The Queen of Falling

The Queen of Falling


A short story about Catherine of Valois, the wife of Henry V, the mother of Henry VI and great-grandmother of Henry VIII.

Her later marriage to a Welsh retainer, Owen Tudor, led to the foundation of a new dynasty, yet despite her position at this fulcrum in history, she always seemed to shy away from centre stage.

When I first came to England, I found a country brimming with joy. It was the middle of winter but, as we entered London, the entire city was celebrating. Musicians played in the streets and every square was filled with people, drinking wine, singing and dancing. They waved flags with French lilies and crowded at windows to watch us pass. They welcomed me into their country and into their hearts. It was the beginning of my downfall.

I had grown up in a precarious situation. My father was not a predictable sort of king. Perhaps in his younger days, things were different. They used to know him as The Beloved. But later, they called him The Mad. He sometimes forgot where he was, or who he was, or ran through the palace, shouting at the servants, or attacking them with axes and swords. For a long time, he refused to wash or change his clothes and became like a beggar in the street with stinking body and matted hair. Eventually, they sent his children away.

So I was raised, not in the grandest palace in France, but in a convent, in the countryside, a long way from the disturbances of the city. One of my sisters was already preparing for holy orders and perhaps it might have been the same for me, had I been a better student. But I was never quick-witted like her, or determined like her, or ambitious like her. I never wanted any of that. I didn't want anything.

There was always talk of returning to Paris. Several times I packed up my belongings only to find plans had changed or been postponed. But finally, in my mother's carriage, I was taken back to the city. It all looked the same as I remembered, only smaller and more shabby. All the trees had died or been cut down and the buildings were in disrepair. The palace itself looked scruffy and worn-out. I stepped back into its courtyards and the heart of a storm.

By that time, negotiations for my marriage had been going on for several years. I had not been told, there was no need for me to know. My mother was handling all the talks and the details were yet to be decided. Everything was uncertain. All the same, she had me dressed in embroidered gowns and sent out to banquets and pageants. People needed to be reminded of my existence, she said.

I plunged into a fog of parades and feasting, dancers, acrobats, dukes and cardinals. From raised platforms, and gilded canopies, I stared into the eyes of the beasts on all the coats of arms, and the confusions behind those eyes, all the time wondering if it were possible to drop out of sight and yet still remain visible.

And then, suddenly, we were at war. Enemy forces invaded our northern shores and placed our seaports under siege. While my mother's secretaries raced back and forth with messages, I hunted out abandoned parts of the palace, and walked in its empty halls, passing under tapestries of forgotten ancestors in their diadems and ermines and silver slippers.

In one room, I found a sparrows' nest with the tiny, dried-up bodies of the chicks curled up at the bottom, like jewels, silent and eternal. I made a little shrine around it, with the stubby remnants of candles and a crown of goose quills.

My oldest sister married the King of England when she was still a girl. Then he was captured in battle and thrown in prison and Isabella was held hostage while they decided what to do with her. I learned all this from the convent girls. When her husband died, they tried to marry her to the new King's son but she refused and they sent her back across the sea in disgrace. She died when I was very young.

But the English persisted and later, when the prince had become a King in search of a Queen, they turned their attentions to me. I don't know what I expected. We met once or twice before the negotiations were finished. He wasn't a handsome man. His face was scarred and misshapen from an old battle wound and he was older than I expected. But he was tall, and very sure of himself. Even my mother foundered.

As it turned out, my wedding was a perfunctory affair, in a small parish church in Burgundy, with all the poetry of a legal undertaking. My bridegroom made me wait while he worked on correspondence and prepared battle plans. Then, when the business was concluded, he went straight from the church to besiege a nearby town, with me trailing behind, surrounded by guns and the machineries of war.

It was almost Christmas before we were back in Paris. All through the wet summer, I was dragged from one temporary lodging to another by a moody and unsettled husband. He strode about the compound, shouting at his troops, testing bridles and halters, finding fault with coach wheels or weapons racks. Occasionally he visited, and tried to entertain me with a snippet of news or a tune he had learned on the cittern but really, he was more interested in maps and defences and supply trains.

Not long after Twelfth Night, we made the crossing to England. We had rough seas and Henry watched the horizon restlessly for signs of pirate ships. The skies were grey and heavy. He had ordered horoscopes to be drawn up before we left Paris and he studied them during the journey, turning them over and over, frowning and muttering to himself.

