Catherine was born in 1468 as the daughter of Gaston of Foix, Prince of Viana, and Magdalena of Valois. Her father was the son of Queen Eleanor of Navarre, but he died before her and thus never became King. Instead upon the death of Queen Eleanor, her elder brother Francis succeeded as King of Navarre. He ruled for just four years when he died suddenly at the age of 16, reportedly of poison.
Catherine was now the Queen regnant of Navarre, and she was just 15 years old. Her mother continued to act as regent, as she had done for Francis. Catherine’s accession was disputed by her uncle, John of Foix who claimed that he had the greater claim as the heir male of Francis. This resulted in a civil war which would last until 1492. Magdalena decided to marry Catherine to John of Albret, which was greatly favoured by her Iberian subjects and provided support in the civil war against John of Foix. The marriage was also supported by Magdalena’s nephew, Charles VIII of France. He even wrote to Catherine “I clearly want…for you to be married in this Kingdom (France) and close to me” and added that it would “give me the greatest pleasure” if Catherine accepted the match. There was another contender in the running in the form of the son and heir of Queen Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. The main downside of this match was that Navarre would eventually merge with Castile and Aragon.
The marriage contract between Catherine and John of Albret was signed on 14 June 1484, but despite being married and recognised as monarchs, they remained under the regency of Magdalena. It appears their marriage was not consummated until 1491, which was surprising. This might have been done deliberately so they would not be considered to be of age and so Magdalena could continue her regency. The couple was not crowned until 1494; this was due to the ongoing civil war and regency. Even after their coronation, Magdalena continued to sign charters.
Catherine and John had thirteen children, but not all survived to adulthood. Her eldest daughter Anne was described as “afflicted by miserable health….scrawny, hunchbacked and of a ridiculously small size. However, she was an intelligent woman who valiantly took on the weight of administration during her brother’s prolonged visits to the French court.”
- Anne of Navarre (19 May 1492 – 15 August 1532).
- Magdalena of Navarre (29 March 1494 – May 1504).
- Catherine of Navarre (1495 – November 1532).
- Joan of Navarre (15 June 1496 – last mentioned in November 1496).
- Quiteria of Navarre (1499 – September/October 1536).
- A stillborn son in 1500.
- Andrew Phoebus of Navarre (14 October 1501 – 17 April 1503).
- Henry II of Navarre (18 April 1503 – 25 May 1555).
- Buenaventura of Navarre (1505 – 1510/1511)
- Martin of Navarre (c. 1506 – last mentioned in 1512).
- Francis of Navarre (1508 – last mentioned in 1512).
- Charles of Navarre (12 December 1510 – September 1528).
- Isabella of Navarre (1513/1514 – last mentioned in 1555).
Magdalena’s regency only ended with her death in 1495.
The year 1512 would be a disastrous year for Navarre. They were invaded by Castile and Aragon, and Catherine and John were forced to flee to Bearn. By 1515 upper Navarre was annexed to the Crown of Castile. When Ferdinand II of Aragon died in January 1516, John tried to form an army made up of exiled Navarrese men, but he only managed to muster a few hundred men. John became ill in June 1516 of fever and finally died on 13 June 1516, with his dying breath he urged Catherine to send representatives to Castile to demand the restoration of the Kingdom.
Despite the loss of their Kingdom Catherine was described as “very mature, she had great courage, prudence and the magnanimity and always worked with all fidelity at the royal pledges to help the King, her husband, in the government as it ran to both their account.”
Catherine died just a few months later on 12 February 1517 and Navarre was inherited by her son Henry. Henry would continue to fight to regain the Kingdom of Navarre. He had the support of Francis I of France after he married Francis’ sister Marguerite in 1526. It wasn’t until 1530 when the Treaty of Cambrai between Castile and France made Charles V (grandson of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) evacuate upper Navarre allowing Henry to seize it.1