|A miniature of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. By Hans Holbein. Picture acquired from KateEmersonHistoricals. Image public domain.|
On this day in Elizabethan history in 1580, Katherine Willoughby-Bertie, 12th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby (in her own right) and former Duchess of Suffolk, died. Katherine Willoughby-Bertie used her education and powerful position to influence and promote religious reform in England. Her beliefs and actions made her a target of the Marian government, and she and her family fled the tyranny of Mary I, only returning from abroad upon the succession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.
|The monument to Richard and Katherine Bertie in St. James Chapel, Spilsby. Picture shared for public use by Dave Hitchborne on Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Katherine Willoughby was the only surviving child of Baron William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby and his Spanish wife, Maria de Salinas. Maria was a close friend and confidante of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon; she was also an extremely pious Catholic. Katherine's eventual Protestant convictions would put her in direct conflict with the religion in which she had been raised, and with her godfather, Stephen Gardiner, who would later become Bishop of Winchester and the enforcer of the Marian persecutions. It should be made clear that Katherine and other most early-modern evangelicals, were "late medieval Catholics, albeit ones who had become deeply unhappy with important aspects of medieval Catholic theology and devotion." (Marshall, reprinted in Harkrider)
When Baron Willoughby de Eresby died on October 26, 1526, Katherine became Baroness Willoughby de Eresby in her own right; all of the lands that were not bequethed to the next immediate male heir, who was the late Baron's brother, Sir Christopher Willoughby, were bequethed to Katherine. Katherine's uncle was not satisfied with his share, however, and a battle ensued between Sir Christopher and Maria de Salinas over Katherine's inheritance. The widowed Lady Willoughby sought help in high places, enlisting the Duke of Suffolk as her supporter. (Harkrider, 33-35).
Katherine, a very wealthy heiress, became a ward of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was not only the close friend of, but also the brother-in-law of King Henry VIII, through his marriage to the King's sister, Mary, former Queen of France. In 1528, Katherine joined the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk's household and was educated alongside their daughters, Frances and Eleanor Brandon (Levin, 284).
|The marriage portrait of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor, Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, 1516. In the collection of the Earl Yarborough. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Katherine was an exteremly wealthy ward, and the Duke and Duchess wished to keep her property within their family, so they began to negotiate a marriage between young Katherine and their son, Henry. However, the untimely death of Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk presented the opportunity for a different scenario. Three months after Mary's death in 1533, Charles married his son's intended bride himself. Charles had a sordid marital history, even having lived in bigamy at one point, so nobody could have been shocked at his actions, although many disapproved. Anne Boleyn, perhaps Suffolk's most high-profile critic, said, "he has carried on an incestuous relationship with his son's fiancee" (quoted in Ives, 141). The Duke was at least forty-seven, and Katherine was still a teenager. While the spouses difference in age was not unusual for the noble class, and would not have been seen as unseemly by even young Katherine, Katherine still had to make a difficult transition. She could no longer view Charles as a father figure; she now had to view him as her husband. Young Henry Brandon was spared the awkwardness of treating his former intended as his stepmother, as he died just six months after the marriage.
|A sketch by Holbein, identified as Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, dated between 1534-36. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
|"Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon Before the Papal Legates at Blackfriars in 1529". By Frank O. Salisbury, 1910. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Despite their drastic age difference, the Duke and his new Duchess were compatible and the marriage was, by all accounts, a happy one. They were blessed with two sons early in their marriage; Henry was born in 1535, and Charles in 1537.
|A miniature of Henry Brandon, son of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk. By Holbein, 1541. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
|A miniature of Charles Brandon, son of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk. By Holbein, 1541. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
On behalf of his wife, the Duke secured Henry VIII's support in the Willoughby inheritance dispute, and in 1536, an Act of Parliament settled everything once and for all. The Act granted eight manors to Christopher Willoughby and his wife, in compensation for the 300 marks that the former Lord Willoughby had promised them. Maria de Salinas and her daughter received nine manors in Lincolnshire, giving Katherine a secure, consolidated seat of power (Harkrider, 35).