It was only when we came to London that his burden seemed to lift. He became infected with the mood of his people, drunk on it and silly like a child. He wanted to explain who everybody was and to whom they were related and the favours they were due, the debts they had yet to repay. He took me on a tour of his estates and properties, led me around towers and gardens. But happiness, when it comes, never lasts for long.

By midsummer's eve, I was pregnant and irritable and my husband had gone back to war. I bathed, and tried to sleep, and crept from one part of the castle to the next in search of shade, and to evade the courtiers with their endless chatter. Letters arrived from the King with detailed instructions on where the baby was to be born and who was to attend and all the arrangements to be made. I ignored them.

The child was born on the feast of St Nicholas, a healthy son, an heir, vigorous and strong. I dared to think his father might be proud but soon more letters arrived from Normandy and began to pile up in my chambers. He censured me for not following his orders. Then messengers came, and envoys. Finally, unsatisfied with my replies, I was summoned to him, back across the raging sea.

Maybe I should have refused to ever leave the convent. I didn't really care for jewels and crowns. I didn't want to go on processions or preside over courts. This time, as we set sail, it was my turn to search the horizon for strange vessels and wonder how it would be to jump off into a different sort of life, as a different kind of Queen, dragged by the currents to a stretch of ocean beyond the reach of the compass.

In Paris, my mother was delighted with the progress in the war, and at my fecundity in producing an heir so readily. But there was a veil between us, perhaps there always had been. The way she spoke of the treachery of the dauphin, as if he wasn't her own son, as if he wasn't my little brother. When I mentioned my husband, her eyes clouded slightly. You will see for yourself, she said.

He was about to secure a great victory, he said. His eyes were gleaming when he spoke, but his face pale and his body thin, hunched over. He moved slowly to a chair and lowered himself into it. When his commanders discussed the various movements of the forces at play, he stared into space, nodding absently. Soon, he said, all these matters will be resolved.

I didn't need to look at the maps and horoscopes, the future was plain. War may have been unable to claim my warrior king but sickness had him in its hold. Still he insisted on climbing laboriously back onto his horse to take part in some skirmish or other. I didn't try to dissuade him. There was no point. I went back to one of my father's palaces near Paris and thought of my poor little prince back in England.

When they carried him in through the castle gates, I thought he must have been wounded. But no, he had not even made it so far as the battle lines. He was lying on a stretcher, his limbs fragile and shrunken, just bones in a sack. Even in that state, he was busy, dictating letters and lists of demands. But he had no wish to see me any more. A few days later, he was dead.

So began an interminable funeral procession. Accompanied by lords and priests, with soldiers carrying banners of all the saints, and a hundred mourners in white robes bearing torches, his body was carried through Picardy, back over the land where he fought for territories and titles and onto a ship at Calais. It was less than a year since I had been at the same harbourside as a new bride and Queen. Now I returned a widow.

The ceremonies were exhausting. As I was sitting on a painted chair, high on a platform carried through the city, with clarions sounding and the infant King in my lap and countless ranks of faces turned towards us as we passed, a dark cloud filled the sky and I wished the storm would flush out the streets and alleyways, empty the market squares, wash all the boats downriver and send the mourners back to the safety of their houses and shops.

I could never understand how my mother and my husband went into the world with such agency when I was always in retreat. After the funeral, I hid away in palace wings and country houses. Then news came from Paris of the death of my father and my little Henry became King of England and France. He was not yet a year old.

Powerful forces shaped his life from that moment and I was not one of them. I appeared with him briefly in processions or parliaments, then he was rushed back into the custody of the Lord Protector and I sent away to remote estates. They thought I would be a bad influence. As if I had an effect on anything.

The mothers of Kings are treated badly in England. My husband's was accused of witchcraft, held prisoner in a moated castle, her lands and possessions confiscated. So, I had a simple choice. I would keep quiet, stay out of their way and out of trouble and maybe then they would leave me alone. But things never happen the way you expect.

The King of Scotland was one of the few people I counted a friend in this country, both of us enemies inside the English court. While he was a prisoner in the King's household, he had fallen for a lady called Joanna. She was of high birth, a fitting companion, and so, in time, the marriage was agreed. And it was during their wedding celebrations that I first saw her brother, and my own infatuation began.

He was a little younger than me, old enough to have led men into battle, foolish enough to speak to an outcast widow on the fringes of society. My eyes were drawn to his as, time and again, he met my gaze. As we left one of the reception halls, I happened to pass next to him through a doorway and into the warmth of the low, winter sun. With all the state's nobility before us, I asked if he had an English rose of his own in mind. He shook his head and smiled. Perhaps a lily, he said.

