Friday, February 24, 2012

On this Day in Elizabethan History: The Death of Katherine Carey-Howard, Countess of Nottingham

A Portrait of a Lady from the English school; the subject is thought to be Katherine Carey-Howard, Countess of Nottingham, c.1595-97. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain

The date is contested, but on either February 24th or 25th,  Katherine Carey-Howard, Countess of Nottingham died in 1603, the same year as her famous relative and good friend, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

And who was this other Katherine Carey/Howard? (She is not to be confused with her aunt, Katherine Carey, Lady Knollys, who was Elizabeth I's first cousin on her mother's side via her aunt Mary Boleyn, and who was also one of the queen's few women friends, nor Katherine Howard, the ill-fated fifth wife of King Henry VIII)

A late 16th century miniature by esteemed court painter Nicholas Hilliard, reputedly of Katherine Carey-Howard, Countess of Nottingham. This may also be Elizabeth Spencer, Baroness Hunsdon, and a myriad of other candidates. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

This Katherine Carey was born around 1547. She was the eldest daughter of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon and his wife, Anne Morgan. Henry Carey was one of the children of Mary Boleyn, the sister of Elizabeth's mother Queen Anne Boleyn. Mary Boleyn had been King Henry VIII's mistress for several years before he became infatuated with Anne, and it has often been speculated based on contemporary evidence that Henry Carey was actually an illegitimate child of King Henry, and perhaps also his sister Katherine. While there are many interesting candidates for King Henry's unacknowledged illegitimate children, there are only two that I personally believe to be endowed with Tudor blood: Henry's sister, Katherine Carey (later Lady Knollys) and Ethelreda (Audrey) Maltes of (see Mary Boleyn: The Mistress Kings). But, if indeed Katherine Carey's father was the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII, this would make her the grandchild of the iconic Tudor king. If Henry Carey was a mere cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, this still made all his children directly related to the queen on her maternal (Boleyn/Howard) side.

Henry Carey, created 1st Baron Hunsdon by Queen Elizabeth I, and father of Katherine Carey, later Countess of Nottingham. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain. 

Katherine Carey first came to court in 1560 as a gentlewoman of the privy chamber. She became a fast friend of Queen Elizabeth I. She would marry well, to Charles Howard in July of 1563. Charles Howard was the great-uncle of the queen, since he was the half-sibling of her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Howard-Boleyn (yes, the circles of the nobility were all closely, if not incestuously intertwined). Charles rose to fame as the Lord High Admiral of England, leading the English naval forces against the Spanish Armada. He is one of a few men directly responsible for the victory over the Spaniard's attempted invasion in 1588. Charles would be created Earl of Nottingham  in 1596, and his wife therefore Countess of Nottingham; he would also be made Lord Lieutenant General of England. Howard would continue to fight against the Spaniard's, as he and the Earl of Essex would attack their base at Cadiz. Ever the loyal servant of England and Elizabeth, Charles Howard would later serve as a commissioner at the trial of his former comrade Essex, who would be executed for treason.

A detail from a portrait of Charles Howard, c. 1620 by Daniel Mijtens. By this time, Charles was remarried after the death of his first wife Katherine Carey-Howard,  to Elizabeth Stuart, 2nd Countess of Moray, who was more than 5 decades his junior. Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales could count Elizabeth Stuart as an ancestor! Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

While many women left the Queen's service after marriage to retire to domestic life, Katherine Carey-Howard stayed on at court, a testament to her close bond with the queen. While serving Queen Elizabeth, Katherine held several positions: She became both Mistress of Robes and Mistress of Jewels, which were both positions of great trust because it meant dealing with the queen's expensive and beloved collection of fine gowns and baubles. She and her husband would entertain Elizabeth twice at their home, a great honor, first in 1585 and again in 1587. For her retirement, Queen Elizabeth honored her friend by granting her the manor house in Chelsea in 1591. It was an emotionally significant property for Elizabeth I to give, as this was where she had spent time as a young girl in the Queen Dowager Katherine Parr's household after her father's death. Katherine Carey-Howard and the Lord High Admiral would have five children together:

1. Frances. Frances' first marriage was to Henry FitzGerald, the 12th Earl of Kildare (Ireland). Her second marriage was to Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham. Frances and her second husband had a lovely family, and their family portrait is one of my favorite depictions of Elizabethan domestic life (see below). Her mother-in-law, Frances Newton, is the woman seated in the picture. By all accounts, Cobham was a good man, but no great statesmen, and he often floundered in court politics. Baron Cobham would take part in a rebellion in opposition to James Stuart's rule in England, called the Main Plot, which attempted to use military force to remove James and place Arabella Stuart on the throne. He would be imprisoned in the Tower for his involvement. Old and sick, he was released out of courtesy in 1618, dying later in poverty. Frances witnessed her husband's tragic fall, and did not die herself until 1628.
2. William, 3rd Baron Howard of Effingham (1577-1615)
3.Charles Howard, 2nd Earl of Nottingham (1579-1642)
4. Margaret. Margaret married Sir Richard Leveson, and died having had no children.
5. Elizabeth. Elizabeth Howard was a Maid of Honor of Queen Elizabeth I. Her first marriage was to Sir Robert Southwell, with whom she had several children. One of these children, a daughter also named Elizabeth, was the lover and eventual third wife of the charismatic explorer Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester and Lady Douglas Sheffield (whom Leicester may or may not have married). Elizabeth Howard's second marriage was to John Stewart, 1st Earl of Carrick. 

Katherine Carey-Howard's daughter Frances and her husband Henry Brooke, Baron Cobham and their "blended" family. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

When Katherine died, Queen Elizabeth was reportedly devastated at the loss of one of her closest friends. The queen reportedly experienced a "deep melancholy, with conceit of her own death", and also began complaining "of many infirmities suddenly to have overtaken her" (Kenny, 256). Elizabeth always grieved bitterly for the death's of those that she was close to, often taking to bed and speaking to know one for days, or weeks, as it was in the case of the Earl of Leicester. Elizabeth's profound display of grief for Katherine was undoubtedly exacerbated, as the above quotes imply, by her self-awareness that her own life, and her reign, were coming to a close.

But there is another reason that Elizabeth might have been so troubled to see her friend die; according to legend, Katherine confessed a deathbed secret to the queen. Supposedly, the disgraced Earl of Essex sent a ring with a messenger to Katherine's sister, Lady Scrope. Lady Scrope was an Essex sympathizer, and the Earl hoped that she would intercede with the angry queen on his behalf, bearing the gift in his stead. When the messenger mistook the Countess of Nottingham for her sister, Katherine kept the ring for herself, as she did not like Essex, and did not wish to see the queen soften in her resolve against him. When the ax fell on Essex's treasonous head, it was too late for Katherine to confess her deception to the queen. When Katherine felt the heavy hand of death and her own immortal judgement awaiting her, she told the queen everything. This is where the now famous quote, "May God forgive you; I never can!" supposedly came from, as Queen Elizabeth cried out in sorrow.

A detail of a portrait of Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex c.1590, by Marcus Gheeraerts. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

While I think Elizabeth may have said this iconic quote at another time, about something else, it is unlikely that it pertained to Katherine, the Countess of Nottingham. Katherine was not even at court in the days leading up to the Earl of Essex's execution.

Katherine Carey-Howard, Countess of Nottingham, was interred at Chelsea three days before Queen Elizabeth was interred at Westminster Abbey. May they both rest in peace.


Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings. New York: Ballantine Books, 2011. Print.

Kenny, Robert W. Elizabeth's Admiral: The Political Career of Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham. 1536-1624. Print.