19 September 1580 – The death of the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk

katherine-willoughby-memorialOn the 19th September 1580, Katherine Bertie (née Willoughby and previous married name Brandon) died after a long illness. She was sixty-one years old. She was buried in Spilsby church, Lincolnshire.

Katherine was born on 22nd March 1519 and was the daughter of William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, and his wife, Lady Maria de Salinas, who had travelled to England from Spain in Catherine of Aragon’s entourage. In 1529, three years after her father’s death, Katherine was made a ward of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and in 1533, at the age of fourteen, Katherine became Brandon’s fourth wife. The marriage resulted in two sons, Henry and Charles, who unfortunately died of sweating sickness in their teens in 1551. Katherine was widowed in August 1545, and went on to remarry, probably in 1552, her gentleman usher, Richard Bertie. The couple had two children, Peregrine, 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, and Susan.

Katherine was known for her firm faith and her outspoken defence of reform. She was part of the circle of reformist women who were friends with Queen Catherine Parr, and had many humanist and reformist books dedicated to her. She was a known Protestant patron, helping clergyman of a reformist persuasion attain livings in Lincolnshire, inviting Hugh Latimer to preach at her home, Grimsthorpe, and hiring Miles Coverdale to teach her children.

Katherine, Bertie and their household went into exile at the beginning of 1555 when it became apparent that Katherine could not support the Catholic Mary I. They returned to England in 1559, following Elizabeth I’s accession.

Visitors to Spilsby Church can see a huge monument to Katherine and her husband, Richard Bertie, who died two years later.

If you’re interested in reading more about Katherine then you can click here to read the article I wrote on the anniversary of her birth. I also recommend Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580 by Melissa Franklin Harkrider (it’s extremely expensive so worth looking for a second-hand copy) and Henry VIII’s Last Love: The Extraordinary Life of Katherine Willoughby, Lady-in-Waiting to the Tudors by David Baldwin. She really is a fascinating lady.

(Extract from On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway)

Picture: “Memorial to Katherine Baroness Willoughby and husband, St James’s church, Spilsby” © Copyright Julian P Guffogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. geograph.org.uk

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8 thoughts on “19 September 1580 – The death of the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk”
  1. RIP Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk. One of my favourite ladies and interesting people from history. I believe she was influential in so many ways, in her household, community, the court and her relationship with members of the royal court. She had friendships with William Cecil, Queen Katherine Parr and a number of famous reformers. The late David Baldwin’s book is also one I would recommend, even though I think Katherine being a lover of Henry Viii and strong candidate for wife number 7 is based more on speculation than any hard evidence. Yes, the Ambassador for Delft suggested that Katherine Brandon was much talked about to replace Katherine Parr, because of rumours and Henry had just fallen out with his wife. Henry may have had a problem with his wife being a strong reformer, to the extent that he was talked into ordering her arrest, but was won over by Katherine Parr, but I doubt he was looking for yet another wife let alone someone who was even more outspoken in their views. There are a number of sources which have Henry dropping in on Lady Suffolk, both before his death and afterwards, because he liked her company. However, that is a leap to her definitely being his mistress. There doesn’t appear to have been any scandal at the time and Suffolk committed the care of his wife to the King, but made Katherine the trustee of his will. Their marriage was successful.

    Katherine could also have been a Queen because at some point between husband’s she was sent an offer of marriage by the King of Poland. She had some interesting adventures when she was given leave to go abroad with her young family in the reign of Mary after her husband was questioned about religious matters while being summoned on allegations of debt to the crown. This wasn’t an attack by the Queen, with whom Katherine was on good relations, despite her support for reformation preachers, but a personal attack by an antagonist. Bertie was not going to stick around so off they went. They spent some time in Poland and even became official employees in control of one of the provinces.

    Katherine was trusted by the Government of both Edward vi, who was a friend of her eldest son, Henry, and Elizabeth I. Her sons were brilliant young scholars, but as Claire says died within hours of each other of the 1551 Sweating Sickness. Katherine was given little Mary Seymour to care for but the little girl may have died when she was about two or three, as she disappeared from the historical records. Katherine also gained control of the younger Grey sister, Mary for a time as she was trusted to keep her in her custody after she married without the Queen’s consent. Elizabeth put her husband in the Fleet prison. Katherine also wrote several letters to William Cecil and she regarded Queen Elizabeth as not being radical enough in matters of reform. Finally, apart from her famous dog, Gardiner, Lady Suffolk had a famous fiery temper. It was said that she grew so hot under the collar and her cheeks glowed so red when she was angry it was called Lady Suffolk’s Sweats.

