The Grey sisters were grand-nieces of King Henry VIII. It is impossible to talk about these three young women without discussing their position in the succession of the throne of England. The Acts of Succession passed by Parliament named Henry VIII’s son Edward, elder daughter Mary and second daughter Elizabeth as inheriting the throne. After that, Henry took a strange turn by passing over his elder sister Margaret, Queen of Scots and her progeny. He also bypassed the daughters of his younger sister Maryand Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk: Frances and Eleanor. The default heirs were Frances’ daughters Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey and Eleanor’s daughter Margaret Clifford.
Jane Grey was put forth as Queen after the death of Edward VI. Mary Grey was not considered a serious threat to Elizabeth I. She made an ill-advised marriage and had no children. But Katherine was another matter. She was young, beautiful and capable of having children. Therefore, Elizabeth I felt she put her own position on the throne in peril.
Tradition states that Katherine was born at Dorset House, c. 1540. Her father was Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk and her mother was Frances Brandon, niece of King Henry VIII. Katherine’s early childhood was spent in the Suffolk home of Bradgate in Leicestershire and she received the same fine humanist education as her sister Jane, being tutored by Roger Aylmer. Katherine knew some Latin and Greek and grew up in the reformist camp of her parents in the Protestant religion. It doesn’t appear that Katherine shared Jane’s all-consuming love of religion and we don’t know if the sisters got along well or not.
Most considered Katherine to be the prettiest of the sisters. She was attractive and slim with golden hair, blue eyes and delicate features. She loved animals and had several pets, including toy dogs and monkeys. When Roger Asham visited Bradgate in the summer of 1550, he found Katherine enjoying herself with the rest of the company at hunting and archery, the sports in which her mother Frances excelled. She probably was also taught to sing and play the virginals. Although Jane Grey’s handwriting is very fine, Katherine’s letters were nearly illegible and not very well written. There is no evidence that Katherine and Mary were ever abused by their parents.
Katherine, her mother and her sisters spent Christmas with the Lady Mary during 1549 and in 1551 at the palace of Beaulieu. In late 1550 or early 1551, the Suffolk family moved to Southwark. Katherine’s parents were plotting to put Jane on the throne during this time and several marriages were brokered. Jane was to marry Guildford Dudley, son of John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. Katherine was to be wed to Henry Herbert, the fifteen-year old eldest son of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke and an ally of Northumberland. The earl was the brother-in-law of Queen Katherine Parr, being married to her sister Anne. King Edward VI gave Katherine bolts of costly fabric for her wedding dress.
These weddings were performed on May 21, 1553 at Durham Place, the home of the Duke of Northumberland. The imperial ambassador described the weddings in detail, stating they were celebrated with great magnificence and feasting, lasting two days. Other ambassadors were invited to the festivities as well. Several of the guests became ill of food poisoning. After the wedding, Katherine lived in Baynard’s Castle, her father-in-law’s home. The young couple became very fond of each other.
King Edward wrote his ‘devise’ shortly before his death in the summer of 1553 after a long illness. This ersatz will named Katherine’s sister Jane as his heir. Jane was Protestant and Edward’s sister Mary was Catholic and Edward did not want Mary to inherit the throne and return England to Catholicism. Mary had something to say about this and mustered an army. After Jane’s support melted away, Mary rode into London as the new Queen and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower.
Katherine was in Baynard’s Castle when Jane was proclaimed Queen and this put Pembroke in an awkward position. Pembroke had ensured his son’s marriage was never consummated, presumably in the event the Duke of Northumberland’s plot to put Jane Grey on the throne failed, allowing him to extricate himself from the union. After Mary became Queen, he sued to have his son’s marriage dissolved. Katherine and Henry protested the marriage had been consummated but were unable to convince anyone. The marriage was annulled and Katherine was sent home to her family. Her mother went to Queen Mary and asked forgiveness for the Grey family. The Queen was most generous and allowed the Duke to go free. But for the time being, Jane remained a prisoner in the Tower.
