Katherine Willoughby: Life Story

Chapter 2 : The Bride

Katherine. aged nine, joined the household of Suffolk’s wife, Mary, who had once been Queen of France, but now lived largely retired at their home at Westhorpe. The French Queen, as Mary continued to be known, had three living children by Suffolk at the time Katherine arrived. Frances, around two years older than Katherine; Eleanor, the same age; and Henry, Earl of Lincoln, about four years younger. Suffolk also had two grown-up daughters by a previous marriage. The elder, Anne, was Lady Grey of Powis, and the younger, Mary, married Lord Monteagle in 1528.

From being an only child, Katherine was now at the centre of a family and she established a close friendship with Frances in particular. Soon, it was suggested that she would marry the Earl of Lincoln, although no formal documents relating to any betrothal are extant. It was commonplace for a guardian to arrange the marriage of wards to his own children, and that was usually the intent behind the grant of wardship. For Katherine, it would be an excellent match. Lincoln was the king’s nephew, and, although it is unlikely that anyone breathed a word about it, a possible future king. Henry VIII had no legitimate son, and only a daughter by his now-disputed marriage. For Lincoln, it would add Katherine’s considerable properties to his own inheritance and consolidate Brandon power in East Anglia and Lincolnshire.

There is no definite information about how Katherine spent the years between 1528 and 1533. Presumably, her life followed the usual pattern of the daughters of nobility. A high level of education was encouraged for noble women in that period and Katherine later gave evidence of it – her handwriting can be seen in the picture below. In addition, she would have learnt courtly skills from a woman who had once graced the glittering court of France, as well as that of England.

The only hint about Katherine’s life is a report from July 1531, when she was twelve. The Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, repeated a rumour that Anne Boleyn had accused Suffolk of ‘having connection’ with his own daughter. If Anne made the accusation, she could have been referring to one of the duke’s own four daughters by blood, or perhaps Katherine, who, betrothed to his son, might be referred to as his daughter. Neither interpretation is attractive, although Katherine was legally old enough to have sex.

In March 1533 a marriage was agreed between Frances and Sir Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset. This was a further consolidation of families related to the king – Dorset was the great-grandson of Queen Elizabeth Woodville by her first marriage. Later events suggest that Frances, Dorset and Katherine became close – particularly with regard to religion. Katherine was, presumably, content to wait until Lincoln reached the age of fourteen in 1537 for her own marriage to take place – but that plan was about to come to nothing.

On 25th June, the French Queen died, after a long and debilitating illness. She was buried in the abbey church at Bury St Edmunds. Katherine played a part in the funeral procession, following behind Mary’s daughters and their betrothed husbands – Dorset and Henry Clifford.

The next information we have about Katherine is astonishing – that she was to marry her guardian, the Duke of Suffolk, on the Sunday following 3rd September 1533, coincidentally, the day Queen Anne Boleyn gave birth to Elizabeth.  Since Lincoln was still alive (although he died the following March) and Katherine was only fourteen, to Suffolk’s forty-nine, it was a surprising outcome, although it may be a corroboration of Anne Boleyn’s earlier accusation against Suffolk.

Whilst we do not have a first-hand account of Katherine’s feelings, her later strong disapproval of arranged marriages suggest that it was not an outcome she would have chosen. Suffolk’s motivation was probably as much financial as sexual. If Lincoln were already ailing, it was likely that if Katherine married him, she would be widowed and marry a second time, thus carrying her estates out of Suffolk’s reach.

The wedding probably took place in London, as Suffolk was present at the baptism of Princess Elizabeth a couple of days later. It is likely Katherine attended, too, although she is not specifically named in the records.

However unpleasant the marriage might have been for Katherine physically, it was extremely advantageous socially. As Duchess of Suffolk, she became one of the highest-ranking women in England.

In due course, Katherine and Suffolk had two sons – another Henry, and Charles, born in 1535 and around 1536 or early 1537 respectively.

Letter From Kw To Honor Lisle  3
Letter from Katherine Willoughby to Honor Lisle