The Three Grey Sisters
Lady Katherine Grey was born on August 25, 1540 at Bradgate Park, the family property of the Grey family. Just to put this in a place and time, in 1540 the King was still Henry VIII, who was then in the midst of his brief fifth marriage, to Catherine Howard. Katherine was the second surviving child born to Lady Frances Brandon and her husband, Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk. She had an older sister, Lady Jane Grey and five years later, a third Grey sister was born, Lady Mary Grey. The three Grey girls were royalty because their mother’s mother was Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary. The girls didn’t have the title of princesses, but were treated with the respect appropriate to royalty. Henry VIII died in 1547, succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Edward VI.
At this point, Katherine was fourth in line to the throne (behind Henry VIII’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and Katherine’s older sister, Jane). While it was unlikely that Katherine would ever become Queen, she and her sisters were all seen as valuable marriage prospects. Like any famous set of sisters, each Grey girl had their own thing: Jane was intellectual and studious, Katherine was pretty and vivacious, and Mary was sweet and kind. The girls were all provided with a thorough education (including learning Latin, Greek, French, music, and the arts), and were raised in the new Protestant faith.
When fifteen-year-old Edward VI fell ill, his advisors began scheming to marry their sons to the Grey girls so that these adult men could be closer to the increasingly powerful Grey family. Because unlike Edward VI’s presumptive heir, his older half-sister Mary I, the Greys were Protestant. It was incredibly important to both Edward VI and his advisors that the realm remain Protestant, the religion his father Henry VIII had basically invented. So, with the help of his advisors, the dying teen King rewrote his own will to remove Mary from being his heir. It wasn’t possible for him to just remove one of his half-sisters, so even though he’d have been fine with Elizabeth taking over, he had to disinherit both Mary and Elizabeth. Which meant that the new Queen would be his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. And until Jane had a child, Katherine would be her heir.
A few months before Edward died, fifteen-year-old Jane and twelve-year-old Katherine Grey were married off in a double ceremony. Jane’s husband was Guildford Dudley, the son of the King’s powerful Chief Minister, John Dudley. Katherine’s husband was Henry, Lord Herbert. Mary Grey, just eight years old, was betrothed to their cousin Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton. The double wedding was a huge event, with lots of feasting and partying. Edward VI attended the event, one of the last he attended before dying, aged fifteen. Upon his death, Lady Jane Grey was declared the new Queen.
Click here for the whole story of how Jane wound up the Nine Days Queen, executed at age sixteen. Basically: being a pawn did not work well for Jane, or anyone who had worked to get her named Queen. Mary I took over, throwing Jane, Guildford, and her father into prison. Seven months later, all three were executed. All of their lands and money were confiscated, leaving the Grey sisters and their now-widowed mother essentially penniless. The Greys newly poisonous reputation spoiled the matches for both sisters, as the Herberts quickly annulled Katherine’s marriage, and the Wiltons ended Mary Grey’s betrothal. Katherine, now fourteen years old, orphaned and with only one sister left, was now the eldest Grey sister. And, despite their bad reputation and current poverty, until Mary I had a child of her own, Katherine was again a potential heir to the throne.
The Two Grey Princesses
At this low point, the Greys found support from a surprising person: their cousin, Mary I. Taking pity on her young cousins and their mother, the Queen invited them all to royal court. Frances, specifically, was still eyed with some suspicion for her probably role in the Jane Grey Situation, but clearly Mary I felt some fondness for her relatives. The Greys were given precedence at state events — ahead of Elizabeth, Mary I’s actual heir. Katherine took on a special role at the coronation of Mary I, and was among the guests at the Queen’s marriage the following year to Philip II. Katherine and Mary Grey were treated as princesses, including having their trains carried by their own ladies in waiting during important court events. The Queen appointed both to the prestigious role of ladies of the bedchamber, the most important role any woman could hold at court. There were even rumours that Mary I intended to adopt one or both Grey sisters, perhaps to make their status as her possible heirs even more iron-clad.
