December 22, 2011
Marriage of Henry V and Catherine of ValoisIf The Wars of the Roses were fought by the men, it was the women who eventually sorted out the mess. By the late 1400s the royal family tree had become a crazy spider’s web of possible claimants to the throne, and it took female instinct to tease out the relevant strands from the tangle. The emotions of mothers and wives were to weave new patterns — and eventually they produced a most unlikely solution.
Owain ap Maredudd ap Tydwr was a silver-tongued Welsh gentleman who caught the eye of Henry V’s widow, Catherine of France. He was a servant in her household in the 1420S — probably Clerk of her Wardrobe — and being Welsh, he had no surname. The ‘ap’ in his name meant ‘son of’, so he was Owen, son of Meredith, son of Theodore.
But once he had captured the heart of the widowed Queen, Owen had needed a surname. According to later gossip, Catherine would spy on her energetic Welsh wardrobe clerk as he bathed naked in the Thames, and she decided she liked what she saw.
The court was outraged. An official inquiry was held. But Catherine stuck by her Owen and in 1432 their marriage was officially recognised. ‘Theodore’ became ‘Tudor’, and Owen went through life defiantly proud of the leap in fortune that he owed to love. Thirty years later, in 1461, cornered by his enemies after the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, he would go to the block with insouciance. ’That head shall lie on the stock,’ he said jauntily, ‘that was wont to lie on Queen Catherine’s lap.’
From the outset, the Tudors confronted the world with attitude. Catherine and Owen had two sons, Edmund and Jasper, who were widely viewed as cuckoos in the royal nest. But the dowager Queen resolutely brought up her Welsh boys with her first-born royal son Henry VI, nine or ten years their senior, and the young King became fond of his boisterous half-brothers. In 1452 he raised them both to the peerage, giving Edmund the earldom of Richmond and making Jasper Earl of Pembroke. The two young Tudors were given precedence over all the earls in England, and Henry, who had produced no children, was rumoured to be considering making Edmund his heir. The new Earl of Richmond was granted a version of the royal arms to wear on his shield.
The Tudors rose still higher in the world a few years later, when Edmund married the twelve-year-old Lady Margaret Beaufort, who had her own claim to the throne. The great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, she proved to be one of the most remarkable women of her time. Bright-eyed and birdlike, to judge from the portraits still to be seen in the several educational establishments she endowed, she was a woman of learning. She translated into English part of The Imitation of Christ, the early-fifteenth-century manual of contemplations in which the German monk Thomas of Kempen (Thomas a Kempis) taught how serenity comes through the judicious acceptance of life’s problems. ’Trouble often compels a man to search his own heart: it reminds him he is an exile here, and he can put his trust in nothing in this world.’
Diminutive in stature, Lady Margaret was nonetheless strong in both mind and body. She was married, pregnant and widowed before the age of thirteen, when Edmund died of plague. In the care of his brother Jasper, Margaret gave birth to Edmund’s son, Henry, in Jasper’s castle at Pembroke in the bleak and windswept south-west corner of Wales. But some complication of the birth, probably to do with her youth or small frame, meant that she had no more children. For the rest of her life she devoted her energies to her son —‘my only worldly joy’, as she lovingly described him — although circumstances kept them apart.
The young man’s links to the succession through his mother — and less directly through his grandmother, the French queen Catherine — made England a dangerous place for Henry Tudor. He spent most of his upbringing in exile, much of it in the company of his uncle Jasper. At the age of four he was separated from his mother, and he scarcely saw her for twenty years.
But Lady Margaret never abandoned the cause. She would later plot a marriage for her son that would make his claim to the throne unassailable, and she had already arranged a marriage for herself that would turn out to be the Tudor trump card. In 1472 she married Thomas, Lord Stanley, a landowner with large estates in Cheshire, Lancashire and other parts of the north-west. The Stanleys were a wily family whose local empire-building typified the rivalries that made up the disorderly jostlings of these years. Allied to Lady Margaret, the Stanleys would prove crucial partners as her son Henry Tudor jostled for the largest prize of all.