Henry V and Katherine de Valois. A fairy tale marriage? Where is the evidence?
The Love Affair That Never Was.
William Shakespeare has a lot to answer for. Did he not turn Richard III into a monster with a hunched back and withered arm? Now we have to reconsider the curvature of the spine of course, but the jury is still out on whether Richard was quite as monstrous and bloodthirsty. Here is not the place for such a discussion. That’s all another story …
But similarly, the love scenes which Shakespeare wrote for Henry V and Katherine de Valois, in Henry V, were exceptional and truly romantic.
There is witchcraft on your lips, Kate.
So Henry expresses his feelings for her, and kisses her.
But was this true? Was this a fairytale marriage between two beautiful people?
There is some slight evidence, I admit, which suggests that this might have been the case. When they first met at Meulan in June 1419 when Henry, on record, gallantly kissed his betrothed, was this a matter of love at first sight? When they married at Troyes in May 1420, Henry looked as if he were ‘King of all the World.’ And without doubt they were attractive people, both tall and fair and good to look at. He was the experienced hero of Agincourt, she the innocent and most appealing young princess.
But is that the only evidence to hang this great love affair on? Was it a match made in heaven? I think not. And there is considerable evidence to weigh against it in the balance.
Henry had offered marriage to more than one of Katherine’s sisters before he actually got round to her, so it was obviously not a long-standing passion. Katherine was his final option because these older sisters were unavailable, being married, betrothed or having taken the veil. Katherine’s sister Isabella, widow of Richard II, had refused point-blank to wed Henry when the match was proposed by Henry’s father, King Henry IV. Katherine was by no means Henry’s first choice – rather his last of the Valois girls.
Henry was loathe to put Katherine’s hand before financial or territorial gain. In his first negotiations he demanded a dowry 2,000,000 crowns to accompany Katherine to England and refused to consider marriage when Katherine’s father could only offer 800,000.
The timescale of their life together does not suggest a great passion which dominated all else:
Married in June 1420 in Troyes, Henry could barely wait to return to the war front. On the following day, after the ceremony, Henry abandoned the celebratory tournament – which was Katherine’s right and tradition – and immediately set off to lay siege to Sens. Katherine did not get her celebration.
From June until December, Katherine became an army wife for the period of her honeymoon, living for some of it with her parents in accommodation near the besieged towns – although Henry did send for two harps from England and ordered music to be played outside her house every morning. How much time they actually spent together is up for debate. Henry was engaged with the sieges. Katherine did not become pregnant.
Travelling to Paris and then Rouen, the happy couple returned to England in February 1421. Henry left Katherine at Canterbury while he went on to London to arrange the reception. When she was crowned in Westminster Abbey, Henry did not attend. This may have been customary but there is no doubt that the pair spent little time together in these early weeks in England.
After the coronation, Henry left Katherine to go on a fundraising progress through Bristol and the West Midlands. Katherine remained in London, only joining him at Leicester at Easter. We know that they travelled together through Lincoln, York and Beverley, but then Katherine returned to London via Stamford, Huntingdon, Cambridge and Colchester while Henry continued alone.
By June, Katherine was pregnant and Henry, no doubt staisfied that he had secured an heir for England, left her to go back to war. They had spent all of five months together in England although ‘together’ is a moot point. Henry never returned to England. They never lived together again in the whole of their marriage of 26 months, only meeting up briefly in France in May 1422.
Katherine gave birth to their son Henry at Windsor in December 1421. Henry never saw him. He ordered Mass to be said in celebration.
In the following year Katherine went to France. Was it in desperation to see him again? They were reunited briefly in May 1422 – for a very short time until Henry returned to the war front, planning another campaign of sieges.
Henry died in August 1422 at Vincennes. He knew he was dying for at least three weeks, spending his lucid moments with his brother Bedford and uncle Henry Beaufort, setting up the Regency for his baby son in great detail. He never sent for Katherine during all that time, although she was within easy travelling distance. She was not aware, until news of his death arrived.
His last words were not for her. He spoke of his thwarted intention to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and then presumably in agony and delerium he cried out: ‘Though liest, thou liest! My portion is with the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Katherine was not in his mind over all those final weeks.
A grand passion? I don’t think so!
So Henry looked as if he were King of all the World at his marriage?
If this is the only proof we have of a glorious love affair it is poor stuff. Of course he would look overjoyed Katherine’s dower that she brought with her to her marriage was not 2,000,000 crowns but something of far greater value to Henry. She brought the Kingdom of France. Katherine’s brother Charles, the Dauphin, was disinherited. Instead Henry’s son would inherit both France and England. The marriage for Henry was a diplomatic triumph. He would assuredly have wed Katherine if she had been the ugliest princess in Christendom.
Therefore, I suggest that existing evidence points to this important marriage not being the culmination of a love affair, nor the beginning of one. Henry was a driven man, his whole ambition being fixed on the need to secure France as an English possession. Katherine fitted into the same category: she was a necessary step towards English power in France.
My sympathies are definitely with Katherine.