Post-classical history

4 : Oweyn Tidr

The Welshman was fleeing through Warwickshire, heading in the direction of north Wales, when messengers sent from the royal council caught up with him. He had left the capital in a hurry, acutely aware that his liberty depended on getting out of England as quickly as possible. He was travelling light, because he had packed in haste, and also because he had had very little to pack in the first place. The valuables in the baggage train that accompanied his small party were a hotchpotch of treasure and trinkets: a dozen expensive gold cups and a few silver salt cellars, vases, a pair of candlesticks, spice-plates, chapel ornaments and – rather strikingly – two basins decorated with roses and heraldic arms in the bottom and smaller gilt roses around the rims. This haul was later valued at £137 10s 4d – a decent sum, but hardly a fortune for a man who had until recently been living in regal comfort.1 The messengers told him he was to travel swiftly back to London, and he would be protected on his journey by a grant of safe-conduct. This was a promise which the man looked upon with great scepticism, telling the messenger ‘that the said grant so made sufficed him not for his surety’.2 He had seen enough of English politics to know that a Welshman’s safety was never entirely guaranteed when he ventured east of the borderlands. But the messengers insisted. So the man turned back, heavyhearted, towards London.

His name, to English tongues at least, was Owen Tudor. His ancestors were famous in their homelands, the ancient principality of Gwynedd in north Wales, which included the rugged, chilly mountains of Snowdonia and the fertile isle of Anglesey. They were known as a line of administrators, priests and soldiers who had given loyal service both to the native princes and to the English kings who had conquered Gwynedd in the late thirteenth century. Tudur was a popular name for the men of the family: Owen’s great-great-grandfather was called Tudur Hen; his grandfather was known as Tudur ap Goronwy, and his father was Maredudd ap Tudur (‘ap’, in Welsh, means ‘son of’). In Wales Owen had therefore been known as Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur – until confused English attempts to normalise the barbaric and strange Celtic language came up with ‘Owen Fitz Meredith’, ‘Owen Meredith’, ‘Oweyn Tidr’ and, eventually, ‘Owen Tudor’.

The generations of distinguished Welshmen from whom Owen Tudor sprang had established a dynasty with land and plenty of local prestige. But Owen’s father and uncles had fallen into disgrace after allying with their cousin Owain Glyndwr against King Henry IV during the great Welsh revolt that broke out in 1400 and raged until 1415. Owen was born around the beginning of the revolt, so he grew up in a family embroiled in more than a decade’s plotting and violence, and who suffered accordingly when the rebels’ fortunes began to fail. Glyndwr was commanding guerrilla-style raids between 1409 and 1412 but by September 1415 he had disappeared into hiding and retirement. He probably died the following year, and although his son and successor was pardoned by Henry V in 1417, many others who had fought in the revolt on the Welsh side were dealt with severely: stripped of their lands, banned from officeholding and replaced by loyalists. Maredudd ap Tudur had his estates confiscated for bearing arms against the crown, and Maredudd’s brother Rhys was executed for treason in Chester in 1412.3 The stain of rebellion and treachery had lain upon Owen almost since birth. It was in his blood.

Despite all this ignominy, however, Owen Tudor had done something extraordinary in the thirty-seven years or so that he had been alive. He had not merely raised himself up to the status of gentleman and Plantagenet associate that had been enjoyed by his predecessors, but had gone well beyond – embedding himself in the very heart of English royalty. For the last decade, he had been the lover, husband and secret companion of Catherine de Valois, queen dowager of England.

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Catherine’s life in England had not been quite what she expected when she married Henry V in Troyes. A twenty-year-old widow within two years of her arrival in the foreign realm, for much of the next decade Catherine was defined principally by her motherhood. Her life was arranged around the needs and occasional public appearances of the infant king. She travelled everywhere with him, and her income – drawn from the generous dower settled upon her by parliament – contributed handsomely to the running costs of the king’s household, at the rate of £7 a day. She was a prominent figure on religious feast days and at great occasions of state – which included sitting in pride of place next to the altar at Henry’s English coronation in 1429. When the king was taken to France she accompanied him as far as Rouen, although she returned to England long before his Paris coronation, which spared her the uncomfortable sight of seeing her son crowned in direct rivalry to her brother, Charles VII. But when the king came home, Catherine’s role diminished. From 1430 the queen ceased to live with her son. Their households became formally and financially separate, never to be reunited. She continued to describe herself in letters as ‘Catherine, queen of England, daughter of King Charles of France, mother of the king of England, and lady of Ireland’, but she travelled on her own itinerary and joined the royal court only on ceremonial occasions.4Otherwise, her life was her own.

