Mastodon The Writing Desk: Guest Post by Anne O'Brien: Revisiting Katherine de Valois in the The Forbidden Queen

16 April 2016

Guest Post by Anne O'Brien: Revisiting Katherine de Valois in the The Forbidden Queen

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An innocent pawn 

A kingdom without a king 

A new dynasty will reign… 

All of my novels about the lives of medieval women have all allowed me to include more than a pinch of politics, government intrigue and national events.  It is something that I enjoy, working the ‘history’ into the lives of my protagonists.

But when I began to write about Katherine de Valois, particularly writing her story in the first person, I realised that this novel would be different from the rest, with strict limitations on its scope outside the life of the heroine herself.  I had to accept what The Forbidden Queen could not be, before I could settle down to decide what it should be.  To begin with, it was quite a daunting project.

The Forbidden Queen:
- is not a novel about the Hundred Years War.
    - is not a political comment on the difficulties faced by a country with a Regency under the minority rule of Henry VI.
 - is not a novel involved in the growth of powerful families, culminating in the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses.
 - is not a discussion of the problems of the Valois crown under Charles VI, with the resurgence of Charles VII under Joan of Arc and the ultimate defeat of the English.
It is none of these things simply because Katherine, except through the event of her marriage to Henry V, was untouched by most if not all of these issues.  If I wrote a political novel, Katherine would be a mere un-looker – and not even that since she was kept secluded from much of what was going on in the background to her life.   Katherine would be merely commenting on what she saw and heard.  There would be little that she actually did.

This would not make a dramatic novel. So why was Katherine, compared with my other medieval protagonists, so uninvolved? 

Katherine’s lifestyle was narrow and protected until the 1430s.  Her interests as far as we know were domestic.  Neglected as a child, she received little education in the convent at Poissy, and played the role of most princesses in the marriage stakes, to cement an alliance with a potentially hostile country.  Katherine had of course no influence in this.  We do not even know what she thought about it.  She is often portrayed as a beautiful young woman who was not very bright, which might simply indicate that she played no role other than a ceremonial one.  She certainly does not seem to have had any political interest or knowledge of the country of which she would be Queen.

It is true that some royal wives develop political acumen as they mature and take on a role in government either at the side of their husband or independently.  They support causes, they promote marriage alliances, they receive petitioners and speak for their interests.  Their role to support and bolster royal power gives a pattern to their days and a demand on their time.

This is not Katherine de Valois.  Katherine had the title, wore the robes of state and ultimately stood at her young son’s side as King's Mother when he appeared infrequently in public, but that was the limit of her involvement.  Nothing else was expected of her, and she appears to have little interest in carving out a role for herself.  Katherine does not mature into a political animal.  When she is able to take the initiative in the 1430s to live as she chooses, the choice she makes is to retire from public life to live quietly away from the public eye.  When politics encroach on her life, she becomes a victim, not a protagonist.

So what are we left with, as the story at the core of The Forbidden Queen

Presumably dazzled by her royal suitor, Katherine played her part successfully in her brief marriage with Henry V and the even briefer time she actually spent with him, by giving birth to a son and smiling at the crowds when she joined Henry on his royal progress in 1422.  Left a widow at 21 with little power and no official position assigned to her in the rearing and education of her young son other than the title Queen Dowager and King's Mother, Katherine remained obscure, destined to a ceremonial widowhood at her son’s side to bolster the boy’s claim to the Valois throne.  Nor is there any evidence that she had any knowledge of or interest in events in France.  Her only visit after Henry’s death was for the coronation of the young Henry VI as King of France.

The knowledge we have of Katherine in the late 1420s and early 1430s is of an entirely personal nature.

Lacking the political wisdom that might have shown her the foolishness of her actions, she became infatuated with Edmund Beaufort, even to the extent that marriage was mooted – with the obvious repercussions and restrictions from a suspicious Royal Council.

Prevented from taking this dangerous step, Katherine fell in love with Owen Tudor, an astonishing liaison between a Dowager Queen and a disenfranchised Welshman who, we presume, was a servant in her own household.  And Katherine loved him enough to marry him.

So this is Katherine’s story, and a most appealing one it was to become as I accepted my limitations.  A coming of age novel of a young girl who obeyed the demands of her family, suffered increasing isolation, but ultimately grew up.  Not politics, not foreign policy, but the story of a young woman caught in the grip of dynastic aggrandisement and political necessity.

It is a very personal story.  A splendid love story.  And ultimately, for Katherine, a tragic one.

Anne O'Brien
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About the Author

Anne O'Brien was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. After gaining a B.A. Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Masters in Education at Hull, she lived in the East Riding for many years as a teacher of history. After leaving teaching, Anne decided to turn to novel writing and give voice to the women in history who fascinated her the most, beginning with Virgin Widow, which told the story of Anne Neville, the wife of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Since then, she has told the stories of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Devil's Consort, Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III, in The King's Concubine, Katherine de Valois, the child bride of Henry V, in The Forbidden Queen and Katherine Swynford, mistress of John of Gaunt, in The Scandalous Duchess. Her latest novel The King's Sister is the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster, caught up in dramatic and bloody family politics in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV. Today Anne lives in an eighteenth century cottage in Herefordshire, an area full of inspiration for her work. Visit Anne online at and find her on Facebook and Twitter @anne_obrien. 

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