One year after Mary I became Queen, Katherine’s mother Frances Brandon suddenly remarried (remember, her husband had been executed after the Nine Days Queen scenario). In order to avoid causing any further controversy, Frances chose to marry Adrian Stokes, her Master of the Horse (aka a man far below Frances’s royal social status). If she and Adrian had any children, they would be low-born and therefore outside of contention to become the new King or Queen. Because of this new marriage, Frances was removed from royal court. As such, Katherine was sent into the care of Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset (the widow of Edward VI’s former, now executed, Lord Protector). Although Anne was technically now her guardian, Katherine remained at court where she became best friends with her fellow lady-in-waiting, Anne’s daughter Lady Jane Seymour* (*not the one who was married to Henry VIII, this Jane Seymour is the niece of that other one).
Sidenote: This Lady Jane Seymour was also one of three sisters. The Seymour sisters (Jane, Anne, and Margaret) were writers whose published work includes the poem Hecatodistichon. Written in 1550, this was the first female-authored English-language encomium, the only work by Englishwomen published in Latin in the 16th century, and the only work by any Englishwomen published in any language before the 1560s. It was written as a tribute upon the death of Queen Marguerite de Navarre, herself also a writer.
Katherine Grey and Jane Seymour were close in age (Katherine two years older), had both gone through having their fathers executed, and had known each other most of their lives. Jane was also tangentially related to the royal family, as the former boy king Edward VI had been her cousin. Jane Seymour was, for awhile, a possible wife for him (Katherine’s sister Jane Grey had also been considered for this position) but of course the boy-King had died unmarried. Katherine and Jane, like other girls at this time, would share the same bed for warmth and probably also some fun gossiping. Katherine confided in Jane that she hoped to be able to reconcile with Lord Herbert, her brief childhood husband.
An influenza epidemic tore through England (and the royal court) in the summer of 1558. Lady Jane Seymour was among those affected, and she was sent to recuperate at her family home of Hamworth with her BFF Katherine sent along to keep her company. While they were there, Jane’s brother Edward aka Ned happened to be at home visiting. What did they look like? Well Katherine, by now seventeen years old, was gorgeous with golden red hair, blue eyes, and a striking profile. Ned, nineteen years old, was slim with dark eyes and dark hair, a nose that people writing about him seemed to have found very appealing, and an arrogant, asshole sort of air. Ned was also distantly descended from the medieval English King Edward III, meaning that he wasn’t directly in the line of succession, but was closer than many other aristocrats. And if he and Katherine happened to get married and have a child, the combined claim that child would have — between Ned’s ancestors and Katherine’s Tudor pedigree — a strong claim to the throne. And if that child was a son? All of the Protestants would be so relieved, because then they wouldn’t have to worry about having a gross woman Queen at all! So keep in mind that Katherine and Ned falling in love was, basically, a threat to the Queen and to the entire succession.
But did these teens care? No, they did not!! Jane Seymour, on the mend from influenza, helped out by sending messages between her BFF and her brother all summer while they hung out at Hamworth. Ned even brought up the idea of marriage, secretly, in letters! His motives are unknown, but if he was just after Katherine for her money and connections, he likely wouldn’t have done all this sneaking around. After all, in order to use Katherine in that way, their marriage would have to be officially sanctioned. And the thing is, as a close relative to the Queen, Katherine couldn’t get married without the Queen’s permission.
But oh noes! Ned’s mother, Anne Somerset, found out about this borderline treasonous teenage summer romance. Anne had seen a lot of her relatives executed in the last decade, so she was understandably concerned about her son’s potentially lethal love match. She ordered Ned to forget about Katherine, but he was like, “Is is so wrong for two young people who enjoy each other’s company to spend time together???*” (*not an exact quote) and refused to stop hanging out with his girlfriend. But anyway, summer ended and so did the influenza epidemic, and Katherine and Jane were sent back to royal court. It was just like in Grease, the young lovers’ summer dreams ripped at the seams! But I’m sure you suspect that wasn’t the end of this ill-advised and dangerous love story.
But the thing is, back at royal court everything was a new kind of chaos. Queen Mary I had also fallen ill during the influenza epidemic and, on top of her other medical issues (and her habit of starving herself for religious reasons) she seemed to be dying. There wasn’t an opportunity for Katherine and Ned to get royal permission to get married, if they were even thinking about doing so at this point. Queen Mary I died that November. As one of the late Queen’s ladies in waiting, Katherine helped to lay out Mary’s body for embalming. Katherine also took turns, along with the other ladies, to stand watch in the chapel where Mary’s corpse was set out for a month before the funeral, which Katherine also attended.
