In February 1546, the imperial ambassador François van der Delft wrote to his master, Holy Roman emperor Charles V, to acquaint him with a story he had heard circulating in aristocratic and diplomatic circles. “Sire, I am confused and apprehensive to inform your majesty,” he began apologetically, “that there are rumours here of a new queen, although I do not know why, or how true it may be. Some people attribute it to the sterility of the present queen [Katherine Parr] whilst others say that there will be no change whilst the present war [with France] lasts. Madame Suffolk is much talked about, and is in great favour; but the king shows no alteration in his demeanour towards the queen, though the latter, as I am informed, is somewhat annoyed at the rumours.”
The speculation had reached Europe by early March when Stephen Vaughan, the king’s agent in Antwerp, advised lord chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and diplomat William Paget that: “This day came to my lodging a… merchant of this town, saying that he had dined with certain friends, one of whom offered to lay a wager with him that the king’s majesty would have another wife; and he prayed me to show him the truth. He would not tell me who offered the wager, and I said that I never heard of any such thing, and that there was no such thing. Many folks talk of this matter, and from whence it comes I cannot learn.”
‘Madame Suffolk’ was Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, the widow of King Henry’s closest friend, Charles Brandon, who had died in August 1545. Married to Brandon in 1533 when she was 14 and he nearly 50, Katherine had many opportunities to meet the king socially in the 1530s and 1540s. Henry undoubtedly liked her – they began exchanging new year gifts in 1534 – and Eustace Chapuys, van der Delft’s predecessor as imperial ambassador, noted that he had been “masking and visiting” with her in March 1538, only months after Jane Seymour’s death.
“The king,” wrote Chapuys, “has been in much better humour than ever he was, making musicians play on their instruments all day along. He went to dine at a splendid house of his, where he had collected all his musicians, and, after giving orders for the erection of certain sumptuous buildings therein, returned home by water, surrounded by musicians, and went straight to visit the Duchess of Suffolk… and ever since cannot be one single moment without masks.”
So did Katherine and Henry become lovers at this period, and did Charles Brandon, who owed everything to his royal master, turn a diplomatically blind eye? The question is ultimately unanswerable, but Katherine’s appointment as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr would have allowed her to be constantly about the court without attracting comment.
William Carey had been recompensed for tolerating the king’s affair with his wife, Mary Boleyn, and it is possible to speculate that the rewards Brandon received were for more than his own good service. Perhaps Henry would have wed Katherine in the years after Jane Seymour’s death if she had been single, but Brandon’s longevity denied him the chance.
By February 1546, when the rumours about a new wife were swirling, Henry had been married to Katherine Parr for two and a half years, and their relationship was not always amicable. Any hopes that she would give him a second son remained unrealised, and he sometimes found her forthright Protestant opinions too challenging for his liking. According to the martyrologist John Foxe, he was heard to complain that “a good hearing it is when women become such clerks; and a thing much to my comfort, to come in mine old days to be taught by my wife”; and the conservative bishop Stephen Gardiner offered to obtain evidence that the queen’s views were “treason cloaked with the cloak of heresy” and merited death.
But matters turned out rather differently. Foxe says that Henry confided his intentions to his physician Dr Wendy (who also attended Queen Katherine), and the bill detailing the charges against his wife was left where a friend of hers would find it. Forewarned, she seized the initiative, begging Henry to accept that she had disputed with him only to divert his mind from his infirmities, and in the hope that she would herself “profit from his learned discourse”. The king was mollified, and embraced her with the words: “And is it even so sweet heart? And tended your arguments to no worse end? Then perfect friends we are now again, as ever at any time heretofore.”
Queen and courtiers
Several interpretations could be placed on these events, but perhaps the most obvious is that Katherine Parr was being warned and at the same time given an opportunity to redeem herself. Perhaps Henry was toying with his queen and his courtiers, playing off the reformers against the conservatives while showing both parties that he alone was in control of the situation.
Unfortunately, no one told Lord Chancellor Wriothesley what had happened, and when he came to arrest Katherine next morning he found her walking in the garden with her husband. He was sent packing with Henry’s curses ringing in his ears.
On the other hand, it is possible that the capricious monarch had seriously considered changing his wife again but had decided against it at the last moment.
Katherine Willoughby was attractive and vivacious, but she shared Katherine Parr’s devotion to Protestantism and was also markedly self-opinionated. In later years she had to apologise to William Cecil for what she herself called her “foolish choler” and “brawling”, and while these characteristics may have amused Henry in small doses her feistiness could have made her less appealing as a seventh consort. Katherine may have felt disappointment, or perhaps relief that she had not had to make an equally difficult choice.
King Henry’s life was now almost over – he died in January 1547 – but Katherine still had many years to live. After losing her two sons by Brandon to the ‘sweating sickness’ in 1551, she married Richard Bertie, her gentleman-usher, and had another son and a daughter. She avoided involvement in the conspiracy built around her step-granddaughter, Lady Jane Grey, but still spent four years in exile in Europe while the Catholic queen Mary ruled England. She returned when Elizabeth succeeded, but disagreed profoundly – and vocally – with the queen’s more tolerant approach to religious matters. She died in 1580, and her magnificent monument can still be seen at Spilsby, Lincolnshire today.
Henry’s Last Years
6 January 1540
Henry marries Anne of Cleves but their union is annulled on the grounds of non-consummation and an alleged pre-contract, on 9 July.
18 April 1540
Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, is created Earl of Essex. However, he is executed, ostensibly for religious transgressions, on 28 July.
8 August 1540
Henry marries Catherine Howard. His union with a Catholic is widely seen as a victory for the religious conservatives over their evangelical opponents.
13 February 1542
Catherine Howard is executed after admitting to affairs with the courtiers Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpepper, the latter after her marriage to the king.
12 July 1543
Henry weds the twice-widowed Katherine Parr. Her preferred suitor, Thomas Seymour, the late Queen Jane’s brother, prudently stands aside.
The third Act of Succession of Henry’s reign is passed in the spring. The ‘illegitimate’ princesses Mary and Elizabeth are restored to their places in the succession. Henry visits Boulogne after it surrenders to English forces on 13 September. But six years later the town is restored to the French.
19 January 1547
Henry Howard, the poet Earl of Surrey, is executed for foolishly misappropriating the royal arms. He defends himself brilliantly, but his fate is already sealed.
David Baldwin’s books include a biography of Richard III (Amberley, 2013).