As the wife of Henry VIII's childhood friend and former brother-in-law, Katherine often accompanied her husband to court. She witnessed the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, and was exposed to the evangelical ideas that circulated at court. She heard the sermons of Hugh Latimer, who preached at the royal court during the 1530's (Levin, 286). Katherine, during this time, became a firm believer in religious reform; henceforth, her religious beliefs would dictate her life, galvinizing her to become a Protestant leader, as well as putting her in extreme danger.
As head of the household staff and education in the ducal household, Katherine made the concientious decision to appoint clergy and staff sympathetic to reform; all the chaplains appointed to the household were what would become known as 'Protestant'. Meanwhile, Henry VIII, despite successfully breaking with the Church of Rome, was returning to his former conservative religious views, for political reasons. In 1539, Henry banned the clergyman whom he had once welcomed, Hugh Latimer, from preaching.
Henry VIII's sixth and final wife, Queen Katherine Parr, was a learned Protestant herself, and an old friend of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. When The King wed Katherine Parr in 1543, the Duchess of Suffolk was one of only 17 people in attendance at their wedding in the chapel at Hampton Court (Levin, 286). The Duchess of Suffolk's influence with the new Queen of England was so great that Ambassador Chapuys remarked upon it, and her position in the Queen's inner circle allowed her to forge powerful, and sometimes dangerous connections.
|The marriage certificate of King Henry VIII and Katherine Parr, dated July 12th, 1543. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Around the same time, in the early 1540's, Katherine and her husband the Duke held a dinner party at their home. The Duke asked each lady in attendace to escort into dinner the man that she liked the best. Katherine, who was known for being intelligent, well-spoken and beautiful, was also known for her sharp wit and bold tongue; she found her godfather, Stephen Gardiner, among the guests. Gardiner had become active in the Henrician government's persecution of Protestants. Duchess Katherine explained to Gardiner that, because she could not ask her husband, who was busy with his hosting duties, she was asking him, saying, "since I may not ask my Lord, whom I like best, I ask our Grace whom I like least" (Read, 58). Katherine's actions illustrate for us a woman of strong character; due to her religious convictions, she ignored social etiquette and openly rebuked a very powerful man, her own spiritual godfather.
When her husband died in 1545, Katherine Willoughby was just twenty-six years old. Katherine continued to have a presence at court, often in the company of Queen Katherine Parr, until the King died just two years later in 1547. He was suceeded by his Protestant son, Edward VI. Edward's uncle, the Duke of Somerset, became the Lord Protector and ruled the country in the young king's stead. He sent Stephen Gardiner to the Tower because of an inflammatory sermon he preached against Edward VI. It was recorded that Katherine saw her godfather peering out of a window in his apartments in the Tower of London, and called up to him, saying, "It is merry with the lambs now that the wolf is shut up" (Read, 100).
|A portrait of Stephen Gardiner. By an unknown artist, 16th century. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
With Queen Katherine no longer living at the royal court, Katherine Willoughby spent more and more time at her country estate of Grimsthorpe. She competently ran the estate and supervised the education of her sons, and the other children in her care. Katherine made an unusual parental decision for her time; having been married extremely young herself, she decided not to marry her sons off young, allowing them to contnue their educations and enjoy their formative years. Even when the Lord Protector proposed that his daughter marry Henry Brandon, Katherine said no. This was an unexpected rejection for the Duke, as Katherine and the Duchess of Somerset, Anne Stanhope, were friends who frequently exchanged letters (Harkrider, 49).
|A portrait of Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
In addition to being a caring mother, Katherine continued to support church reform. Katherine supported the Edwardian's government efforts to remove religious idols and relics from churches, abolish what they deemed "unneccessary Holy Days", and ending the practice of pilgrimages altogether. Katherine, like all English Protestants, "believed that Catholicism placed such importance on the rituals of religion that it impeded people's faith." (Levin, 287) Protestants believed in a person's personal relationship with God, and that through faith alone, not actions, one could be saved.