As the Queen had died without children, her successor was her younger half-sister, who was named Queen Elizabeth I. Lady Katherine Grey was now next in line to the throne.
New Queen, New Enemies
Where Mary had sympathized with the Greys and elevated Katherine, her sister, and mother, Elizabeth was wary. For starters, the Grey family still had a toxic reputation for the whole Lady Jane Grey coup, as well as Katherine’s father’s other acts of rebellion (and his later execution). Elizabeth also knew that among the many competing factions of courtiers were some people who felt Katherine should be the Queen instead of her. Lady Jane Grey herself was already seen by some as a martyr, partly because her final letter had been published shortly after her death as propaganda. In one of these letters, Jane identified her sister Katherine as her spiritual and political heir.
Twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth had not yet cemented her reputation as the Virgin Queen, and everyone assumed that she would get married and have her own children pretty soon. She also didn’t yet know about Katherine’s ongoing secret relationship with Ned. As far as anyone knew, Elizabeth and Katherine were both young, unmarried women and therefore very valuable prospects to marry. As soon as either of them had a child, specifically a son, that would tip the scales to make even more people support her above the other.
But also, real talk. Elizabeth was insecure, vain and jealous in the manner of Snow White’s Evil Queen. She saw any younger, prettier woman as a personal threat. And Katherine, being a relative, seems to have been literally a younger, prettier version of the Queen. This tendency would only grow stronger, the older she got and would lead to many future secret marriages of many young, pretty women. Elizabeth, you’re doing this to yourself!
So in a sort of Cinderella moment, Elizabeth immediately downgraded Katherine and Mary Grey’s status within her court. Rather than being gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber, the Grey girls were moved over to the Presence Chamber. Katherine and Mary weren’t given any preferred treatment at Elizabeth’s coronation other than that of ladies-in-waiting. This was Elizabeth making clear that she did not trust the Greys, had not forgotten the Lady Jane Grey scenario, and perhaps even did not consider Katherine her own heir. But the thing, of course, is that Elizabeth didn’t want to get married anytime soon because she was in love with her married boyfriend, Robert Dudley.
Sidenote: potential wife-killer Robert Dudley was also Katherine Grey’s former brother-in-law, as Robert’s brother Guildford had been married to (and then executed alongside) Lady Jane Grey. So he and Katherine and Elizabeth and Ned had all known one another for years, like high school but with more pantaloons and murders.
But so, with Elizabeth publicly stating she didn’t plan to get married anytime soon, her councillors turned their attention to Katherine again. Because of the Queen wasn’t going to have a child, then Katherine again began to seem like the potential next Queen. This bothered Elizabeth considerably, because she really hated Katherine. Katherine was obviously aware of how Elizabeth felt, and complained to the Spanish ambassador more than once about how the Queen was sidelining her. Katherine even yelled at the Queen one day in the Presence Chamber, or maybe more like rolled her eyes or something else that was seen as “unseemly” behaviour in the Queen’s presence.
Just to place this in context: Queen Mary I had been married to Philip, the Spanish King. After she died, Philip tried to get Elizabeth to marry him but she sensibly refused. We’re still years away from the whole Elizabeth vs Spanish Armada moment. So the fact that Katherine, Elizabeth’s heir, was bitching about the Queen to the Spanish Ambassador was a big fucking deal. The Spanish Ambassador, whose name was Feria, began scheming if maybe Philip could marry Katherine and then take over England together, etc.. Did Katherine knowingly play along with this scheme? I mean, probably. At the very least, she allowed herself to seem open to his suggestions at least to figure out how she could use him to her advantage. She had stopped talking about wanting to remarry Herbert (because she wanted to marry Ned) but to Feria, this seemed like Katherine was open to marrying anyone. Feria took her seriously, and began figuring out which Spanish Hapsburg royal he could marry her to and sorting out plans to have her kidnapped to Spain.
Meanwhile, Ned had been cooling off with Katherine (due to his mother’s interference) so Katherine may have been using matters of international treason to make a play to make her boyfriend jealous. She also knew that Elizabeth’s plans to travel around the country were coming up, which meant opportunities for Katherine to see Ned for Summer Of Love Part Two. Like, while Feria was literally arranging which ships to use to kidnap her to Spain, Katherine was blissfully fantasizing about reuniting with her boyfriend. Katherine was playing a very dangerous game, and she was LOVING IT!!