Probably I should have known better. But I was alone and abandoned in a strange land and bored by needlework and the gossip of noblewomen. He found reasons to be in my part of the realm, and became a regular guest at my household, sometimes accompanied, sometimes in private, always with laughter, lightness, a sense of ease. I began to count the days between his visits.

The English love their customs. Look at their elaborate rituals with salt cellars. How they must be carried in such a way and at such a time, held with gloves and napkins and placed carefully and set down in a certain place and then carried out again with great ceremony while everyone watches. Everything has to be done to a prescribed method, all contrived to make you die of boredom.

They decided to bind me with their regulations too. Because I was alive and well, because I wasn't in enough misery already, because they wanted to show I wasn't beyond the reach of their power and influence. I was forbidden from marrying without the permission of the King which, given he was six years old and not yet even crowned, would have been difficult. They did it to spite me. It was around then I realised I was pregnant with my second child.

I sank further into the shadows and, away from the gaze of the royal ministers, bore a son. I named him Edmund after his absent father who no longer came to visit and wrote no more letters. There are many paths, one of the nuns at the convent used to tell us. Some lead into the woods and some onto barren plains and all of them end in a dark valley where the crops are shrivelled and the sun doesn't reach.

There's an old yew tree at that palace, with a small hollow at its base like a doorway. They say if you step inside there's a staircase, with steps leading down into the earth. For many years, on All Hallows, one of the village boys was chosen to descend to the underworld with a sack of stones and mortar to shore up the gates of hell. Until one year, the boy didn't return.

They sent his older brother to rescue him and, when he didn't emerge either, their father climbed down into the darkness. After two days of waiting and shouting into the abyss, they nailed planks over the opening and built a wall around the tree, and beyond the wall, marked out a labyrinth to catch the wandering souls.

When the steward of my household fell ill, they replaced him with Owen, a welshman, who set about reordering my finances. Some things had slipped over the years. Rents had gone uncollected and we were behind on payments for wine and poultry. But he raised new income and settled all the debts and went through every detail of the accounts.

Nothing could be hidden from him and, before long, he became aware of certain discrepancies. During the annual reckoning around Lady Day, he told me he knew about the child. He closed the ledgers and packed away his quills and ink pots, then paused, drumming the table with his fingers. Don't worry, he said, anything can be made right. I pretended not to listen and stared out of the oriel windows, to the landscape beyond, its shapes bent and distorted by the glass.

A few weeks later, he returned from London. He had been looking into the regulations governing my situation, he said, and had reached an arrangement with the King's household. The answer was simple. I would marry in private. The groom had to be of no standing or consequence to the kingdom but someone dependable, reliable, honest. A commoner.

Then, in the course of time, when the King attained his majority, he would announce a formal acceptance of the union. My Edmund would be recognised as the King's half-brother and join his retinue as a Knight of the realm. Owen was animated as he shared the details of his plan, his voice trembling.

It was a spring evening when we spoke and a breeze was chasing away the warmth of the day. He went to the hearth and began to prepare a fire. I watched the way his hands moved, sorting fuel and kindling, steadily selecting, rejecting, building. He was a good man, he was trying to help.

So, on May Day, when the retainers went to the village to take part in the festivities, we joined hands in a tiny chapel and made our vows. There were no dances or minstrels, just a deaf, old priest, a few trusted servants and the voices of jackdaws in the belfry.

We lived quietly. We were careful to create no difficulties for the King and his councillors. That was our part of the bargain and we kept to it. We had few visitors and made no announcements and, in the shadows, we raised three children. All of our news arrived in letters: my son's coronations, the downfall of Paris, the death of my mother in its ruins.

It seems however, there was still another season of pain to come. Wherever there is power, there is bitterness and jealousy and no end to the advantages one man seeks over another. Against all reason, my husband was ordered to report to the King's uncle and didn't come back. Then riders wearing the duke's livery appeared at the gates.

When I look up at the stars, I see the hearth lights of a high kingdom, in an endless web of streets and corridors, dark pools and brightly-lit courtyards, and I wonder how it would be to walk in that territory, where everything is a reflection and to be brought down is to rise to the greatest heights.

And here I am, a prisoner again, my boys taken from me, my husband jailed, and me begging for the King's mercy. I don't know why, it hardly matters any more. Another child is stirring in my belly and hurrying to be born, desperate to seize life, not yet knowing how cold and sharp and hopeless it all is.

