Catherine of Valois: Family History with Mental Illness
Catherine of Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France and Isabelle of Bavaria was born into royalty at the royal palace of the Hôtel Saint-Pol in Paris on 27 October 1401.
Catherine’s father was called, “Charles the Mad” because of his bouts with mental illness. Through my research I’ve discovered that he is not the only family member with mental illness. There were more – it’s almost alarming and mostly surprising that she did not suffer from it herself.
“Catherine’s father, Charles VI was mentally ill, he is believed to have suffered from schizophrenia, Charles experienced delusions, believing he was made of glass or denying he had a wife and children. He ran from room to room until he collapsed from exhaustion, declaring that his enemies were upon him. Charles’ illness is believed to have been later inherited by his grandson, Henry VI of England. Charles’ ancestors were closely related. His mother, the French Princess, Joan of Bourbon (1338-1377) was slightly unstable, as were her brother, Louis, Duke of Bourbon, her father and grandfather, she suffered a complete nervous breakdown in 1373 after the birth of her seventh child.” ¹
In general, medieval Europeans allowed the mentally ill their freedom, as long as they were not dangerous to others. With that being said there were often times when the mentally ill were labeled as witches or said to be possessed by demons.
I’m not sure how they treated Charles VI for his illness but it is known that common “remedies” were: Bleeding of the humors, exorcism, shaving a cross on the head of the “infected” person and having them drink ice-cold water.
Did the royal family understand that this was something that was genetic? Obviously it was passed down through the generations. Some were spared but some of the unlucky ones had a very confusing and difficult life. Did Catherine of Valois understand that when she had a child that it was possible this child could also carry this family “curse?”
The early years for Catherine of Valois were not as rich and glamorous as one might expect of a royal family. She was the tenth child of her parents and at the time France was in chaos due to her father’s bouts of insanity.² This left an opening for other countries, like England, to fight for throne of France.
In 1405, Henry IV of England had suffered the first of many debilitating illnesses. In pain, and clearly unable to rule his nation he ceded power to his council, which included his son, Henry, also known as “Hal.” Over the final years of King Henry’s reign it is believed there was tension between the king and his son. It is said that when the king lay dying his young son took the crown from his head. Still alive, Henry IV asked his son what right he had to the crown since it had been won in blood and not received through a divinely blessed hereditary line. Hal replied, “As you have kept the crown by the sword, so will I keep it while my life lasts.”
In early July 1415 the now reigning King Henry V declared his intention to fight for the throne of France. He claimed it through his lineage to Edward III – his great-grandfather. Edward III’s mother was the daughter of the French king Philip IV. Henry V saw this as his right to France since the French king, Charles VI, was widely known to have bouts of madness and was unable to rule his own country.
England advanced upon France and captured Harfleur, then marched to Calais. He defeated the french at Agincourt with his army outnumbered (6,000 vs. 20,000) and then returned to London where he was acclaimed as King Henry V of England and France by his subjects as he rode through the streets of London.
From 1417 – 1419 there was a second campaign on France and Henry captured Caen and Rouen, capital of Normandy. At this point France had suffered many losses and the remaining leaders were ready to come to an agreement with Henry V.
The Treaty of Troyes in 1420 brought together Catherine of Valois and Henry V. The Treaty of Troyes was an agreement that King Henry V (of England) and his heirs would inherit the throne of France (instead of Charles’ son, the Dauphin) upon the death of King Charles VI of France. It was signed on 21 May 1420 after Henry’s successful military campaign in France. ³
Henry V thought Catherine was a beautiful young woman and it wasn’t long after their marriage that she gave birth to a son – Henry on 6 December 1421 at Windsor. This son, and prince, would soon inherit the throne…as an infant. On 31 August 1422, as Henry V lay dying of dysentery (or cancer, depending on what you read) he appointed his brothers as regents of his domains.
Catherine, now dowager queen was nearly 21 years old upon the death of her husband. Her father, King Charles VI died a few months after her husband which left her son to also inherit the throne of France, per the Treaty of Troyes. Catherine doted on young Henry during his early years.
Since the dowager queen was so young Parliament passed a bill (1427-1428) which set forth the provision that if Catherine remarried without the king’s consent her husband would forfeit his lands and possessions. Any children of said marriage would not suffer punishment. The king’s consent was contingent upon his having attained his majority. At that time, the king was only six years old.
Young Henry would be crowned King of England when he was eight years old – in 1429. Catherine continued to live in her son’s household so she could care for the young king. This was also beneficial to the council because they could keep a watchful eye on the dowager queen.
Eventually Catherine started a secret relationship with Owen Tudor while living at Leeds Castle. Owen was the keeper of Catherine’s wardrobe. Legend says that Owen caught the Queen’s eye when she saw him swimming, or that he tripped and fell into her lap when dancing.
No documentation has survived of Catherine’s marriage to Owen Tudor. Owen and Catherine produced at least five children in all. Edmund, Jasper and Owen Tudor were all born away from court. My research has also unearthed that they may have had two daughters (Tacinda & Margaret), however I have been unable to confirm those reports.
