Catherine Willoughby

Lady Catherine Willoughby, who died on this date in 1580, was an amazing woman.

When her father died, Henry VIII gave wardship over the rich young orphan to his friend and brother-in-law, Charles Brandon (the Duke of Suffolk). She was engaged to marry one of Brandon’s sons, but after the death of Duke’s wife Suffolk opted to marry his ward himself. Brandon was forty-nine years old, while Catherine was only fourteen.

(Marriage between a middle-aged man and a young girl was not uncommon in this era. This is yet another reason why I don’t have a yen to time travel.)

In spite of the disparity in their ages, Catherine and Brandon seemed to have been happy together. She and Suffolk had two sons, Henry and Charles. The Duke died in 1545, leaving his Duchess a very wealthy widow. Although rich, single women like Catherine were sought-after prizes for men of the Tudor Court, she resisted any attempts to cajole her into matrimony again. Catherine had bigger fish to fry; an intelligent. well-connected, and strong-willed woman, she had become an important supporter of the English Reformation.

Unfortunately, Catherine’s life came crashing down around her ears in the summer of 1551 when both of her teenaged sons died of the sweating sickness. This event left her, understandably, emotionally devestated. She did not let her immense grief destroy her, however, but used her Protestant faith to sustain her. She wed a fellow Protestant, Richard Bertie, in 1553. Bertie had served the Duchess as her Master of the Horse and Gentleman Usher, so their union was kept secret as long as possible due to its scandalous nature.

Catherine and Bertie appeared to have had a happy marriage, even though it was a politically eventful one. The couple had their lands confiscated and were forced to to flee England during the reign of the staunchly Catholic “Bloody” Mary I. Their devout religious beliefs kept them away from England until their fellow Protestant, Elizabeth I, came to the throne. They had two children, a daughter named Susan and a son named Peregrine, both of whom thankfully survived to adulthood and married.

There is a distressing lack of biographies about this incredible Duchess, which I think is a crying shame. She is profiled in books such as Women of the Reformation: France and England by Roland Herbert Bainton and Five Women of the Reformation by Paul F. M. Zahl, but this hardly seems adequate to do justice to her.

May she rest in peace.

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