But when Katherine set out with Elizabeth (who spent all her time flirting outrageously publicly with Robert Dudley), there was no sign of Ned. He had written that he had fallen ill, but actually probably his mother was making him stay away from her. But guess what, no mother could get in the way of these determined teens, and finally Ned caught up with everyone else! It was during this period that the two of them would later say they fell truly in love, taking walks through gardens and enjoying feasts and just hanging out all the time and being young and in love. Elizabeth, busy with Robert Dudley and fending off her councillors who wanted her to stop seeing Robert Dudley, didn’t know about the romance. Other courtiers did, and some warned Katherine that Ned was maybe just using her. But by October, Ned had set off to visit Katherine’s mother for permission to marry her.
Frances Grey was happy to hear that Ned wanted to marry Katherine because she liked him, and because she knew this would strengthen her daughter’s claim to the throne. After checking with her daughter this was what she wanted, Frances offered her support for the match. She advised Ned to get to work convincing other people at court that this was a good idea, namely, members of the Privy Council. Since ultimately it would be up to Elizabeth, they needed to get as many people advising her to support the match as possible.
Ned’s first attempts to convince people at court to support him were unsuccessful, as he was told the timing wasn’t good and he should wait. But then unfortunately, Frances died that November, before she was able to send a letter of her own to the Queen expressing her blessing for the match. Katherine and Mary Grey were with their mother as she passed, and Katherine served as chief mourner at the funeral (which Elizabeth generously agreed to pay for). Both Katherine and Ned knew that their chances of getting married anytime soon had died along with Frances. Ned wrote Katherine a letter/poem, comparing their romantic challenges to those of the Greek lovers Troilus and Cressida, who had also been kept apart for political reasons. Ned seemed worried that, like Cressida, Katherine might leave him for another lover. The Spanish were again focusing their attention on her, with eyes for potentially using her as a way to overthrow Elizabeth. But Ned needn’t have worried: Katherine was entirely devoted to him.
However, the rumours of the Spanish plot had finally reached Elizabeth. Following the adage to keep friends close and enemies closer, Elizabeth suddenly began treating Katherine much more kindly. Elizabeth planted rumours that she may even adopt Katherine (despite being just seven years older), to formalize her role as heir to the throne. Katherine was probably happy to accept this better treatment, but her main priority was finding opportunities to sneak off with her boyfriend, Ned. And as ever, Elizabeth was too busy running off hunting with Robert Dudley to notice or care what Katherine was doing (as long as it didn’t involve the Spanish Ambassador).
Ned’s sister Jane and brother Henry helped courier letters and tokens back and forth between the lovers. Katherine and Ned found opportunities to sneak off together, and more and more people were noticing their affair. But Elizabeth’s behaviour with Robert Dudley was so much more scandalous that the Katherine/Ned stuff never really took off as the big gossip of the day. (This was around the time that there were unfounded rumours Elizabeth was pregnant with Dudley’s baby, and then Dudley’s wife was maybe murdered by falling down a flight of stairs). Elizabeth’s Chief Advisor, William Cecil, had found out about the Ned/Katherine scenario, though. He warned Ned to stop seeing Katherine due to the regime-destabilizing nature of their possible marriage. Ned listened to him and ghosted Katherine. This made Katherine frantic, especially when she heard rumours he’d been flirting with another woman. And the thing is that Ned just couldn’t quit her, either.
Ned wrote to her, proposing marriage, and Katherine obviously agreed. They snuck off into BFF Jane’s private room, where Jane was the witness to their formal betrothal. Katherine and Ned agreed they’d get married at his London home as soon as she was able to slip away from the Queen. Ned gave Katherine a ring, and the betrothal was made official with a joining of hands and a lot of hugging and kissing.
A Secret, Sexy Wedding
Katherine couldn’t just run off at anytime to get secretly married, she had to be clever about this. With the help of her BFF Jane, they hatched a plan. When they got to London, Elizabeth announced she was going off on a hunting trip. Katherine claimed at the last minute she had a toothache and couldn’t go. Jane offered to stay behind with her, and Elizabeth was like, “Great, one less Grey girl for me to worry about” and headed off on a business trip with the other ladies in waiting. Ned, who had been there for dinner, was like, “Great, come by my house first thing tomorrow morning.”
