A Forgotten Elizabethan Noblewoman: Katherine Bertie, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk and Baroness Willoughby de Eresby

With the notable exception of ‘Bess of Hardwick’ (Elizabeth Talbot (née Cavendish), countess of Shrewsbury), most Elizabethan noblewomen are barely remembered today. Among those who deserve to be better known is Katherine Bertie (née Willoughby), dowager duchess of Suffolk, as Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our Elizabethan House of Lords section, explains…

A chalk portrait drawing of a woman. A bust length portrait facing three-quarters to the left. She wears an embroidered collar, necklace and a medallion. Inscribed in an eighteenth-century hand at upper left: The Dutcheſs of Suffolk.
Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, by Hans Holbein c.1532-43.
(c) Royal Collection Trust RCIN 912194

Katherine Willoughby was the only child of Lincolnshire’s leading magnate, William, eleventh Baron Willoughby, and Lady Maria de Salinas, one of the ladies-in-waiting to the queen consort, Katherine of Aragon, after whom their daughter was named. In 1526, aged five or six, she inherited her father’s lands and title, despite the pretensions of her uncle, Sir Christopher Willoughby, the eleventh baron’s next male heir. One reason for this was that inheritance of the Willoughby title was limited to the heirs of the body of each successive Lord Willoughby. Another was that Katherine’s interests were protected by the king’s friend and former brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, who acquired her wardship. Suffolk’s intentions were far from altruistic, and in 1533 he married Katherine, thereby gaining control of her estates himself.

During the 1530s Katherine and her husband Suffolk embraced the new Protestant faith, having fallen under the influence of Hugh Latimer, who became bishop of Worcester in 1535. Latimer remained important to Katherine even after Suffolk’s death in 1545. For instance, in 1552 he stayed for a while at her Lincolnshire residence of Grimsthorpe Castle, where he preached a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. Katherine was therefore dismayed when, following the accession of Mary Tudor in 1553, England returned to the Catholic fold. A contemptuous Katherine subsequently named one of her dogs after Stephen Gardiner, the Marian bishop of Winchester, and had it carried around dressed in clerical vestments. Not surprisingly, she fled soon thereafter, first to Germany then to Poland, joining her new husband, Richard Bertie, a minor gentleman from Kent who shared her religious convictions. The couple did not return to England until 1559, by which time a new Protestant monarch, Elizabeth I, was on the throne.

A black and white drawing in landscape with four people in the centre. Two are women on the left, a man on the right, and the woman on the furthest left is carrying baby. They stand next to water, where a few boats can be seen. In the background are buildings including a church.
Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, fleeing Catholic England with her husband Richard Bertie, her daughter Susan and a wetnurse. (c) wikimedia

Although Katherine was glad that England had returned to the Protestant faith, she quickly became disenchanted with the requirement that all clergy wear ecclesiastical vestments. Like other radical Protestants (known as puritans), she regarded these items as popish. During the 1560s Katherine became a focus for puritan discontent, not only in the diocese of Lincoln, where she enjoyed the right to appoint the minister in no fewer than 14 parishes, but also in London, where she controlled the parish of Holy Trinity Minories. Situated near the Tower of London, Holy Trinity Minories has been described as a seed bed for puritan preachers. During the late 1560s the puritan radical John Field often preached there. So too did Miles Coverdale who, though he had served as a bishop under Edward VI, was not appointed to the episcopate by Elizabeth. Coverdale lodged with Katherine, and until his death in 1569 he served as preacher and tutor to her children.

Katherine clearly helped to foster the growing puritan movement in England thanks to her own religious convictions and her status as an independently wealthy aristocratic woman. However, that is not her only claim to fame. Thanks to her, in 1571 the earldom of Kent, which had been in abeyance for 47 years, was restored to the Grey family.

Katherine’s interest in this matter stemmed from the fact that in 1570 her only daughter, Susan Bertie, married Reynold Grey, who lived at St Giles Cripplegate, just next door to Holy Trinity Minories. Reynold Grey believed with good reason that he was the rightful earl of Kent. The earldom had lapsed in 1524 on the death of Richard Grey, 3rd earl of Kent, who had sold off much of his estate to pay his debts despite having no legal right to do so. By rights the earldom should then have passed to Richard’s next male relative, Sir Henry Grey (Reynold’s grandfather). However, many of the courtiers who benefited from the 3rd earl’s illegal land sales persuaded the king that, as Sir Henry was only the half-brother of the 3rd earl, his title was not good.

By July 1570, Katherine had taken up her new son-in-law’s cause. She lobbied the queen’s chief minister, William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, who was sympathetic as he was keen to expand the peerage. However, the question of restoring the Kent earldom was inevitably bound up with a far knottier problem, the restoration of the family’s estate. Many of the lands alienated by the 3rd earl had been bought by the crown. It soon became clear that, while the queen was perfectly prepared to acknowledge Reynold as earl of Kent, she was not willing to return his family’s former lands to him. Indeed, she suspected that Grey’s real aim in claiming the title was to lay his hands on the lands. Consequently, towards the end of 1571, Katherine offered on her son-in-law’s behalf to give Elizabeth a full release ‘of all such lands in her hands, only requiring her favour that he might by order of her laws enjoy his right against his equals’. It was this offer by Katherine that finally did the trick. On 30 Dec. 1571 the queen informed Grey that she now acknowledged him as earl of Kent.

A miniature painting of a white woman in an circle. The woman is wearing a black headdress edged with gold and a black velvet dress trimmed with white fur, she has ginger hair, and the background is blue.
Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, by Lucas Horenbout.
(c) Grimsthorpe Castle

Katherine’s central role in restoring the earldom of Kent was quickly forgotten. During the late 1590s, Reynold’s brother Henry, 6th earl of Kent, fell out with Reynold’s widow, Susan Bertie, accusing her of holding onto jewels that were Grey family heirlooms. She in turn accused him of ingratitude, saying that had it not been for the strenuous efforts of her mother, Katherine, who had died in 1580, ‘the defendant had not now been earl of Kent’. Kent, however, was too proud to admit the truth of this. He claimed instead that the earldom of Kent had fallen into abeyance because his grandfather Sir Henry Grey had decided not to use the title, having inherited little from the 3rd earl with which to maintain the dignity. The 6th earl thereby perpetrated a falsehood which has lasted almost to the present day.


Further reading:

Evelyn Read, Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk: a Portrait (London, 1962)

S. Wabuda, ‘Bertie [née Willoughby; other married name Brandon], Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online

3 thoughts on “A Forgotten Elizabethan Noblewoman: Katherine Bertie, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk and Baroness Willoughby de Eresby

  1. It was along time before she was forgotten. Her flight to the Continent was featured in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and the story of herself, her husband and their son Peregrine (improbably born in a German church porch) was well-known to generations of English people.

  2. She and her husband also engaged with Burghley and the Queen in another lengthy struggle for a title – they wanted Richard to be recognised in Katherine’s barony ‘jure uxoris’. They were unsuccessful partly because the Queen didn’t want to admit the principle of jure uxoris honours and partly because Richard Bertie had only a slight claim to be a gentleman at all (he was a former employee of the Duke of Suffolk).

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