Katherine Grey: Life Story

Chapter 11 : Secret Marriage

It is difficult to imagine that Katherine, who had borne the loss of her sister for attempting to interfere with the succession, can really have been so naïve as to believe that Elizabeth would easily forgive a marriage that was not sanctioned by her, especially as she had shown herself disgruntled when the Queen had not acknowledged her openly as her heir.

Perhaps she believed that marriage to a known Protestant of good standing would actually enhance her position – certainly those nobles in favour of a Protestant succession would welcome a married woman with a son rather than another childless queen. Perhaps Katherine thought that Cecil’s tacit support would be enough to extricate her from any problems. Perhaps, though, it was just love.

William-Cecil-1st-Baron-Burghley
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520 - 1598)

Hertford took Cecil’s warning seriously and backed off – even flirting with another lady. Katherine was distraught and wrote to him. Unable to distance himself from her, Hertford wrote a reassuring letter, suggesting a secret betrothal, to which Katherine agreed. Betrothal was as binding as marriage and could only be set aside with the Church’s permission. Hertford and Katherine exchanged promises with his sister, Jane, as witness. Katherine received a diamond betrothal ring, and Hertford commissioned a gold wedding ring, inscribed with verses of his own invention.

Whilst betrothal was binding, it could be dissolved with Church sanction. For marriage, consummation must take place, and Katherine and Hertford were no doubt eager to fulfil the requirements.

The next time the Queen left Court, for a hunting trip, Katherine cried off, claiming she had the tooth-ache. She and Jane were allowed to stay behind. The next day, they left Whitehall and went to Hertford’s house at Cannon Row. Hertford later testified that the date had not been pre-arranged, that they had just agreed that Katherine would come as soon as she could. Hertford sent most of his servants away, although some of the kitchen staff remained, and they later testified to Katherine having come to the house on that day.

Edward-Seymour-1st-Earl-of-Hertford-1539-–-1621-c.-1565
Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (1539 - 1621), c. 1565, Lady Katherine's second husband

Whilst Hertford and Katherine greeted each other, Jane slipped out to find a priest, although whether she just picked the first one she saw, or whether the groom had previously engaged him, is unclear. The wedding service, according to the authorised Book of Common Prayer was completed, and Jane left the couple together.

The marriage thoroughly consummated, Katherine and Jane returned Whitehall. Over the next few months, Katherine and her new husband took every opportunity they could to be together. It was pretty much an open secret, at least amongst their servants and immediate friends, that they were sleeping together, even if no-one knew about their marital status. Katherine was taxed on the matter by Elizabeth’s friend, Geraldine, Lady Clinton, but denied that she was ‘familiar’ with the Earl.

In early 1561, Cecil, still concerned that Hertford was paying too much attention to Katherine, suggested that he might like to travel abroad. A suggestion from Cecil was as good as a command, but Hertford, although he was probably thrilled at the idea of seeing France and Italy at Crown expense, hesitated. His mother wrote to Cecil that she was happy for Edward to go abroad, and that Cecil was to overrule his wilfulness. The Duchess mentioned that she would like him to be ‘matched to some noble house to the Queen’s liking’. With pressure from the Duchess and Cecil, Hertford agreed. He told Jane that he would be go, and she broke the news to Katherine.

Katherine thought that she might be pregnant. If she were, according to Hertford, there could be no solution but to tell the Queen of their marriage and hope she would be forgiving. Katherine hesitated. Perhaps she wasn’t pregnant after all. Soon, her own health was the least of her preoccupations. Her friend, and now sister-in-law, Jane, was mortally ill, and died on 29 th March 1561. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Katherine’s mother.

Both Katherine and Hertford grieved for Jane, and this may have affected Katherine’s health. She could not tell Hertford for certain whether she was pregnant. He told her that he would not leave for Europe if she were, but if not, he would go. Nevertheless, he would ‘not tarry long’ if it transpired she was going to have a baby.

Before his departure, Hertford drew up a will, granting Katherine lands to the value of £1,000 per annum, which he gave to her, together with some ready cash, and then departed for Europe.Cecil took the opportunity to warn Katherine again about the risks of consorting with the Earl without royal approval.

Henry-Herbert-2nd-Earl-of-Pembroke-c.-1538-1601-Lady-Katherine’s-first-husband
Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (c. 1538 - 1601), Lady Katherine's first husband

It was far too late for Katherine to draw back now. She was certainly about to bear a child, and the Queen, after the short period of favour, had once again turned hostile. Only twenty, with her husband abroad and not answering the letters she sent, her parents and older sister dead, and her best friend and sister-in-law also gone, Katherine panicked. She cast about for another solution, and remembered her first husband, Henry Herbert. If she had actually been validly married to him back in 1553, Elizabeth could not reasonably be angry with her for that, and any affair she might have had with Hertford would not have the taint of treason.

She wrote to Herbert, saying she believed they were still married. At the time of the annulment, they had pleaded to stay together, so perhaps she believed he would be fond enough of her to accept paternity of her child. Herbert began to court her, sending pictures and gifts, whilst Katherine still sought to contact Hertford. On discovering this, Herbert withdrew his attentions and sent her a stinging letter, accusing her of ‘whoredom’ and attempting to ‘entrap’ him with sugared bait. He demanded the return of the letters he had sent her. Katherine did not immediately comply, leading him to write a further letter, threatening her with exposure if she did not send his notes back.