Say what you will about The King, a new reimagining of Shakespeare’s Henry V premiering in theaters October 11 and on Netflix November 1 — the movie has some inarguable highlights. There’s Timothée Chalamet rocking King Henry V’s bowl cut. There’s Robert Pattinson as long-haired Louis, the chaotic neutral heir to the French throne.
Finally, there’s a brief, but memorable, on-screen interaction between [never confirmed, but spotted making out in public on a boat, which is really all the confirmation one needs] real-life couple Chalamet and Lily-Rose Depp, conducted almost entirely in French. Depp plays Catherine of Valois, a French princess and Henry’s fiancée. The King’s version of Catherine is about six times sharper than Henry — and he seems to love her for it.
But is this depiction of Catherine and Henry as a union of equals at all accurate? Probably not. The King is based off Shakespeare’s heavily fictionalized play Henry V, first performed in 1599. Catherine’s debut towards the end of Henry V is a scene of comic relief, marked by sexual innuendo and wordplay.
Here’s what we know about the real Catherine and Henry V. In this case, the truth is stranger — and bleaker — than fiction.
Who was Catherine of Valois?
From her biography, Catheroine of Valois could be like the heroine of a Dickens novel. Born on October 27, 1401, Catherine was the youngest daughter of King Charles VI of France and Isabeau of Bavaria’s 12 children.
Catherine didn’t have a happy childhood. Her father, King Charles VI, struggled with severe mental illness (he thought his body was made of glass). With her husband unable to rule, Isabeau became regent queen. As a woman in power, Isabeau was pelted with rumors: adultery, incest, witchcraft, neglect, you name it. Above all, she was said to be a neglectful mother.
But there’s reason to question Isabeau’s reputation. In her essay "Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France (1385-1422): The Creation of an Historical Villainess,” Rachel Gibbon writes, “As is often the case today, the most accessible weapons...to use against a woman were criticisms of her looks and her sexual conduct.” So Isabeau was known as "adulterous woman who also neglects her children...totally beyond redemption," instead of a queen ruling a nation.
Catherine and Henry’s marriage had been arranged for years.
Catherine likely knew a wedding to an Englishman was coming. After all, it happened to her sister.
Catherine’s older sister Isabella had been sent to England to marry King Richard II, but returned after he was deposed by Henry V’s father, Henry Bolingbroke. Isabella was six years old when she married, and 12 when she returned.
But Henry V and Catherine did not marry during peacetime. Their marriage took place during the height of the Hundred Years’ War, a series of battles between the kings and kingdoms of England and France from 1337 to 1453.
When did Henry and Catherine get married?
When Henry IV died, so did his dream of peace. His son, Henry V, proposed marriage to Catherine — on the condition of 2 million crowns and the return of Normandy and Aquitaine. King Charles VI could not agree to the dowry: He had only 80,000 crowns. Henry V rejected the offer, and in 1415, he invaded France and beat tremendous odds at the battle of Agincourt.
The King depicts Henry and Catherine marrying immediately after the Battle of Agincourt, as if she were a prize. Not so. In 1417, Henry invaded France again, leading to further havoc.
Finally, after a series of decisive defeats and decline in mental health, Charles VI of France agreed to pass the throne to Henry V. The Treaty of Troyes, signed in 1420, arranged Henry and Catherine’s union. Their children would rule both England and France.
They were married in the parish church of St. John, France on June 2, 1420.
What was Henry and Catherine’s marriage like?
When Catherine and Henry returned to England in 1421 and toured the countryside, they were greeted as a celebrity couple: the golden king and the beautiful queen. To this day, the image of the fairytale couple persists — largely thanks to Shakespeare’s depiction.
But their marriage wasn’t so rosy. Henry was a warrior. After five months touring England together, Henry left for France. Catherine gave birth to their son, Henry, in December 1421. She only reunited with her husband one more time.
In 1422, Catherine wrote Henry that she “earnestly longed to behold him once more.” She visited France. In August of that same year, Henry V died of dysentery at the age of 36. Her father also died soon after.
Now, the 1-year-old Henry was King of England and France. Henry VI would grow up in the shadow of his father’s glory — for more on that, read Shakespeare’s King Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3. By the end of his life, Henry VI lost the French land his father won (but he did found Eton College, King’s College, and Cambridge University, so there’s that).
What happened to Catherine?
Henry V’s death left Catherine of Valois a widow at just 20. She was stuck. The king’s brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, passed a bill stating that Catherine could only marry when she received permission from her son – and he was 6 when the law was passed.
So, she never officially remarried. Instead, she carried out affairs. First, with Edmund Beaufort. More consequentially, with a young Welsh squire named Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur (yes, that’s Tudor for you English history nerds).
Owen and Catherine were very much in love. By 1432, they were secretly married – without permission. They had four children together: three sons and a daughter.
But the secret was going to get out, eventually. In 1936, Catherine was suffering from the loss of her infant daughter, Margaret. She entered a convent and died a year later in 1337. Her husband, Owen, was arrested, but eventually pardoned by the King.
That means Catherine originated the Tudor dynasty.
After all those years of strategic planning between Henry IV and Charles VI, the English monarchy was continued, instead, by a French queen and a Welsh commoner.
Catherine and Owen started the Tudor line, one of England’s most successful and memorable dynasties. Catherine and Owen’s eldest son, Edmund, married Margaret Beaufort (she was just 12 at the time). Their son became King Henry VII.
The most interesting part of The King is what comes after.