When Samuel met Catherine

Samuel Pepys, as we know from the pages of his diary, had an eye for attractive young ladies, and was not averse to recording his amorous adventures in London, albeit in coded language.  Perhaps his most strange one to one encounter was with a French queen consort of England, who was also one of the medieval ladies of the Garter.  Impossible?  On the face of it, yes, but as we shall see, it really did happen.  But first, a resume of the life of the lady in question: Catherine of Valois.

Catherine was born at a Parisian royal palace on 27 October 1401.  She was the youngest daughter of Charles VI of France (1368-1422) and his consort Isabella of Bavaria (c.1370-1435).  When she was still a child there was talk of marrying her off to the English King Henry IV’s son, Prince Henry, but the king died, in 1413, before any serious bargaining could begin.  Henry V, however, had his eyes on France in more ways than one; he invaded in 1415 and won a stunning victory against the odds at Agincourt in October.  Shakespeare’s play portrays Henry’s subsequent amorous wooing of Catherine, and theirs seems to have been a genuine love match.  However their wedding did not take place until 2 June 1420 (probably in Troyes Cathedral), nearly five years after Agincourt.  Owing to Henry’s military commitments in France, their “honeymoon” was mainly spent at a succession of sieges.

On 23 February 1421, Catherine was crowned queen consort in Westminster Abbey, and on 6 December 1421 gave birth to Prince Henry (later King Henry VI) at Windsor.  Sadly, her time as queen consort was to be brief.  In August 1422, Henry V fell ill with dysentery, and died short of his thirty-sixth birthday.  Catherine was not quite twenty-one, so would be expected to find another husband.  Surprisingly perhaps (at least to those in court circles), she fell for a young Welsh squire named Owen Tudor (c.1400-1461).  Sometime between 1428 and 1432 she married him, though doubts have been cast on the marriage’s legality.  Yet it was to be a match of huge dynastic importance.  Edmund Tudor, one of their three sons, was to marry Margaret Beaufort, and their son Henry of Richmond was destined to become king in 1485.

Like her first husband, Catherine only lived to be thirty-five.  She passed away at Bermondsey Abbey on 3 January 1437 shortly after childbirth, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  So she did not live to see her adopted country torn apart by dynastic warfare.  Owen, her second husband, was to be executed by the Yorkists in 1461, and of course her only son Henry VI was murdered in 1471 after a troubled life and reign.

And so to Catherine’s posthumous “fame”.  It seems her body was embalmed before interment, and sometime in the reign of Henry VII her coffin lid was accidentally raised, revealing her intact corpse.  As a result, between the 16th and 18th centuries, she was often put on display for visitors to the abbey. Only in Queen Victoria’s reign were Catherine’s remains properly re-interred.  On Shrove Tuesday 1669, Samuel Pepys, curious about so many things, went along to the Abbey to see the embalmed Catherine.  And as he records in his diary, this is how he paid his respects:

…I to the Abbey went, and by favour did see the body of Queen Catherine of Valois, and had the upper part of the body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it I did kiss a Queen: and this my birthday and I thirty-six years old and I did kiss a Queen.

The display of a body in this way as a tourist attraction seems utterly foreign to our culture, and we may be repelled or shocked by Samuel Pepys’s physical “intimacy” with Catherine’s embalmed corpse.  But then again he was living in an urban society in which early or sudden death was an everyday reality (it was only four years after the great plague of London).  So perhaps we can excuse his fascination with a beautiful medieval princess and queen who passed from the earth in the prime of her life.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.