I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this brand new book called ‘Henry VIII’s Last Love, The Extraordinary Life of Katherine Willoughby, Lady in Waiting to the Tudors’. I’m a big fan of the Tudor-era and I had actually read a bit about Katherine Willoughby beforehand. She’s also featured in the not so historically correct TV show The Tudors.
Katherine was born on 22 March 1519 as the daughter, and only surviving child, of William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby and his second wife, Maria de Salinas. Maria de Salinas was born in Spain and she was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. We can only assume Maria named her daughter for the Queen due to their close friendship. Maria de Salinas was present when Catherine of Aragon died.
Katherine was only seven years old when her father died and she succeeded him in the barony. She was one of the greatest heiresses of the time and part of her inheritance was disputed by her uncle. Katherine became a ward of the King, who sold it to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was also his brother-in-law due to his marriage to Mary Tudor. He originally intended to marry Katherine to his son, Henry Brandon, by Mary Tudor but he died young in 1534. Mary Tudor died in 1533 and Katherine acted as one of the chief mourners at her funeral.
Charles then intended to marry Katherine himself. He was 49 and she was only 14. Despite the age difference the marriage appeared to be a success. They had two sons, another Henry and Charles, who tragically died within hours of each other of the sweating sickness in 1551.
Henry Brandon, 2nd Duke of Suffolk by Hans Holbein
Charles Brandon, 3rd Duke of Suffolk by Hans Holbein
Katherine was in the service of the Tudors Queens, she greeted Anne of Cleves upon her arrival in England in 1539 and helped arrange the progress of Catherine Howard in 1541.
Katherine was widowed in 1545, when was still only 26 years old. At the time she was forging closer relationships with the leading reformers, like Edward Seymour and John Dudley. The Imperial Ambassador, Francois van der Delft, reported to Charles V in 1546:
‘Sire, I am confused and apprehensive to inform your majesty,
that there are rumours here of a new queen, although I do not
know why, or how true it may be. Some people attribute it to the
sterility of the present queen, whilst others say that there will be no
change whilst the present war [with France] lasts. Madame Suffolk
[Katherine] is much talked about, and is in great favour; but the
king shows no alteration in his demeanour towards the queen,
though the latter, as I am informed, is somewhat annoyed at the
Katherine Willoughby and the King had been exchanging New Year gifts since 1534 and ambassador Chapuys noted that they had been ‘masking and visiting’ in March 1538, suggesting an earlier attraction, but at the time she was still married to Charles Brandon.
Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife, was somewhat of a reformer herself and entered dangerous territory in 1546. The Bishop of Winchester and Lord Wriothesley tried to turn Henry against her. An arrest warrant was even drawn up. She managed to save herself with the following words:
‘whereas I have, with your majesty’s leave, heretofore been bold to
hold talk with your Majesty, wherein sometimes in opinions there
has seemed some difference, I have not done it so much to maintain
opinion, as I did it rather to minister talk, not only to the end your
majesty might with less grief pass over this painful time of your
infirmity, being attentive to our talk, and hoping that your Majesty
should reap some ease thereby; but also that I, hearing your majesty’s
learned discourse, might receive to myself some profit thereby.’
During this time, the rumours about Henry and Katherine Willoughby became more intense. So how close did she come to becoming Henry VIII’s seventh Queen? The book tries to answer this question but we simply do not have enough evidence. She was familiar with the King and perhaps he did think about marrying her. David Baldwin concludes that Henry must have realised he would have no other children by any women and that he probably would’ve found Katherine’s Protestantism disconcerting. Katherine probably wouldn’t have refused a request for marriage from her own King, but she was in no hurry to remarry.
Henry remained married to Catherine Parr until his death on 28 January 1547. Katherine unwillingly came to take care of Mary Seymour, the daughter of Catherine Parr and her third husband Thomas Seymour. Catherine Parr had died giving birth to her. It is in her letters to Cecil about little Mary Seymour we see a glimpse of the real Katherine:
‘I have so wearied myself with the letters that I have written at this
present to my Lord’s Grace and to my Lady [the Duke and Duchess
of Somerset], that there is not so much as one line could be spared
for Cecil. But by that time I have made you the amends, you will
be well pleased by another line; you shall have letters when they
get none, That is to say, I will trouble you when I will not trouble
them. So I trow you may hold you well repaid. In these my letters
to my Lady, I do put her in remembrance for the performance of
the promise touching some annual pension for the finding of the late
queen’s child; for now she with a dozen persons lyeth all together at
my charge, the continuance whereof will not bring me out of debt
this year. My Lord Marquis Northampton, to whom I [page torn]
deliver her, hath as weak a back for such a burden as I have. And
he would receive her but more willingly if he might receive her with
the appurtenances [property]. Thus groweth matters; you must help
us beggars and I pray that you may. And then we will cease our
importunities. But never a word that you are required by me. So fare
you well, with my commendations to your wife.’
