‘ I have sent you, good sister Catherine, a book, which although it be not outwardly trimmed with gold, yet inwardly it is more worthy than precious stones. It is the book, dear sister, of the laws of the lord: It is His Testament and Last Will, which He bequeathed unto us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy, and if you, with a good mind read it, and with an earnest desire, follow it, it shall bring you to an immortal and everlasting life. It will teach you to live and learn you to die…. It shall win you more than you should have gained by the possession of your woeful father’s lands, for as if God prospered him, you shall inherit his lands…. [it holds] such riches as neither the covetous shall withdraw from you, neither the thief shall steal, neither let the moth corrupt…. And as touching my death, rejoice as I do and consider that I shall be delivered of this corruption and put on incorruption, for as I am assured that I shall for losing of a mortal life, find an immortal felicity. Pray God grant you and send you his grace to live in the love…
Farewell good sister, put only your trust in God, who only must uphold you,
Your loving sister, Jane Duddley’
letter from Lady Jane Grey to her sister Catherine, 1554
‘….when I call to mind what a husband I have of you, and my great hard fate to miss the viewing of so good a one…. Thus most humbly thanking you, my sweet lord, for your sending to see how I do…. I most lovingly bid you farewell….’
letter of Catherine Grey to Edward Seymour, 1562
Lady Jane Grey, the unfortunate queen of England for just nine days, wrote the above letter to her younger sister Catherine before her execution. It was the last communication between the seventeen-year-old Jane and fourteen-year-old Catherine. Married to men of their parents’ choosing in a double ceremony the year before, they both suffered when Jane was deposed and Princess Mary Tudor (named for their grandmother) became queen.
(The tragedy of Jane’s life, and the complexities of the plot to make her queen of England, is discussed in much greater detail in the following sections: Lady Jane Grey and Edward VI.) Catherine’s reaction to the sudden disgrace of her family, the ruin of all their hopes and dreams, is not recorded. However, it is safe to assume she was devastated. She was just fourteen and watched her entire world turn upside down. The Greys had long been the noblest family in the realm of England, united by ties of friendship and blood to the Tudor monarchs. Catherine’s grandmother was Henry VIII’s youngest sister, Princess Mary; her grandfather was his best friend, Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. The bonds of blood and friendship had allowed the Brandons to rise to wealth and prominence. But they were dangerous bonds as well; for after Edward VI’s death, the Tudor succession was once more an urgent question and anyone with royal blood was a target – for various plots of dissatisfied citizens, for international speculation, for aristocratic mobility, etc.
(*note – The Brandons became the Greys when Frances Brandon (Charles & Mary’s eldest daughter) married Henry Grey.)
Poor Catherine, despite Jane’s fervent prayers, was not to lead a life of ‘grace.’ She lacked Jane’s intellect and religious fervor; taken together, those qualities may have guided her impulsive nature and provided solace in her troubled world. Instead, she was – and always remained – an ordinary girl condemned to unhappiness because of her Tudor blood. Her sister, brother-in-law, and father were executed due to her father’s stupidity and ingratitude. Mary I was often naive and kind-hearted; she lacked the ruthlessness of her father (Henry VIII’s conscience rarely troubled him – despite the many executions he ordered.) His daughter did not care to kill innocents – especially those she believed to be the pawns of more greedy souls. Upon her accession, Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley were imprisoned in the Tower; but they were not executed. It was only when Jane’s father, Henry Grey, duke of Suffolk, tried to raise a revolt – capitalizing on anger at the queen’s impending Spanish marriage – that Mary realized Jane must die. Henry Grey did not try to restore his daughter to the throne
(despite the assertion of many history books.) But that didn’t matter – Jane had been proclaimed queen once before and Mary recognized the danger. Furthermore, Grey’s actions followed upon the Wyatt rebellion, one of the most serious rebellions of the Tudor era. Mary was conscientious and attached to her legitimate family. But she ordered Jane, Guildford, and Henry Grey executed.
