By Laurel A. Rockefeller
Henry V is one of the most beloved plays of all time. Though mostly about King Henry’s war with France and his victory at Agincourt on 25th October 1415, the play introduces us to Henry V’s future queen Catherine de Valois from Henry’s decidedly biased point of view.
But was Shakespeare’s version of Queen Catherine truly historical?
Following my successful launch of my short biography Boudicca: Britain’s Queen of the Iceni aimed at primary- and middle-school children in March, I decided to take on this very question. What I discovered along the way now makes me wonder how Shakespeare ever kept his head on his shoulders in light of the fact that Queen Elizabeth I was Catherine’s – but not King Henry’s – descendant.
Catherine de Valois was born 27th October 1401 in Paris, the youngest daughter of the paranoid schizophrenic King Charles VI and his queen Isabeau of Bavaria and tenth of their twelve children. Charles VI’s mental illness largely incapacitated him. Young Catherine watched as her mother handled much of the day-to-day rule of France, offering Catherine a particularly strong female role model. Though Shakespeare depicts Catherine as giddy and romantic, there is little in Catherine’s background to suggest she had any sort of romantic pretensions towards Henry whose victories at Harfleur and Agincourt, so central to Shakespeare’s play, were fought when she was only 13 years old. Shakespeare skips from Henry’s 25th October 1415 victory at Agincourt to the May 1420 Treaty of Troyes. In those intervening years Henry’s atrocities at Caen and Rouen marked the king for the cruel butcher he really was, ensuring Catherine’s dutiful, but hardly affectionate marriage to Henry V on 2nd June 1420.
Fortunately for Catherine, Henry V’s relentless refusal to honour the peace treaties he signed led to the king’s death on 31st August 1422, sparing her the decades of prolonged marital strife suffered by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine centuries before. Upon her return to London in October, Catherine became acquainted with her new chief of staff, Owen Tudor.
In Owen Tudor, Dowager Queen Catherine found true love, secretly marrying him in defiance of Parliament sometime before the birth of their son Edmund in 1430. Edmund Tudor of course married Margaret Beaufort on 1st November 1455 with Margaret giving birth to the future Henry VII on 28th January 1457.
The real Catherine de Valois was bright, educated, and politically well-informed. In her we see reflected everything we love most about her descendant, Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare glorified Henry V into a legend. But the far more interesting story, the one I tell in my biography for primary and middle school children entitled (logically) Catherine de Valois, truly belongs to Catherine.
Love the play! But love more the real woman I met this year.
Born, raised, and educated in Lincoln, Nebraska USA, Laurel A. Rockefeller is known for her lavish world building in her Peers of Beinan science fiction series and her meticulous research across all three book series: the Peers of Beinan, the Legendary Women of World History, and American Stories.
Laurel is the first novelist to index paperback books using QR technology for smartphones, enabling a truly interactive paperback book reading experience.
Laurel’s books are all available in a broad range of digital formats at major retailers including the Kindle store, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and the ibookstore with more limited offerings in paperback, QR interactive paperback, and large print editions.
Gifted British actor and voice actor Richard Mann narrates Laurel’s audio book editions, beginning with Boudicca: Queen of the Iceni.
Image: Catherine of France, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.