Shakespeare’s famous play Richard III still defines many people’s beliefs about the last Plantagenet King, despite discrepancies such as Richard fighting battles when he would have been a toddler of two. The strangest, and perhaps, cruellest of Shakespeare’s ‘additions’, however, is probably making him childless—a misshapen monster who ‘dogs bark at’ and who appears to be consumed by envy of his handsome, womanising and rather prolific brother Edward.
The truth, as in so many cases, is far more interesting than the invented story. Richard had a legitimate son, Edward of Middleham, who died between the ages of 7-10 and is the only Prince of Wales with no known grave, but he also had at least two illegitimate children, possibly three, and there are vague suggestions, although with less evidence to back them up, that there may have been more! So not exactly the neglected ‘ugly brother’ who couldn’t ‘get the girl.’
One of the children we know definitely existed was Katherine Plantagenet. We are not sure of her date of birth or if shared the same mother as her brother John of Gloucester. Possibilities for Katherine’s mothers might be Katherine Haute who was given a lifelong pension by Richard; she bears the same name as his daughter, and it wasn’t one particularly common in his family. However, Richard gave quite a few pensions to women in their own right so it is impossible to say for certain.
Whoever her mother was, he acknowledged Katherine as his daughter and gave her his name. We don’t know where she was educated but Richard seemed to have had it in hand; Sheriff Hutton Castle has been suggested.
When he became King, Richard found a fitting match for his illegitimate daughter. Katherine was married into the nobility in 1484, as the second wife of William Herbert, earl of Huntingdon. This may give us a clue as to her age at the time; since she went to her husband’s home immediately, she was probably over fourteen, maybe closer to sixteen. She lived at beautiful Raglan Castle in Wales.
However, after Richard’s death at Bosworth, Katherine disappears from the records. It seems she died young for her husband, William Herbert, is listed as a ‘widower’ when attending Elizabeth of York’s Coronation in 1487. Some have speculated she died in childbirth, not an unreasonable guess with mother and infant mortality so high at the time, others that she may have died from the Sweat, which first appeared in England around the time Henry Tudor invaded with his foreign troops. One fiction writer had Henry VII shut her up in the Tower, and this gained some currency as a true story, but this is almost certainly false—however, her brother John is probably the ‘son of Richard III’ later incarcerated in the Tower and said to have been executed around 1491.
Whatever happened, Katherine’s brief story almost disappeared and, like her father and brothers, her gravesite was lost in time.
Then a few years ago, Dr Christian Steer discovered a copy of a 16th herald’s roll listing the monuments in London Churches. In St James Garlickhythe there was said to be the grave of ‘the countesse of huntyngdon ladie Herbert wtout a stone’. There were several Lady Herberts over the centuries but only one who was Countess of Huntingdon. Katherine, long lost, was found. Checking in John Stow’s 16th c Survey of London, I actually found her again listed as the ‘The Countess of Huntingdon; the Lady Harbert’. A typo and misplaced semi-colon but undoubtedly the same grave and the same person. So, she was hiding in ‘plain sight’ all along….
In my novella ‘The White Rose Rent’ I tried to reconstruct Katherine’s short life based on what little we know mixed with necessary creations of my own. A few people on the book’s release seemed a little shaken and asked, “Where’s Shakespeare’s Richard? Did he even HAVE a daughter?”
I’d be inclined to say, the first did not exist—and the second, without a doubt, did, and deserves a story of her own.
Pick up your copy of
The White Rose Rent
Interests include folklore & anthropology, prehistoric archaeology (Neolithic/Bronze age Europe; ritual, burial & material culture), as well as The Wars of the Roses and other medieval periods. Novels include I, Richard Plantagenet, The Man Who Would be King, Secret Marriages (Wars of the Roses), The Hood Game (Robin Hood), The Stonehenge Saga (Bronze Age), and Medieval Babes, an ongoing series about little-known Medieval women.
J.P.’s most recent release is MY FATHER, MY ENEMY, about William the Conqueror’s granddaughter, Juliane Fitzroy, illegitimate daughter Henry I of England. Married to a Norman noble, life seems set for Juliane until her husband Eustace causes trouble with the castellan of Ivry. Hostages are exchanged by the King's order, Ralph's son for Juliane's daughters. A terrible tragedy happens and Juliane wants vengeance...she wants to kill the King.