Freed from the daily responsibilities of motherhood, Queen Catherine’s position was thus now a curious one. England’s other dowager queen – Henry IV’s widow, Joan of Navarre – was over sixty, coming to the end of a life that had petered out on the fringes of aristocratic importance, her reputation tainted by false and outrageous accusations of witchcraft cooked up against her in 1419 by her own confessor. Catherine, by contrast, was young, wealthy and endowed with estates spread far and wide across England and Wales. In a world bonded by landed power, she was an attractive woman, and according to the tittle-tattle of one English chronicler, she was ‘unable fully to curb her carnal passions’.5 This phrase rings with the same sort of snide misogyny that had been hurled at Catherine’s mother, Isabeau of Bavaria, but all the same, it reflected the fact that Catherine had – by virtue of her sex and sexuality – the potential to influence English politics if she should remarry. And indeed, after young Henry’s coronations, the queen mother’s sexual conduct became a matter of high intrigue.

Queens dowager did not, as a rule, marry Englishmen. If they wedded at all, they did so out of the country, to make a clean break from the politics of the crown.6 A queen mother who married into the English nobility could give her husband an invaluable position of proximity and access to the king. For a strong, self-possessed, adult king this would not necessarily be a concern, but these were not the conditions of the minority. Those who had read enough royal history to recall the dark days of the 1320s knew that upon the accession of fourteen-year-old Edward III the queen dowager, Isabella of France, had ruled for three years in her son’s name, and that her rule had been perverted by her lover, Sir Roger Mortimer, who used his easy access to power for tyrannical ends. Mortimer had taken advantage of his position to order the murder of the king’s father and to stage the judicial murder of the king’s uncle. He convinced the king to agree to a shamefully one-sided treaty with the Scots, then rewarded himself with the grand new title of earl of March, sustained by a massive land-grab on the estates of disaffected English noblemen, many of whom were forced into exile for fear of their lives. Mortimer had only been removed when the teenage king ordered a violent coup to reclaim control of his own crown. One hundred years on, the English council could ill afford a repeat performance.

In the mid-1420s, however, it was rumoured that Catherine had formed an attachment to Edmund Beaufort, count of Mortain, the young nephew of Cardinal Beaufort. He was five years younger than her and an ambitious soldier whose elder brothers had seen service in France and spent long spells in French imprisonment. He was also of Plantagenet birth – a grandson of John of Gaunt with a keen sense of his own high blood and chivalric status. In spite, or perhaps because, of this the rumours of his familiarity with the queen provoked sharp alarm among the royal council, and particularly in Humphrey duke of Gloucester. There could be no more worrying situation to Gloucester than for the king’s mother to marry into the circle of his Beaufort rivals, a scenario that the protector felt was not only to the detriment of national stability, but also a personal threat.

It seemed that Gloucester’s fears of a union between Catherine and Edmund Beaufort were well founded when, at the Leicester parliament of 1426, a petition was introduced asking the chancellor ‘to grant to king’s widows permission for them to marry at their will’.7 There was no direct reference to Catherine, but it could hardly have referred to anyone else. The petition was deferred by the chancellor for ‘further consideration’, but at the next parliament, which opened in Westminster in the autumn of 1427, an unambiguous response was given. A statute was made that expressly forbade queens from remarrying without the ‘special licence’ of an adult king. It claimed to seek ‘the preservation of the honour of the most noble estate of queens of England’; in effect, its purpose was to prevent Catherine from being wedded to an Englishman for at least a decade. The wording of the legislation made it clear that the cost of marrying the queen dowager was nothing short of financial ruin. ‘He who acts to the contrary and is duly convicted will forfeit for his whole life all his lands and tenements.’

And so Edmund Beaufort’s dalliance with Catherine came to an abrupt, legalistic end. We do not know if Edmund and Catherine continued to have a physical relationship, or if indeed they ever had one. If so, then Beaufort in particular would have been taking a massive personal risk, of the sort that he would in later life show every inclination to avoid. In any case, by 1431 the queen had defied parliament’s ruling by another means – not by marrying a Beaufort, but by falling in love with a charming Welsh squire by the name of Owen Tudor.