In early 1554, after Queen Mary’s decision to marry King Philip II of Spain, there was a rebellious plot hatched by some of the nobility, including Katherine’s father. Unfortunately, the rebellion did not go well and many of the leaders were captured. The Duke of Suffolk was caught and this sealed Jane Grey’s fate. As she awaited death, she wrote a letter to her sister, admonishing her on several points, with the intention of giving Katherine guidance and a lesson in morality. Jane also sent Katherine her copy of the new testament in Greek. Jane was executed on February 12, 1554. Her father was tried, found guilty and executed on February 23.
Katherine’s mother once again petitioned Queen Mary for forgiveness. She was still in good graces with the Queen and within six months, the Grey family was restored to favor. Katherine attended the Queen’s coronation and was given a sumptuous red velvet gown to wear. Frances married Adrian Stokes and left court, taking Katherine and Mary with her. Stokes was a kind and loving husband and stepfather to the Grey women.
The Queen gave Katherine a position as Lady of the Bedchamber, along with her sister Mary. Katherine was a Protestant but she outwardly conformed to Catholicism. She had her own room along with several personal servants while performing her duties. She was under the care of Anne Seymour, dowager Duchess of Somerset while she was at court. Katherine was in attendance at the wedding of the Queen to King Philip. After the wedding, the King and Queen spent time at Hampton Court for their honeymoon.
Katherine was there and became acquainted with Anne Seymour’s son, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. Katherine fell in love and forgot her former husband, Henry Herbert. They began to meet daily in the garden or in the palace and it became evident there was a strong attachment between them. It seems certain that the Duchess and Queen Mary knew about the couple and didn’t disapprove of their love affair.
In the fall, the court returned to Westminster. During this time, Katherine had become good friends with Hertford’s sisters Margaret and Jane who had been appointed maids of honor to the Queen. Jane Seymour was considered one of the most learned ladies at court. In the summer of 1558, there was an outbreak of influenza. Lady Jane Seymour, who was in delicate health, became very ill. The Queen allowed her to go to her mother, the Duchess of Somerset’s house at Hanworth and Katherine went with her to stay with the family. Edward Seymour was living at Hanworth at the time and he and Katherine resumed their affair, with Jane Seymour acting as Katherine’s confidante and as a go-between for the two lovers.
The romance became very serious and Hertford may have proposed to Katherine. But before she could accept, Edward’s mother found out about the seriousness of the couple’s affair. The dowager Duchess had been in trouble before and had no wish to invite more. She begged her son to stop the romance but Hertford arrogantly refused. Summer was over and the influenza had subsided so Katherine returned to Whitehall and there wasn’t much opportunity for her to meet her lover.
By this time Queen Mary was fatally ill and she died in November. Katherine helped lay out the body of the Queen and kept watch in the royal chapel over the remains. She also participated in the funeral. Elizabeth was now Queen of England and Katherine may have expected recognition as the Queen’s heir and successor, as stipulated by King Henry VIII’s will and the Acts of Succession.
After the funeral, Katherine went to the Charterhouse to stay for a few weeks with her mother who was mortally ill. Both Katherine and her sister Mary were summoned back to the palace of Whitehall. Queen Elizabeth gave them both their own apartments and she received them with a modicum of affection. However, Katherine was given the position of Lady of the Privy Chamber which was a bit of a demotion from the title she held under Queen Mary.
Because Frances was ill, she could not attend Queen Elizabeth’s coronation so Katherine went in her place. She rode in one of the barges that took Elizabeth to the Tower of London and she rode in one of the chariots in the procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey. Katherine followed the Queen into the abbey for the ceremony along with many other nobles and ladies of the court.
In the early part of Elizabeth’s reign, Katherine became intimate with Jane Dormer, Countess of Feria who came from a Catholic family and was greatly loved by Queen Mary I. Jane Dormer was married to Gómez Suárez de Figueroa y Córdoba, 1st Duke of Feria, one of the closest advisors of King Philip II of Spain. This friendship of Katherine and Jane Dormer would prove to be dangerous as it put her in direct contact with the Spanish ambassador, leading to Katherine being compromised in a bizarre plot.
