As a queen consort and dowager queen of England and Wales, Catherine of Valois was able to receive a burial fit for a queen. Originally, she was buried in the old lady chapel of Westminster Abbey. When her grandson Henry VII came into power in 1485, that was destined to change.
Around 1503, Henry VII began renovating the Old Lady Chapel to produce the chapel that stands in Westminster Abbey today. In order to do this, he needed to remove his grandmother’s corpse to a safe location. Catherine of Valois’ corpse was placed by Henry V’s in an open casket, for all to see.
When Henry VII passed in 1509, the construction of the Lady Chapel was incomplete. It was this year that Henry VIII came into power. Unfortunately, his intentions did not match his father’s, which meant the chapel remained unfinished and his great-grandmother’s corpse continued to be exposed.
It was not until the mid-16th-century that the chapel’s construction was complete. However, when this happened, Catherine of Valois’ body still was not placed in its original burial spot. Bizarrely, it remained exposed for all to see for hundreds of years. Between the 16th-century and the 19th-century, parts of her wooden effigy were stolen. As a result, the one that remains in Westminster Abbey today looks ill-cared for.
During the 17th-century, the late diarist Samuel Pepys visited her corpse on one of his birthday’s. He took the opportunity to hold her in his arms and kiss her, before recording the event in a diary entry. When you consider that Pepys lived through some of London’s worst plague outbreaks, it is incredibly strange that he chose to go lip-to-lip with a corpse that was hundreds of years old. Of course Catherine was embalmed, but it still appears to be a rather ghoulish action on Pepys’ part.
It wasn’t until Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th-century that Catherine of Valois’ corpse was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. By this point, hundreds of onlookers had descened on her body to pay homage, or simply to touch it as Pepys did.
Over the years, people have speculated as to why Henry VII chose to leave his grandmother’s corpse above ground. Some have suggested that he wanted to disguise his shakey lineage, which descended from Catherine and Owen Tudor. However, if he had wanted to do that, he would have placed her out of sight, not next to Henry V.
Fortunately, her corpse is now in a more fitting resting place. For the years it was left uncovered, it acted as a source of fascination for many people.