Five hundred years ago, royal and noble parents arranged their daughters’ marriages to men of appropriate rank, selected for political advantage. Status was everything, and to make a match that ‘disparaged’ your blood might lead to you being cast off by your kin.
But despite the risk of ostracism, love occasionally triumphed, and women asserted themselves to marry lower-ranking husbands. Provided both parties stood by one other, no amount of outrage on the part of relatives could break up an unsuitable union, as the only requirement for a valid marriage was consent. Neither priest, parental accord, nor a ceremony were necessary.
Here’s what you need to know about seven ladies who broke with tradition in order to marry for love…
Catherine de Valois
Catherine de Valois married Henry V as part of the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, intended to end the Hundred Years’ War. Their son was to inherit the thrones of both France and England. How Catherine felt about marrying a man 14 years older, who had utterly devastated her country and had previously been rejected by her elder sister as a usurper, is unrecorded.
Whatever Catherine’s feelings, Henry was delighted with his pretty bride, and the new Queen of England was soon pregnant with a son. Not long after young Henry’s birth, Henry V died. Catherine was treated with all honour as the new king’s mother, but there was no possibility of her being involved in the Regency Council set up to rule both England and France.
The question of her remarriage was considered by the Council after it was rumoured that Catherine was being courted by Edmund Beaufort, a young half-cousin of the king. The 13th-century example of King John’s widow was not a happy one: Isabella d’Angouleme’s second marriage produced nine children who, favoured by their half-brother Henry III, caused dissension in the realm.
To counter the threat of Catherine producing a horde of hungry half-siblings for the king, it was enacted that she needed the adult king’s consent to remarry. As Henry was only a toddler at the time, the lords presumably believed this would kick the issue into the long grass. But Catherine had other ideas.
In her household – though how he was appointed and his exact role, are unknown – was a young Welshman, Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur (anglicised as Owen Tudor). He is variously referred to as the queen’s steward, page or cupbearer. One of the romantic tales told of their courtship is that he first came to her notice when, spinning in dance, he slipped and landed in her lap.
The date of their marriage, and even whether there was a ceremony at all, are unknown. However, given that only the requirement for marriage was consent, if Catherine and Owain said they were husband and wife, then, provided there was no impediment to their matrimony, they were. The Parliamentary Act requiring royal consent might make them criminals, liable to punishment, but it could not invalidate the marriage, which produced at least four children.
The nobles’ fears were confirmed: Henry VI became very attached to his half-brothers, marrying the elder, Edmund, to the Lancastrian heiress, Margaret Beaufort, thus founding the Tudor dynasty. Catherine died aged just 35, in the seclusion to which she had been banished following her indiscretion. Owain remained a faithful servant of the House of Lancaster: eventually, aged around 60, he was executed by the Yorkists after the 1461 battle of Mortimer’s Cross. Allegedly his last words were: “That head shall lie on the stock that was wont to lie on Queen Catherine’s lap”.
Jacquetta de St Pol
The second lady whose secret love match affected the inheritance of the throne was Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of St Pol. She was married for two years to John, Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s brother, and English regent in France during the minority of Henry VI.
On Bedford’s death in 1435, Jacquetta scandalised Europe by marrying a gentleman of her husband’s household, Sir Richard Woodville. He and his Duchess (ladies retained the title of their highest-ranking husband) produced a total of 14 children. Jacquetta continued in Lancastrian circles as the confidante of Henry VI’s wife, Marguerite of Anjou, but she was quite prepared to support York when, in a similar instance of marrying out-of-rank for love, her daughter, Elizabeth, caught the eye of Edward IV and became queen.
The influence of Jacquetta’s children was resented by other noble families, who considered themselves to be of higher rank. Their success was particularly begrudged by the Nevilles – Edward IV’s maternal relatives – who were as rapacious, ambitious and aggressive as the Woodvilles, and even more numerous. Quarrels between the king’s family and the Woodvilles stirred up dynastic conflict.
Cecily of York
Seventy years passed before the next royal scandal broke: Cecily of York attracted royal attention of the most unwelcome sort after marrying for love.
After Henry VII married Elizabeth, her sister and the eldest daughter of Edward IV, Cecily was married in 1487 to John, Viscount Welles, the king’s half-uncle. Cecily had a warm relationship with her new sister-in-law, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the king’s mother, but this did not save her from disgrace, when, in around 1503, widowed for three years, she chose to marry Thomas Kyme from a minor gentry family of Lincolnshire. Henry, shocked, and no doubt angry that the opportunity to marry his sister-in-law advantageously had been denied him, banished Cecily and Kyme from court, and confiscated her estates.
Although there is no record of Cecily and Kyme having children, a Thomas Kyme of the same family was the husband of Anne Askew in the 1530s. (It would be fascinating to know whether this Thomas was, in fact, a descendant of Cecily’s.)
Mary Tudor, the French Queen
Fourth is the great granddaughter of both Catherine de Valois and Jacquetta – Henry VIII’s sister, Mary. In 1514, Mary was due to marry Charles of Castile. Henry VIII fitted her out with a sumptuous wardrobe, and planned to accompany her to the Low Countries for the ceremony, arrangements being made for the royal party to stay in the Castle at Calais.