The next morning, Ned gave all of his servants the day off so they wouldn’t see what he was up to. Katherine and Jane snuck out of the palace and made their way on foot along the River Thames to Ned’s house. It was late November, and super cold. Ned greeted them at his house, where a few servants (on their way out for their day off) also saw them arrive. Jane ran out into the street to grab a random priest to perform the ceremony, because Lady Jane Seymour was an amazing friend and sister.
She soon returned with a random Protestant priest, who performed the wedding ceremony for them in Jane’s bedroom. Ned gave Katherine a puzzle ring (!!!) engraved with a poem he had written for her:
As circles five by art compact show but one ring in sight, So trust uniteth faithful minds with knot of secret might,
Whose force to break (but greedy death no wight possesseth power),
As time and sequels well shall prove, my ring can say no more.
Jane paid the priest ten pounds, which in today’s money is around $5000 USD and was way more than the priest would have ever expected to be paid for a bedroom wedding ceremony. Jane had some “banqueting meats” prepared for them to eat, but Katherine and Ned had more amorous things on their mind, and so Jane left the room while they consummated their marriage. The lovers, now aged twenty (Katherine) and twenty-two (Ned) had sex for hours, until finally Katherine had to go because she and Jane had dinner plans. The servants in Ned’s house, back from their day off, were well aware of what had happened up in that bedroom and Ned kissed his wife good-bye when she and Jane had to go.
Now (secretly) married, Katherine and Ned had sex as often as they could, wherever they were able to. Jane continued to help them meet up, and Katherine’s servants quickly learned to politely leave the room when Ned arrived. The newlyweds weren’t able to spend a whole night together, but clearly glowed with love and adoration for one another such that everybody started to figure out that they were involved. Cecil, Elizabeth’s minister, disapproved of their affair but even he had no idea that the two had been actually married already. In order to try and keep them apart, to protect Elizabeth’s interests, Cecil arranged for Ned to go on an extended holiday in Europe.
Ned, frankly, was not great at communicating with Katherine because she had to find out about his European holiday plans from Jane. She was like, “I’m sorry what? What happens if I’m pregnant for instance, and you aren’t around when the shit hits the fan?” And Ned was like, “Well, I guess you’ll have to hope the Queen is nice to you,” and she was like, “I’m sorry what??” And then Ned was like, “If you’re pregnant, I’ll stay,” and Katherine was like, “I don’t know, maybe??” And then tragically, just when she needed her BFF the most, Lady Jane Seymour fell ill again, this time with tuberculosis. Lady Jane Seymour died at age nineteen on March 29, 1560. And with her left the only witness to Katherine and Ned’s marriage ceremony (because nobody knew the random priest’s name or how to find him).
Ned really, really wanted to go to Europe. And Katherine honestly did not know if she was pregnant or not (her BFF was dead! Her mother was dead! She didn’t know who to ask for advice!), and finally they agreed he could go but he’d leave her with a letter saying, “In case Katherine is pregnant, please note that we are totally married and also she should inherit my lands in case I die in Europe!”
But in an excessively horrible coincidence/mistake, Katherine lost the letter. And she was very much pregnant.
The Secret Revealed!
As you might expect, Katherine kept the pregnancy hidden for as long as she could because this was an extremely dangerous situation for her. The baby she was carrying had a very strong claim to be the next King or Queen of England (from her Tudor pedigree and Ned’s royal ancestry). If the baby was a son, then all bets were off because everyone was still desperate for a potential male monarch to replace Elizabeth.
Once she realized that she was pregnant, Katherine wrote numerous letters to Ned in France, but none of them had reached him* (*potentially because she addressed them all to My Beloved Husband instead of using his name?? Remember how your marriage is secret, Katherine?? How were the couriers to know who to give the letters to**???) (**also my theory is that William Cecil or one of his other spies was intercepting the letters for scheme-related reasons).
Now psychologically, this is a 20-year-old woman who had seen her sister, father, brother-in-law and numerous other people she knew and/or loved be executed for treason-related things and who was now carrying a Treason Baby and her husband was MIA. Plus, Elizabeth had started being cruel to her again. Life was not great for Lady Katherine Grey at the moment. If she couldn’t get in touch with Ned, she needed to find someone else to pose as her husband/babydaddy, and she settled on her childhood annulled husband, Herbert.