Towards the end of the summer of 1436, while pregnant with her fifth child rumours of the Queen’s secret marriage appear to have reached the Duke of Gloucester. Upon further investigation the truth of the matter was revealed and the Duke acted swiftly and decisively. We are told that, ‘the high spirit of the Duke of Gloucester could not brook her marriage. Neither the beauty of Tudor’s person nor his genealogy, descended from Cadwallader Kings, could shield him or the Queen from sharp persecution as soon as the match was discovered.’ The Queen’s household was dissolved with immediate effect. Catherine was parted from her children the eldest of whom were sent to live with Catherine de la Pole, sister of the Earl of Suffolk, Owen was confined to Newgate and Catherine was sent to Bermondsey Abbey.
By this time the heavily pregnant Queen was gravely ill and deeply distressed by this enforced separation from her husband and children. Not long after entering Bermondsey she gave birth to a daughter, christened Margaret, who died shortly after her birth. Overcome by illness and trauma it appears the Queen never recovered. Even the ‘tablet of gold, weighing thirteen ounces on which was a crucifix set with pearls and sapphires’ an elaborate token of remembrance sent to Bermondsey from her son, Henry VI failed to revive her spirits. On 3rd January 1437, Catherine of Valois, Queen of England died a broken woman. – Source of Quote: Britannia
When Henry VI came of age it is said that he never forgave his uncle, Duke of Gloucester for the harsh treatment his mother had experienced. Henry subsequently knighted his stepfather Owen, made him Warden of Forestries, and appointed him a Deputy Lord Lieutenant.
Mental illness once again crept into this family when Henry VI went into a catatonic state, August 1453, Henry experienced some kind of mental breakdown and became completely unresponsive to everything that was going on around him for more than a year. During this time his queen, Margaret of Anjou gave birth to a son, Prince Edward and Henry failed to respond to his birth.
It seems Henry inherited this condition from his grandfather, Charles VI of France. I’m curious if his son, Edward was also inflicted by this awful hereditary disease. Unfortunately we’ll never know - his life was cut short when he was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury when he was only 17 years old.
¹ - http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/plantagenet_36.html (paragraph 2)
² - http://www.britannia.com/history/biographies/catherine_valois.html
³ - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Troyes
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain, by Charles Phillips (pages 82-87)
Kings and Queens of Great Britain, David Soud
History Catherine of Valois Charles VI Edmund Tudor Henry IV Henry V Jasper Tudor Mental Illness in Royals Owen Tudor
Thanks very interesting.any more information would be much appreciated.
This article is very muddled. First of all, it isn’t possible to know what was wrong with ‘Charles the Mad’ or Henry VI, whether it was mental or physical, whether their conditions were identical, let alone if they were hereditry. I agree, traditionally, it is asserted Henry VI inherited his condition from his Grandfather, but the symptoms were quite dissimilar, in fact. I don’t say there is no connection, only that we can’t draw reliable conclusions.
Other than the fact he recovered, Henry VI’s symptoms resemble a stroke. In oldcmedicsl books there is a condition called ‘General paralysis of the insane’, which also describes Henry’s symptoms, which could just have been severe depression. Specilation is interesting but fruitless.
As for Henry IV, his final illness seems to have been entirely physical and although it is romantic to see him as Shakespeare’s tortured king, it’s not a safe assumption.
As for what awareness there was of hereditry illnesses, without any knowledge of genetics and the widespread belief that their god was repsonsible for everything that happened and that French kings were kings by divine right, it seems unlikely they were aware, although they will have noticed that children looked like their parents and believed that royalty transferred their inate royalness to their offspring.
General paralysis ( or more commonly paresis) of the insane refers to brain or spinal cord involvement with tertiary syphilis . It is syphilis that occurs 5 to 15 years after initial infection . The fact that Charles recovered makes this most unlikely . Penicillin is still a good treatment but unfortunately not known in Charles’ era.
Was Isabella of Spain related to the French royals? Both her mother and her daughter Queen Juana were in forced seclusion for many years before their deaths due to their being mad, as it was described in those days.
Edmund Tudor was Henry VIi’s father.
Was Edmund Tudor or one of his three sons a progenitor of the house of Tudor , the first royal being Henry Vll ?
The question of mental illness is an absolutely enormous topic.
This subject was little understood at the time as you correctly point out. Perhaps it is a topic to be covered in greater depth than the scope of a blog article may reasonably expected to address?
You have also correctly highlighted the relevance of Charles VI’s mental illness and the impact that had on his ability to make any decisions, in the run up, as well as to lead an army at all; let alone effectively against Henry V at Agincourt. A fact which takes a little of the lustre from the heroic if not to say slightly exaggerated story of the nature and alleged scale of Henry’s victory.
However, more recent history has shown that suffering from depression need not always be an impediment to great leadership in war. This though was at a time with the condition being slightly better understood.
On a point of fact.
You mention that Catherine de Valois’ relationship with Owain Tudor began at Leeds Castle.
Are you able to confirm from which reference,or references; presumably a contemporary chronicler and more recent historian from whom this statement has been derived, please?
My apologies – I did not see this comment until now. It was sourced from:
¹ – http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/plantagenet_36.html (paragraph 2)
Your quote references Catherine both giving birth to her daughter Elizabeth and dying on January 3rd 1437, and then goes on to reference events that happened in between the birth of her daughter and her death, can you expand on this, it doesn’t seem that she can have given birth, suffered the consequences of marrying without permission and died all on the same day in different locations.
Thanks for pointing that out. I have replaced the quote with a better one.
I’ve already written about mental illness in the French Royal Valois family many years ago.