In 1549, Katherine's sons entered St. John's College, Cambridge, aged fourteen and twelve, respectively. Katherine stayed close by in a property in Cambridge (Levin, 287). The ultimate tragedy befell this attentive mother; when the sweating sickness broke out in Cambridge, both of her children fell ill and died. Katherine, understandablley, fell into dispair. All male heirs to the Duke of Suffolk were now dead, so King Edward VI bequethed the dukedom to the husband of Charles and Mary Tudor's daughter, Frances. Henry Grey was now the Duke of Suffolk, and his wife the Duchess. And though Katherine was now Dowager Duchess, she continued to refer to herself as the Duchess of Suffolk, despite her stepdaughter holding the current title.
|A detail from a portrait, possibly of Frances Brandon-Grey, Duchess of Suffolk. By an artist of the English school, circa 1560. The Royal Collection. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
During this difficult, transitory time in her life, it is likely that Katherine came to rely on the companionship of her gentleman usher, Richard Bertie. By 1552, they were enjoying some form of romantic relationship. The intelligent Katherine no doubt found it appealing that Richard Bertie was an academic; he had received a degree from Oxford University and was fluent in three languages. Like Katherine, Bertie was also a follower of Latimer, whom she frequently invited into her household (Levin, 288). Katherine would create her own happiness by marrying Bertie, a man far beneath her station, for love. It was only fitting that Latimer perform their wedding service, which he did in January of 1553. By the end of their first year of marriage, Katherine had given birth to their first child, a daughter, Susan.
|A posthumous, 18th century portrait of Richard Bertie, alongside his wife, Katherine Willoughby. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
|A posthumous, 18th century portrait of Katherine Willoughby, alongside her husband, Richard Bertie. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
While their first year of marriage was filled with personal happiness, it was also filled with immense political strife. When Edward VI died, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland orchestrated an unsuccessful coup to to put his son, Guildford, and Katherine's step-granddaughter, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. Katherine Willoughby was godmother to one of the Earl's daughters (Harkrider, 49). Jane, her husband, and the other conspirators were executed, and the extremely Catholic Mary took back her throne.
|"The Execution of Lady Jane Grey". By Paul De la Roche, 1833. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
One of Queen Mary's first acts was to release Katherine's godfather, Stephen Gardiner, from the Tower. She made him her chancellor, and put him in charge of restoring England to the Catholic faith. Katherine was now in great danger, but she did not cease to promote the Protestant cause. Fearless, she facilitated the distribution of the Bible in English and disseminated banned religious texts. The martyrologist John Foxe would include Katherine in his book as one of the women at court who were targeted for their beliefs (Harkrider, 50). Katherine and Richard watched in horror as their friend Hugh Latimer, and many others, were sent to the Tower. Katherine sent them comforts from home while they were in prison (Levin, 288). Katherine got a good scare when her beloved husband was summoned before her godfather in early 1554. Gardiner told Bertie that as Katherine's husband, it was his duty to forbid his wife from practicing her Protestant faith, and bring her back to Catholicism. Bertie, of course, would do no such thing, but he took this encounter as a warning, and he and Katherine became determined to flee the country with their daughter, before something truly terrible happened. Gardiner would have no qualms about charging his goddaughter with heresy and reposessing her wealth.
