Katherine of Valois was widowed at just twenty-one years of age when Henry V, victor of Agincourt, died of dysentery. Her infant son’s protectors-he uncles and great-uncles- could see that she might wish to marry again. However, they don’t appear to have been terribly keen on the idea given some of the strictures that they imposed. Firstly Katherine’s prospective spouse had to be prepared to give up his titles and his lands. Secondly she had to get her son’s permission and in order for young Henry VI to give it he had to have reached his majority – so sixteen. These rules seem to have been proposed by Duke Humphrey of Gloucester who became concerned in 1428 that Katherine was showing a bit too much interest in Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset.
As luck would have it the lonely young woman did encounter a man that she wished to marry, her Keeper of the Wardrobe – one Owain Tudor as he would eventually become known. Depending upon which version of events you read she either spotted him whilst he was swimming or he fell into her lap whilst dancing. There is, it would have to be said, no historical evidence for either.
Owain ap Maredudd was born, we think, the same year his father Maredudd’s cousin Owain Glyndwr raised a rebellion against English rule- so about 1400. Maredudd’d brothers were heavily involved in the conflict. Owain Glyndwr had vanished by the time young Owain was six – another subject for legend despite his uprising against the English being quelled. Maredudd’s fortune was in a state of parlous repair so, in one history, he went to London to make his fortune. Other accounts say that he murdered someone and fled into Snowdonia…so take your pick. In any event young Owain did not have a settled childhood.
Maredudd and his brothers claimed a line of descent from Cadrod of Calchfynedd and were relations of the Princes of Deheubarth (South-West Wales). Maredudd himself held land inAnglesey. Prior to Glyndwr’s rebellion he’d served both Welsh and English kings in important posts. In 1392, for example, he was Escheator of Anglesey. He was also the Bishop of Bangor’s steward.
Despite his rebellious father, cousin and uncles by the time he was seven Owain was at the court of Henry IV – the very man that his family were revolting against on their native Anglesey.
It is possible that Owain was at the Battle of Agincourt as a squire but we cannot be certain. He turns up in the records in 1421 in the service of Sir Walter Hungerford and then he must have entered the household of Katherine of Valois but we can only guess that Hungerford recommended him for the post. Equally we only have the two romanticized tales of how a dowager queen and her keeper of the wardrobe fell in love.
Inevitably Tudor ‘spin’ was bought to bear on proceedings by Henry VII. His historian Polydore Vergil wrote of “Owen Tyder” that he was “a gentleman of Wales, adorned with wonderful gifts of body and minde, who derived his pedigree from Cadwalleder, the last King of the Britons.” Henry VII needed to bulk his ancestry out a bit and since he was rather short on Plantagenet genes had to look back into the mists of time in order to garner some shreds of royalty.
Of course, Henry’s desire to justify his right to the crown by blood rather than right of conquest- was somewhat thwarted by the fact that Owain and Katherine couldn’t exactly publicise their nuptials so had married in secret and the problem with secrets is that there are no records. Katherine certainly hadn’t got Henry VI’s consent and she’d married beneath her another issue that the parliamentary act regarding any marriage she might have made had issue with– but at least Owain didn’t need to worry about losing his titles and his lands. He may perhaps have been a bit more concerned about losing his life when the various uncles of Henry VI’s protectorate found out what the dowager queen had been up to.
We can surmise that the couple married somewhere between 1428 and 1430 when Edmund Tudor was born. We know that they went on to have at least four children – Edmund, Jasper, Owen and Margaret. There may have been others. We also know that Humphrey of Gloucester wasn’t terribly amused when he found out that Katherine had not only married but was producing the king’s half-siblings who were to be treated, according to the parliamentary act which had laid so many stipulations upon Katherine’s remarriage, as members of the royal family.
In 1436 politics caught up with Katherine and Owen, despite their quite life it is ultimately quite difficult to hide such a rapidly growing family. The children were removed and Katherine retired to Bermondsey Abbey where she gave birth to her last child- Margaret. The dowager queen died on January 3rd 1437.
Owain was ordered to come to court but he very sensibly refused without a letter of safe conduct. He did set out for London but decided that it would be better for his safety if he took sanctuary in Westminster rather than throw himself on the Protectorate’s mercy.
Ultimately Owain was acquitted of all charges against him but the establishment can be a spiteful thing. Owain was retrieved from Wales and imprisoned by Lord Beaumont who handed him over to the Earl of Suffolk. He spent time in Newgate Prison and in 1438, following his escape from Newgate and recapture was sent to Windsor. In 1439 he was finally released.
By that time Henry VI was of age. He pardoned Owain for any crime that may have been committed, took Owain into his own household and welcomed his half-brothers. Owain, unlike some more nobly born Englishmen remained loyal to Henry for the rest of his life. He must have dreamed of returning to his home in North Wales because in 1460 Henry VI made him Keeper of the Parks at Denbigh.
The following year Owain took part in the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. The old man was captured and executed in Hereford market square on the orders of Edward IV who was furious about the death of his own father. Owain believed that he would be ransomed until the moment that he was faced with the executioner’s block. Owain’s head was put on display at the market cross where a young woman combed his hair and washed his face before placing lit candles around it. Contemporary sources describe her as mad but Leanda de Lisle contemplates the possibility that the young woman was the mother of Owain’s illegitimate son Daffyd who was about two in 1461.
de Lisle, Leanda. (2013) Tudor: the family story London: Chatto and Windus