But the queen did not forget the remaining Grey family. Henry’s wife was Frances Brandon, the eldest daughter of Mary’s aunt, Princess Mary Tudor. Queen Mary remembered her aunt’s kindness to the beleaguered Katharine of Aragon; she also wanted to put the past behind her – she was marrying Philip of Spain, thus fulfilling her heart’s two great desires. Mary I wanted a family and to restore the Catholic faith to England. On her way to achieve both, she was inclined to be generous. She allowed Frances and her two remaining children, Catherine and Mary (11 years old) to remain at court. They attended her wedding on 25 July 1554 to Philip at Winchester Cathedral. Catherine and Mary were appointed maids of honor; the queen was careful to show them special kindness, singling them out for favor. Even when their mother’s second marriage, they were still afforded every privilege. Frances Grey had waited just three weeks after her husband’s execution to marry her steward, Adrian Stokes, a young man fifteen years her junior. Queen Mary did not protest; perhaps she was happy her cousin was putting the past to rest.
At any rate, Frances Grey’s second marriage fared much better than Catherine’s first one. She had been married on 21 or 25 Mary 1553 to the earl of Pembroke’s heir; it had been a double ceremony – her sister Jane was also wed to the dukke of Northumberland’s son Guildford. But when Mary I was proclaimed queen in July, Pembroke was eager to distance himself from the Greys. He banished Catherine from his home and had the marriage annulled. It was cruel of Pembroke but politically necessary. After all, he had no idea how Mary would react to the Grey-Northumberland treachery. Meanwhile, Catherine remained at court, openly favored by the queen but despondent. There was occasional domestic and international speculation about her future once it became clear Mary would provide no heir. When discussing Princess Elizabeth’s future, most stressed the need to either support or destroy her two main rivals – Catherine Grey and Mary queen of Scots. In other words, if Elizabeth’s rule was to be secure, she needed to deal with both Catherine and Mary. Mary of Scotland was a problem that could be faced later (she was off in France for now) but Catherine Grey was close and a dangerous rallying point for dissatisfied Englishmen.
Before Elizabeth became queen, however, Catherine did achieve some measure of personal happiness. After a period of depression, she became friends with Lady Jane Seymour, daughter of the late Lord Protector Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford and duke of Somerset. (She was named for her aunt, Henry VIII’s third queen and mother of his son.) Jane was also a maid of honor and suffered from poor health (already battling the consumption which killed her.) Queen Mary encouraged the two girls to become friends, allowing Catherine to accompany Jane on her frequent visits home. The Seymour family’s main home was currently Hanworth, Catherine Parr’s manor which had passed to her husband Thomas Seymour, then to his brother, and then to his brother’s wife. The widowed duchess of Somerset lived there with her second husband (like Frances Grey, she had married her steward) and her oldest son, Edward. Edward was in his late teens, just a few years older than Catherine, and already tall, dark-haired and good-looking. Naturally enough, the two young people became attached to one another.
Both Edward and Catherine had suffered public humiliation. She had been repudiated by the Pembroke family and her sister and father were executed as traitors; his father, too, had been executed as a traitor and the Seymour wealth had yet to be restored. Also, their family title remained in abeyance. Edward, who should have been titled earl of Hertford, waited for his title to be officially reinstated. Beyond these painful personal experiences, they were also lonely. Both were past the age for betrothal but still unattached. And, equally important, both were physically attractive. Catherine was the beauty of the Grey family; small like Jane, she had the Tudor red-gold hair and a fair complexion. Their attraction was physical and emotional; it was also obvious. Before long, the duchess of Somerset was asking her son about his intentions. He replied that he enjoyed visiting with Catherine; his mother should not worry about the queen’s feelings, he said, because Catherine had been sent by Mary to live at Hanworth – so ‘her majesty’s feelings in this matter cannot be doubted.’ Whatever Mary’s feelings, they did not soon matter. In November 1558, she died and Elizabeth Tudor, unlike her half-sister in so many ways, became queen of England.
