Sunday, June 17, 2018

Devon’s Beautiful Princess

Humphrey Bolton / Tiverton Castle - The south-east tower (Wikimedia Commons)

Did Princess Katherine remember fleeing to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey at the tender age of four when her uncle, Richard, claimed the throne? Was she haunted by the disappearance of her brothers, the ‘Princes of the Tower’?  It must have been a traumatic childhood for the young girl, the youngest daughter of King Edward IV. Luckily, she would have a happier life in later years.

Born in 1479, Princess Katherine Plantagenet may have married a king if her brother had taken his rightful place on the throne, but it was not to be. The family were lucky to be let out of sanctuary by her uncle, King Richard III, who promised to arrange suitable marriages for Katherine and her sisters and give them each a valuable estate if they accepted his rule and guidance. She was only five when they left the Abbey to live at court.

Edward IV had arranged for Katherine to the son of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, Juan, but Edward died before it could take place, and the marriage was cancelled. A later marriage was arranged by Henry VII with the son of the Scottish King, but this fell through as well.  Even though she was stunningly beautiful, according to legend, Katherine could not marry for love, but had to wait for her elders to find her a suitable marriage partner. They eventually made a good choice, although the marriage was not especially prestigious.


When she was sixteen, Katherine married William Courtenay, a man from a powerful Lancastrian Devon family, who Polydore Vergil described as ‘intelligent and virile.’  The family owned several estates in Devon and Katherine and William probably enjoyed a luxurious country lifestyle. They had three children, Edward, Henry and Margaret. Katherine’s sister Elizabeth of York became Queen to Henry VII, so the couple also spent much time at court.

Unfortunately, trouble lay ahead.  When Henry VII discovered that William was corresponding with Edmund de la Pole, who claimed the throne, he threw him into the Tower of London. Katherine’s sister helped her during William’s time in prison, but William’s title as Earl of Devon was taken away from him.  Katherine probably feared for her husband’s life and relied heavily on her sister’s influence with the King.

There is a tale that Katherine was Henry VIII’s favourite aunt because he remembered playing with her when he was little, and she was kind to him.  He was also extremely fond of his mother.  He returned the couple to favour and began the process of formally restoring the earldom. William was so highly regarded by the King that he even carried the sword of state at his coronation. He tragically died a month after this, however, before the investiture of the title. However, he was buried with the full honours of an earl by the King’s orders.


Katherine was left a widow at only thirty-two, but she had no desire to marry again. Soon after William died, she took a vow of chastity before the Bishop of London. This seems an odd thing to do today, but there may have been pressure on her to marry someone unsuitable, otherwise, and thoughts of protecting the children’s inheritance probably crossed her mind as well.  She led a busy life attending to her several estates, including the castle at Tiverton and estates in Devon and Topsham, with the help of her large staff. Pious and kind, she distributed alms and she helped her servants. For example, she paid for her maid’s wedding and even her wedding dress and ring. The Devon princess owned many books, including four printed mass books, a Book of Matins, a law book and a Latin/ English dictionary.

Much loved by the Devon people, Katherine had an elaborate funeral in St Peter’s at Tiverton. Her coffin was covered in cloth of gold with a cross and coat of arms of silver tissue. Brought to the church in procession, it lay in state overnight. The next morning a requiem mass was sung for her by the Abbot of Montacute. Several dignitaries attended, including the Mayor of Exeter.
This daughter of a king, sister of a king, and aunt of a king still has a special place in the hearts of the Devon people.

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