    I like her very much and believe Katherine left a big footprint on her time. She was a young woman with her own mind and she had the good fortune to live a long life. She knew the sorry of the sad loss of her dearly loved and brilliant young sons, but she lived on in the families of her son and daughter by her second marriage. In Grimsthorpe, although much altered within, there are still things which show her stamp. The chapel and alter date from her time, as does the pulpit, believed to be connected to Hugh Latimer and others who stayed at her home and there are books in the library, many on display, which either date from her time or have a direct connection to Katherine. There is a copy of Latimer’s sermons, dedicated to Katherine and we saw many Bibles dating from her time to the eighteenth century, all of the style you may have found as an official Bible, all rebound in leather and with those heavy seals and things. The gallery and hall were still decorated from the Tudor period and the range was built from 1536 to 1540 to house the King and his huge company, in this case his visit for several days with Katherine Howard in 1541. The house was put up that quickly that many years later the inevitable structures failed with a full drains collapse. After this it was rebuilt and made stronger. Even the 18th century blue Chinese room and other eighteenth century rooms somehow blend well. Katherine was also a peeress in her own right, so her title was passed on. The family later gained Drummond Castle in Scotland and members of the famous and wealthy Astors married into their descendants. The gardens are priceless. The gallery of course is a whose who of Tudor and Stuart England but there was a sense that somehow Katherine and her family are watching closely. Her whole community appeared to have been affected and influenced by Katherine on a personal level and the Bertie tomb really is worth a visit.

    1. I have to agree with you re the Henry VIII and Katherine Willoughby relationship idea and I was actually very hesitant about reading Baldwin’s book because of it. I think it’s more likely that Henry visited Katherine because he wanted to reminisce about his best friend. That loss and grief was something they shared and they both knew the man intimately, so would want to talk to each other I’m sure.

      The thing that draws me to Katherine Willoughby, as well as her faith, is her spirit. We see glimpses of her sense of humour and her defiance in the primary sources, like her calling her dog Gardiner, and I just love that. She’s a woman I’d love to sit down and talk to if I could go back in time. She had an amazing life, although a tragic one too with the losses of her sons and first husband.

      1. Thanks for your kind comments. I would love to sit down and chat with this lady. For such a young woman she adapted well to court and marriage to a man more than twice her age, but that wasn’t out of the ordinary and she had an inner faith and strength which were very evident but a good sense of humour. I love that she seems human, and I bet she had some really good tales. Henry seemed taken by her as a person to talk to and because she was married to his friend. He was a connection to the youth of the King and if he found her home welcome, then he wanted to drop in. I read a charming tale, in fiction about Henry planting a rose tree which flowered to please Katherine Willoughby and wanted to show her the fowers and just talk about the loss of his friend. It was a beautiful story. Very moving and I think Katherine would give us some nice warm spicy wine and cakes and have a really relaxing time.

        1. A cup of tea (that would be new for her!), or perhaps a glass of wine, with Katherine, followed by one with Anne and George Boleyn would be just perfect.

          She must have been such a mature girl, although I suppose people grew up quickly in those times. That tale sounds lovely, which book was that in?

        2. I think it is somewhere in Margaret George The Autobiography of Henry Viii very late on, when he is married to Katherine Parr, an invention but a lovely story and yes, a cup of tea, but we will have to take it with us, although they had plenty of sugar. Anne and George, that would be very interesting. Cheers.

  2. It always seemed a bit ironic that Katherine became such a supporter of the reformist faith, given that she was the daughter of one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies and was later married to Charles Brandon, who doesn’t seem to have had much interest in the ‘new’ faith or to have been particularly devout. One wonders what influenced her to adopt it – it must have been pretty strong to have made her feel the need to go into exile when Mary I succeeded.

    She certainly comes across as an interesting and outspoken woman – not unlike Anne in that sense – although the tone of her letter to Cecil complaining about having to support Mary Seymour and her household perhaps show a lack of patience and a sharpness of attitude (again something Anne was accused of having).

  3. if she had lost children, wouldn’t she have taken more kindly to fostering Mary Seymour? unless she could not afford the expense. I would have ditched Mary’s household and kept her with mine.

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