When it came time for the successor to be crowned, there was no dispute. After all, Elizabeth was Henry VIII’s daughter and her only rivals were other women. The Archbishop of York announced her succession as ‘true, lawful and right.’ But Elizabeth took no chances. Upon Mary I’s death, Mary queen of Scots’s French father-in-law had her proclaimed queen of England. Mary and her husband, the dauphin Francois, quartered the English royal arms with those of France; in official documents Mary was titled Queen of England and Scotland. In the eyes of Catholic Europe, such action was completely legal. Mary was queen of England, by right of legitimacy and primogeniture. No one expected Henri II to actually invade England and place her on the throne – but he continued the diplomatic snubs, angering and irritating the English. For example, when the English pressed for the restoration of Calais, the French answered – restore to whom? Wasn’t the queen of Scots also the queen of England? Naturally enough, a group of parliamentary ministers met with Elizabeth to petition her to marry. This was the only way to secure her throne. Once she provided England with an heir, everything would be fine. It was the familiar refrain of Tudor England. Perhaps no other government has been so dominated by one biological occurrence.
Elizabeth had no intention of marrying or providing children; she was married to the nation, she told her ministers, and took the seal of office from her finger. This, she said, was her wedding ring, to be worn until death. The ministers had to be content but they were not silenced. They would battle over this issue for years to come. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s refusal to marry made Catherine Grey’s position all the more dangerous.
Catherine did not like the new queen. This had its root in their tangled family history. Princess Mary Tudor and Katharine of Aragon had been friends, each despising the interloper (and Elizabeth’s mother), Anne Boleyn. Their children, Frances Grey and Mary I, continued the friendship – and openly despised Anne’s daughter Elizabeth. Mary I had been kind to Catherine; furthermore, Catherine was brought up to believe Elizabeth was the illegitimate daughter of an executed adulterer and traitor. And whatever Henry Grey’s activities, his daughter Catherine was legitimate. Like Mary I, the Greys were very conscious of their family history, and naturally proud. Under Mary’s reign, they had been encouraged to move beyond their 1553 disgrace. Now, however, they were ruled by an equally proud and disdainful queen. Elizabeth disliked her Grey cousins as much as they disliked – and feared – her. They also resented having too bow and scrape for her favor.
And it soon became clear they would have to bow and scrape – and probably to no avail. Elizabeth allowed Catherine and her sister to reside at court but no longer as maids of honor; they were ‘ladies of the presence’. Mary had allowed them access to the privy chamber, that most private area; Elizabeth did not. Furthermore, international ambassadors began to question Elizabeth about her cousin. It was rumored that the Spanish wanted to marry Catherine to one of their royal noblemen; after all, the king of France had a pawn in Mary queen of Scots. The Spanish naturally wanted Catherine as their pawn. It was known that Catherine was unhappy at court (so the Spanish ambassador, Count Feria, reported to his master) and might be persuaded to leave England. If not, they could always kidnap her. Elizabeth reacted by becoming quite amiable with Catherine, calling her ‘daughter’ and restoring her to the privy chamber. She even mentioned formally adopting Catherine. Poor Catherine was probably more frightened by this sudden friendliness than she was of Elizabeth’s coldness.
Catherine had made the mistake of speaking insolently about Elizabeth in mid-1559. The duke of Saxony’s envoy reported that Catherine had said ‘very arrogant and unseemly words in the hearing of the Queen and others standing by.’ Her exact words were not recorded. Still, what mattered is that she had been rude to Elizabeth I, a proud woman inclined to make others regret their pride. Since Elizabeth’s immediate reaction had been to begin favoring her, Catherine had good cause to worry.
During this period, Catherine had sought personal solace with Edward Seymour. His title had been reinstated by the queen and his optimism grew. As early as March 1559, he had asked the duchess of Suffolk for Catherine’s hand in marriage. Frances Grey agreed but counseled the young couple to be careful. Edward should seek out members of the Privy Council who would be sympathetic to their suit; Frances herself would write to Elizabeth, asking for ‘her majesty’s favor and good will.’ (Of course, as all this was going on, Elizabeth was receiving word of the Spanish plan to kidnap Catherine.) Frances Grey became ill and died before the letter was sent off. Edward seemed to get cold feet (he was also meeting another young woman and deciding whether to risk his newly-gained title); he told Frances’s widower that he would let matters rest. So Catherine was left at court, serving the unpredictable Elizabeth, and wondering when her betrothed would come for her.
