Most people know of the tragic ‘nine day’s queen’ Lady Jane Grey, but her younger sisters Katherine and Mary often get overlooked. However, in 2012 Katherine was brought vividly to life in Alison Weir’s historical fiction novel A Dangerous Inheritance, which throws to light Katherine’s life in the vicious Tudor court and her doomed marriage to Edward Seymour the Earl of Hertford.
Katherine was born in 1540, the second daughter of Henry Grey Duke of Suffolk and his wife Frances Brandon, she was a royal claimant as her maternal grandmother Mary Tudor was sister to the infamous Henry VIII. The life of an indirect claimant is never an easy one, and this was definitely the case for Katherine. As with any noblewoman of the period, it was highly unlikely she could choose her prospective partner, and her first marriage in 1553 was to Henry Lord Herbert (son of the Earl of Pembroke). This marriage was based on political considerations surrounding the Devise for the Succession. This was a document constructed by Edward VI and the Duke of Northumberland to disinherit Mary and Elizabeth Tudor in favour of the Grey sisters. This decision was taken namely because of religious differences as Edward VI was a firm Protestant and his heir, according to Henry’s Last Will and Testament, was his Catholic half-sister Mary.
The Greys were Protestants which is partly why Jane Grey was forced into taking the crown, and for nine days this meant Katherine was heir to the throne. For her father-in-law she was a great marriage prize for his son. The coup failed though, and the Earl of Pembroke had a contingency plan in place for this eventuality having banned his son from consummating the marriage so an easy annulment could take place if necessary. Not long after the failure of the coup Katherine was unceremoniously dumped at her parent’s home, her short marriage already over. It is written that, “she languished long under the disgrace of this rejection, none daring to make any particular addresses to her for fear of being involved in calamities”. Yet rather than fade into political obscurity, Katherine became a prominent figure as after her sister’s execution she was third in line to the throne after Elizabeth Tudor and her mother Frances Brandon. Mary I treated the Grey’s with well, and after her marriage was annulled Katherine attended Mary at court and was afforded a yearly allowance. This put her in competition with Elizabeth, as many believed Mary would choose Katherine as her successor. In the midst of these political machinations, Katherine fell in love with Edward Seymour.
This relationship was cursed from the start as any children that came from their union would be a threat to Elizabeth (who succeeded Mary in 1558) especially if it was a son, so it was highly unlikely they would gain Elizabeth’s required approval for their marriage to take place. This may have been part of the reason Edward and Katherine kept delaying asking Elizabeth for her permission and in the end decided to take the risk of marrying in secret in 1560. Sources describe how Katherine and Edward married in his bedchamber at his house near Whitehall, with his sister Jane as witness along with an anonymous clergyman. What followed were secret liaisons between the married couple, but Katherine became pregnant putting an end to their secret marriage. Jane died of illness in 1561 and Edward was sent abroad on a diplomatic mission, leaving Katherine pregnant and alone. As Ashdown describes, Katherine’s nerve broke and she went to Robert Dudley and then Lady St Loe to ask for help with both refusing her. The news was swiftly brought to Elizabeth and Katherine was taken to the Tower of London, with Edward joining her not long after.
An investigation began into the legality of the marriage and it was ultimately found invalid, due to their key witness Jane dying in 1561 and no one being able to find the clergyman. Their son Edward was born later in 1561, and despite being jailed apart Katherine and Edward must have been united briefly for their second son Thomas was born in 1563. Sadly Katherine and Edward were never reunited or allowed to live as husband and wife. Letters between the couple show their relationship was truly a love match, with Katherine referring to Edward as her “good Ned” and writing to him that she longed “to be merry with you as you do with me”, and despite the marriage being declared invalid she would sign her letters “Katharine Hertford”. Katherine died in 1568 of tuberculosis, as she lay dying she said the following, “I desire Her majesty to be good unto my lord for I know this my death will be heavy news unto him”.
Katherine was not the only woman in her family to marry secretly for love. Her grandmother Mary Tudor married Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk without her brother Henry VIII’s consent, weeks after the death of her first husband Louis XII of France. As the marriage was consummated Henry had to accept it or risk a political fallout if Mary was pregnant, the couple still had to pay a large debt though which “was to blight their finances for years”. Likewise Katherine’s younger sister Mary married Thomas Keyes who was not of the nobility, this did not end well either and she too was placed under house arrest. Although Katherine and Edward ruled with their hearts and not their heads, it is understandable why they made such a risky decision, as history has proven again and again what people will risk for love.
What do you make of Katherine’s story? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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Ashdown, Dulcie M., Tudor Cousins: Rivals for the Throne (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2000)
English Monarchs, Lady Catherine Grey <http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/tudor_24.html> [Accessed 4th June 2017]
Lipscomb, Suzannah, The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII (London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2015)
Tudor Times, Lady Katherine Grey <http://tudortimes.co.uk/people/lady-katherine-grey> [Accessed 4th June 2017]
Weir, Alison, Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII 1547-1558 (London: Vintage Books, 2008)
Weir, Alison, A Dangerous Inheritance (London: Arrow Books, 2013)