Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Queen Katherine and the Secret of Lydgate's Temple of Glas

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Queen Katherine and the Secret of Lydgate's Temple of Glas

Article excerpt

Judging by what early chroniclers, poets, and playwrights have written about Katherine of Valois, one would have thought the fortunes of Lancastrian and Tudor England utterly depended on her sexual adventures. The youngest daughter of Isabella and Charles VI of France, Katherine became the celebrated wife of Henry V. The royal marriage marks her decisive entry into English political history, for the union was orchestrated to seal the Anglo-French Treaty of Troyes in 1420, forming her into so much epoch-making symbolic capital.1 But neither the marriage nor the peace endured: less than two years after their wedding King Henry fell ill and died on military campaign in France. Katherine was left behind with their infant son, Henry of Windsor, the presumptive heir to the throne in both England and France. Barely 21 years old, her eligibility for remarriage would have been apparent if just as obviously fraught with danger. The fate of the crown was felt to be especially precarious under the newly instituted protectorate, with ruling magnates vying for power at home while across the channel English territories remained insecure, and in this situation the marriage prospects of the dowager queen attracted the scrutiny of those in the regency council. The new administration grew concerned: who would be a suitable stepfather to the infant king? How would any consort dare to take the place of Henry V, champion of Agincourt and architect of the English entente? Katherine seems to have remained undaunted. She soon acquired a reputation for being rather amorous, or as one contemporary chronicler wrote, 'unable to bridle her carnal passions entirely' ('non valens passiones carnales penitus refraenare*).2 Rumour had it that in the mid-14205 the queen had taken a flirtatious interest in Edmund Beaufort, but then, by the end of the decade, Katherine entered into a clandestine marriage to die Welsh squire Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur, a union that would become the stuff of contemporary realpolitik and historical romance. What in fact made this marriage so extraordinary was less its clandestinity (not a sufficient impediment to matrimony) than a set of obstacles peculiar to the case of the dowager queen. The marriage had to be kept secret because, first of all, it was morganatic given Owen's origins and, second, any such nuptial promise flouted a recent Act of Parliament (1427/8). She was prohibited by law from remarrying at least until her son Henry VI, upon reaching the age of discretion ten or more years into the future, could grant his approval.3

Katherine and Owen's chance meeting and subsequent courtship - around which has wafted a great deal of gauzy sentiment and speculation - remains obscure even as it has been an enduring object of fascination for many writers. Is it true he fell into her lap at a dance? Or did she espy his handsome figure splashing about in a river? Did she disguise herself as a maid in order to convey herself to him?4 These are early legends that grew up around the couple, and they share a notable interest in constructing an unauthorized private biography that intersects and sometimes collides with the public life of the female sovereign. Tudor historiographers would eventually be profoundly grateful the queen was so passionate and obdurate after all, despite the perception that the affair with Owen represented a particularly unseemly side of her character. From the queen's covert liaison with a household attendant issued the later Tudor dynasty: Henry VII, no less, would be their grandson. So Raphael Holinshed, paradoxically disparaging the queen's sensuality at the same time as he approves of her noble choice of companion, writes that Katherine, 'being yoong and lustie following more hir owne wanton appetite than freendlie counsell tooke to husbande privily a galant gentleman and a right beautiful person, indued with manie goodlie gifts, both of bodie and of mind, called Owen Teuther, a man descended of the noble linage and ancient line of Cadweller last king of the Britains'. …

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