My history hero: Julia Donaldson chooses Katherine Howard, Lady Aubigny (d1650)

Julia Donaldson, children’s writer, chooses noblewoman and royalist Katherine Howard, Lady Aubigny as her history hero

A c1638 oil painting of Katherine Howard, Lady Aubigny

Katherine Howard, Lady Aubigny: in profile

Katherine Howard, Lady Aubigny was a noblewoman and royalist during the Civil War. In 1638 she married her first husband, George Stewart, 9th Seigneur d’Aubigny, who was killed at the battle of Edgehill (1642). She was later imprisoned in the Tower of London for her royalist activities. After being released she tried but failed to free Charles I from captivity. Following his execution she fled to the Netherlands with her second husband, James Livingston, Earl of Newburgh, where she died in 1650, age unknown.

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When did you first hear about Katherine Howard?

When studying 17th-century English history for A-level. I went to a talk by the historian CV Wedgwood, and I was so inspired by her account of the part played by Katherine Howard, Lady Aubigny, in the Civil War. She had been an active royalist and smuggled a commission of array [a summons to arms] from King Charles I concealed in her hair. I thought that sounded so romantic!

I contacted her [Wedgwood] to find out more, and she wrote a very nice letter back. There and then I resolved to discover more about her, with a view to writing Katherine’s biography. I spent much of the three months between school and university in the manuscript room of the British Museum. My hands shook when I was allowed to examine letters written to her in code by Charles I when he was imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle.

What kind of woman was she?

Katherine was obviously very adventurous, and also rather rebellious and independent: she went against her Protestant father’s wishes by secretly marrying the Catholic George Stewart, 9th Seigneur d’Aubigny (who was later killed at the battle of Edgehill). But she was also quite a diplomat. During the interregnum, when she had fled to the continent, she was at pains to reconcile the different factions who wanted the monarchy to be restored.

What was her finest hour?

Apart from smuggling the commission of array in her hair, she later attempted to prevent the king’s execution. He was allowed to stay with her and her second husband, James Livingston, Viscount Newburgh, on his way from the Isle of Wight to London; the couple reputedly possessed the fastest horse in the country and planned for Charles to escape on it, but their plot was thwarted.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about Katherine?

As a teenager, I was very much on the side of the Cavaliers, finding the Roundheads rather dull and prosaic. Nowadays, however, I don’t think that I would necessarily share Katherine’s royalist political views.

Have you ever thought of writing a children’s book about her?

When I was 18, I did actually begin to write her biography – though it wasn’t really intended for children. I covered her childhood and got as far as her secret marriage. I do sometimes fantasise about completing the book – but the trouble is that so much would be guesswork, as the records are very scanty.

What would you ask Katherine if you could meet her?

I’d ask her to write her autobiography!

Julia Donaldson, a former Children’s Laureate, is best known for her books The Gruffalo and Stick Man. Her latest book, The Hospital Dog, is out now. She was taking to York Membery

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This article was first published in the February 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine