Catherine was the daughter of Maria de Salinas, Queen Catherine of Aragon’s favourite lady-in-waiting, and William, Lord Willoughby d’Eresby, a prominent courtier. She was born in 1519 and named in honour of the queen, who was probably a godmother.
From her earliest days, then, Catherine Willoughby was closely associated with the court, and that would remain the case throughout her life. At the age of just seven, she inherited the barony upon the death of her father. As a minor, her wardship fell to King Henry VIII, who promptly sold it to his best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The duke wasted little time in arranging the betrothal of this wealthy young heiress to his son Henry. But as Catherine grew into an attractive, spirited and sharp-witted young lady, Brandon decided to have her for himself. He married her in 1533, when Catherine was 14 years old – some 35 years his junior.
Despite the age difference, theirs was a successful marriage. Catherine bore the duke two sons, and as one of the foremost noblewomen in the country, she was propelled to the very heart of court affairs. She played a leading role at the future Edward VI’s christening, and was appointed a lady-in-waiting to a succession of Henry VIII’s wives, notably Katherine Parr, with whom the duchess shared a love of learning and Protestantism. Catherine mischievously named her pet spaniel Gardiner, after the king’s staunchly Roman Catholic bishop, and took great pleasure in calling him to heel.
In the last year of Henry’s reign, it was rumoured that he planned to take the duchess as his seventh wife because of “the sterility of the present queen”. But this was little more than gossip among ambassadors anxious for any news that might discredit the English king. Obliged to flee into exile during ‘Bloody’ Mary’s reign, Catherine returned to England upon the accession of Elizabeth I and remained an active courtier until her death in 1580.
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Answered by: Tracy Borman, author of Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror (Jonathan Cape, 2011)