Katherine Willoughby: Life Story

Chapter 11 : Retirement

Not long after their return to England, Katherine’s step-daughter, Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, died. Like Katherine, she had married a second time to a man far beneath her in rank, and perhaps known as much personal happiness as she could, after the shocking execution of her husband and elder daughter.

This death was followed by the scandal that broke when the second of Frances’ daughters, Lady Katherine Grey, was found to have married without Elizabeth’s consent. Katherine would almost certainly have approved her step-granddaughter’s action in following her heart and may have interceded for them, but there is no record of any letters from her to Elizabeth or Cecil on the subject. Katherine Grey was harshly treated by the queen and died aged twenty-seven.

Katherine was not invited to court – it appears that Elizabeth disliked her, although why is impossible to tell. Bertie served as an MP for Lincolnshire, alongside Cecil, and also formed part of an escort for the queen when she visited Cambridge.

She may not have been on visiting terms with Elizabeth, but Katherine and Bertie visited their friends and family in London and in the various country houses of the east of England. All seemed quiet, until more bad news arrived in 1565. The third of the Grey sisters, Lady Mary, had also attracted the queen’s wrath when a clandestine marriage was discovered.

Lady Mary’s husband was imprisoned, and she herself put under house arrest. In due course, the queen decided to put Lady Mary in the care of Katherine. It appears that Katherine again resented the imposition of someone on her household. She wrote to Cecil complaining of how little money she had to support Mary, and begging that the queen might send enough money for Mary to have a bed, and enough furniture for a chamber of her own. It is hard to believe that one young woman could put much strain on Katherine’s resources.

As the years passed, one of Katherine’s chief preoccupations was her desire for her husband to be recognised as Lord Willoughby in her right, as was customary. She importuned the queen and Cecil long and hard, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.

In the marriages of her children, too, Katherine was destined to be disappointed. Susan married Sir Richard Grey, who was heir to the earldom of Kent, but there was some doubt as to whether he would be confirmed in it, as his uncle and predecessor had run through all the money, and left insufficient land to support an earldom. Katherine wrote to Cecil on the subject on several occasions, and eventually, Grey was confirmed as earl.

Peregrine chose to marry Lady Mary de Vere, sister of the Earl of Oxford.  Katherine did not like the match – Oxford was an unkind husband to Cecil’s daughter, Anne, and was running through his money as fast as the spendthrift earl of Kent had.  Blunt as ever, Katherine told Mary de Vere to her face that she did not wish to have her for her daughter-in-law.

‘I must say to you,’ she wrote to Cecilin counsel what I have said to her plainly, that I had rather he had matched in any other place, and I told her the causes. Her friends made small account of me. Her brother did in him lay to [disinherit?] my husband and my son. Besides our religions agreed not, and I cannot tell what more. If she should prove like her brother, if an empire followed her I should be sorry to match so.’

For these reasons, Katherine declined to ask Cecil to try to persuade the queen to approve the match. As it happened, the prospective bride’s family were no keener than the Berties on the match, but Elizabeth gave her consent, and the marriage went ahead.  The fears of the families proved true – the couple soon fell out, and, to Katherine’s dismay, took to drinking heavily and neglecting their duties. She and Bertie had resigned Grimsthorpe to them, and taken up residence in their London house.

Peregrine sought to remedy his problems by going abroad, and Katherine again requested Cecil’s help. She admitted she had written harshly to her son, but thought that if everyone knew the circumstances, they would sympathise with her. She was sorry to request licence for him to leave, having hoped he would be a comfort to her in her old age.

Perhaps Katherine’s sharp words to her son hit home. He did not go abroad, and he and his wife were reconciled, and went on to have a large family, whilst he earned the queen’s favour through his military prowess.

In the midst of her family concerns, Katherine continued to promote her faith. She took a keen interest in ensuring that the men she presented to the various livings in her gift were ‘godly’ and promoted the reading of the Bible, whilst being opposed to those elements of Catholic ritual that were retained in Elizabeth’s church, most notably vestments.

Katherine died on 19th September, 1580 and was buried at Spilsby, one of the manors of her Willoughby inheritance where she had founded a school.  She and Bertie share an elaborate tomb there.


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Katherine Willoughby

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