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Death of Catherine Willoughby: A Successful Life with Two Happy Marriages

Updated on March 22, 2014
A drawing of Catherine Willoughby by Hans Holbein the Younger
A drawing of Catherine Willoughby by Hans Holbein the Younger

On September 19, 1580, Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, passed away. Other names included Catherine Brandon (after her marriage to Charles Brandon) and Catherine Bertie (after her marriage to Richard Bertie). At one point, it was rumoured that Henry VIII of England was looking at Catherine to become his seventh wife, while he was still married to Catherine Parr.

Catherine Willoughby: A Close Member of Catherine of Aragon’s Household

Catherine was born on March 22, 1519, and was thrown into the world of the upper class and nobility from the beginning. Her mother was Maria de Salinas was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon when she was still in Spain and they became close friends. Catherine was brought to the English court but cared for at Parham since her mother constantly attended on the Queen of England.

Due to her father’s death in 1526 and being an only child after her brothers’ deaths as infants, Catherine inherited the barony and soon became in prospect for many noblemen in England. She was one of the greatest heiresses of her time, owning more than around 90 manors in Lincolnshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. Some of her inheritance was disputed though. It was unclear which ones could only be inherited by males and which ones could be inherited by females. It meant that her father’s brother, Sir Christopher Willoughby, may have actually inherited some of the manors.

Catherine became the king’s ward after his death, who then sold it to Charles Brandon on March 1, 1528. Charles was the king’s brother-in-law by this point after the marriage between Charles and Mary Tudor. One of the first things for Charles to do was intervene on his ward’s behalf. He wrote to Cardinal Wolsey, which stopped Christopher Willoughby in his tracks for now. According to Catherine’s uncle, the Cardinal’s anger was worse than death for him. The inheritance was all hers.

Charles Brandon Makes His Intentions Clear in The Tudors

Catherine Willoughby Is Betrothed to Henry Brandon

Charles Brandon didn’t intervene purely out of kindness. The ulterior motive was to make sure the inheritance would end up in his family’s hands. At the time he was married to Mary Tudor, so the best thing for him was to betroth Catherine to his older son with the king’s sister, Henry Brandon, 1st Earl of Lincoln. Both were under 10 at the time.

Catherine became very close to Mary and her family. In fact, she was chief mourner at Mary’s funeral in 1533. However, this is possibly because of Charles’ apparent interest in the young woman. In 1531, a rumour spread around Anne Boleyn’s household that Charles wanted Catherine for himself. There must have been some truth to that rumour. It took just six weeks for Charles to marry Catherine after Mary’s death! Charles took his son’s betrothed and didn’t even wait a year after his wife’s death.

Catherine was just 14-years-old when she became the Duchess of Suffolk. Charles, on the other hand, was 49. However, surprisingly for some the marriage was successful. The death of his son, Henry, in 1534, fell around the same time as the birth of his second son, also named Henry Brandon. This was the first son for Catherine and he was born September 18, 1534.

Catherine found herself back in the folds of the English Court. As the Duchess of Suffolk, she cared for King Henry VIII’s nieces and nephews—one of those being the mother of Lady Jane Grey—and had to carry out various royal duties, including greeting Anne of Cleves and arrange Katherine Howard’s royal progress—the same progress that led to Katherine Howard’s downfall.

Catherine Willoughby and Katherine Parr were extremely close friends
Catherine Willoughby and Katherine Parr were extremely close friends

Catherine Willoughby: Reformist Sympathiser and Friend of Katherine Parr

Catherine enjoyed learning and during Henry VIII’s final years, she was supportive of the English Reformation. She didn’t keep this quiet and it led to forming a close friendship with Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. She was actually the reason for the queen consort’s own religious beliefs. It almost caused the downfall of Katherine Parr, who had grown controversial and found that her arrest was ordered. Katherine had to use her own wit to avoid losing her head.

Catherine Willoughby was very outspoken. People knew of the people she didn’t like, especially Bishop Gardiner. She had a pet spaniel who was called Gardiner as it allowed for amusement when calling for him. She was also happy when the bishop was arrested during Edward VI’s reign.

During her time at court, she had clearly made her presence known. After Charles’ death in 1545, Henry VIII was rumoured to consider marrying her. Part of the reason for this rumour was that Katherine was said to be sterile and Henry still wanted to produce another heir for the throne; Prince Edward was not enough. However, Katherine managed to save her head and her marriage. It would be interesting to know Catherine Willoughby’s answer to that marriage proposal. She had seen how Henry had treated every single wife.

Despite the rumours, Catherine and Katherine remained strong friends, even after Henry VIII’s death on January 28, 1547. When the dowager queen wanted to publish her book, The Lamentation of a Sinner, the young Catherine helped. Her own coat of arms was also used on various books by John Day from 1548.

Catherine Willoughby in Henry VIII's Court

The mini portrait of Catherine Willoughby
The mini portrait of Catherine Willoughby

Catherine Willoughby Becomes Custodian to Children

Despite having her own children, Catherine found herself custodian to others. One of those was the daughter of the dowager queen. Katherine died after giving birth of Mary Seymour and Thomas Seymour was executed shortly afterwards. It is unclear what happened and whether Catherine wanted the position that was thrust upon her. There is one letter where she is asking for help supporting the child but then all records of her stop.

Another child that she became custodian of was Lady Mary Grey, a younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, and her step-granddaughter. Mary was under house arrest at the time because she married without consent from the monarch at the time.

Catherine possibly thought life was perfect until 1551. Her sons became ill with the sweating sickness—one lived just an extra hour. It was a devastating time for the duchess but she didn’t let it stop her. She started a new life, which led to the marriage to Richard Bertie. This marriage was out of love, as she had grown close to him while he worked within her household. They were both reformers and enjoyed a happy marriage until her death in 1580.

Catherine kept the title Duchess of Suffolk and tried to bring her husband into the nobility. She wanted him to take her father’s title, Lord Willoughby de Eresby, but this was unsuccessful. It didn’t help that she found her new family exiled during Mary I’s reign due to their religious beliefs. They returned to England after Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne.

Catherine did have more children with Bertie. She had a daughter, Susan, and son, Peregrine, who did take the title 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby.

She died at the age of 61, which was good for Tudor England. She had seen four Tudor monarchs on the throne and attended the Court of three of them. She was lucky to enjoy two successful and happy marriages, despite the first being manipulation for Charles Brandon.

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