There were many succession plots during Queen Elizabeth’s reign much to her annoyance. So great was the influence of the Ferias over Katherine, in early 1559, the count wrote to King Philip in Spain, bragging that Katherine had given him a promise that she would not marry without Philip’s permission. She also promised not to change her religion, in essence stating she was Catholic. The English ambassador in Spain heard a rumor that the Spanish wanted to kidnap Katherine and marry her to a Habsburg prince or even King Philip’s son Don Carlos.
In 1560, the Scottish Council was discussing marrying Katherine to the earl of Arran. The Earl of Arundel’s name surfaced as a husband. In the meantime, the Earl of Pembroke was talking about remarrying Katherine to his son. Suddenly, Katherine’s position in the Queen’s household was elevated. Elizabeth promoted her to Lady of the Bedchamber where she would wait on her personally. There was talk the Queen would adopt Katherine. Elizabeth had obviously heard the Spanish rumors and wanted Katherine close by to keep an eye on her.
Politics kept any of the marriages from happening and during this time, Katherine and Hertford were conducting secret meetings. Katherine was looking forward to going on progress with the queen and taking advantage of seeing Hertford more often. But Hertford didn’t show up during the progress, probably at his mother’s insistence. He did finally show up when the court was at Eltham Palace and the two lovers had plenty of opportunity to be together for the rest of the summer. In October 1559, Katherine’s mother was dying and sent for Katherine and her sister Mary. With the Queen’s permission, they went to the Charterhouse and it was during this meeting the scheme to marry Katherine and Hertford was revived. They asked for permission to marry and Frances and the dowager Duchess agreed.
Due to Hertford’s mother being a descendant of King Edward III, he had a nominal claim to the throne, making his status above the ranks of non-royal aristocrats. This made him a very suitable match for Katherine. Due to Katherine’s standing as a descendant of a royal, any sons Katherine would have by a marriage to Hertford would hold a strong claim to the throne and be a considerable rival to Queen Elizabeth I. There also existed an act from 1536 making it a treasonous offence for any person of royal blood to marry without the monarch’s approval.
Katherine’s mother agreed to petition the queen by letter and promised to use her influence with the privy council to obtain consent for the marriage. But Frances Brandon died on November 21, 1559 with Katherine and Mary by her side, before she could petition the Queen. It is doubtful Elizabeth would have approved of the marriage and there was no one else who could ask for permission on the couple’s behalf. Katherine acted as chief mourner at her mother’s funeral.
Lady Jane Seymour, who was also a maid of honor to the Queen, was arranging for Katherine and Hertford to meet in her small room at Whitehall. William Cecil, the queen’s principal minister, heard rumors of their affair and asked Hertford to back off. Consequently, Hertford withdrew his affections from Katherine, infuriating her. She was unaware of Hertford’s conversation with Cecil and wrote Hertford an angry letter. He was afraid of losing her for good and replied he was in love with her and asked her to marry him.
The couple met in Jane Seymour’s small room and with his sister as witness, they made a formal act of betrothal. They promised to marry in secret Edward’s London home, Hertford House, whenever the Queen next left London. Hertford gave Katherine a diamond ring which she would keep until her death.
In November 1560, Queen Elizabeth left Whitehall for Eltham Palace. Katherine stayed back complaining of toothache and Jane Seymour said she was too ill to travel. As soon as the queen was gone, Katherine and Jane made their way to Cannon Row and Edward’s house. Jane had planned the whole affair but the priest did not show up. Jane went to search for a priest on the street. After this clergyman performed the wedding ceremony, Katherine and Hertford spend several hours in bed. The two women then quickly returned to the palace.
The secret romantic trysts with marital relations happened whenever they had a chance while they tried to hide their relationship from the Queen. But it was impossible to keep it a secret, and people began to notice. Cecil spoke to Hertford again and convinced him to depart for the Continent. Katherine was not told of this initially but eventually, Jane Seymour revealed the plan. Katherine was distraught because she now believed herself to be pregnant. To make matters even worse, Jane Seymour died of tuberculosis three months after the marriage.