I no longer worry what they'll say, or how certain they think they are. In the passage of every being, girl or princess, pirate or queen, we're the same: adrift, on uncertain tides, out of step and out of time, dressed in the wrong clothes and speaking the wrong words, grasping at anything in reach and descending into the unknown, blind and pitiful as we were born and falling, always falling.

I am Catherine of the House of Valois, Queen of England, and this is my confession.

Royal arms of Catherine of Valois

Research files

I had grown up in a precarious situation...
Charles VI of France suffered a series of well-documented episodes of mental instability during his long reign. In 1392 the King accidentally killed at least one member of his own retinue when he mistook his guards for enemy combatants and he suffered many other delusions including, at one stage, the belief he was made of glass.

So I was raised, not in the grandest palace in France, but in a convent... Catherine followed her older sister, Marie, into the convent of Poissy near Paris. Her sister's monastic career was distinguished and she later became Prioress of the abbey which seems to have been a popular educational facility for the girls of European aristocrats. The daughter of Italian author Christine de Pizan was a contemporary.

The palace itself looked scruffy and worn-out... The Hôtel Saint-Pol was the principal Parisian residence of Charles VI, where Catherine was born in 1401 and which was in fact expanded considerably during this time.

By that time, negotiations for my marriage had been going on for several years... There had been earlier candidates for Catherine's hand but negotiations with Henry had been going on since before the Agincourt campaign. The unexpected deaths of the French King's eldest sons and heirs had precipitated a crisis in which his daughter's marriage became a vital asset.

Enemy forces invaded our northern shores and placed our seaports under siege... The English fleet barricaded Harfleur in 1415 but this was the only port under siege during the campaign.

My oldest sister married the King of England... Isabella of Valois married Richard II in 1396, a few days before her seventh birthday. By the age of eleven she was a widow, following the deposition and then death of her husband. The new King, Henry IV, proposed a match with his eldest son but negotiations came to nothing and she was returned to France. She later married her cousin, the Duke of Orleans but died in childbirth in 1409. Catherine was nearing her eighth birthday by then.

But the English persisted... The English enjoyed a strong negotiating position after Agincourt and initially demanded a very large dowry for the wedding. This was significantly reduced during the protracted talks which took several years to complete. Henry's wound was sustained in the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 when he received a crossbow bolt in his right cheek. It was removed after several days with a special tool his surgeon designed for the task.

As it turned out, my wedding was a perfunctory affair... The treaty was sealed on 21 May in Troyes Cathedral and the couple formally betrothed immediately, as required by the agreement. The wedding took place on Trinity Sunday, which fell on 2 June in that year, in the parish church of Saint-Jean-Au-Marché.

...he went straight from the church to besiege a nearby town... A few days after his marriage, Henry was at Sens where the forces of the Dauphin, who opposed the treaty, were under siege.

It was almost Christmas before we were back in Paris... Sens surrendered on 10 June, after which, the English and Burgundian army moved on to attack Melun. Henry built a house near to the city for his new Queen but in fact she spent most of her time with her parents at royal palaces in the area. Henry did order two harps from his luthier in London to be sent over to France shortly after his wedding although there is no specific reference to a cittern.

Not long after Twelfth Night, we made the crossing to England...The royal party did not arrive in Dover until 1 February. Piracy in the English channel was actually not a significant risk during this period due to the English control of both shores, the significant military presence in the waters and the Statute of Truces (1414), which effectively made attacking vessels at sea punishable by death.

He took me on a tour of his estates and properties... Henry's visits to a series of English cities were to raise funds for the next stage of the war in France. Catherine joined him for a small part of the trip. husband had gone back to war... Henry had left his brother, the Duke of Clarence, in charge of his French possessions. After Clarence was defeated and killed at the Battle of Baugé, Henry returned to France hastily leaving his wife at Windsor.

Letters arrived from the King... Henry wrote to the Queen with express instructions that the child should not be born at Windsor, a directive which was not followed.

The child was born on the feast of St Nicholas... The future Henry VI was born on 6 December 1421 and, in the spring, Catherine returned to France with another of Henry's brothers, the Duke of Bedford. we set sail, it was my turn to search the horizon for strange vessels... The party would have taken a day or so to cross the channel. They arrived at Harfleur on 21 May 1422. Again, there were no pirate attacks, and Catherine was reunited with Henry in Paris at the end of the month.

The way she spoke of the treachery of the dauphin... The dauphin referred to was the third son of Charles VI. When his parents agreed the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, he had already struck a deal with the lords of Armagnac, ancestral enemies of Burgundy and the English forces. With the support of Scottish troops, their military campaign was meeting with some success against Henry.