The relationship may have died that natural death had not Lady Jane Seymour become involved. She was now in the later stages of tuberculosis and determined to secure her brother’s future before she died. She loved him and wanted him to make this royal marriage, perhaps his path to wealth and greater prominence. She brought her friend and brother together again, encouraging a reconciliation; perhaps she first suggested a secret marriage. Whatever the case, sometime in October 1560, Catherine and Edward solemnly declared their intention to marry. They agreed the wedding should take place when the queen was next absent; Jane would hire a clergyman and Edward would buy the ring. He had one made specially for the occasion, a posy ring (a plain gold band with a concealed spring opening five links); on those links, he had inscribed a verse of his own making:
As circles five by art compact show but one ring
So trust uniteth faithful minds with knot of
Whose force to break (but greedy Death) no wight
As time and sequels well shall prove; my ring can
say no more.
This course of action doomed them both. In 1515, Catherine’s grandparents had been secretly wed, but they were able to soothe their mercurial monarch. Catherine and Edward would be far less successful. Sometime in early December, Elizabeth decided to go to Eltham and hunt. Catherine had a toothache and Jane was sick (as always), the queen was told. They would stay behind. Elizabeth left in early morning and, by 8 o’clock, Catherine and Jane had slipped out of Whitehall Palace and rushed to Edward’s lodgings on Cannon Row. The minister was late; Jane went to fetch him and, within the hour, the couple were married. The groom was openly impatient so his sister withdrew. Then the couple consummated their union; they did so quickly since both Catherine and Jane needed to return to duties at Whitehall. After about ninety minutes of togetherness, it was time to hurry back into their complicated clothing. This alone took a quarter of an hour. Edward then escorted Catherine and Jane as far as he dared, kissed her and bade her farewell.
Their immediate circumstances did not change. They did not tell the queen or anyone of the marriage. Instead, they continued their secret meetings, sleeping together several times in the palaces of Westminster and Greenwich. They never spent an entire night together. Jane helped when she could; Catherine’s maids probably suspected marriage for they left the young lovers alone often. But neither Edward or Catherine seemed to have a plan. How long did they expect to carry on furtively? One cannot say. But Jane Seymour died in March 1561; she vould arrange no more meetings for them. One of Catherine’s maids, frightened of her involvement, went on vacation and never returned. Catherine received warnings from many prominent people, including Secretary of State William Cecil, to ‘beware of too great familiarity’ with Edward. She denied any involvement with him. Elizabeth I had decided to send Edward abroad with Cecil’s son Thomas, as part of a European tour to finish their education. Catherine was understandably beleaguered – and then, when it would cause the greatest harm, she became pregnant. She had first suspected in early March; both Edward and his dying sister agreed there was nothing to do but tell Elizabeth and beg forgiveness. But Jane died and Catherine stalled. She was perhaps uncertain of her pregnancy or perhaps simply too frightened to face its consequences. Whatever the case, when Edward questioned her, she said she didn’t know for certain. In mid-April, he left on the European trip. He promised Catherine he would return immediately if and when she could determine her condition. He also left a letter, signed and officially sealed, which gave her all his lands and possessions if he should die overseas.
By mid-July, Catherine could no longer hide her condition. She wrote to Edward, begging him to return home but the letters were delayed and opened by a government informer who acted as courier. She was forced to accompany Elizabeth on the annual summer progress. In Ipswich, she finally broke down and confessed all. First, she spoke to the Countess of Shrewsbury, who berated her and asked her to leave. Next, the increasingly distraught Catherine went to Robert Dudley, son of the executed duke of Northumberland and brother to Jane Grey’s husband Guildford. He had become Elizabeth I’s favorite and Catherine hoped he would intercede on her behalf with the queen. Dudley listened to her story, promised nothing, and – the next morning – told everything to the queen.
A few days later, Secretary Cecil wrote to the earl of Sussex this summation of events:
‘The Lady Catherine is certainly known to be big with child, as she saith by the Earl of Hertford, who is in France. She is committed to the Tower. He is sent for. She saith that she was married to him secretly before Christmas last. Thus is God displeased with us.’