The Bertie's came up with a plan; Richard told Gardiner that the Holy Roman Emperor himself owed Katherine money, and that they needed to go and collect it. The Bertie's knew that Gardiner would not be able to resist the idea of Katherine acquiring extra wealth before he brought charges against her (Levin, 288). The Bertie's requested permission to go abroad. Richard left first to secure the escape route into the Protestant-friendly Low-Countries, and then Katherine, Susan, and their servvants fled to to join them in early 1555.
|A 17th century illustration showing Katherine and Richard Bertie exiled with Susan and a wet-nurse. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Part of the growing number of Marian exiles, the Bertie's adopted new identities, living in a small town near the Rhine River, called Santon. Gardiner was furious, and made use of his connections to discover the location of the Berties. Richard heard rumblings that the local bishop suspected their identity, so the Bertie family fled again; this time, Katherine was inconveniently pregnant. Meanwhile, back in England, Hugh Latimer was executed by being burnt alive at the stake as a heretic.
|A woodcut illustration from Foxe's Book of Martyrs showing the burning of Bishops Latimer and Ridley. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
In Wesel, the Berties found sanctuary with a sympathetic pastor. Katherine's son Peregrine was born abroad, his name likely chosen to commemorate their flight. Their safety was short-lived, however. In 1556, Lord Paget arrived in Holland looking for the Berties, and he had managed to get permission from the Duke of Brunswick to arrest them for heresy. The Berties found out in enough time to Weinheim. The Berties were almost destitute, and they knew that they could not outrun the authorities forever.
By 1557, King Sigismund of Poland had heard of the Berties and their troubles through a mutual Polish acquaintance who had met them in London. The King of Poland not only gave them refuge, but also entrusted them with governing the province of Samogitia, present day Lithuania (Levin, 289). Katherine and Richard's reputation as learned Protestants clearly had preceded them. The Berties ably ran Samogitia, but would not do so for long, as big changes were occuring in England.
In November of 1558, Queen Mary I died with no issue, and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. By 1559, Katherine and her family were back in England. The Berties would no longer have to live in constant fear for their lives due, to the more moderate regime of Queen Elizabeth I. The Elizabethan Church Settlement pleased the majority of the Queen's English subjects, but there were still some disenfranchised Catholics and extreme Protestants who were unhappy. Katherine was disappointed, as she had hoped that the Queen would reform the Church of England further.
|A detail from The Coronation Portrait of Elizabeth I. Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.|
The Berties split their time as a family between their house in London and Grimsthorpe in Lincolnshire. Katherine Bertie continued to support reform in England, becoming regarded as a spiritual example for women; proof of this lies in the fact that two Elizabethan editions of Latimer's sermons, edited by his Swiss servant Augustine Bernher, were dedicated to her in 1562 and 1578. Meanwhile, Richard was elected to the House of Commons, where he served for four years. The Berties never enjoyed the royal favor that the more moderate English subjects did; their beliefs were too extreme.
Like Katherine had intended with her first two children, she permitted her second two children to choose their own spouses when they were ready. Susan Bertie first married Reginald Grey in 1571, but she was widowed young. She remarried eight years later, taking Sir John Wingfield as her husband. Wingfield was a friend of her brother, Peregrine. Peregrine married the Earl of Oxford's sister, Mary de Vere, in 1578.
|A detail from a portrait of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, 16th century. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
|A detail from a portrait of Peregrine Bertie, 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, dated between 1588-90. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Two years after her son was wed, Katherine died. Peregrine and Mary Bertie named their only child Katherine, after her fearless grandmother. Richard Bertie followed his wife to the grave just two years later. Katherine Willoughby-Bertie, Baroness Willoughby de Eresby and former Duchess of Suffolk has a legacy that lives on, not just as a Protestant leader, but as an ancestress of Prince William and Prince Harry. Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales was a descendent of Peregrine Bertie. Thus, Katherine's blood will one day sit on the throne of England (Cornelius Kramer).
|A bust of Katherine Willoughby in St. James, Spilsby, on the south wall of the chapel. Picture shared for public use by Dave Hitchborne on Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Harkrider, Melissa Franklin. Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of
Suffolk, and Lincolnshire's Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2008. Print.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Print.
Levin, Carole. "Catherine Willoughby (1520-1580)." Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World. Ed.
Levin, Barrett-Graves, Eldridge Carney, Spellman, Kennedy, Witham. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Read, Evelyn. My Lady Suffolk. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962. Print.
"Catherine Willoughby." Kyra Cornelius Kramer. Mantra & Wordpress. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.