Katherine was one of Elizabeth of York’s younger sisters. Her parents were Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. When her father died in 1483 she was not yet four years of age but like her older siblings found herself in sanctuary at Westminster and declared illegitimate under the terms of Titulus Regius which accepted Bishop Stillington’s declaration that Edward was pre-contracted in marriage to Lady Eleanor Talbot (Butler) prior to his secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.
Eventually Elizabeth Woodville came to terms with Richard III and her daughters returned to their nursery or to court. Richard promised that he would provide for his brother’s children but the marriage of an illegitimate daughter of a king would never be as sparkling as that of a princess.
However, in 1485 Fortune’s wheel took a downward turn for Richard on the battlefield at Bosworth and Henry Tudor became king. He had sworn to marry Katherine’s sister Elizabeth, and with no sign of the two sons of Edward IV, Titulus Regius was revoked and an order was issued for all copies to be destroyed. Katherine was once again a Plantagenet princess. Her care and education lay in the hands of her sister Elizabeth who married Henry uniting the houses of York and Lancaster but her marriage was in her brother-in-law’s gift.
Katherine and her sisters were valuable pawns in the marriage game. it was suggested at one time that she marry the Duke of Ross but nothing came of the proposal. It was essential so far as Henry was concerned that the princesses were either married out of the country to countries sympathetic to Henry Tudor or else they should be married to men he trusted at home. Henry trusted precious few people – which isn’t surprising given the number of rebellions he had to deal with once he became king.
In 1495, Henry thought he had found just the man – William Courtenay, heir to the Earl of Devon. She was packed off to Tiverton where she became a mother in 1496. In 1497 her husband rose further in royal favour when he helped to defeat Perkin Warbeck, a royal pretender. Two more children followed, a daughter Margaret and another son named Edward. Catherine could often be found at court with her sister and she took an active part in royal events including the betrothal celebrations of her niece Margaret Tudor to James IV of Scotland.
Unfortunately Courtenay’s favour was not to last. He was implicated in the Duke of Suffolk’s rebellion in 1502 and found himself incarcerated in the Tower – although evidence was lacking. Henry VII swiftly confiscated all his goods leaving Katherine and her three children dependent on Elizabeth of York, but at least they were still free and Courtney did not suffer a traitor’s death. His main problem was that he was married to a Plantagenet princess and Henry VII simply didn’t trust that he wouldn’t make an attempt on the throne. Poor Katherine faced difficult times which were compounded by the death of her youngest son while she was with Elizabeth. Without the funds to pay for Edward’s funeral, Katherine was reliant upon her sister’s kindness for the burial of the little boy and for her mourning robes.
The following year, it was Katherine who led the mourners to Westminster where Elizabeth of York was buried. The queen had died as a result of complications following childbirth. Katherine had lost the sister to whom she was closest and the source by which she was able to live. Now she had to turn to her father-in-law for help and to her young nephew Prince Henry who was fond of his aunt.
After Henry VII’s death, Katherine’s life changed for the better. She was welcome at court, her husband was finally freed from his prison and Katherine was granted estates by which the couple could live, although she had to sign away her rights to her share of the earldom of March. When Courtenay died in 1511, Katherine took a vow of celibacy so that no new husband could be found for her. She also set about ensuring that her son, Henry Courtenay, who was now ten years of age should inherit his father’s title. In 1512 she arranged for her daughter Margaret to marry the heir of the Earl of Worcester.
She came rarely to court after that but she did become Mary Tudor’s godmother in 1516. She did not know that her Plantagenet bloodline would send Fortune’s wheel turning once more when her nephew Henry VIII attempted to divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon. Her son Henry Courtenay would be executed for corresponding with another cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole. Her grandson Edward Courtenay would spend time in prison and because of his involvement in Wyatt’s Rebellion, which sought to topple Mary Tudor, be exiled from the country.
Katherine died on 15 November 1527 having spent the latter part of her life living in Tiverton.