What Cecil did not mention is that Elizabeth was in no mood to be sympathetic to either Catherine or Edward. Barring her personal dislike of the Greys, Elizabeth was in a furious tangle of emotions. She had recently struggled with the idea of marrying Dudley, the greatest love of her life; through the summer and autumn of 1560, she struggled to reconcile her royal duties and her heart’s desire. In the end, she decided not to marry. But this personal struggle had affected her greatly – she was irritable and would suffer no mention of marriage or children.
Not unnaturally, Elizabeth asked why Catherine should be allowed to sneak about and marry without the queen’s permission, solely because she was in love? Catherine possessed Tudor blood as well, she must be made to reconcile duty and passion, even as Elizabeth had done. Instead, she had been insolent and ungrateful; her marriage was the last straw for Elizabeth. As heir presumptive, Catherine had gone too far; she had not only married without permission but she had wed a Seymour. They were notorious for their political ambitions; Elizabeth had personal experience of this with Thomas Seymour. She ordered Edward, home from the Continent, to the Tower on 5 September. He and Catherine, plus his brother Henry and numerous servants, were subjected to a litany of embarrassing questions: which of them had entered the bridal bed first; which had left the bed first; who had laid on which side? The investigation was still continuing when, on 21 September, Catherine went into labor. She delivered a healthy son, christened Edward four days later within the Tower. Catherine and Edward continued to assert that no one, save Jane Seymour, had aided their deception. Elizabeth was not entirely convinced but Cecil, so perceptive, urged leniency. He understood Elizabeth’s personal feelings in the matter.
But soon it no longer mattered. Neither Catherine or Edward could produce evidence of their marriage; they said it had happened, but was it legal by constitutional and canonical standards? They could not even produce the minister, summoned by Jane Seymour during that early morning. It remained up to Elizabeth; would she believe them or not? Elizabeth turned the entire matter over to the church and, on 10 May 1562, the Archbishop of Canterbury ruled there had been no marriage between Edward and Catherine. They were officially censured for having committed fornication; there would be a fine and imprisonment, to be determined by the Queen’s mercy.
In the autumn of 1562, Elizabeth became gravely ill with smallpox, one of the scourges of that era. It was believed she would die. The Council met to decide who would succeed to the throne – not unnaturally, many (including Cecil)) supported Catherine Grey. The crisis was averted when Elizabeth recovered but, once again, the English people were up in arms over the succession. She was always suspicious of such talk, remembering her days under Mary’s rule, and once said, ‘So long as I live I shall be Queen of England, when I am dead they shall succeed that have most right.’ She never said more until she was on her deathbed in 1603.
Soon enough, Catherine managed to complicate the issue further – she became pregnant once again. The Lieutenant of the Tower, Edward Warner, was a kind man and had allowed the couple to spend time together – he left certain doors unlocked and paid no attention to who passed through them. So in February 1563, Catherine gave birth to their second son, Thomas; two Tower warders acted as godfathers. The queen, who had been content to let them languish in the Tower indefinitely, was further enraged. Edward was fined 15000 pds (later reduced to 3000); he was also charged with the following crimes: deflowering a royal virgin in the Queen’s household, flouting his imprisonment by meeting with her in the Tower, and engaging in more carnal relations.
One must sympathize with Elizabeth I. Not only had Catherine and Edward disdained and insulted the Crown by their earlier offenses; that was awful enough. But now they had done it again – no contrition, no realization of the enormity of their crime – just the same stupid, disrespectful behavior. Elizabeth’s patience, never great, was at an end. Elizabeth was very intelligent and conscious of her own position. She assumed Catherine must, at the very least, understand her position as well. She could not be so foolish and thoughtless as everyone argued in her defense; everyone knew that actions have consequences – so must Catherine Grey.
Whether Catherine was a fool is a matter of speculation – and personal sympathy. Certainly,, she had an awful sense of timing. But she was soon to suffer worse than before. There was an outbreak of plague in London and an exodus of everyone who could afford to leave. Elizabeth seized the opportunity to teach her cousin a lesson. The Seymour family was moved, Edward and little Edward sent under house arrest to Hanworth (where his mother still lived); Catherine and baby Thomas went to her uncle John Grey’s home in Essex. Even though they were free of the Tower, they were still to be treated as prisoners. Catherine was perhaps finally repentant – she was, according to her uncle, ‘a penitent and sorrowful woman for the Queen’s displeasure.’
