The Life and Times of Owen Tudor

The problem with the Tudors is that they’re all too interesting for their own good. The colourful lives of Henry VIII and his children somewhat overshadow those who came before them, though their lives were no less interesting. The royal claim of the Tudors came through John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, who after the death of his wife married his long-term mistress and legitimised his children by her. From his children by his first wife came Henry’s IV through VI, while John’s first son by his mistress, Katherine Swynford, was Henry VII’s great-grandfather. See? Already eventful and this was before the Tudor name even got a look in. So to rectify this grave imbalance I’m going to be spending a lot of time on the early Tudors (complete with a whole month for Jasper ‘my hero’ Tudor). For now, the man who gave the dynasty its name: Owen Tudor.

Because of his relatively lowly station, Owen Tudor’s early life is open to interpretation, with little hard fact available. Unsurprisingly Owen’s life was not recorded in any particular detail until he became the stepfather of Henry VI, but even then there are large gaps as to his whereabouts. Owen was born Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur (a strict English interpretation would be Owen son of Meredith son of Tudor) during 1392. The Tudors of Penmynydd were a noble Welsh family hailing from North Wales, while one of Owen’s grandmothers could claim lineage from the Welsh princes of Deheubarth. Although he wasn’t royal, even by Welsh standards, Owen was far from the lowly servant he is often portrayed as, given that he was a part of a prominent noble family which up until the overthrow of Richard II held various offices in Wales. When Henry IV took the throne many of the Welsh gentry found their positions uncertain, as Henry favoured Englishmen which created dissatisfaction culminating in the Glyndwr Rising. Owen would have been a small boy when the revolt started, however, his father and uncles joined with their cousin Owain Glyndwr leading guerrilla-style raids against the English. The revolt was unsuccessful and the Welsh political landscape was drastically changed by its repercussions. Very few Welsh nobles maintained their lands and positions, Welshmen could not hold property or land, they could not marry an English person nor could they hold office. The Tudors of Penmynydd were similarly affected, Owen’s uncle Rhys would be executed in 1412 and his other uncle Gwilym had been outlawed (but would later be pardoned). Of Owen’s father, Maredudd, there are conflicting rumours. He was outlawed along with his brothers in 1406 which is the last time he appears in the historical record; either he died in 1406 or he survived until 1461, dying at the great age of 91. Given what we know of his brothers’ involvement in the rebellion after 1406 it is more likely that Maredudd died in this year, rather than survive them by so very long.

A stained glass window at a church in the Tudors native Penmynydd showing the connection to the royal dynasty

Owen first appears in London at the age of seven where he was a page in the household of Walter Hungerford. Hungerford accompanied Henry V to Agincourt, so it’s possible Owen Tudor (or Owen Meredith as he known in the records at this point) was also present and may have seen some action (he was twenty-three at the time). Five years after the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V’s campaigns in France were successfully concluded with the Treaty of Troyes which (in theory) guaranteed him the French throne and secured his marriage to Catherine of Valois.

Henry V and Catherine were married in 1420, returning to England the following year where Catherine was crowned Queen of England. The marriage was short lived as Henry died just two years later, though not before Catherine fell pregnant. Henry V would never see his son, also named Henry, who was just nine months old when he became King of England. Henry VI remained in his mother’s care as an infant (although technically she was part of his household) and by this point, Owen Tudor is supposed to have joined the Queen’s household as the keeper of her wardrobe. How the two met is unknown as Owen’s movements are naturally, unrecorded, but many historians suggest that he was a member of Catherine’s household having progressed from his previous position in Hungerford’s service. Hungerford was himself steward to the king so it would be easy to imagine he could recommend Owen for advancement, but alas there is no documentary evidence to confirm this.

When Henry died Catherine was only twenty years old, Dowager Queen of England and still a great beauty. Her marriage prospects were of great interest to the Lord Protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester whose position was potentially threatened by her choice of husband. While she remained within the King’s household the council could keep tabs on her, which is how they came to be aware of her liaison with her late husband’s cousin Edmund Beaufort. By 1427 rumours abounded that the two were planning to marry, something which Gloucester strongly opposed. As a result, the parliament of that year passed a bill curtailing Catherine’s marriage prospects. Under the terms of the bill, she could only remarry with the king’s consent which in turn could only be given when he reached his majority (twelve years from the point where the bill passed). Further, if she was to remarry without permission her husband would forfeit his lands and titles, though any children they had would still be recognised as members of the royal family and wouldn’t suffer for the actions of their parents. After the bill passed rumours of Catherine’s impending nuptials ceased, and if she had intended to marry Edmund Beaufort he was clearly not prepared to sacrifice his position for her.

There are varying accounts of how Catherine and Owen came to fall in love. One of the more colourful legends has Owen failing to perform a dance manoeuvre and landing in Catherine’s lap, while another has her spy him when swimming and falling for him on the spot. In the latter, Catherine disguises herself as a maid to meet with him and while kissing he injures her cheek (he was obviously very bad at kissing), after she has fled, Owen returns to his duties to recognise the same injury on the Queen and realise the true identity of his lover. If he was in her service, however, it is far more likely that they met in this way and the same act that prevented Catherine from marrying Edmund Beaufort now gave Owen a unique opportunity – he could not forfeit his lands and titles by marrying her seeing as he didn’t have any to begin with. That said, the two seemed to have been genuinely in love and they were married sometime in 1429/30. If they were married in 1430 then Catherine was already pregnant with their first child when they did so, as Edmund Tudor was born in June of that year.

