Where the idea for the book came from
At the start, I think I just felt sorry for my heroine – she seemed to get such a rough ride from the history books. That Catherine de Valois, the French princess who’d married the glorious Henry V of England, could then have made a second marriage so far below her rank – she married a humble Welsh gentleman called Owain Tudor, thereby unwittingly starting the Tudor dynasty – has always been a cue for tittering behind academic hands, use of the word “mesalliance” and strangely savage comments about Catherine’s feelings for her second partner, along the lines of “apparently she could hardly keep her hands off him.”
The picture that emerges is one of a lustful, frivolous fool, who couldn’t control her appetites enough to plan her life strategy with the care that was needed.
I got interested in Catherine after seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Catherine isn’t cruelly treated in Shakespeare, but she doesn’t come off well, either. She has a bit part, as Henry’s bride. She does a bit of Clouseau-esque lisping in English, with a strong French accent. She does a bit of giggling. She calls her elbow her “bilbow”. Then she’s off. Light as fluff.
But, I wondered, how could she have been so light in real life, when everything about her life, right from the start, had been so unremittingly grim? She’d been born into a France in terrifying decline. Her father the King had gone mad and thought he was made of glass. Her mother’s possible affair with the King’s brother, among others, had plunged France into civil war when Catherine was seven; the king’s brother had been murdered by a cousin, the Duke of Burgundy. The princes of France had united against Burgundy, making France a battleground. When she was 14, the English had invaded too.
She and her little brother Charles had grown up neglected – underclothed, underfed, and under-educated – as the court, and the country, of the greatest king in Christendom fell apart. Then Charles fell out with his family. He had his mother the Queen imprisoned. When she escaped, it was with the help of the Duke of Burgundy. With the French royals, including Catherine, now in the hands of Burgundy, Charles – the only person she’d been close to in childhood – became the enemy.
After peace talks with England facilitated by Burgundy, Catherine became Queen of England. Charles, meanwhile, was declared illegitimate, and retreated to Bourges, in central France, from where he led a continuing war against the English and Burgundians. It struck me from the start that it wouldn’t be easy for a girl just at the end of her teens to marry the Englishman who’d conquered her country, all but destroyed its wealth and glittering culture along with the lives of thousands of its citizens, and was now grabbing the crown of France off her father’s head too.
To cap it all, the English king Henry V was twice the age of the princess whom he married in 1420 to ensure France’s utter humiliation at English hands.
Nor did things get easier when Catherine got to the peace of England, even when she’d had the heir that ensured acceptance by the English. Her husband died within two years of marriage.
She was left the helpless mother of a child king, watching her son, Henry VI, for signs of the madness that had crippled her father, in the centre of a tug-of-war for power between uncles and cousins – the very situation she’d grown up with in France, which had led to war.
What’s more, one of the uncles, Humphrey of Gloucester, expressly closed off her possibilities of remarriage – the one escape from her situation she might have hoped for – by passing a law forbidding her to marry again without the permission of the council of England.
All in all, it seemed a terrifying life – one likely to traumatize and incapacitate a person forced to live it.
And, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that Catherine had actually done rather a good job of playing the bad cards life had handed her. She ended up with the man she loved. She had six children with him. They had time, space and money to bring them up together.
She seems, in fact, to have chosen her second husband with admirable courage – and also to have lived happily ever after.
Once I’d realized that, I decided I wanted to write about her in a way that would show the bravery of her choice.
(Catherine and the second man she married, Owain Tudor, can never have known that one of the children born of their love match would found a new dynasty of English kings, the Tudors. That irony is for later generations to savour.)