life Katherine had conducted a secret relationship with a Welshman, Owen Tudor, far below her station. Not only had this relationship occurred, but proof of it could be found in the multiple children she had taken care to hide across the English countryside and in religious houses.
If her son, King Henry VI, had not known before, it was likely somewhat of a surprise to visit his mother for the New Year and learn that not only was she dead, but he possessed a stepfather and multiple half-siblings now dependent on him for protection. The shock of the scandal reverberated through England and enraged several members of the King’s council, for not only was Katherine the King’s mother, she had been a princess of France and the widow of one of England’s most famous and beloved kings, Henry V.
If it sounds like the plot of a bad romance novel that’s because if it were the plot of a romance novel it would be…extremely bad. Instead, it was a turn of events that very much happened, so much so that it ultimately led to the founding of the House of Tudor. One hundred years after the death of Katherine, her great-grandson, Henry VIII, would be in the throes of the English Reformation, dissolving the very religious house that Katherine sought sanctuary in for her last illness and death, Bermondsey Abbey.
The magnitude of the scandal was premised on three facts: who Katherine was, how she had seemingly lived her life and the implications of what she had done. Today, the relationship is intriguing due not only to its inherent drama, but also by how very little we actually know about it. For starters, we don’t know for a fact that Katherine and Owen were even married. We don’t know what years their children were born, in what order or how many there were. We don’t know who in the royal family knew or when. What we do know is that it happened and there was no record of it until Katherine died and her enemies sought to go after the so-called Welsh upstart.
So, to start, who was Katherine?
Katherine of Valois was born on October 27, 1401 in Paris, France to King Charles VI and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria. She was the 10th of 12 eventual children, and the youngest daughter. At some point in her youth, likely after 1405, she entered the convent of Poissy for her education. This was standard practice for royal and noble daughters. Indeed, one of her elder sisters, Marie, was already living at Poissy, having been committed to a religious life by her parents. We don’t know how long Katherine stayed at the convent, but she is recorded as moving with her mother’s household in 1416, so we know she had at least left by then.
Katherine’s childhood and adolescence were marred by the insanity of her father, King Charles. So, really, Katherine’s childhood and adolescence were the least of everyone’s worries as France was in the middle of what was became known as the Burgundian-Armagnac Civil War. Control of the French government – and its treasury – was wrested back and forth between Charles VI’s younger brother, Louis, Duke of Orleans, and his cousins, the dukes of Burgundy. In 1407, this came to a head and Jean, Duke of Burgundy ordered the assassination of Orleans. Orleans was so unpopular, and his death met with such good will in Paris, that not only did Burgundy take credit for the murder, but he was able to use the man’s reputation as his justification.
Orleans’ son and heir, Charles, Duke of Orleans, who also happened to be married to Charles VI’s eldest daughter, Isabelle of Valois, was less pleased. The rest of the royal family brought about a short-lived truce in 1409, but for the next decade the two parties (the Orleanists morphing into the Armagnacs under the leadership of Bernard, Count of Armagnac) grew increasingly hostile towards one another and essentially took turns holding Paris and control of the King and his sons. In 1419, Jean, Duke of Burgundy was assassinated, this time with the collusion of Katherine’s younger brother, Charles, the dauphin. By now, the House of Valois had reached a point of no return – Charles was disinherited, the French made peace with their natural enemy, England, and Katherine was married to the English king, Henry V, in 1420.
Katherine’s English marriage was brief. Within a year, she had been brought to England, crowned queen and was pregnant with her first child. Henry V wrote his will and returned to France to handle his government there and continue his military campaign. On December 6, 1421 Katherine gave birth to a son, Henry, at Windsor Castle and by the following August, Henry V had died. When Katherine’s father, King Charles, died less than two months later, her infant son was suddenly king of a dual English-French empire before he was a year old.
What her attitude to all of this was, or her opinion of the often tense domestic and foreign politics that were occurring around her, we don’t know. She appeared focused on raising on her son, performing her duties, keeping up her dower lands and preferred living outside of London. When her son was slightly older she lived separately from him, but still quietly. Beyond snapshots of her here and there over the years, there is little else we can use definitively to paint a picture of Katherine until her relationship with Owen Tudor went public.
Is that really all we know?
No, there is one more detail that sheds some light. Rumor has it that in the mid-1420s she had some sort of relationship with a cousin of Henry V, Edmund Beaufort. The Beauforts were a prominent political family at the English court and Edmund would go on to be a key player in the reign of her son. Whether they actually had a romantic relationship or whether there was only suspicion of one given Katherine’s known closeness with the Beaufort family is unclear. Regardless, this appears to have prompted Parliament to address the situation at hand, which was that they had a dowager queen who was in her 20s and might, conceivably, want to marry again and have more children. The political fallout that could ensue – if she married into an English family they would become too powerful; if she married a prince in another country, a foreigner could hold sway over the English king – was too daunting. Parliament basically passed the buck, for Katherine at least, by stating a widowed queen could not remarry without the consent of the king. Given that her son was roughly seven at the time, she would have had nearly a decade to wait.
