Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk

14th April 2021

Lincolnshire’s Greatest Tudor Woman
a Zoom presentation by Adrian Gray

This was the second talk by Adrian Gray and proved very informative and enjoyable. Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk is a little known figure in Tudor history but, as our speaker demonstrated, she led an extraordinary, exciting and at times, dangerous life in those turbulent times.

Born into a very wealthy, Catholic, Lincolnshire family, her mother was a close friend of Queen Katherine of Aragon and was present at her death. Katherine became a very wealthy woman on the death of her father and married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, the close friend of Henry V111 – she was 14 years old and he 49 years. Despite the age difference the marriage was successful and the couple had two fine boys.

Katherine turned from the Catholic background she inherited while married to Suffolk. Following the troubles in Lincolnshire where Catholic monks protested about the closing of the monasteries, Suffolk took a lead role in putting down this minor rebellion. He consolidated his Lincolnshire estates and was rewarded with lands from the monastic estates. Lincolnshire would turn from being a Catholic centre to one of extreme Protestantism in the next few decades.

Katherine lost her two fine boys while they were at Cambridge University and within an hour of each other to the ‘sweating sickness’, a dread disease. Despite this, the morning after their death she was seen praising the lord. Her friendship with Queen Katherine Parr, herself a radical protestant could have put Katherine in danger, however the death of Henry VIII saved both of them. In 1546 Katherine Willoughby published Queen Katherine book, the first book ever written by an English Queen.

Katherine attracted amazing influential friends who espoused extreme Protestantism, for example Latimer who was burnt at the stake in Queen Mary Tudor’s reign. A very wealthy widow, she chose to marry a man who was not her social equal in estate, but in faith, Richard Bertie. The couple had two more children.

When Queen Mary came to the throne, it was time to flee. Katherine was by now a very well known and highly influential leading Protestant woman. Had she stayed in England her life would at risk. Moving to Germany the couple set up a English church at Wesel then Weinheim Castle where they met Miles Coverdale who became a tutor to their children. Ending up in Poland they were asked by the King to govern Lithuania which they did for a period!

Katherine returned to England on the accession of Elizabeth 1. Elizabeth’s church settlement was not however, radical enough for her, for example vestments were still worn and some catholic rituals were observed. It was time to leave court and establish her own church outside of that of the Church of England in London. She returned finally to live the rest of her life in her native Lincolnshire, where she established Puritan congregations in villages all over the county. Radical clergymen men of her own mind were appointed, giving rise to a solid network of Puritan ministers and congregations who would by James 1 finally escape the confines of the English established church to flee to the United States aboard the Mayflower.

Katherine, a Lincolnshire woman was a figure of national, and international importance in Tudor times. As with her own conversion, she witnessed Lincolnshire turning from conservative to progressive ways, from extreme Catholicism to radical Puritanism. Katherine herself played a very significant role in this as one of Tudor England’s most radical reformers.

To see a recording of this talk please email Pat Smedley at: