Friday, August 24, 2012

Owen Tudor: A Right Royal Revenge

by Anne O'Brien

Owen Tudor was the famous - or infamous - second husband of Katherine de Valois.  Technically their marriage, although never questioned for its authenticity, went against the statute passed by parliament in 1428 because of the possibility of Katherine making a politically unwise marriage with Edmund Beaufort.  Katherine as Queen-Dowager and Queen Mother must not marry anyone considered 'unsuitable.'  She was ordered to live in the  king - her young son's - household, and gain his permission if she ever wished to remarry.  Since her son Henry VI was a child of 10 years at the time, it was understood that Katherine would receive no such permission for at least another 5 years.

This is Katherine in a 19th century romantic portrait by Alma Tadema from a series of Shakespearian heroines.  She does not have the traditional fair hair of Katherine but the portrait has great charm, showing her to be youthful and unsophisticated, which she was.

Katherine and Owen married - perhaps in 1430 - without royal consent.  This is purported to be a portrait of Owen.  I doubt that it is contemporary, emblazoned as it is with heraldry.

Katherine was considered to have married far below her station since tradition says that Owen was Master of the Queen's Household.  If this was true, then he was a mere servant.  Even more shocking, since he was Welsh, his rights were not recognised in English law because of Owain Glyn Dwr's rebellion against Henry IV.  This portrait seems to me to be the product of hindsight, to prove his importance when his grandson became Henry VII.  Owen here is hardly the flamboyant, romantic hero of popular history with whom Katherine fell madly in love.

It was obviously not a popular marriage but Owen was untouchable during Katherine's lifetime.  If the Royal Council took action against them, it would simply create a scandal around the Queen-Dowager which they were keen to avoid.  Owen was actually given letters of denizenship to allow him English rights before the law.  Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, uncle to the young king and brother to Henry V, never forgave Owen for his presumption in marrying the Queen, and simply bided his time.

This is a sketch of Humphrey of Gloucester.  I think he was not an admirable character and history does not remember him with any kindness.

As soon as Katherine was dead in 1431, Gloucester set out for revenge.  It became a cat and mouse story, Gloucester intent on punishment, Owen equally intent on proclaiming his innocence.  Gloucester summoned Owen to London to appear before the Royal Council under a safe conduct.   Wisely, Owen sought sanctuary at Westminster.  Although no action could be taken against him, for their was no evidence of any guilt of any crime, Owen was arrested and incarcerated in Newgate prison.  Managing to escape, he was recaptured and returned to Newgate before being transferred to Windsor in1438 where he was kept under lock and key for at least a year, before finally receiving a pardon for all offences.  Gloucester had been thwarted.

Owen might have remained reconciled with the Lancastrian court but the Wars of the Roses put him once again in danger.  After the battle of Mortimer's Cross, where his son Jasper's Lancastrian army was defeated by Edward, Earl of March, Owen was taken prisoner by the Yorkists.  This stone marks the site of the battle some miles north of Hereford.

Owen was beheaded in Hereford.  His head was placed on the base of the market cross in the High Street, where it is said that 'a madde woman' combed his hair and washed away the blood from his face, and then set 100 candles about his head.  Owen, because of his royal connections, did not expect to die.  When he realised that this would be his fate, moments before his execution he is recorded as saying 'that head shall lye on the stock that was wont to lye on Queen Katherine's lap.'

A sad end.  This is the stone that marks the place of Owen's execution in Hereford High Street.  It is hardly remarkable and most shoppers walk over it without noticing that it is there.


Owen's body was taken to be buried in the chapel of the Greyfriars Church in Hereford.  Unfortunately Greyfriars suffered badly at the Dissolution, the building was demolished and the land sold off for other purposes.  There is no lasting race of Owen Tudor today.  The only record of the site of the Greyfriars is the name of the modern bridge over the River Wye and in this blue plaque on the site of the old gate. 

Excavations were made where the church would have been in the early 20th century, which discovered 3 skeletons, one of them a man of 6 feet 3 inches tall, but there was no evidence that they were the remains of Owen Tudor, once husband of the Queen of England.  So all trace of Owen has vanished.

Perhaps in the light of Owen's importance to the future Tudor dynasty, Hereford should make more of an effort to celebrate its historic connections.  Perhaps I should begin a campaign ...

My novel of Katherine de Valois (no title decided yet) will be released in 2013.
To keep up to date, do visit my website:


  1. Fascinating, Anne. I had no idea Owen suffered so cruel a fate. Amazing how his descendant managed to prove a claim to the throne really. Do let us know when your Katherine de Valois is available.

  2. Obviously the Tudors had no right to the throne of England; they were usurpers. Richard III was the true and rightful King of England. The only good to come out of the Tudors was the reformation and Elizabeth, well that's my opinion and two bob's worth for what it's worth :o)


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