Katherine of Valois was only queen for 26 months before Henry V died unexpectedly in France and she was suddenly tasked with the lofty job of mothering the king of England and France, staying out of the way and lending her hand as Christendom’s greatest ornament, as needed. Don’t be jealous.
Needless to say, in that short window of time, Katherine didn’t have much opportunity to play at being the king’s wife, but her coronation did provide an opportunity for her to carry out a traditional act of queen consort: Pleading for mercy on behalf of her husband’s prisoners.
On February 23, 1421 Katherine of Valois was crowned queen at Westminster Abbey, eight months after marrying Henry V at Troyes Cathedral in France. Their marriage brought a temporary peace to the war Henry had been waging on France and Katherine’s family (her father being King Charles VI), by naming Henry heir, disinheriting Katherine’s brother, the dauphin. The marriage pacified Burgundy, which was angry at the dauphin for having played a role in the assassination of its duke Jean Sans Peur, and acknowledged the military gains Henry had systematically been making, on and off, since 1415.
What Katherine thought about marrying her country’s natural enemy is anyone’s guess. It’s difficult to imagine it was much of a love story given Henry’s preoccupation with his military campaigns and the time they spent apart, but it’s entirely possible. As is the notion that she may have resented entering a marriage that cemented her family’s loss.
In any event, her coronation was a watershed moment for her husband, who was able to parade her through London as the very real, tangible trophy of his victory abroad. A lesser known fact about it, though, is that King James I of Scotland played a role in the ceremony, which wasn’t as logistically inconvenient as he might have wished given that he had been a prisoner of the House of Lancaster since 1404.
James had been sent from Scotland as a boy when infighting broke out among the royal family. After his brother was poisoned, it was safer to ship James off to France to be protected by an ally court, however pirates intercepted him, realized who they had and promptly delivered him to King Henry IV in England. King Henry then kept him, raising him alongside his children and ensuring he had a thorough education and proper accommodations. When Henry V succeeded his father in 1413 he was less enthused by the prisoner and his liberty was curtailed, primarily being kept at Windsor Castle.
But war with France provided James with an opportunity to show his worth as Scottish troops were fighting alongside the French and the English thought it worth a shot to try leveraging their captive king. James proved his loyalty, worked with the English and was with the party that escorted Katherine back to England in early 1421.
It is said that at her coronation feast Katherine made a great show of kneeling before Henry and pleading for James’s release. If the reports are true, it was a bit of political theatre and showed Katherine fulfilling the role of many Medieval queens before her – the voice of mercy in an otherwise masculine court. It allowed, too, for her husband, the King, to offer kindness not as weakness, but as chivalry.
Some report that Katherine and James struck up a friendship of sort, but in truth we don’t know the nature of their relationship, if one existed at all. They certainly knew one another, and they also had an odd sort of similarity in that they were living in England under unnatural circumstances. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that they bonded over that, however James made it clear that he wanted to return to Scotland as soon as possible whereas Katherine never made a move to return to France.
Ten months after her coronation, Katherine would deliver a son on December 6, 1421 at Windsor Castle. Five months after that she would sail to France with her brother-in-law, John, Duke of Bedford, to reunite with Henry, likely in the hopes of the couple conceiving a second child and further securing the succession. It was not to be. Henry died in August 1422 and King Charles VI followed him that October – Katherine’s infant son became the king of a new dual empire at the age of ten months.
It has been said that on his deathbed Henry V called for James’s release. Whether that is true or not, the infant king’s government had more pressing matters to immediately attend to. James wouldn’t be released until 1424 after lengthy negotiations with the Scottish government and his marriage to Joan Beaufort, the niece of the influential Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester.
England’s “so-called” investment into James didn’t pay off as they might have wished – or, indeed, as it might have had Henry V lived. James had a knack for sensing when England was vulnerable and leveraging his English relationships against those of his country’s natural alliance with France as the Hundred Years War came to a close. In the end, he would continue to commit Scottish forces to Katherine of Valois’s brother, the eventual King Charles VII. In 1428 he would betroth his eldest daughter, Margaret, to the Charles’s eldest son, Louis, and in 1436 the young couple were married, the Scottish princess traveling to join the French court. The marriage was miserable and Margaret never lived to be queen, dying at the age of 18 in the summer of 1445.
James and Katherine paralleled one another in one more way, dying within weeks of each other. Katherine gave birth to the last of her “secret” children by Owen Tudor in Bermondsey Abbey and died shortly afterwards on January 3, 1437. James was assassinated a few weeks later on February 21st in a particularly gruesome way – James and his wife, Joan, were in their private apartments when they were given notice they would shortly be besieged by political enemies. James snuck out of chamber via a sewer tunnel, however unbeknownst to him its exit had recently been sealed to keep tennis balls from escaping. While Joan and her ladies-in-waiting attempted to keep the assassins from apprehending him by blocking the entrance, they were unsuccessful and James found himself trapped in the tunnel. Like his one-time captor, Henry V, he would leave his son the throne when he was still a child, James II succeeding him at the age of six.
For more, see From Normandy to Windsor