Recently, some historians have argued that the eldest of Katherine’s Tudor sons, Edmund, was really the biological son of Beaufort and not Owen. While possible given how little we know about the timelines for either relationship, there is no hard evidence and I would say it’s probably unlikely given when we DO know Edmund Beaufort left England to join the war effort in France.
How did Katherine meet Owen Tudor?
There are a lot of myths – they involve him drunkenly stumbling on to her lap while dancing, her catching sight of him bathing in the nude and her dressing up as a servant so as to speak to him. Likely it was a bit more mundane than that and Owen became attached to a household serving Henry VI when he still lived with his mother. One theory is that he was in the service of Baron Walter Hungerford who had been given a critical role in the care of Henry VI during his minority and was an active member of his government. What exact position Owen held is unclear, but he and Katherine probably knew each other for a few years before any romantic entanglement occurred.
When did they marry?
Short answer: we don’t know. Some historians even question whether or not they married at all, but my guess is that they at least went through a religious ceremony. In order to attempt to answer the question it’s best to 1) acknowledge that, barring a major discovery, it’s all guesswork and 2) focus on what we do know. Three factors are critical, however two of them can be interpreted a number of different ways. The best and most straightforward indicator of timing are records from 1452 when two of her Tudor sons, Edmund and Jasper, joined the peerage and were listed as being roughly 20 years old. This gives both men an estimated birth date of the early 1430s.
The second factor to consider is the timing of Henry VI’s trip to France. He, and a contingent of English nobles, were out of the country from April 1430 to February 1432. Katherine escorted him there in the spring of 1430, but returned six months later in October 1430, never leaving Rouen. This is notable given that she pointedly didn’t visit her mother or other family members and didn’t stay in France long enough to see her son crowned at Notre Dame. This could be wholly unrelated to her relationship with Tudor; she could have never planned on staying past October or had no interest in venturing further into France given the awkwardness of seeing her family displaced. However, given that we know this is around the time their relationship would have been beginning, it’s also entirely possible she left because she was pregnant, was in disgrace from the relationship having been found out or left to return to him.
Last, there is the timing of the statute introduced by Parliament in the 1427-1428 session meant to limit the ability of the queen to remarry. It is unlikely that this was enacted in reaction to Katherine actually remarrying and more likely that council hoped it would be preventative. Therefore, the earliest year the marriage could have taken place was 1428 and given the later records of Edmund and Jasper, the last year that Jasper could have been born was 1433, placing their marriage at least a year prior to accommodate for the birth of (or at least pregnancy with) Edmund.
Considered together, this places the date of their wedding between 1429 and 1431, subtracting the six months in 1430 she was in France with the royal party. But again, with so much conjecture, it’s all guesswork.
How many children did they have?
We know that they had at least four: Edmund and Jasper, who eventually became members of the peerage, Owen, who became a monk, and a daughter that was born at Bermondsey shortly before Katherine died. There may have been an additional daughter who lived as a nun, but the only mention of her comes from the reign of Katherine’s grandson, Henry VII. This doesn’t inherently cross out the possibility that this daughter existed as Henry VII was attempting to chronicle the history of his family (shady servant weddings and all), but it should be considered with an asterisk.
Does it matter that Owen was Welsh?
Difficult to fully grasp today, Owen’s nationality lent itself to the marriage’s controversy nearly as much as Katherine’s status. England had been fighting with Wales for centuries, but more recently had come out of a series of wars stemming from Wales’ independence movement between 1400 and 1415. While by no means an exact comparison, an upper-class Englishwoman engaged in a relationship with a Welshman in the 15th century was loosely akin to that of an interracial relationship in the United States in the mid-20th century. In 1432, Owen applied for and was granted English citizenship.
When were these children born?
Much like the date of the marriage itself, we don’t know. There is one report that Katherine went into labor in the middle of the festivities surrounding Henry VI’s coronation in London in November 1429 and gave birth to a son, Thomas or Owen, from sanctuary at Westminster. Traditional theory names Edmund as the eldest son and places his birth date in 1430/1431, Jasper’s in 1431/1432 and Owen’s in 1432/1433. With a daughter definitely having been born in December 1436 or January 1437, if a second, older daughter existed then she would have been born between 1433 and 1436.
What happened to these children?
