Saturday, January 28, 2012

An All-Consuming Passion

by Anne O'Brien

An All-Consuming Passion
The love affair that changed the course of English History

Owen Tudor and Katharine de Valois

He was a servant. She was the dowager-queen of England. He was a dispossessed Welshman. She had royal Valois blood in her veins and was the widow of England’s glorious hero of Agincourt, King Henry V. She was the King’s Mother, he was the Keeper of the Queen’s Wardrobe.
Such a liaison would be unthinkable, and yet they fell victim to a passionate romance.

A Windsor Romance

It all happened at Windsor since Katharine was bound by law to live in her son’s household after her politically disastrous near-marriage to Edmund Beaufort. She was considered to be a woman ‘unable fully to curb her carnal passions’ and so she must live a carefully controlled life. So how did Katharine and Owen manage to fall in love? The record of the occasion of the romance has been described as ‘a pot pourri of myth, romanticism, tradition and anti-Tudor propaganda.’ It is certainly a gift to writers of historical fiction - although it brings its own problems.

A mixed bag of historical tradition ...

One strong tradition, written in a poem in 1361 at the time of Owen’s death, was that he first caught Katharine’s attention when he over-balanced and fell into her lap at a Court ball. Too much alcohol? Or clumsy dancing? Impossible to tell.

A mid 16th century chronicler tells a quite different story. Katharine saw Owen and his friends swimming in the river on a summer’s day. Perhaps in this very spot on the Thames near Windsor - with or without the swans.

Overcome by his sheer masculinity, Katharine changed garments with her maid and arranged to meet Owen in disguise. He was too ardent, she struggled and, escaping his embrace, received a wound to her cheek. Serving her at supper that night, Owen saw the bruise and realised who the ‘maidservant’ had been. Ashamed, he begged her forgiveness. Katharine forgave him readily, they professed their love and were duly married. Sadly, there is no historical proof for either version. But what vivid scenes these sources paint for us. The difficulty for a novelist is of course producing something half-way realistic. If Owen was Katharine’s personal servant, how could he not recognise her face, her voice, even in disguise? Unless she was mute and they met in a dark cupboard, it would seem impossible. As for the drunken mishap ... It makes writing a credible version highly entertaining.

A Private Marriage.

Whatever the truth of their meeting, their love was strong enough to encourage the unlikely pair to flout the law of the land. Katharine was forbidden to marry without the permission of the King who was not yet ten years old. Any man foolish enough to wed her without permission would find all his lands and possessions declared forfeit. Here Katharine was fortunate for Owen had no assets to lose. Penal statutes against the Welsh after Owen Glendywr’s Rising in the reign of Henry IV dispossessed many, as well as prohibiting them from carrying arms, meeting in gatherings, owning land east of the ancient border of Offa’s Dyke and holding government office. When Owen married Katharine he had nothing to forfeit.

The clandestine affair was no secret at Court: Katharine had no compunction in taking the law into her own hands and challenging the Council to do its worst. She would be wed and be damned to them! Perhaps this suggests that Katherine not the mindless beauty that she has sometimes been described as, but a woman of considerable audacity and courage. The marriage was conducted privately, and the happy couple left Windsor to live out the years of their marriage quietly in Katharine’s dower properties.

And the Tudors ...

The circumstances of the astonishing marriage between Owen and Katharine is my primary interest since I am writing a novel of Katharine de Valois, but for aficionados of the Tudors it is the descendants of this marriage who take all the attention. Their eldest son Edmund married Margaret Beaufort, the Beaufort heiress, who passed enough royal Plantagenet blood to their son to enable him to claim the crown of England as King Henry VII.

This is a bust of Henry VII based on his death mask, and can be seen in the V and A in London. We have no portrait of Owen Tudor. Did he look anything like his grandson? Would Katharine have fallen in love with this man?

Who knows ...?

Anne O’Brien:

Author of The Virgin Widow and Queen Defiant(US)/Devil’s Consort(UK)

The King’s Concubine, the story of Alice Perrers, will be released in May(UK)June(US) 2012


  1. I was not familiar with that story and it does draw the mind to an excellent story for fiction. I look forward to reading what you did with this story.

    Thanks for the share!


  3. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction - what a wonderfully romantic story...
    Grace x


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