‘I have written to my Lady of Somerset at large [again?], that there
be some pension allotted unto her [Mary] according to my Lord
Grace’s promise. Now, good Cecil, help at a pinch all that you may
help. My Lady also sent me word at Whitsuntide, by Bertie [Richard
Bertie, Katherine’s gentleman usher], that my Lord’s Grace, at
her suit, had also granted [that] certain nursery plate should be
delivered with the child. And lest there might be stay [delay] for lack
of a present bill for such plate and stuff as there was in the nursery,
I send you here enclosed of all such parcels as were appointed for
the child’s only use, and that you may the better understand that I
cry not before I am pricked. I send you also Mrs Aglionby’s letter
unto me, who with the maid’s nurse and others, daily call one for
their wages, whose voices my ears hardly bear, but my coffers much
worse. Wherefore I cease, and commit me and my sickness to your
diligent cure with my hearty commendations to your wife.’
At my manor of Grimsthorpe, your assured loving friend, K.
It is believed that Mary Seymour did not survive infancy.
As mentioned above Katherine’s sons by Charles Brandon both died of the sweating sickness in 1551. Katherine herself was also unwell, but she hurried to their sides. She probably didn’t make it in time as both boys died shortly after one another. It must’ve been a devastating blow to lose both her children. She later wrote to Cecil:
‘I give God thanks, good Master Cecil, for all His benefits, which it
has pleased Him to heap upon me; and truly I take this last (and to
the first sight, most sharp and bitter) punishment not for the least
of His benefits; inasmuch as I have never been so well taught by
any other before to know His power, His love and mercy, my own
weakness and that wretched state that without Him I should endure
here. And to ascertain you that I have received great comfort in Him,
I would gladly do it by talk and sight of you. But as I confess myself
no better than flesh, so I am not well able with quiet to behold my
very friends without some parts of these vile dregs of Adam to seem
sorry for that whereof I know I ought rather to rejoice …’
It was in either late 1552 or early 1553 she remarried to her gentleman-usher, Richard Bertie, but the coming years would prove perhaps even more eventful. Edward VI died July 1553 and after a 9-day reign of Lady Jane Reign the Catholic Mary I came to the throne and Katherine, her husband and her newborn daughter Susan decided to flee the country, eventually ending in Wesel where a second child, a son named Peregrine, was born. They would not return to England until 1559. The escape to Germany is quite vividly described in the book and I can only imagine what it must be like to suddenly have to flee like that.
Katherine Willoughby, by Hans Holbein
Coming home to an Elizabethan England in 1559 must have been a relief for her. Katherine’s remained connected to the court, mostly through the adventures of her stepdaughter children, the Grey sisters. Mary Grey was sent to live with Katherine after she married Thomas Keyes without the Queen’s permission.
In 1580 Katherine wrote her last (preserved) letter to Cecil:
‘I am ashamed to be so troublesome to your Lordship and others of
my good Lords of her Majesty’s honourable council, specially in so
uncomfortable a suit as for licence of their assent of the absence of
my only dear son, in whose company I hoped with comfort to have
finished my last days. But … either I must see his doleful pining
and vexed mind at home, which hath brought him to such a state
of mind and body as so many knoweth and can witness it, or else
content myself with his desire to seek such fortune abroad as may
make him forget some griefs and give him better knowledge and
experience to serve her Majesty and his country at his return. The
time he desireth for the same is five years, so I am never like after his
departure to see him again; yet am I loath he should so long be out
of her Majesty’s realm wherefore I cannot consent to any more than
three years. Oh, my good Lord, you have children and therefore
you know how dear they be to their parents, your wisdom also
is some help to govern your fatherly affections by … but alas, I a
poor woman which with great pains and travail many years hath by
God’s mercy brought an only son from tender youth to man’s state
… so hoping now to have reaped some comfort for my long pains
… in place of comfort I myself must be the suitor for his absence, to
my great grief and sorrow. But God’s will be fulfilled, who worketh
all for the best to them that love and fear Him; wherefore were
not that hope of Him thoroughly settled in me, I think my very
heart would burst for sorrow. I understand my sharp letters be
everywhere showed, but were the bitter causes that moved them as
well opened and known, I am sure my very enemies … would not
only pity me and my husband’s wrongs but both my children’s … I
most humbly beseech her Majesty even for God’s sake therefore to
give him leave to go to sea and live in all places where it shall please
God to hold him, always with the duty of a faithful subject to serve
… her Majesty’
Katherine had been unwell at several points during the 1560’s en 1570’s, but by the end of 1579 she was very unwell. She still managed to hang on before eventually dying on 19 September 1580.
Katherine’s life reads like it belongs in the most glamorous courts at the time. She was present for many important events in the Tudor court and remained attached to it courtesy of her stepdaughters. She was a peeress in her own right and already had a life’s worth of experiences under her belt by the time she was widowed at the age of 26. She had become a women in her own right and used those rights to marry for love the second time around. She left England in defense of her faith and returned to England jubilant and with a son and heir. The letters from Katherine really add a dimension to her that I hadn’t read before. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about her life and what a life it was!
Katherine’s descendants still hold the barony to this day.