I have just read the most heartbreaking description of the death of Lady Katherine Grey. She was the sister of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Days Queen” and a descendant of Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII. Katherine’s death at the age of twenty-seven was most unfortunate.
What makes her story so sad? In many ways, her life mirrors that of her cousin Arbella Stuart who was born six years after Katherine’s death. Arbella was a descendant of Margaret Tudor, eldest sister of King Henry VIII. Both women were potential heirs to Queen Elizabeth I. Both women married Seymour men without the permission of the Queen. Both women were imprisoned for their foolish behavior and both died probably of starvation in captivity. The only difference was Katherine had two children while Arbella had none.
In Tudor times, being a potential successor to the monarch was hazardous to one’s health. Many heirs suffered imprisonment or beheading. These poor women had the audacity to fall in love with men and marry. While I admire Queen Elizabeth I very much, she was particularly hard on these women in not allowing them to follow their hearts. I don’t think it would have mattered who the men were.
Katherine Grey never sought permission to marry, probably with good reason. The wedding ceremony was performed essentially in secret. The only witnesses were her husband’s sister and a mysterious priest who performed the rite. The marriage was soon exposed and the Queen was furious. In the meantime the sister had died and the priest had disappeared. The validity of the marriage could only be substantiated on the testimony of the bride and groom. Elizabeth set up a commission to investigate the details with the express hope the marriage would be declared invalid. But the commission could find no reason to contradict the word of the bride and groom. In the eyes of the law, if the bride and groom declared they were married, that was enough.
Katherine and her husband were separated along with their two sons and held in captivity. She slowly descended into a deep depression and didn’t eat enough to keep herself alive. Her keeper despaired of her health and called for a doctor. But she had no will to live separated from her husband and her eldest son. She called her keeper to her deathbed and professed her undying love for her husband. She gave him three rings to pass on to her beloved after her death. Her betrothal ring, her wedding ring and a momento mori ring all attested to her great love of her husband and to the fact that she was indeed married.
I am sympathetic and understand Elizabeth’s political reasons. Elizabeth wanted to have as few potential heirs alive around her as possible. As a prospective heir herself, she had suffered great fear and humiliation during the reigns of her brother Edward and sister Mary. And you get the feeling there may have been a wee bit of jealousy on Elizabeth’s part too. But I think it boiled down to Elizabeth’s insecurity. She had been declared illegitimate by Act of Parliament after the downfall of her mother Anne Boleyn. When she ascended to the throne, she never had the act overturned and so remained a bastard in the eyes of the law. And she was a female monarch. At the time, this was viewed as an aberration in the Christian hierarchy. Poor Katherine Grey was unlucky enough to be caught up in the quagmire of Tudor politics and its consequences.
Further reading: “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen” by Leanda de Lisle