Quite how Tudor came to meet Queen Catherine remains a mystery, the truth buried beneath a number of romantic and comic stories spread in the centuries that followed – some designed to laud Owen’s memory, and others to deride it. Certainly Catherine had links with Owen’s homeland: the lands assigned to her after Henry V’s death comprised great swathes of north Wales including Beaumaris, Flint, Montgomery, Builth and Hawarden. It is also possible that Owen had links with the queen’s home country. In his late teens or early twenties he may have gone to war in France: a man listed as ‘Owen Meredith’ served alongside Henry V’s steward Sir Walter Hungerford in 1421, and since Hungerford was later the steward of young Henry VI’s household, we can reasonably suggest that this may be how Owen found his way into Catherine’s domestic sphere. More than that is hard to say. Mischievous stories dating from the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries variously claim that he was the son of a tavern-keeper or a murderer, that he fought at Agincourt, that he became the queen’s servant or her tailor, that he and Catherine fell in love because she caught sight of his naked body while he swam in a river, or that they were smitten after he got drunk at a dance and fell insensible into her lap. Whatever the case, they met around 1430 and Catherine decided that this lowly Welshman, born of a family of rebels, was the man she would take as her second husband.

Her second marriage could scarcely have been more different from her first. A later writer suggested that the queen did not realise she was marrying so far below her station: ‘Queen Catherine being a French woman born, knew no difference between the English and Welsh nation …’8 But it would have been an astonishingly unobservant woman who lived in English royal circles for a decade without realising the pariah status of the Welsh – even those who, like Tudor, could boast impressive ancestry. Penal laws passed in 1402 forbade Welshmen from owning property, holding royal office, convening public meetings or wearing armour on the highways. Welsh law was suppressed and Welsh castles were to be garrisoned only by pure-blooded Englishmen, who could not be convicted of a crime on the testimony of a man of Wales.9 These penal laws applied equally to Welshmen and Englishmen who married Welsh women: it had long been clear that the mingling of blood was unacceptable, and Catherine would have been not simply a foreigner but a fool not to have noticed.

The most likely explanation is that Catherine, chafing against the council and parliament’s ban on her remarrying, decided to take a husband who was a political nonentity: one who already possessed so few rights to property and rank that the threat of legal ruin meant very little. Nevertheless, their marriage was contracted in secret, probably while most of the English court were abroad for the king’s French coronation in Paris. Shortly afterwards their first son was born, at the manor of Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, the great timber-framed country palace belonging to the bishops of London. The boy was named Edmund. It has been suggested that this was because the real father was Catherine’s old flame Edmund Beaufort – implying that the queen married Owen Tudor as an expedient to prevent the law’s cruel ruin falling upon her real lover. This seems very unlikely.10

Catherine’s marriage was kept discreet during her lifetime. It was a matter of privileged court gossip, rather than public knowledge. But those who saw the queen – particularly Cardinal Beaufort and his followers, with whom she remained close – could be under no illusion. More children were born in quick succession: a second son, Jasper was born at Bishop’s Hatfield in Hertfordshire; there was probably a third son, Owen, who was entrusted to the monks of Westminster and lived a long, quiet life as a monk, and a daughter, called either Margaret or Tacine, who may have died young, for nothing certain is known of her.11 All came before 1436 – and as many as four full pregnancies in little more than five years could not possibly have been concealed. Had the father been a man with any independent political status or ambition, the birth of children who were half-siblings to the king would have caused a crisis. But as it was, Catherine and her new young family managed to live quietly and uneventfully and Owen was accommodated formally into the realm. Letters of denizenship were granted to him in the parliament of 1432, conferring on ‘Owen Fitz Meredith’ the status of a faithful Englishman for the rest of his life.12 Two years later he was granted interests in the queen’s lands in Flintshire, reflecting his family’s ancient position in north Wales. Yet although Owen Tudor enjoyed a degree of protection from the law, his security was completely dependent on his wife.

By 1436 the queen had fallen ill, with a lingering disease that progressively weakened her body and mind. By the end of the year she had moved into Bermondsey Abbey, a Benedictine monastery which regularly tended the sick and wounded, on the south bank of the river Thames, directly opposite the Tower of London.13 She lay there through a bitter winter, when a ‘great, hard, biting frost … grieved the people wonder[fully] sore’, froze the chalk in the walls to dust and killed the herbs in the ground.14 The discomfort was too much. On New Year’s Day 1437, Catherine made her will, in which she complained of a ‘grievous malady, in the which I have been long, and yet am, troubled and vexed’, and named the king as her sole executor. Two days later she died, aged thirty-five.