Queen Elizabeth ordered Hertford to leave for France to finish his education and Hertford was determined to go. Before his departure, he met with Katherine and she revealed she might be pregnant. He promised her that if she found it to be true, she should write to him and he would try to return as soon as possible. He drew up a will, leaving Katherine lands valued at one thousand pounds per annum in income. He gave Katherine the document along with some money.
Katherine confirmed she was indeed pregnant and sent word to Hertford but he was either unable or unwilling to return. By July, when she was seven months pregnant, she left with the court on summer progress. She was beginning to show and could no longer hide her secret. She confessed to Bess of Hardwick, an old family friend and to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. They, in turn, informed the Queen who was furious.
Katherine was ordered to the Tower of London and interrogated on August 22, 1561. Hertford was recalled from France and was also put in the Tower and questioned. During the questioning, some of the details didn’t match up but overall the story was consistent. Jane Seymour was dead and the minister was no where to be found. Katherine was unable to produce a marriage certificate. She gave birth to her son Edward, Lord Beauchamp in the Tower on September 24, 1561.
The following May, a commission led by Archbishop Parker examined all the evidence. Probably under uncompromising pressure from the Queen, it was pronounced there was no marriage and therefore, Edward, Lord Beauchamp was illegitimate. The couple were found guilty of fornication and a heavy fine was imposed, along with imprisonment at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
In October 1562, Queen Elizabeth contract smallpox and nearly died. There were frantic discussions about the succession. The Queen favored Mary Queen of Scots. Some on the council disagreed and argued that Henry VIII’s will should be followed and Katherine Grey should be the favored heir. But Elizabeth recovered.
Katherine and Hertford were in the Tower. Katherine had a comfortable suite of rooms with eight or nine servants and a nurse for her son. Sir Edward Warner was not a strict jailor and, against the rules, he allowed the couple to have conjugal visits. Katherine became pregnant again and gave birth to her second son Thomas on February 10, 1563. Warner was given a short prison sentence and lost his post. Hertford was fined fifteen thousand pounds. Along with his elder son, Hertford was sent in disgrace to live with his mother. Katherine never saw Hertford again.
The fine was later reduced to ten thousand pounds of which Hertford eventually paid four thousand before his death. Katherine remained in the Tower with her younger son, refusing to eat and writing piteous letters asking for mercy. Due to plague in London, she was moved in August 1563 to the house of her uncle, Lord John Grey, at Pyrgo in Essex and kept under strict house arrest. Grey died in November 1564 and Katherine and her son were transferred to Sir William Petre of Ingatestone, Essex.
In May 1566, she was given to the custody of Sir John Wentworth of Horkesley and Gosfield until his death. Beginning in October 1567, she was in the keeping of Sir Owen Hopton of Cockfield Hall, Yoxford in Suffolk. By this time, Katherine was suffering from sorrow, anxiety and depression and barely eating enough to stay alive. Hopton was alarmed and asked for Dr. Symonds, the Queen’s physician, to attend Katherine. Symonds did visit her twice but Katherine unfortunately died on January 27, 1568, possibly of anorexia or tuberculosis. She was buried in Yoxley Churchyard.
Katherine was kept in close custody for so long because there were many debates about the succession with arguments in her favor. We all know how reluctant Elizabeth was to name a successor and she made it clear she favored Mary Queen of Scots’ claim. Hertford worked very hard to have his marriage to Katherine and their sons declared legitimate. It wasn’t until three years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1606, that the marriage was legitimized and the two sons could claim they were born in wedlock. Katherine’s grandson had her remains moved to Salisbury Cathedral where she shares a double tomb with her husband.
Further reading: “Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey” by Nicola Tallis, “Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery” by Eric Ives, “Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder” by Mary S. Lovell, “The Sisters of Lady Jane Grey and Their Wicked Grandfather, Being the True Stories of the Strange Lives of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and the Ladies Katherine and Mary Grey, Sisters of Lady Jane Grey, ‘the Nine-days Queen” by Richard Davey, “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey – A Tudor Tragedy” by Leanda de Lisle, “Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen” by Tracy Borman, entry on Lady Katherine Grey in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Susan Doran