LIC Blog

Forgotten Lives: Catherine of Suffolk

In between the lives of the Tudors, one figure stands in the shadows.

Catherine Willoughby was the daughter of Lord Willougby and his Spanish wife, Maria. Their marriage had taken place during the period when Catherine of Aragon was still beloved by King Henry VIII and he was in the habit of rewarding noble marriages which strengthened national ties with Spain. The reward for Catherine's parents was an expansion of their estate.

Catherine's mother was the favoured lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine. She evidently spent more time at Court (she even had her own room there) than at home. Such was her devotion to her Queen that when Queen Catherine had been divorced and redesignated Princess, Lady Maria rode at night from London to a small town by Huntingdon, against royal command, to nurse her ailing friend until she died in her arms.

Catherine's father died when she was only about 8 years old. She inherited the bulk of her father's wealth and her wardship was therefore an expensive one. £2,600 later, it fell into the hands of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Catherine now entered a distinguished family home. Her foster mother was "the French Queen" - Mary, sister of Henry VIII, whose frail health and dislike for the new Queen ensured that she stayed at home as much as possible. Her foster father was the best friend and jousting partner of the King himself. Charles Brandon had been married / as good as married many, many times before he wed Mary Tudor. 

The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk had several children, the most notable of which is Frances Brandon, the mother Lady Jane Grey.

So this is how Catherine grew up until the age of 13, when Mary died. Catherine's life would never be the same as Charles Brandon resolved some of his own financial difficulties by marrying his young ward. By 15 she was a mother herself, firstly to Henry and then to Charles. Henry would later take his lessons alongside Henry's VIII's son Edward.

As Duchess of Suffolk, Catherine had a large role to play in the wings of political life. She was one of the most important ladies waiting to great Anne of Cleves. It was in her home that Catherine Howard's infidelity was observed and reported to Henry. She was a close friend of Catherine Parr. (Had it not been for the courage of Anne Askew in refusing to name the ladies around Queen Catherine who were reading the Bible together, the Duchess of Suffolk would no doubt have been executed instead of poor Anne.) She was an arch-enemy of her own godfather, Stephen Gardiner Bishop of Winchester. It is even said that she named her spaniel "Gardiner" so that she could call him to heel.

She was certainly unafraid to speak her mind, informing her friend Lord Cecil that he was not bold enough. Diplomacy was well within her reach, but other things mattered more to Catherine. She was a deeply religious lady who took Hugh Latimer as Chaplain following the early death of her two sons.

She had been widowed at only 26. Catherine would marry again - this time for love. Bertie and Catherine had two children, Peregrine and Susan. And they were allowed to marry for love. She took in the orphan baby of Catherine (Parr) upon her death, while the baby lived.

Catherine was born in 1520 and died in 1560. She was born into a country of Roman Catholic fidelity. She saw the Reformation first-hand as she too was reformed. She saw Henry VIII marry Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. She saw Edward VI rise and fade. She saw her friend France's daughter Jane become Queen and nine days later face rejection ending in execution. She and Bertie stayed on the Continent during Mary's reign. She saw France's second daughter Katherine and third daughter Mary both lose their lives for love under the fretful behaviour of Queen Elizabeth I, always so fearful of being replaced that - like too many politicians today - the possession of power was sadly more important than the use of power. So while much had changed during her lifetime, almost nothing had changed in the throne. Elizabeth, like her father, was preoccupied with controlling who would sit upon the throne after her. 

We could almost wish that a lady of the courage and vivacity of Catherine of Suffolk had sat upon the English throne for a time. But the crown can strangle as much as empower. And perhaps she was able to accomplish more behind the scenes than she could ever had done on the fickle and turbulent stage of history.