The story of the Tudors starts with a woman named Catherine de Valois. Her daddy was a madman. Today, we might say he suffered from psychosis or schizophrenia--periodically, he thought he was made of glass, and if he bathed or touched water or had his nails cut, he would shatter. He also happened to be Charles VI, King of France.
He became King at eleven, at the death of his father, and was ruled by warring uncles until he took power at twenty-one. His uncles had depleted the treasury and burdened his people with taxes. Charles changed that, and thus became known Charles le bien-amie (the well-loved). Then, one hot August day, while leading his army to Brittany, Charles went mad, killed four knights and almost murdered his brother, Louis of Orleans. That's when he became known as Charles le foi (the fool.)
Afterwards, he fell into a coma. Clearly, this was either witchcraft or divine punishment or a chance for his uncles to seize back power. Unfortunately for them, he recovered, though he was to suffer periodic bouts of madness for the rest of his life.
During these episodes, he thought he was, as I said, made of glass, or that he had no wife or children, or that his enemies were chasing him--and he had to run to exhaustion to get away from them.
He and his wife, Isabeau, married when he was seventeen. People speak of the wedding festivities, and the "hot young couple." (I am not making this up.) Since he didn't go mad until he was twenty-four, they at least had seven good years.
He seems to have adored Isabeau who was quick and clever, learning the ways of the French court quickly. (There she is with her ladies on palfries underneath the hunting king.)
After his first insanity, his physician recommended a series of amusements. Someone said, "hey. Isabeau's lady-in-waiting is getting remarried. Wouldn't it be fun, King, if you dressed up like a wild man and joined a bunch of other courtiers to invade the wedding?" (Only they said this in archaic French.) The torch Orleans carried sparked onto one of the dancer's clothing and four of them burned to death. Charles himself was almost killed. This became known as the Bal des Ardents.
The tragedy set Charles off on a six-month period of insanity. A chronicler claimed Orleans was guilty of attempted regicide, and was a wizard, besides. In the outcry, Orleans was forced to do penance.
Needless to say, this episode did not reassure the people of France of the King's ability to lead.
|Richard II and his tiny Queen|
During his periods of sanity, King and Queen still had carnal relations, producing twelve children. Not many of them lived to adulthood. But he was insane for a very long time, during which everybody fought for power, including Isabeau, and the English. Katherine's older sister had the dubious joy of creating some peace during the Hundred Years War between France and England--did I mention they were at war for most of this time?--by marrying, at age six, the widower-King Richard II of England. This was shortly before Richard was forced to abdicate his crown and died, so she was only queen of England for about three years.
Oh, and shortly after the Bal des Ardents, Charles kicked the Jews out of France, giving them time to liquidate their belongings and pay up their debts.
Meanwhile, Charles' wife, Isabeau, was either a spendthrift and a wanton or that was propaganda--kind of hard to know when a kingdom is in such disarray as hers was. The King's brother Louis (he who was almost murdered) and the royal dukes of Burgundy, were both jockeying for power, with Isabeau shifting sides depending on who looked most likely to support her surviving heir, Charles. (Several of her sons were Dauphin for brief periods of time and at least two of them, I think, were also named Charles.)
|Louis duc d'Orleans et Comte|
When Isabeau supported the Armagnac, the Burgundians said she was screwing her brother-in-law, Louis of Orleans. When she supported the Burgundians, the Armagnacs imprisoned her in Paris. A friar named Jacques Legrand, preached a long sermon to the court about excess and depravity--exposed necks, shoulders and décolletage, speaking of "furious, vengeful characters. If you don't believe me," he said, "go out into the city disguised as a poor woman and you will hear what everyone is saying."
Meanwhile, Henry V came a-warring into France. In 1415, Henry's Welsh long-bowmen defeated the French knights at the battle of Agincourt and all of France shuddered. Somebody murdered John the Fearless and the dauphin, Charles, claimed credit.
King Charles disowned his son, claiming he was illegitimate, and betrothed his youngest daughter, Katherine de Valois, to Henry V. They married when she was eighteen, almost nineteen and her brother, the dauphin, was was seventeen. Here they are, getting married.
So--great-grandmother of Henry VIII's childhood, chaotic, ruled by war, political factions in pitched battle, a possibly philandering, spendthrift mother, and a father who slipped in and out of believing he was made of glass. Great, great grandfather was completely insane with an illness very likely genetic. (Katherine's child with Henry V seemed to suffer from the same illness.)
Or, that was the Duke of Somerset, who was a Beaufort like Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort. We will likely never know.
But you see what I mean about telling the story of the Tudors? It's like following the Bushes--you find out about Pappy's secret affair, (but openly known about in the press according to reporters I have spoken to) and suddenly, Shrub's drinking--and his need to prove his masculinity-- make a lot more sense.