Catherine of Valois is one of the most intriguing of medieval queens. Largely drawing on knowledge gleaned from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Catherine was an important (although not necessarily the most important) component of the peace settlement between France and England after the English victory at Agincourt in 1415 which left much of the French nobility dead on the field. How would a young girl deal with being married off to a king that had brought her country to its knees, effectively robbing her own brother of his royal inheritance? In The Agincourt Bride, Joanna Hickson takes just such a look and reveals a far more complicated and remarkable, even shocking, story, brought to life with a prose that is so light and full of feeling that it almost dances across the page.
At the heart of the novel is Catherine and her wetnurse Mette. Recently delivered of a stillborn son while still a child herself, Mette had been removed from her home and placed in the royal household as wet nurse to baby Catherine, the tenth child of a mad king and a proud, bitter queen. Neglected and almost forgotten, Catherine grows to love her surrogate mother Mette to the extent that she can never be without her again, however much the queen and her agents seek to keep them apart. For as soon as the princess is of an age to be useful she becomes a pawn, caught in the petty wars between members of the House of Valois, dividing Catherine from her brothers and sisters, and placing her in the utmost danger, not least at the hands of John the Fearless, the Duke of Burgundy and a monster. No wonder, then, that the often promised but frequently withdrawn hope of a marriage to Henry V offers the tantalising chance of an escape to the brave, loyal and vulnerable Catherine. There is only so much that a nursemaid can do to protect her charge.
The great success of The Agincourt Bride is the extent to which Joanna Hickson makes the reader care about the characters of Catherine and Mette. But also not just these two. Catherine’s brothers and sisters might not be always sympathetic but they are clearly the victims of their mother and her dubious alliances. As a nurse, Mette has her ways of calming the stresses of Catherine’s siblings in ways unique to each individual. She has extraordinary empathy and, despite the suffering that she herself must endure, her love for Catherine remains paramount. Then there is mad king Charles. It is impossible not to feel for a man who believes that he is made of glass and could shatter at the slightest touch.
The novel takes us on a tour of France’s royal castles and convents. It is a largely female world, with its confined inhabitants occasionally granted exciting glimpses of lethal jousts, receiving messengers with news of battles or advancing armies. They are at the mercy of events and have to deal with it through fortitude and wit. We watch as Catherine grows skilful at fencing verbally with her mother and the Duke of Burgundy.
There is little chivalry in this world despite its pretensions but the courtship of Henry V and Catherine is wonderful to read. So much is at stake and it’s important to remember how young Catherine is. It is a dance regulated by the most stringent of rules and executed with the most graceful of movements. Beneath the surface, though, there is death on the battlefield, violence to women and deceit. The courtly games of the feast or bedchamber have their counterpart in the violent, terrifying streets of Paris and the secret staircases and passages of cold, bare castles.
I loved The Agincourt Bride! It is beautifully written with such a lightness and humanity about it. It is so easy to read and a pleasure from start to finish. It is also genuinely shocking. Men had the battle of Agincourt but the women here have equal dangers to face. Henry V is one of my favourite figures from history and Joanna Hickson brings him alive for me. Catherine was less familiar but it was a pleasure to get to know her and Mette. This is historical fiction at its best and I’ve had a wonderful two days in its company. I look forward to its follow up, The Tudor Bride.