On 9 August 1561 Lady Katherine Grey, one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honour, confided to her colleague, Elizabeth St Loe, that she was pregnant, and that she had secretly married the father, Edward Seymour, 1st earl of Hertford, currently travelling in France to complete his education. Elizabeth promptly burst into tears, lamenting that Katherine had married without the queen’s knowledge.
Elizabeth St Loe’s dismay was understandable. Katherine was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, and arguably next in line to the throne should the unmarried Elizabeth I die childless, so her marriage was a politically sensitive subject. As ultimately determined by Henry, the royal succession ran through his three children, the future Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth. If none of them had children, then Henry intended the crown to pass next to the descendants of his younger sister, Mary, who were given precedence over those of his elder sister, Margaret. In 1553 Edward had attempted to set aside the claims of his half-sisters, instead naming as his heir Katherine’s elder sister Lady Jane Grey, whose father-in-law was the king’s dominant chief minister, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland. However, Jane famously reigned for only nine days, before being overthrown by Mary and later executed. Elizabeth had succeeded Mary in 1558, but was still single and childless. Accordingly, Katherine’s marriage, and the prospect of her having legitimate children, revived the question of her position in the succession. Elizabeth discouraged all discussion of that subject, fearful that any acknowledged successor would become a rival centre of power. Moreover, she disliked Katherine, possibly because the events of 1553 still rankled.
Katherine’s news now rapidly reached the queen, who became convinced that there were ‘great practices and purposes’ behind her marriage involving several ‘lords and gentlemen’ of the court. It was indeed easy to see why prominent members of the regime might support Katherine’s claims as Elizabeth’s heir, and her marriage to Hertford. The leading alternative candidate for the succession was Mary Queen of Scots, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret. However, Mary was a Catholic, and her accession would threaten the Reformation. By contrast Hertford was a firm Protestant, and his marriage to Katherine could be interpreted as a means of guaranteeing a Protestant heir if Elizabeth failed to marry and have children. In addition, Hertford was the son of Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset, lord protector in the early part of Edward VI’s reign. A number of Elizabeth’s advisers had belonged to Somerset’s circle, not least secretary of state Sir William Cecil (later 1st Lord Burghley), who started his career in the duke’s household.
Elizabeth duly sent Katherine to the Tower for questioning. She was soon joined by Hertford, who had been hastily summoned home, and their son was born there on 24 September. The couple, whose relationship dated from the reign of Mary Tudor, insisted that no one had known of their marriage except Hertford’s sister Jane, who had since died, and the minister who had performed the ceremony; he had been supplied by Jane, and they didn’t know his name. Shortly after Elizabeth’s accession, Katherine’s mother had agreed to write to the queen on their behalf, but died before doing so. With Katherine increasingly unhappy at court gossip linking Hertford with other ladies, the earl promised to marry her at the earliest opportunity, which presented itself in November 1560. The ceremony was conducted in Hertford’s bedroom at his Westminster residence. The couple produced witnesses who testified that Katherine’s mother had intended to obtain the queen’s consent to their matrimony, and that Katherine and Jane had entered Hertford’s house on the day in question. Their story exonerated anyone else from complicity in the match, but crucially Katherine and Hertford could not find a witness to the ceremony itself. This lack of evidence allowed the queen to deny that the marriage had ever taken place, and she secured a ruling to that effect from a commission headed by the archbishop of Canterbury on 12 May 1562.
The couple remained in the Tower, incarcerated separately. However, in May 1562 Hertford bribed the warders to let him visit Katherine, and she again became pregnant. On 10 Feb. 1563, the day before she gave birth for a second time in prison, Hertford was prosecuted in Star Chamber, fined £15,000, and sentenced to remain in custody during the queen’s pleasure. In the following summer confinement in the Tower was commuted to house arrest, Katherine being sent to her uncle’s house in Essex while Hertford was moved to his mother’s house in Middlesex. They never met again. Katherine died, still under constraint, on 27 January 1567. Her deathbed pleas for Hertford’s release were ignored, and he was not freed until June 1571. He promptly tried to persuade Elizabeth to reopen the question of the validity of his marriage, but was rebuffed. In November 1595 the earl was briefly returned to the Tower for initiating legal proceedings to overturn the 1562 verdict.
Following the death of Elizabeth in March 1603, Hertford was quick to assure James I – Mary Queen of Scots’ son – of his loyalty. In 1605 he headed up a ceremonial embassy to Brussels, which may have cost him £12,000. Probably in return, the king agreed to the legality of Hertford’s marriage being tried before a jury in February 1606. However, James then had second thoughts, presumably fearing that a decision in Hertford’s favour could undermine his own title to the crown. With the jury on the point of delivering its verdict, the attorney general, Sir Edward Coke, intervened to halt proceedings. According to a later account, the minister who performed the ceremony had finally come forward, and the jury intended to find in favour of the marriage. Instead, that verdict was never formally delivered. Nevertheless twenty years later, James’s son Charles I evidently felt that the Stuart dynasty’s hold on the throne was now secure, and, hoping to rally support for his beleaguered favourite George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, tacitly accepted that Katherine and Hertford had indeed been legally married. Consequently in 1626 William Seymour, the son of the boy born in the Tower in 1561, was allowed to take his place in the House of Lords as Hertford’s heir.
L. De Lisle, The Sisters who Would be Queen (2008).
M. Levine, Early Elizabethan Succession Question, 1558-1568 (1966)
S. Doran and P. Kewes (eds.), Doubtful and Dangerous: the Question of Succession in Late Elizabethan England (2016)
Some records of the investigation into the marriage have been printed in T. Lewis, Lives of the Friends and Contemporaries of Lord Chancellor Clarendon (1862), iii. 183-201; for a fuller version see the British Library’s digitised manuscripts, Harley MS 249, ff. 45-94.
Biographies of the 1st and 2nd earls of Hertford, the 1st duke of Buckingham, and Charles I as prince of Wales, feature in our recent volumes, The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).
Find more from our Lords 1558-1603 project at the First Elizabethan Age page on our blog.