Katherine Grey: Life Story

Chapter 7 : The Queen's Cousin

By July 1554, Frances, Katherine and her younger sister, Mary, were at court, granted positions of honour in the Queen’s Privy Chamber. That month was a busy one for Queen Mary. On 25th she was married at Winchester Cathedral to Philip of Spain. Katherine, and her former husband, were both present at the celebrations, Katherine in a new red velvet gown provided by the Queen. On their return to London, Mary and Philip, with the rest of their train spent the night at Suffolk House before entering the capital. One wonders how Katherine viewed her old home, now housing Mary and Philip as sovereigns, rather than Jane and Guilford.

Bess-of-Harwick-Countess-of-Shrewsbury
Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury (c.1527 - 1608)

Katherine was making friends amongst her fellow courtiers, including Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick, wife of Sir William Cavendish. Katherine was godmother to their first child, and using her privilege of choosing the name, selected Elizabeth. This has been read as a signal that Katherine was showing support for her cousin Elizabeth, and the Protestant faction, but, since Katherine was only fourteen, and at no time displayed either religious zealotry or any political cunning whatsoever, it is probably safer to assume that she just named the baby after the mother.

Katherine’s best friend, however, was Lady Jane Seymour, daughter of the Duke of Somerset, and his second wife, Anne Stanhope. Named for her aunt, Queen Jane, the young Jane Seymour had been brought up to be nearly as intellectually precocious as Katherine’s sister and a strong adherent of the Reformed faith. She too, had once been considered as a possible bride for her cousin, Edward VI. Now, the girls idled away their hours in the time-honoured pursuits of young women – chatting, and sharing confidences about the young men they fancied. Katherine, unhappy at the dissolution of her marriage to Herbert, still hoped that they would be reunited.

Herbert was also making his way at court, and in 1557 would be amongst the young men who went to France in the army led by King Philip against Henri II. At first victorious in the Battle of St Quentin, Philip’s accustomed hesitancy meant that he failed to follow up the victory in a march to Paris. Henri II, desperate for revenge, retaliated by an onslaught on the poorly provisioned and defended town of Calais, which fell in January 1558 – the last remnant of Henry II’s empire that had stretched from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyrenees.

The loss of Calais infected the Queen and the court with depression, at the beginning of a terrible year for the whole country – poor harvests, worse weather, and a virulent strain of influenza scourged the country. Lady Jane Seymour fell ill, and returned to her mother at Hanworth House for nursing. Katherine went with her and spent the summer of 1558 in a combination of care for her friend, and young love.

For Lady Jane’s brother, another Edward Seymour, was also at Hanworth. Seymour was a year or so older than Katherine. The young couple fell in love, and aided by Lady Jane, passed messages and notes between each other. He even asked his sister to find out whether Katherine would marry him.

Edward-Seymour-1st-Earl-of-Hertford-1539-–-1621-c.-1565
Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (1539 - 1621), c. 1565, attributed to Hans Eworth

At this point, scenting danger, Seymour’s mother intervened, no doubt pointing out to the young man that to marry a woman of royal blood, without the Queen’s express permission, was an act likely to end in the shedding of tears, if not the shedding of blood.

Seymour, in the time-honoured fashion of adolescents, shook off his mother’s advice, and maintained that there was nothing wrong with Katherine and he being together, either at home or at Court, unless the Queen forbade it.

At the end of the summer, Katherine and Jane Seymour returned to Court. Jane was better, but this illness may have weakened her lungs. The Queen however, was now seriously ill. She too, had caught the influenza, and was still suffering from whatever disease (possibly ovarian cancer) that had falsely led her to believe herself pregnant. By mid-November, forty-two year old Mary was dead.Katherine, as one of her ladies, would have been involved in the preparations for the funeral. Her feelings for the queen as she watched over the body during the month-long lying in state are likely to have been mixed. Mary was responsible for the death of Katherine’s father and sister (no matter how much they may have deserved it by the standards of the time) yet she had been forgiving and generous to Frances and Katherine herself.

But there were not just her personal feelings of either grief or rejoicing. Katherine was now heir to the throne under the terms of Henry VIII’s will.