The daughter that Katherine gave birth to shortly before her death died in infancy. Her son, Owen, was being raised inside a religious house, as was her older daughter, if she existed. Only two children, therefore, needed to be provided for in the outside world – Edmund and Jasper. At the time of Katherine’s death the boys were cared for by William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk who had them sent to Barking Abbey, where his sister, Katherine de la Pole, was Abbess. The boys remained there until 1442 when Henry VI summoned them out and provided for their education. In 1453 Edmund was invested as Earl of Richmond and Jasper was invested as Earl of Pembroke; later that same year, Parliament petitioned Henry VI to recognize them as his “full” brothers. Both would end up devoting themselves to their brother, his wife and his son. Edmund became the father of Henry VII, founder of the House of the Tudor, and Jasper spent a significant portion of his life protecting and ensuring his nephew ended up on the English throne after Henry VI’s line was eradicated. Remarkably, though Katherine had been the wife and mother of two kings, it is through her marriage to a Welsh member of her staff that her blood was passed on through the English monarchy. All members of today’s House of Windsor are direct descendants of Katherine and Owen.
What happened to Owen?
Owen was arrested, cleared of wrongdoing and then re-arrested when he attempted to return to Wales. At one point he attempted to escape from prison, but was apprehended and returned. In 1439 he was pardoned by Henry VI and allowed a relatively minor position at court. He maintained a low profile: he does not appear to have attempted to parlay his marriage into political power or orchestrate the careers of his sons. Owen never remarried, however he is believed to have fathered an illegitimate child in 1459. He died in 1461 following the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, defending Henry’s kingship.
Who knew and when?
This is interesting because, believe it or not, we know less about who knew about the marriage than the marriage itself. Certainly the wider English population had no idea Katherine had remarried until after her death and the fact that rumors weren’t picked up by chroniclers or referenced in foreign courts at the time indicates that the gossip was held close to the vest. At the same time, it’s impossible that the entirety of Katherine’s household was kept in the dark through multiple pregnancies, particularly given that Edmund and Jasper were sometimes living in Katherine’s residences in their first years.
One indication we have that some friends may have known was the action the Earl of Suffolk took to protect her two young sons when Katherine died – whether he was prompted by Henry VI, Cardinal Beaufort or Katherine herself, we don’t know. A second clue is action taken after the death of Katherine’s brother-in-law, John, Duke of Bedford, in September 1435.
When Henry V died in 1422, Katherine had two brothers-in-law: Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. With Bedford based in France the majority of the time, Gloucester was the brother Katherine dealt with on much more regular basis. We have no record of personal animosity between the two, except that Gloucester was livid about the Tudor marriage, pushed for Owen’s arrest, and seemingly hated the Beaufort family, particularly the Cardinal. The latter point is particularly significant in light of Katherine’s rumored romance with the Cardinal’s nephew, Edmund, in the mid-1420s. So, while we don’t know that they personally disliked one another, all signs point to no love having been lost.
The fact that Katherine entered Bermondsey and Owen was first arrested several months before her death indicates that something had changed in 1436. The single-most significant event on the course of the English government at the time, both domestically and abroad, was the recent death of Bedford, who had been well-respected by pretty much everyone that encountered him. That Katherine entered sanctuary and Gloucester moved to have Owen immediately arrested speaks to Bedford having protected the couple remotely.
On the other hand, the timing could be coincidental. Katherine is believed to have been ill for months, if not years, before her death. The last pregnancy and Bedford’s death could have been incidental to Katherine seeking refuge in the Abbey. Thus, it could very well have been Katherine’s influence that kept Owen out of prison and not Bedford’s.
As for the Cardinal, Henry VI and other figures close to Katherine, we unfortunately don’t know if or when they were told about the marriage while the queen was alive.
Clearly, nearly every aspect of this relationship is debatable and unfortunately, due to the fame of Katherine’s first husband, their grandson and great-grandchildren, this first Tudor marriage is usually featured as a neat paragraph wedged in the last or first pages of someone else’s biography. Never the focus (understandably, given how little fact there is to go on) this relationship is often lent declarative statements it doesn’t warrant. Owen is “ambitious;” Katherine is “wanton;” the marriage “definitely” took place in 1428. These are opinions incorrectly presented as facts.
“Secret” marriages among the nobility were not completely uncommon in the Middle Ages. They were a bit trickier to navigate when dealing with the immediate royal family (for example, the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville), but not unprecedented. Gloucester, himself, embarked on his own first marriage without the advice or consent of council.
What takes this story from an amusing footnote to history and transforms it into dynastic significance is the benefit we have of hindsight. We know they brought about one the most famous royal houses in history; they did not. Likely all Katherine was looking for was a few years of happiness.
See more on the Timeline