by Ella March Chase
Anne Boleyn was executed for lack of a son. Katherine of Aragon was divorced because none of her sons lived. Jane Seymour was smart enough to bear a son and then die before Henrv VIII could tire of her, thus gaining an almost saint-like image in the notorious king’s eyes. Arguably the most infamous period in English history took place during the years when Henry VIII married six times, broke with the Catholic Church and was excommunicated in his quest for a healthy son to inherit the crown.
Years later, when his daughter Elizabeth Tudor inherited the throne, she was harangued by her advisors for most of her reign because she refused to marry and produce an heir of her body. Ask any lover of Tudor history what the first duty of a woman of noble blood was, the answer would be ‘to produce a healthy son and heir.”
But many people do not know of a more obscure princess of the blood who was imprisoned in the tower as a result of the fact that she bore not one, but two healthy boys with royal Tudor blood in their veins: Sons born in the Tower of London who defied the odds and lived to grow up—healthy and strong.
What was this fecund Princess of the Blood’s name? Lady Katherine Grey, younger sister of The Nine Days Queen, Lady Jane Grey, one of the three Grey sisters who captured my heart and inspired my newest release, Three Maids for a Crown. Who was Lady Katherine Grey? Second daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk-- Henry Grey and Frances Brandon Grey. Great granddaughter of Henry VIII’s favorite sister, the exquisite ‘Tudor Rose’ and former Queen of France, Mary Rose Tudor. Lady Katherine’s Tudor bloodline carried with it a tale of high romance, for after a loveless marriage to the elderly king of France, Mary Rose Tudor eloped with King Henry’s lifelong best friend, the dashing Charles Brandon. In spite of Henry’s outrage, ruinous fines and threats of further reprisals, the king eventually forgave the pair and they were allowed their happy ending.
One can imagine the delight Katherine took in that tale. She was the reputed beauty of the family, said to resemble her famous ancestor. A girl who loved pretty clothes where her sober, studious elder sister Jane favored more severe Protestant garb. Katherine had the gift for charming those who met her while Jane tended to be blunt—often to a fault—and have no time for frivolous pursuits. Their younger sister, Lady Mary, was so small some sources described her as a dwarf and she was labeled with a cruel nickname at court: Crouchback Mary.
When Lady Jane was named queen by the dying King Edward VI, supplanting the claims of Henry
VIII’s “bastard” daughters Mary and Elizabeth, the world must have seemed a glittering prospect for Katherine. But tables turned with alarming speed, “Queen Jane” deposed because the English people rallied around the eldest daughter of Henry VIII. Queen Mary was eventually coerced into executing Jane as a condition to marrying Philip of Spain. But the Catholic Mary had affection for her Grey cousins, making Lady Katherine a Lady of the Bedchamber and considering her as a possible heir in place of Elizabeth.
Saddened by the execution of Jane and their father for high treason, laboring under the pressure of serving the Queen who signed their death warrant, Katherine’s health began to fail. Queen Mary sent her to the Seymour family’s home of Hanworth to heal. There, she fell in love with Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. Edward understood the shock of losing loved ones to the axe, his father and uncle had both died on Tower Hill. Edward’s family had plunged from the highest offices in the land to disgrace, financial ruin and obscurity.
The two wished to marry, but before they could get the royal permission necessary by law for a princess of the blood to wed, Queen Mary died, Elizabeth Tudor rising in her place. Elizabeth had an understandable dislike of her Grey cousins who, from the time of Katherine of Aragon had sided with those who loathed Anne Boleyn. The Greys had made no secret of the fact that they considered Elizabeth a bastard, possibly not even the king’s real daughter since Boleyn had been condemned of adultery. Greys had snubbed Elizabeth at every turn, attempted to strike her from the succession twice.
Another consideration—Katherine’s beauty. For all her admirable qualities, Elizabeth was also jealous and vain and her beloved Robert Dudley who would become Earl of Leicester, had a distinct weakness for beautiful red heads.
Despite the risk, sometime in October 1560 Lady Katherine claimed a toothache so she could stay behind when Queen Elizabeth went hunting. Then Katherine and her best friend crept out to where Edward Seymour waited with a priest to marry them. (Anglican officials were also called priests at this time). They were keeping things so secret only one witness was present: Edward’s sister and Katherine’s best friend, Lady Jane Seymour.
