The Life of Katherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk

Sophie Wallace

The Marriage of Katherine and Charles Brandon

September 7th 1533. While King Henry grapples with the news that Queen Anne Boleyn has given birth to a girl, his oldest friend Charles Brandon marries for the fourth time. His bride was Katherine Willoughby and the scandal wrote itself: Katherine was 14 years old to Brandon’s 49; she was meant to be marrying Brandon’s son; and as his ward, she had been raised for the past five years by his recently deceased wife. However, despite all these factors, it appears that Katherine and Charles Brandon had a happy and successful marriage. Katherine, as the Duchess of Suffolk, was one of the highest ranking women at the Tudor court. She was present at many royal events; as the second mourner at Catherine of Aragon’s funeral; greeting Anna of Cleves on her arrival in England; hosting King Henry and Catherine Howard on their Royal Progress up to York. But it was during Henry’s marriage to Catherine Parr that Katherine really came to the foreground. Katherine’s mother, Maria de Salinas, was one of Catherine of Aragon’s most loyal ladies, remaining devoted to her royal mistress and the Catholic religion. However Katherine did not hold the same beliefs as her mother. She was passionate about the reformed religion, and used her influence to progress the cause. She was close to Queen Catherine Parr and a key figure amongst advocates for religious reform during the 1540s. Conservatives at court viewed her as a danger, and unsuccessfully attempted to neutralise her by implicating her in the trial of Anne Askew in 1546.
<strong>The Life of Katherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk</strong>
Katherine Brandon

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<strong>The Life of Katherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk</strong>
Possibly Charles Brandon

The death of Charles Brandon

The death of Charles Brandon in 1545 could have left Katherine in a precarious position, but the wealth he left her, along with her intelligence, fiery temper and powerful friends made her a force to be reckoned with. Just two years after Charles’ death, Katherine was said to rule Lincolnshire, where the majority of the Brandon estates were. Following Charles’ death, there were rumours that Henry was eyeing Katherine up as his seventh wife, but although they were given currency at the time (worrying the conservative faction at court and angering Catherine Parr) there is no evidence that this was ever a real option. Her friendship with Catherine remained strong: she was one of the first people to know when the Dowager Queen secretly married Thomas Seymour, even jokingly naming her new stallion and mare “Seymour” and “Parr” after the couple. Following Catherine’s death and Thomas’ execution, their daughter Mary was placed under Katherine’s care. However Katherine found the financial burden of supporting this young girl arduous, writing to William Cecil that if she did not receive a pension soon, she would not be able to support Mary any further. Her own sons with Charles Brandon died in 1551: both victims of the sweating sickness and dying within an hour of each other. Katherine was devastated but in the coming years found happiness again with her second husband. It was a love match; her husband, Richard Bertie, had served for several years as her Master of Horse. Together they faced a hard few years when Mary I came to the throne. Rather than conform to the return to the Catholic church, Katherine left for Europe as a religious exile, ignoring commands to return to England until Elizabeth I was crowned and she felt it was safe to do so. The remainder of Katherine’s life saw her happy, with a growing family, but the perils of the Tudor court were never far away. In 1567, her step-granddaughter, Lady Mary Grey, was sent to live with her in disgrace, following her secret marriage to a man far beneath her in her station – a reminder of how precarious the choice to marry for love could be in the 16th century. 47 years after her first scandalous marriage, in September 1580, Katherine Brandon died aged 61. She had lived a long and full life, in touching distance of some of the greatest scandals and changes within the Tudor court, but managed to survive them all and come out on top as a rich, safe woman, with a family and loving husband – no mean feat for a 16th century woman.
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<strong>The Life of Katherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk</strong>

Sophie Wallace

I’m a historian and blogger, with a focus on scandal, sex and relationships in history, particularly in the Early Modern period.
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