...his face pale and his body thin... Henry was vigorously involved in military affairs throughout this period and eye witnesses do not start mentioning any deterioration in his condition until late June. A physician was summoned from England and on July 7 the King moved from the battlefield to the relative comfort of the Palace of Vincennes outside Paris.

...sickness had him in its hold... Henry ventured out on campaign for several more weeks before returning in mid-August. Unable to ride, he was returned in a litter to Vincennes where he was confined to bed and died within three weeks.

So began an interminable funeral procession... The cortège was delayed for some time at Calais due to unfavourable winds but landed at Dover in early November.

I hid away in palace wings... When her father became incapacitated, Catherine's mother came to dominate French politics but the same was not true of her daughter who played only a modest role in the English court.

Powerful forces shaped his life... The infant King was placed under the guardianship of Henry's youngest brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

The mothers of Kings are treated badly in England... Joanna of Navarre, Henry's step-mother, was accused of attempting to kill the King using witchcraft in 1419. She was held under house arrest for some years, first at Leeds Castle in Kent and then Pevensey in Sussex. Her substantial properties were confiscated and in fact funded Catherine's household as queen. Henry granted her a pardon shortly before his death and returned at least some of her estates.

The King of Scotland was one of the few people I counted a friend... With Scotland at war with England, the twelve-year-old heir to the Scottish crown was captured by the English in 1406. A few weeks later, his father died and he became uncrowned King. He was held hostage in England for the next eighteen years, albeit in conditions suitable for a monarch. He sat next to Catherine at her coronation feast and seems to have become one of her closest acquaintances. He married Joanna Beaufort, daughter of the Earl of Somerset.

And it was during their wedding celebrations that I first saw her brother... Edmund Beaufort, later the second Duke of Somerset, was an English noble. At the time, the Beauforts were one of the most powerful families in England. His affair with Catherine alarmed ministers. Although the Beaufort line had been declared illegitimate and barred from the succession, the possibility of a marriage with Valois held awkward prospects.

Look at their elaborate rituals with salt cellars... Salt cellars were usually expensive and highly-decorated objects and salt itself was a costly luxury.

They decided to bind me with their regulations too... A reference to the Act passed in the 1427-28 parliament which specified how any man who married Catherine without the King's permission would forfeit his lands and property.

I named him Edmund after his absent father... In fact most, if not all, historians accept that Owen Tudor was his father. The grandson of this boy would later become Henry VIII.

...they replaced him with Owen... Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur, referred to by various names in English chronicles and sources including Owen Meredith and Owen Tuder. He came from a prominent Welsh family and was related to Owain Glyndwr. He was appointed to a role as Keeper of the Queen's Wardrobe and not Steward as the author has it.

...and had reached an arrangement with the King's household... As a welshman, Owen Tudor was unable to own property or marry an Englishwoman but he was granted these rights, probably in the early 1430s.

...when the King attained his majority, he would announce a formal acceptance of the union... In her will, Catherine refers to a mysterious obligation owed by the King, but its precise nature is conjecture.

...we joined hands in a tiny chapel and made our vows... The date of their wedding is not recorded. husband was ordered to report to the King's uncle... The Duke of Gloucester was not particularly active during this period and there is no reason to suppose he was behind the arrests of Owen and Catherine. The motive behind their capture is not known. son's coronations... Henry VI was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in 1429, and then as King of France in Paris in 1431. There is no reference to Catherine's attendance at either event.

...the downfall of Paris... Under the catalysing influence of Joan of Arc, 1429 saw a resurgence of the French campaign. When the Duke of Burgundy defected in 1435, shortly followed by the death of the Duke of Bedford, commander of the English forces, the French regained control over Paris and the surrounding territories.

...the death of my mother in its ruins... Isabeau of Bavaria died at the Hôtel-St-Pol on 24 September 1435 around the time the French faction regained control of the capital, although there was no actual fighting in the capital.

Another child is stirring in my belly... Due to the privacy with which the children were raised, the accounts of their births are contradictory and unreliable. It is generally accepted that Catherine's last child, Margaret, died shortly after birth.

...this is my confession... Taken into captivity in Bermondsey Abbey, Catherine never regained her freedom and died on 3 January 1437. She was 35 years old.

The Queen of Falling
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Published in England by the Mechanical Bird Press
First imprint in paperback and e-book 2017

Words and pictures by David Guest
Set in Libre Baskerville