Unfortunately, Mary was jilted, if not exactly at the altar, certainly at the church door. Charles, aged 14 and acting out a part arranged for him by his grandfather Emperor Maximilian, declared that, at a practically doddering 18, Mary was far too old for him, and the Burgundians repeatedly delayed matters.
This betrayal was part of a larger piece of treachery by Maximilian, who had secretly agreed a truce with his and Henry’s joint enemy, Louis XII of France. Henry, however, held the ace on this occasion, and trumped Maximilian by marrying Mary to the recently widowed Louis. Mary claimed that Henry had promised she could chose a second husband for herself – so, when the elderly, gouty and dribbling Louis obligingly died within three months, Mary hastily married Charles Brandon.
Brandon, son of Henry VII’s standard-bearer, was orphaned when his father was killed at Bosworth, and had been brought up at court, becoming Henry VIII’s jousting companion and closest friend. He had been created the title Duke of Suffolk in 1514, but that did not make him a suitable spouse for the king’s sister and Henry VIII was incandescent. The couple were obliged to pay a fine before being forgiven. Mary and Charles enjoyed 18 years together, before she died in 1533.
After Mary’s death, the Duke of Suffolk lost no time in marrying his 14-year-old ward, Katherine, Baroness Willoughby d’Eresby, previously betrothed to his son. As Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine was an important court figure in the later years of Henry VIII’s reign – it was even rumoured that Henry might make her his seventh wife, after she was widowed in 1545. A close friend of Katherine Parr, she was known as a follower of the reforming party in religion, and also for her wit, saucily naming her spaniel ‘Gardiner’, after Bishop Gardiner, the leading conservative cleric.
But in around 1553, Katherine married Richard Bertie who, as the son of a master mason, was of vastly inferior rank. Bertie was employed in Katherine’s household as gentleman usher and master of the horse, a role which gave many opportunities for developing a relationship, as he would be present on every occasion when Katherine rode out and probably helped her mount. The Berties’ religious views became more radically Protestant over time, and they left England during Mary I’s reign. They returned when Elizabeth I became queen, but the new monarch did not like Katherine or her radical views, and the Duchess was not welcome at court – nor was her lowborn husband recognised as Baron Willoughby d’Eresby, as was customary.
Love-matches seem to have run in the Suffolk family. Frances Brandon (the daughter of Mary and Charles Brandon), was married, aged 16, to Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset. On the death of Frances’s younger brother, Henry was created Duke of Suffolk.
Frances and Henry were of an age, and well matched. He was a zealous Protestant reformer and, together with the Duke of Northumberland, attempted to place their elder daughter, Lady Jane Grey, famous for her dedication to the Protestant religion, on the throne. Initially, the Suffolks were forgiven by Queen Mary, who perhaps remembered that she and Frances had once been close companions. But a second rebellion by Henry was too much, and he and Lady Jane were executed.
Frances was again allowed back into favour, and with her young daughters was kept close to the queen until Frances remarried in 1555. Her choice fell upon one of her own servants: Adrian Stokes. The match was considered outrageous, not only because of the disparity in rank (Stokes was the duchess’s master of horse), but also because he was aged 22 and she 38. The couple spent a mere four years together, with their three children dying in infancy before Frances died in 1559.
Lady Mary Grey
All of the ladies mentioned so far found happiness with their husbands, no matter how shocked everyone else was. The final woman in our collection, however, has a more tragic story.
Lady Mary Grey, born in 1545, was the younger daughter of Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk. Mary suffered from scoliosis and was unusually short, and served as maid of honour to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. In a period when external appearance was considered an important aspect of kingship, her physical disability made Mary unlikely to be considered as an alternative candidate for the throne (and perhaps this made her believe her choice of husband was a private matter).
Her selection was certainly surprising: Thomas Keyes, the tallest person at court (whereas Mary was the shortest); a widower aged around 40 (whereas Mary was 19); and father to several children. Thomas was also no more than the sergeant porter, in charge of palace security.
Their romance is touching – he is said to have given her the ring from his finger, and a golden chain with a mother-of-pearl pendant. In July 1565, Mary and Keyes married, carefully ensuring the presence of witnesses. But after a month of marital bliss, the secret leaked. A livid Queen Elizabeth had Keyes thrown into prison and Mary placed under house arrest. The couple never met again.
Keyes remained in the Fleet Prison until 1570, when he was released and permitted to return to Kent, before dying the following year. Mary, forbidden from bringing up his orphaned children, continued to be confined in the homes of begrudging courtiers and relatives, until allowed back to court at the end of 1577 for a brief taste of freedom before dying in 1578.
These stories, whether happy or sad, show that even in an age where status was all, some women were prepared to risk their reputations, possessions – and even their freedom – for love that crossed the social divide.
Melita Thomas is the editor of Tudor Times, a website about daily life in the period. Visit tudortimes.co.uk to find out more
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in February 2015.