Princess Elizabeth began the year of 1536 as a ‘High and mighty Royal Princess’ and ended it as just another royal bastard. Her mother Queen Anne Boleyn was executed for treason and adultery on 19th May 1536 and from that moment her daughter’s world was turned upside down.
Lady Bryan was Elizabeth’s mother figure and when the infant Prince Edward entered the world all of the affection and attention that had once been lavished on Elizabeth was transferred immediately to her father’s new heir. The birth of a sibling can be difficult time for all children but when Elizabeth’s stepmother Jane Seymour died unexpectedly two weeks after giving birth in 1537 once again the little girl’s life was thrown into confusion.
It is easy for adults to presume that Elizabeth was too young to notice the compounding emotional events which surrounded her in her early life and she never spoke her mother’s name publicly in her lifetime. However after the queen’s death a ring had become imbedded in to her skin and had to be cut off. Inside a secret compartment was found which hid a portrait of her mother. Elizabeth surrounded herself with her mother’s relatives and as a child wore Anne’s jewellery in Royal portraits. She adopted her mother’s motto “Semper Eidem” which is Latin for “always the same.”
We will never know how much Elizabeth was troubled by the frequent changes in her family life but we do know that she was a bright child. Elizabeth noticed her loss of Status and title immediately and asked, “How haps it… yesterday I was my Lady Princess and today but my Lady Elizabeth?”
In July 1536, two months after her dramatic loss of status, Katherine Champernowne entered Elizabeth’s life as her waiting gentlewoman. According to Dr. David Starkey (2000), Kat was the daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne of Bere and Modbury in Devon.
A year later she became Elizabeth’s governess. It was in these early and emotionally challenging years that a close bond grew between them. It was from her beloved, ‘Kat’ that Elizabeth learned: mathematics, Flemish, astronomy, geography, history, French, Italian and Spanish.
Elizabeth said later in life that Kat took, “…great labour and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty.” It could be suggested that Elizabeth was biased about her governess because by this time the two women had become lifelong friends. Roger Ascham, the great Tudor educationalist, was not biased and he sang Kat’s praises.
In 1545 Katherine married Sir John Ashley a Boleyn cousin who was Princess Elizabeth’s senior gentleman attendant. Kat was over the age of 40 at the time of the wedding and the couple had no children and so Kat continued to work for Elizabeth.
Henry VIII died in January 1547 and was succeeded by his nine year old son Edward VI. The French Ambassador reported that Thomas Seymour, one of the boy King’s famous uncles had considered making suits of marriage towards Anne of Cleves, Lady Mary or her 13 year old sister Elizabeth.
The Lord Protector, Thomas’ brother Edward, refused his marriage requests saying that, ‘neither of them were born to be King or to marry a King’s daughter.’
Thomas immediately began courting the dowager Queen Catherine Parr in secret. Parr’s passion for Seymour is revealed in a letter she wrote to him shortly after the death of Henry VIII.
Catherine wrote to Seymour: “I would not have you think that this mine honest good will toward you to proceed from any sudden motion of passion… my mind was fully bent, the other time I was at liberty, to marry you before any man I know…” In other words Catherine was in love with Thomas before her marriage to Henry VIII.
Thomas realised that the Council which was led by his brother, would reject the proposal. The couple had began an affair so soon after the King’s death that if she had become pregnant, there would have been uncertainty about whether the child was Seymour’s or Henry’s. This could have been seen as treasonous because it would put doubt on the Royal succession. Rumours were flying that the couple had married within four days of Henry’s death.
Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour
Kat Ashley confronted Thomas Seymour in St. James Park after a chance meeting. According to Skidmore (2008) Seymour boasted to Kat that he would marry the Queen. Kat snorted and told Thomas, “I heard you are already married to her.”
Thomas had begun to see the boy king in private and managed to get the boy to endorse his marriage. When Somerset discovered the marriage he may well have been livid with his brother but there was very little he could do now that the couple had Royal approval.
Thomas wrote to other family members hoping to gain their support for his ‘suit’ when in fact he was already married the Queen Dowager. The following letter from the Lady Mary suggests that she not only knew of Seymour’s reputation with women but that she had a good measure of his character. The letter implies that she knew about the secret marriage and did not approve of it.
Considering whose wife her Grace was of late… My letters shall do you but small pleasure… If remembrance of My Father the Kings majesty will not suffer her to grant your suit… I am nothing able to persuade her to forget the loss of him… Wooing matters set apart, wherein I am but a maid am nothing cunning.
Implying that perhaps others were very cunning when it came to wooing matters. Mary left the queens household shortly after writing this letter thus wisely turning her feelings about Seymour into action. The thirteen year old Elizabeth stayed on and this would later to prove to be a serious mistake.
Catherine Parr was thirty-five when she became pregnant by her new husband. She had been widowed three times before but this was her first pregnancy. Thomas’ eyes soon wandered to her step daughter Elizabeth.