Catherine de Valois was buried in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey on 8 February, her coffin carried below a black velvet canopy hung all around with bells, and topped with a delicate wooden effigy painted as if it were alive (see plate section), which can still be seen today. But Owen Tudor did not have much time to grieve. He realised that the death of the queen dowager amounted to more than the sad loss of his wife. It placed him in immediate personal danger. He had broken a statute made in parliament, fathered a number of children who were half-blood relations to the king, and could now expect to be pursued. His enemies were not long in showing themselves. As soon as Catherine was laid to rest, the council, driven by the tireless Humphrey duke of Gloucester, went after Owen. Thus it was that the messengers sent from London had caught up with him in Warwickshire as he travelled towards Wales, and sent him down to Westminster, wearily, to face the music.

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On arrival at Westminster, however, Owen Tudor chose not to present himself to the council. Instead he threw himself on the mercy of the abbey, where he claimed the right of sanctuary, ‘and there held him many days, eschewing to come out thereof’.15 After a while, the ministrations of friends persuaded Owen that by staying behind the walls of Westminster Abbey, he was only making his case worse. It was said that the young king had been stirred to anger, although the records of Owen’s arrest and interrogation before the council give the strong impression that any real royal wrath was stage-managed by the duke of Gloucester, and that Henry VI had not interested himself very deeply, if at all, in the details of his stepfather’s flight.16 Nevertheless, after a fashion, Owen emerged from Westminster and was brought before the king. He ‘affirmed and declared his innocence and his troth, affirming that he had no thing done that should give the King occasion or matter of offense … against him’. It was a performance good enough to earn him release and passage back to Wales. But as soon as he arrived in his homelands, he was promptly rearrested for breaking the terms of his royal safe-conduct. This was rather a dubious charge, since he had not accepted safe-conduct in the first place. But it did not matter. Now Owen’s valuables were seized, taken into the treasury and given away to royal creditors, and Owen himself was shut up in the grim surroundings of the notorious Newgate prison in London, with only a chaplain and servant for company.

Although Newgate had been completely renovated in the 1420s and early 1430s, and had a code of rules supposedly to protect prisoners from the worst horrors of confinement, it was not a pleasant place to stay. Its inmates – both male and female – were held there for offences ranging from debt and heresy to thieving, fighting, treachery and murder. Many were waiting to be brought before a judge, and plenty of those were certain to swing on the hangman’s rope – or worse.17 Some prisoners there were clapped in irons, others were tortured, and extortion was commonplace by jailers who could make a handsome private profit by charging their prisoners for privileges and even basic comforts such as food, bedding and candles. There were a few decent rooms with lavatories and chimneys, and even access to a chapel and a flat roof above the main gate, where exercise could be taken, but other parts of the prison – dungeons known as the ‘less convenient chambers’ – were dark, cramped and diseased.

Fortunately, Newgate prison was corrupt enough to make escape a realistic possibility, and Owen Tudor determined to do precisely that. In January 1438 his chaplain helped him organise a bid for freedom. It was briefly successful: Owen fought his way out of the prison compound in a dash so violent that his jailer was ‘hurt foule’. But his flight was short-lived. He and his accomplices made it out of the prison, but were rearrested within days and promptly sent back. It was not until July that Owen’s friends, represented by none other than his late wife’s one-time sweetheart, Edmund Beaufort, secured his transfer to the more salubrious surroundings of Windsor Castle, where he was put under the watch of Walter Hungerford, the captain under whom he may have served in France nearly two decades previously. Eventually, in July 1439, Owen was deemed to have suffered enough for his temerity in disobeying parliament. He was given his freedom and pardoned. It had been a painful two years.

The Welsh bard Robin Ddu, writing some years later, composed a poem that lamented the fate of this adventurous but unlucky Tudor. ‘Neither a thief nor a robber, neither debtor nor traitor, he is the victim of unrighteous wrath,’ he wrote. ‘His only fault was to have won the affection of a princess of France.’18

Owen Tudor’s journey, however, was not quite over, for his marriage to Queen Catherine had produced more than just tall stories and trouble. As the Welshman emerged from his imprisonment, his two eldest sons, Edmund and Jasper, were taking the first steps of their own lives – which would, in time, prove just as remarkable as that of their enterprising father.

