Catherine de Valois is a creative non-fiction biography suitable for young readers exploring the life of Henry V’s queen consort, Catherine de Valois. Caricaturized by Shakespeare in “Henry V,” the real Catherine you meet in this biography was a woman of great intelligence, courage, and conviction.
In this scene from the end of chapter one, Catherine meets King Henry of England for the first time in October 1419.
“Must we do this, Mother?” asked Catherine, pacing furiously.
“What choice do we have, Catherine? The blood of the women and children of Rouen cry out for action. We must meet with King Henry this day or risk further slaughter,” conceded Queen Isabeau, her heart equally furious and grieved at the same time at Henry’s atrocities in Rouen.
“I do not want to meet him! I hate him! I have never heard of any living man being so vile and disgusting to me.”
“It is said that he is otherwise to his own English people, that he governs them kindly and with great skill.”
“But what about the Welsh, Mother? Was he kind to them when he slaughtered them while his father reigned?” countered Catherine. “I know it is my duty as your daughter – but you know how I hate violence, especially against the innocent. How are the Welsh any different than us? All they wanted was to not be slaves to this conqueror. We of all people understand this!”
Before Isabeau could respond, the door opened. Jacques de Heilly entered with a bow, “Your Majesty, Your Highness may I introduce you to Henry, by God’s grace King of England.”
As Montjoie stepped aside to take his traditional place one pace behind the queen, King Henry emerged into the room, his eyes immediately fixing themselves on the beautiful Catherine in her embroidered cotehardie and fur-edged side-less surcoat, the royal fleur-de-lys glistening in gold thread on her gown. For a moment, Henry found himself so moved by Catherine’s beauty that he could not speak. Finally after two minutes, the king took a chivalrous bow, “Good ladies, we meet at last!”
Coolly, Catherine curtsied politely, “Your Majesty.”
Henry, normally so confident and proud stammered, “Y-y-you are more beautiful than I ever dreamed! Truly a vision of all that flowers in France.”
“If you value the beauty of the flowers of France, perhaps you should not have killed so many along the way,” countered Catherine, her rage flaming from her eyes.
Chided, Henry turned to Queen Isabeau, “Your Majesty, you permit your daughter to speak to me like this?”
“Catherine speaks her mind. In that, she is quite her mother’s daughter – and a Bavarian,” smirked Isabeau proudly. “That you slaughtered our people, we concede. That we wish to end this war, we fully declare. But do not think you can force the mind and heart of my daughter in any matter. Though you may, through the brutality that brings us here together, compel a measure of outward obedience, if it is affection of the mind or heart you desire, it would serve you best to put aside all savage warrior ways and behave yourself like a gentleman.
Henry blinked in shock. No woman had dared to speak to him so boldly – or venomously. Rather, he was accustomed to fearful pandering – not the confidence of a woman seeing herself as his equal, “I – I do not know what to say. I was not born a prince, though certainly I wear the crown more easily than my father. I,” Henry paused, his pride hurt even as his desire to possess Catherine grew. Marrying Catherine was his birth right; since the death of Princess Isabella, Catherine’s sister and widow to Richard II, all talk had been across his life of his marrying Catherine. Was it not his destiny to marry Catherine? Did she not see it the same way? As his thoughts grew more confused by Catherine’s obvious spite, the rhythm and confidence of his speech waivered, “I have wanted this alliance for many years. I cannot imagine myself with anyone else. Yet do I dream of love, of your love, Catherine. Will you not be my wife?”
“Not out of love, England, for you are my enemy. What am I to you but a trophy to your murders?” burned Catherine.
“If I swear on my soul to end this campaign this very day and never again kill, will you not agree to marry me?”
“If you never kill again – yes – but there are many things you must agree to in order to make this treaty one and whole,” bargained Catherine confidently.
“I SWEAR IT!”
“God will hold you to your vow, Henry of England,” warned Queen Isabeau. “If you acknowledge this and still so swear, then shall we both draw up the formal terms to be signed once they are ready.”
“God hold me to my vow and strike me down in death if ever my hand spills French blood again!” vowed Henry fiercely.
Content with Henry’s answer, Queen Isabeau supervised the drafting of the now agreed-to peace treaty. On May the twenty-first 1420 King Henry the Fifth and King Charles the Sixth met in the city of Troyes where they both formally agreed to and signed the treaty. As demanded by King Henry, King Charles gave Catherine to him in marriage in a grand wedding held a few days later on the second of June.
Across the summer and autumn of 1420, Henry and Catherine became better acquainted as they toured together across France over the next six months. Towards Catherine, Henry expressed the utmost admiration and, if not genuine love, certainly an intense romantic attraction to her.
For her part, Catherine found herself more than flattered at Henry’s attention. King Henry seemed so sincere in how he treated her. Certainly he was gentle when she yielded to him in wifely duty, despite his fiery temperament. Still in her heart, Catherine could never forget that this man who caressed her so softly in private was the same man who killed women and children for the crime of being born Welsh or French, his eyes both tender like a baby bird’s – or fierce like a raging storm – depending on his mood.
Christmas came. Henry wisely decided their first Christmas as husband and wife should be spent in Paris with her parents and siblings. As familiar songs filled her ears at the traditional midnight mass on Christmas Eve, Catherine knelt in silence, the music gone from her heart and reflected in her eyes. Though she tried for the sake of her people to make truly merry, Catherine found herself sad instead, as if something precious to her was lost, gone forever.
Finally, at the end of January, 1421 they at last arrived at Calais for the crossing to England.