Image of Owen showing his Welsh roots and the Tudor coat of arms

Like most things regarding Owen Tudor, details of his marriage are sketchy. There is no documentation for the wedding itself, though it was not contested at the time suggesting that it was accepted as a fact. Also unknown is who on the council knew of their marriage and how they reacted. Historians certainly differ on this matter. In 1431 Owen’s pedigree (with particular emphasis on his Deheubarth descent) was presented to parliament where he was granted the rights of an Englishman. David Loades suggests this move came from Catherine herself in order to legitimise the marriage, Lisa Hilton says that the Council was obliged to do this in order to protect Catherine’s children by Owen who would have been penalised as Welshmen while Debra Bayani claims that if the Council were aware of it such rights would never have been granted. Likewise, historians differ in explaining why Catherine did not attend her son Henry’s coronation in France, an event her presence would certainly have been expected at. It has been suggested that this was a means of punishing Catherine for marrying without permission. But, Henry was crowned in December 1431 and Catherine had given birth to a son, Jasper, in November of the same year – therefore the council may have barred her attendance to hide her pregnancy, or perhaps she withdrew herself for the same reason, or it may simply have come down to the proximity of the coronation to the birth of her child.

Owen and Catherine’s life together is shrouded in obscurity. By now Catherine was no longer a part of Henry VI’s household and had retired to her own lands with her own household. She and Owen lived a life withdrawn from court, possibly to hide the fact of their marriage, possibly to avoid embarrassing the council, or perhaps because it just suited them to do so. They were married for about seven years, during which time they had at least four children – Edmund, Jasper and Owen (or Edward) who became a monk. Catherine’s health became increasingly frail towards the end of her life, even though she was only in her early thirties, and she died in 1437 giving birth to another child, thought to be a daughter. Named Margaret it is unclear whether she died at birth, became a nun, or became a nun and died young.

While the Council had not taken any action against Owen during Catherine’s lifetime, upon her death they moved against him. His sons Edmund and Jasper were placed in the care of Katherine de la Pole, Abbess of Barking Abbey and the sister of the Earl of Suffolk while a deputation moved to arrest Owen who had already begun journeying to Wales. Owen was brought back to London where he was to stand trial for the offence of marrying the Dowager Queen, however, he managed to elude his captors and sought sanctuary instead. He left sanctuary of his own volition and acquitted himself of all charges, determined to return to his native Wales. Although acquitted he was pursued towards the border and once again imprisoned, this time in Newgate prison. In 1438 Owen and his chaplain escaped the prison but were swiftly recaptured and this time moved to Windsor Castle. The following year he was granted an audience with Henry VI, now of age, and we can assume it went well for he secured a full pardon. Further, the king also gave him an office at court (something Owen would not have received had he not been given the rights of an Englishman), a pension and some titles relating to Wales. Again Owen’s movements are not recorded but he seems to have become a popular, if not central, figure at Henry’s court and was possibly in the party that escorted Henry’s bride, Margaret of Anjou, from France to England.

Edmund and Jasper had meanwhile remained at Barking Abbey, where Katherine de la Pole had petitioned the king to take an interest in his half brother’s, possibly to ensure their expenses were met while their father was imprisoned. In 1442 the two were moved from the Abbey to join their father within the king’s household and Henry ensured they received an education befitting his brothers. Both had a successful career at court, recognised as the king’s ‘uterine brothers’ and were later given Earldoms. Although they both held prominent positions at court Henry relied on them to govern Wales and it’s possible that Owen retired to his homeland to manage his estates, certainly at some point he sired an illegitimate son, David Owen, who was born at Jasper’s castle in Pembroke.

By now Henry VI’s ability to rule was being called into question and the first skirmishes of the Wars of the Roses began in 1455. The fighting calmed until 1459 when the conflict resumed in earnest when the Earl of Warwick invaded England from Calais and captured the king. Owen joined with his son Jasper’s army in January 1461 which was attempting to rendezvous with the bulk of the Lancastrian forces in England, however, they were met in battle outside of Hereford, by Edward Duke of York, later Edward IV. During the battle, Owen’s division was routed and they fled, with Owen himself being pursued as far as Hereford where he was captured. Allegedly Owen believed that he would be ransomed or imprisoned given that he was the king’s stepfather, but instead York ordered him to be executed. Owen imagined a pardon would come right up until the point where he was taken to the block, whereupon he accepted his fate gracefully and allegedly referred to Catherine before he died.

Owen was beheaded on the 2nd February 1461 at Hereford where his head was displayed in the market. It was apparently Sir Roger Vaughan, a Welsh noble who had switched loyalties from Lancaster to York, who executed Owen, but this act would be avenged. Ten years after the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross Vaughan was sent to capture Jasper Tudor who had consistently eluded Yorkist forces. Vaughan was unsuccessful and actually ended up being taken prisoner by Jasper instead. Vaughan had expected to be imprisoned and asked that he be treated according to his rank as a noble. Legend has it that Jasper promised that he would be treated with all the dues Vaughan had treated his father with and had him executed on the spot.

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