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Katherine de la Pole, abbess of Barking, had every reason to be pleased with the religious house over which she ruled. The elegant, richly furnished buildings of the abbey, set around the large double-fronted church of St Mary and St Ethelburga, enclosed one of the wealthiest and most prestigious nunneries in England, home to around thirty ladies in holy orders, served by a large staff of male servants and priests.19 Wealthy daughters and widows from the titled aristocracy and upper gentry came to Barking to retire from the world as inmates, where they followed the Benedictine Rule in a life of prayer, charity, high-born company and scholarship. Good connections had, over the years, brought Barking money, property, honour and fame: Katherine – who as abbess held the same privileged rank as a male baron – controlled thirteen manors and lands in several different counties, besides the hundreds of acres that surrounded Barking itself. A glance out of one of the western windows of the nuns’ dormitory (known as the dorter) revealed the scale of the abbey’s endowment: swathes of the flat, green woodland and countryside of the Thames estuary which stretched towards the broad horizon. In the distance, not more than a day’s ride away, was London, the hub of England’s wealth and power.

In the spring of 1437, Katherine welcomed two young visitors from the capital: two boys referred to in records by the tortuously quasi-Welsh names of ‘Edmond ap Meredith ap Tydier and Jasper ap Meredith ap Tydier’. They were the sons of the late queen and her shortly-to-be-imprisoned Welsh widower, Owen Tudor.20 Edmund was aged about seven, Jasper a year or so younger, and by any standards the little boys had endured a shocking and turbulent year. Katherine’s task was to offer them respite and shelter from the sudden chaos, a place to grow up away from the dangerous and unpredictable throng of London and the court. When Edmund and Jasper rode through the arch of the gatehouse and into Barking’s precincts, and first saw the soaring spires of the abbey church, the quiet gardens that lay within the cloisters and the little outbuildings that surrounded the abbey proper, they should have been reassured that they were coming to a place of peace and stability. It would be their home for the next five years.

Barking was used to taking in children. The abbesses often stood as godparents for Essex’s well-to-do families, whose privileged offspring had been placed in the abbey for the early stages of their education since the time of the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. But half-brothers of a king brought with them special requirements. Katherine was not expected to spare any expense in raising Edmund and Jasper. It cost the abbey the enormous sum of £13s 4d a week merely to feed the boys and their servants, quite apart from the further expense of their lodging, education, clothing and entertainment. Over the years that followed, the abbess would have to write on many occasions to the royal exchequer asking for large sums to recompense her for Edmund and Jasper’s upkeep.21Although on occasion the exchequer was slow to pay her bills, there was no question of shirking the abbey’s responsibilities.

Rich, refined and intellectually advanced, Barking Abbey was a wonderful place to grow and learn. Latin and French as well as English were used by the nuns in an age where the vernacular was becoming the standard language of communication and discourse. The library contained volumes by Aristotle, Aesop, Virgil and Cicero, collections of saints’ lives, books of sermons, meditations on the life of Christ and even an English translation of the Bible, which the nuns were specially licensed to own. One Mary Chaucer had been a nun at Barking in the fourteenth century, and the abbey owned a copy of her relative Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The abbey church held the bones of its first abbess, St Ethelburga, as well as a particularly fine ornamental cross in the oratory, which drew large crowds of penitents and pilgrims on feast days. One famous ritual was the Easter play: a recreation of Christ’s harrowing of hell, in which nuns and their priests paraded through the church holding candles and singing antiphons, before symbolically releasing from damnation all the souls of the prophets and patriarchs.

There was, however, another reason for Edmund and Jasper to be domiciled there at such expense. This was Katherine herself. She was a tenacious, astute woman who was sufficiently impressive to have been elected to her post at only twenty-two or twenty-three. She was also the sister of William de la Pole, fourth earl of Suffolk, a member of the royal council, steward of the royal household, and an increasingly close companion of the young king. It is very probable that William recommended Barking to the king as the Tudor boys’ new home, for his advice counted heavily at court and in the council. Certainly, at the moment that Edmund and Jasper arrived in his sister’s care, Suffolk was beginning to establish his position as a central figure in the young Henry VI’s government. He was the man around whom almost every important political decision of the following decade was to turn.

And so, thanks to these generous connections, Owen Tudor’s sons remained peacefully at Barking for the next five years, even while their father fought to stay out of prison. It would be more than a decade before their closeness in blood to the king was formally recognised and they were elevated to positions of importance at court. In the meantime, it was their half-brother, Henry VI, whose emerging personality became the focus of English politics – with results more disastrous than anyone could ever have foreseen.

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