Katherine Willoughby: Life Story

Chapter 10 : On the Move

The Berties rented a comfortable house and remained in Wesel for some months. Their son, Peregrine, was born there and baptised on 14th October 1555.  Their success in leaving England encouraged other Protestants to do the same, and soon there was a healthy congregation in the town – but this did not please the authorities.  

The Berties and most of the English exiles were not Lutheran, but Calvinist (to use the modern terminology). They did not accept the Confession of Augsburg and its interpretation of the Eucharist. The town authorities withdrew the licence for the exiles to worship in their own community, and in order to have the freedom to worship as they wished, they had to move on.

Their destination was Weinheim, in the firmly Protestant Palatinate. After an arduous journey of some two hundred miles, they arrived in April 1556. They already had a contact there – Miles Coverdale, who had completed the first translation of the Bible into English, and, like Katherine, had moved from Catholicism, through evangelical reform, to Lutheranism, and then to Calvinism.

Katherine and her husband were welcomed by the Elector Palatine, Otto-Heinrich, and given a rather splendid little castle to live in. Their time there was not entirely peaceful – an envoy from the English government received rough treatment at the hands of their servants, when it was rumoured that he was sent to order them home. The Elector intervened, and the man was obliged to leave his territories without delivering any papers. Their main problem, however, was money.

However much money they had managed to bring out of England with them, the employment and support Katherine gave to many of the other exiles soon meant she was running short. Whilst a bill to deprive exiles of their lands had been defeated in the English Parliament, it was not easy for them to obtain their income regularly. Katherine had entrusted her lands to one Walter Herendon, and to her mother-in-law, Alice Bertie, despite the lady’s Catholic faith. The amount of money they could safely send, however, was limited.

Fortunately for Katherine, a past kindness came to her aid. During Edward VI’s reign, she had supported the Polish Protestant noble in exile, Jan Laski (John a Lasco). Laski, now in favour with his king, requested King Sigismund and his brother, the Count of Vilna, to help. Before long, an invitation to Poland had arrived. Katherine, of a prudent nature, sent a jewel to the king and count, requesting that the invitation be repeated under seal – perhaps to prevent them changing their minds, or possibly to use during her journey as a kind of safe-conduct.

The Bertie family moved slowly north, via Frankfurt, to Samogitia, in modern Lithuania, arriving in the summer of 1557. According to Foxe, Bertie and Katherine ruled over the region on behalf of King Sigismund.

Their sojourn in Lithuania was not long. By the end of 1558, Katherine knew that Queen Mary was dead, and had been succeeded by Elizabeth. Katherine was well-acquainted with the new queen, who had spent a considerable portion of the years 1544-8 in the household of Katherine Parr, and who had been on the outskirts of the radical Protestant group in Edward’s reign, although she herself was more conservative in religion than they. It can only have pleased Katherine that her old friend, Sir William Cecil, had been appointed as Elizabeth’s private secretary.

The duchess wrote a fulsome letter of congratulations to the queen, no doubt hoping for a swift invitation to return to the centre of the English court.

‘For if the Israelites might rejoice in their Deborah, how much we English in our Elizabeth, that deliverance of our thralled conscience … I greedily wait and pray to the Almighty to consummate this consolation, giving me a prosperous journey once again presently to see your Majesty, to rejoice together with my countryfolks, and to sing a song to the Lord in my native land,’ she wrote.

But Katherine was to be disappointed. She had admired the religious zeal of the late Queen Mary (even though she thought her quite mistaken) but Elizabeth was a cat of a different stripe and was more inclined to compromise in matters of religion. Cecil informed Katherine that the radical Protestantism she espoused was not to Elizabeth’s taste, and that the queen intended a settlement that could satisfy her Catholic as well as her Protestant subjects.

Despite this seeming setback, Katherine and Bertie made arrangements to return home and were back at Grimsthorpe by harvest time of 1559. Elizabeth restored all their lands and cancelled some outstanding crown debts and Peregrine was naturalised as an English subject. 

Katherine Willoughby

Katherine Willoughby

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