Lady Dorothy Josselyn, Tudor Courtier

Unknown lady writing at a desk


Fooling around in the family tree, I discovered one of my paternal great-grandmother’s ancestors were of the Josselyn family.  Going further back, one of my Josselyn ancestors was a Knight of the Bath.  This ancestor married a woman named Dorothy Gates, my 12th great-grandmother.  Interestingly enough, Dorothy, from 1540-42, served in the household of Queen Catherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII.

In surviving correspondence with her brother, John Gates, Dorothy noted that Queen Catherine was not easy to get along with.  “I fear I shall scant content her Grace”.  Dorothy may also have been a supplier of dresses to Queen Katherine Parr.  Her brother was a servant of Parr and perhaps this is how she got the work.  Turns out Dorothy regularly wrote letters to her brother asking for favors.

This correspondence between Dorothy and her brother is indicative of a collaboration between equals who had mutual interests during the Tudor era.  Barbara Harris says these letters provide “one of the fullest extant records of friendship and mutual assistance between a married woman and her brother”.  The letters survive in the State Papers of King Henry VIII in the National Archives at Kew.

Dorothy was the daughter of Sir Geoffrey Gates and Elizabeth Clopton and she was born c. 1512 in Suffolk, England.  Dorothy married Thomas Josselyn in 1524 in Hertfordshire.  Thomas was a landowner who was became a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of King Edward VI.  Dorothy’s brother John Gates was knighted at the same ceremony and served as a member of the Privy Chamber for King Henry VIII and for King Edward VI.

Both Dorothy and John were distantly related to Sir Anthony Denny, a key member of King Henry VIII’s council.  In fact, John married Sir Anthony’s sister.  During the final illness of Henry VIII, John Gates and Anthony Denny had control of the dry stamp of the king’s signature which gave John an enormous amount of influence, making him well placed to help out his sister and other family members.

The letters between Dorothy and John reveal that Dorothy was assertive and quite shrewd when it came to business and possibly more influential than her own husband.  She continuously writes in the first person singular and spoke of their joint concerns as hers.  The Earl of Oxford expelled Dorothy’s husband from his office of keeper of Stansted Park in 1542 and Dorothy wrote to John with a detailed account of the incident and discussed plans to secure his reinstatement.

In another letter she openly chastises her husband for attempting to settle the case informally, believing he would get a more advantageous settlement from the crown.  In the end, Dorothy’s influence paid off when King Henry commanded Oxford to restore Thomas Josselyn to the position or send two representatives to the Privy Council to explain why he didn’t do so.  In 1542, she wrote to her brother asking for his support and influence when her husband was implicated in a case of forgery.

Dorothy was keenly interested in acquiring and investing in real estate and wardships.  Because there was always vigorous competition for these types of properties, Dorothy called upon her brother for assistance.  In one case, she attempted to acquire a wardship from a certain Mr. Darcy.  She told John she was annoyed with Darcy because he raised the price of the wardship once he knew Dorothy and her husband were interested.  Dorothy was also worried the ward would die before they collected any income from his inheritance.

Darcy and the Josselyn’s finally agreed on a price.  Darcy also agreed to refund their money if the ward died before his fourteenth birthday.  Before the deal was closed, Dorothy asked her brother to appraise the value of the ward’s property and to make sure it was not tied up by a will, jointure, or mortgage.  This proves she knew the ins and outs of land transactions and was highly capable of protecting her own interests.

In return for providing her advice and favors, Dorothy conducted her brother’s business in Essex where he was an MP and sheriff while he was away at court.  One example in her letters recounts the death of a local landowner.  She tells John “If his land can do you pleasure, being copyhold, let me have knowledge about what ye would have done therein and I shall be glad to accomplish your desire”.  Dorothy also helped John recruit soldiers for the war with France in 1544 along with the supplies needed.  She wrote to tell him she regretted not being able to see him before he left the country, perhaps because she was pregnant at the time.

Dorothy had at least seven children, six of which survived to marry.  Dorothy’s husband died in 1562.  Dorothy made her will in 1579 but lived several more years, dying on February 11, 1581 at Sawbridge in Hertfordshire.  Unfortunately, Sir John came to a bad end.  He was part of the intrigue to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne upon the death of King Edward VI.  He was tried and found guilty of treason and was executed on Tower Hill on August 22, 1553.


Further reading: “English Aristocratic Women 1450-1550” by Barbara J. Harris, entry on Sir John Gates in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Narasingha P. Sil, “The Rise and Fall of Sir John Gates” article written by Narasingha P. Sil in Historical Journal, 24 (1981), pgs. 929-43