The lovers met in secret, their time together saddened as Lady Jane grew ill and died. Soon after, Edward was sent to the continent by the queen who felt he was becoming too attached to Lady Katherine Grey. But their marriage was not to remain secret much longer.
Katherine was pregnant, though too horrified at the prospect of facing the queen to allow herself to believe it. Finally, when she was so pregnant she could see the baby moving inside her, the desperate young woman flung herself on the mercy of Robert Dudley, going to his bedroom in the middle of the night to plead for Dudley’s intercession.
Leicester was justifiably appalled. What would the Queen think if she discovered a beautiful, pregnant young woman in his bedchamber? Come morning, he raced to the queen and told her everything.
Never secure on her throne, Elizabeth knew this child—born of unquestionably legitimate noble parents—could mean disaster for her. She was already menaced by Mary, Queen of Scots’ claim.
Elizabeth’s own sister, Queen Mary, had made a disastrous marriage to a foreigner, embroiling England in Spanish affairs despite her best efforts to prevent it. Religious persecution of those of the Reformed Religion had resulted in martyrs burned at the stake at Smithfield. English Protestants were determined this would never happen again.
Elizabeth was showing reluctance to marry at all. If she did marry a foreign prince, entangled loyalties might again burden England. When Lady Katherine Grey delivered a healthy son in the Tower of London, the danger was even greater. Here was a legitimate descendant of Henry VIII’s line, wed to a Protestant English nobleman, who had produced the rarest of commodities: a healthy Tudor prince of the blood who could be heir and secure the succession.
Elizabeth’s only recourse was to demand they produce the priest who married them and a witness to the ceremony. Edward Seymour could not find the priest and Jane Seymour was dead. The baby was labeled illegitimate, the marriage invalid.
Katherine and Edward were imprisoned near each other, but their plight excited much sympathy beyond the Tower walls and, more importantly within. Their jailer allowed husband and wife to visit each other in secret. Again, Katherine conceived, infuriating Elizabeth further by bearing a second healthy son.
Pamphlets spread across England defending the lovers and calling for their release. Elizabeth’s advisors told her she should follow Lady Katherine’s example and marry and bear children herself. The enraged Elizabeth separated the lovers for what would be the last time—sending their older son with his father while sending Lady Katherine and baby Thomas to the care of her uncle. The pair was forbidden to have any written contact with each other.
Elizabeth never relented. Lady Katherine did not see her husband or eldest son again. She died of consumption—and, some believe, a broken heart. She and Edward Seymour never stopped loving each other and Edward never stopped searching for the priest who could prove their marriage legal.
Fifty years after their wedding, Edward did find the priest. But by then, King James was in power and it was in his best interests not to legitimize Lady Katherine Grey’s sons.
In one of the strange twists of history, their grandson followed in the recklessly romantic footsteps of Charles Brandon and Mary Rose Tudor, Edward Seymour and Lady Katherine Grey. He married Arbella Stuart in secret and the pair attempted to flee to France to avoid the wrath of King James. Arbella was captured and imprisoned in the Tower.
One of the most poignant accounts of Katherine Grey describes her in the Tower, her chamber decorated with many of the old furnishings she would have remembered from her sister’s brief reign.
Her rooms were filled with little toy spaniels and a mischievous pet monkey as she lavished love on her little sons and hoped, prayed, believed and planned for the day she and her husband could be together, live a quiet, country life with their sons.
When Edward wed his beloved Katherine, he gave her a puzzle ring, its loops engraved with a poem he had written her:
As circles five by art compact show but one ring in sight, So trust uniteth faithful minds with knot of secret might,
Whose force to break (but greedy death no wight possesseth power),
As time and sequels well shall prove, my ring can say no more.
Their love did endure—a knot of secret might. Despite all their tribulations, Katherine’s last thoughts were of her husband. She wrote to Elizabeth, pleading for the queen to forgive and pardon Edward Seymour after Katherine died. Her last letter to her husband declared her love for him and her happiness that she could call herself his wife. She sent to Edward her puzzle ring, their youngest son and a mourning ring with a death’s head upon it. It was engraved with the words: While I lived, yours.