She was also increasingly ill. Her uncle, who could not have been happy with his disgraced niece, wrote that ‘I never came to her, but I found her weeping or else saw by her face she had wept.’ ‘She is so fraughted with phlegm by reason of thought, weeping and sitting still that many times she is like to overcome therewith…’ As for Catherine, she wrote that she was in ‘continual agony'; ‘I never felt what the want of my prince’s favor was before now…’ Elizabeth was unmoved. When John Grey ventured to ask for financial assistance (he was, after all, keeping a prisoner for the crown), Elizabeth simply ordered Edward to pay. The young earl used to opportunity to plead his own case. By now it was mid-1564; there had been pamphlets circulating attesting to the legality of the Grey-Seymour union and the legitimacy of their sons. The Protestant establishment was as eager to support this as the Catholics were to support Mary of Scotland. Catherine, born and bred an Englishwoman and already
having born two healthy sons, was heir presumptive. So the same talk continued.
The commotion eventually died down. But John Grey died in autumn 1564; his niece was transferred to Ingatestone under the custody of Sir William Petre. Elizabeth had begun to imply she favored her Stewart relations over the Greys. One can hardly blame her; at least Mary of Scotland was troublesome only to herself. Meanwhile, Catherine’s sister Mary had made a secret marriage of her own. Once again, the Greys angered the queen. Mary and her husband were imprisoned. Catherine was moved from Petre’s home in February 1567. She entered the custody of Sir John Wentworth of Gosfield Hall in Essex; in September, she was moved for the last time, to Cockfield Hall. It was in Suffolkshire, and remote from the intrigues of London. Her keeper was Sir Owen Hopton and his task was an awful one. By this time, Catherine was gravely ill with tuberculosis. Royal physicians were sent for but they could do nothing.
By January 1568, Hopton wrote to Cecil that the end was near. What did Catherine think, trapped in yet another prison, knowing she would never see her husband again? She did not speak of Edward; rather, she took comfort in prayer even as Jane had done fourteen years before. On the 27th of January, Hopton’s wife tried to raise her spirits; Catherine replied, ‘No, no, my lady, my time is come and it is not God’s will that I should live any longer, and his will be done, not mine. As I am, so shall you be; behold the picture of yourselves.’ Around seven o’clock, she asked to see Hopton. She asked him to take a message to the Queen; ‘I must needs confess I have greatly offended her in that I made my choice without her knowledge, otherwise I take God to witness I had never the heart to think any evil against her majesty.’ She asked Elizabeth to be good to her sons, to not blame them for their parents’ crimes. She also asked her cousin to forgive Edward for ‘I know my death will be heavy news unto him.’ She sent their wedding ring back to him, as well as the few gifts she possessed. Among them was a ring engraved with a death’s head and a motto, ‘While I live yours.’ This was ‘the last token unto my lord that ever I shall send him; it is the picture of myself.’ And at nine o’clock, having made some small peace with the world, Catherine Grey died.
She had spent nearly seven years in various prisons and was twenty-seven when she died. Edward, upon hearing the news, was heartbroken. But he also hoped for release. Perhaps Catherine’s death would end the queen’s anger. Two years later, he was rewarded; he was released and pardoned. In 1586, he married again to one Frances Howard. They had no children and Edward never stopped petitioning the courts to legitimize his sons with Catherine. In 1606, three years after Elizabeth’s death, the clergyman was found – fifty years after the fact! – and a common law court legitimized the marriage and their sons.
Edward eventually died in January 1621, both of his sons already dead. But his grandson, William Seymour, had already re-enacted Edward and Catherine’s tragic love story by making a secret marriage of his own to Arbella Stewart, a member of the royal family. And Edward apparently didn’t gain sympathy for young lovers through his own experience. His and Catherine’s eldest son, Edward, married Honora Rogers, a girl far below his station; Edward did everything he could to end the marriage and his son threatened to commit suicide rather than return to Edward’s home.