Kat Ashley stated that Thomas: …would come many mornings into the Lady Elizabeth’s chamber, before she were ready, and sometimes before she did rise. And if she were up, he would bid her good morrow, and ask how she did, and strike her upon the back or on the buttocks familiarly, and so go forth through his lodgings; and sometime go through to the maidens and play with them, and so go forth… If Lady Elizabeth was in bed, he would… make as though he would come at her. And he would go further into the bed, so that he could not come at her.
On one occasion Ashley saw Seymour try to kiss her while she was in bed and the governess told him to “go away for shame”. Seymour became bolder and would come up every morning in his nightgown, “barelegged in his slippers”. Ashley also said that the Queen Dowager held Elizabeth so that she could not run away, while Seymour had cut her gown into a hundred pieces. Why Parr allowed this to happen is a mystery but in May 1548 Catherine “came suddenly upon them, where they were all alone, he having her (Elizabeth) in his arms. Later that month Elizabeth was sent away to stay with Sir Anthony Denny and his wife, at Cheshunt.
After leaving Elizabeth wrote to Catherine Parr: I was replete with sorrow to depart from your highness, especially leaving you undoubtful of health. And albeit I answered little, I weighed it more deeper when you said you would warn me of all evils that you should hear of me; for if your grace had not a good opinion of me, you would not have offered friendship to me that way that all men judge the contrary.
Catherine Parr gave birth to a daughter, Mary, on 30th August 1548. Catherine, thirty-six years old, died on 5th September 1548, of puerperal fever six days after the birth of her daughter.
Katherine Ashley said that Elizabeth took the news of the queen’s death very badly. She refused to leave her b for the next five months. Rumours were spreading throughout the Kingdom that Elizabeth was pregnant by Seymour and this was believed by many to be the true reason for her confinement.
Thomas Seymour regularly visited Edward VI’s bedchamber and gave the King money and sweets to gain influence over him. When his brother Edward discovered this he put a watch on all doors leading into the king’s privy chamber in order to prevent Thomas’ gaining clandestine entry.
One evening Thomas found the door to Edward’s bedchamber bolted; enraged, he shot dead the king’s barking dog. Somerset was given copies of letters that Thomas had been passing to the King. Edward ordered his brother’s arrest in January, 1549. Kat was arrested too and interviewed by Sir Robert Tyrwhitt. She gave accounts of Thomas Seymour’s relationship with Elizabeth.
On 28th January, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the Lord Protector denying that she was pregnant: “Master Tyrwhit and others have told me that there goeth rumours abroad which be greatly both against my honour and honesty, which, above all other things, I esteem, which be these, that I am in the Tower, and with child by my Lord Admiral (Thomas Seymour). My lord, these are shameful slanders, for the which, besides the great desire I have to see the king’s majesty, I shall most heartily desire your lordship that I may show myself there as I am.”
Sir Robert Tyrwhitt attempted to discover if Katherine Ashley, Elizabeth and Sir Thomas Parry were involved in a marriage plot with Thomas Seymour. None of them confessed and Tyrwhitt said, “They all sing the same song and so I think they would not do, unless they had set the note before.” However, without confessions, Tyrwhitt was forced to release Ashley and Parry but Seymour was charged with treason. He had attempted and gone about to marry the King’s Majesty’s sister, the Lady Elizabeth.
On 20th March, 1549, Seymour was beheaded on Tower Hill. A message for Lady Elizabeth was found sewn into his velvet shoes. Bishop Latimer commented: “… surely he was a wicked man, and the realm is well rid of him.” Elizabeth said “This day died a man of much wit and very little judgment.”
Kat was dismissed as Elizabeth’s governess for her role in the Thomas Seymour affair. Elizabeth was devastated by the loss of Kate and she “wept and then sulked”. Sir Robert Tyrwhitt reported to Edward Seymour that the young princess was in despair because she missed Kat so much.Katherine Ashley was reinstated by 1551 and When Mary I died in 1558, Kat was made the Lady of the Bedchamber.
Another scandal occurred early in Elizabeth’s reign when it became apparent that the queen preferred Robert Dudley’s company to any other man.
The Spanish ambassador the Duke of Feria, wrote to King Philip: “During the last few days Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does what he likes with affairs and it is even said that her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and that the Queen is only waiting for her to die so she can marry Lord Robert.”
Kat warned Elizabeth about the rumours and lectured the queen about the need to protect her reputation. The Queen replied that she was always surrounded by her ladies and servants and that a thousand eyes saw everything she did all the time.
Kat Ashley and Elizabeth I
Katherine Ashley died in London on 18th July 1565 much to the queen’s great distress.
David Starkey (2000) Elizabeth.
David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003)
Alison Weir (1996). The Children of England. Random House.
Linda Porter: Mary Tudor (2010) Piatkus
Chris Skidmore (2008) Edward VI. The Lost King of England phoenix
Eric Ives, (2004) The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: (2004)