Katherine was once again on progress with the Queen, spending a summer now without Ned. She exchanged letters with Herbert while on the road, and in fact he was pleased to hear from her, and she was like, “So our marriage from childhood is basically still valid, right??” And he was like, “Aw, that’s a nice idea” and began courting her. But then she passed along word that she was currently with child, and Herbert knew that babies don’t gestate for ten years, and called things off because her motives were so obvious, and so distasteful to him. Boo, Herbert! You could have saved the day, you asshole.
And so Katherine, by now eight months pregnant, continued on travelling as a lady-in-waiting and everyone must have noticed she was pregnant, right?? Finally, she realized she had to tell somebody. After considering her options, the person she chose to confide in was her childhood friend Elizabeth St. Loe (sister-in-law of Katherine’s friend, Bess of Hardwick), who was one of the Queen’s gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber. This was not a good choice, as St. Loe wept inconsolably and was like, “Why did you tell me this, this is a disaster!” She also clearly was not great at secret-keeping as, by the next morning, everyone at church was whispering about Katherine’s secret pregnancy.
Undeterred, Katherine next turned to Robert Dudley, which is quite a decision. Robert Dudley was her former brother-in-law, but he was also Elizabeth’s boyfriend. And he also kind of hated the Greys for how the Lady Jane Grey scenario had led to the execution of so many Dudley family members. But, she hoped, the tenuous family bond would hopefully outweigh the other stuff. And Robert was like, “Know what? Sure. I’ll go talk to Liz about this.” His plan was, likely, that news of Katherine’s pregnancy might cause Elizabeth to finally agree to marry his wife-murdering ass as the Queen would clearly need a child now more than ever. But surprise! Except not a surprise! Elizabeth freaked the fuck out in the worst possible way. And: understandably.
Firstly, as the Queen, all of her Ladies in Waiting had to get her permission to marry anyone. And secondly, Katherine was Elizabeth’s heir and a possible future Queen, so she couldn’t just marry anyone. But for her to marry Ned? A man with his own claim to the throne? Thereby meaning the Katherine/Ned baby would have a stronger claim to be King or Queen than literally anyone else in England?? Elizabeth suspected this marriage/baby situation was part of a plot, maybe the Spanish, maybe the Scottish, maybe homegrown, but someone was trying to take over the country and she was not having it!!! So for all of the above reasons, Elizabeth had Katherine imprisoned in the Tower of London, and recalled Ned from Europe so he could be thrown in jail too. She also had Elizabeth St. Loe dismissed from the Privy Chamber and sent to the Tower for six months for failing to inform the Queen of the secret intel.
Lovers In Jail
Elizabeth, and basically everyone, assumed that this was part of a more complex political strategy than just two young people falling in love. Because everyone was constantly scheming, and Katherine’s pregnancy with a potential new heir was a majorly serious political move. But the thing is: it wasn’t a scheme. It’s just when everyone is scheming, they can’t wrap their heads around that sometimes a 20-year-old woman marries her true love and gets knocked up.
And so it was that Katherine, now nine months pregnant, was subjected to interrogation in the Tower of London as they tried to get her to implicate other people in this “scheme”. Now being held in the same place where her sister and father had been executed, she behaved bravely. Like her older sister Lady Jane Grey, she had a strong stubborn streak and refused to be intimidated.
Meanwhile, Ned’s mother distanced herself from his “wildness” even as he was being dragged back to England from his European holiday for his own questioning. Rumours were flying that the young couple would be executed, and he (and his mother, in her way) were doing their best damage control to try and at least stay alive. When he arrived at the Tower, he arranged to have flowers sent to Katherine and sought to find out from his jailers how she was doing. Historian Leanda de Lisle hypothesizes he was also at this point working to ensure that his and Katherine’s testimony would line up, so that their marriage was recognized and their child would be considered legitimate.
Because that was the first and most important thing for Elizabeth to deal with. If Katherine and Ned’s marriage was declared legitimate (which would be tricky, with Jane Seymour dead and nobody knowing the name of the random priest), that meant that their baby was also legitimate. That would also make the baby, if a boy, an incredibly dangerous threat to the Queen. But Katherine and Ned’s only defense against charges of illegal fornication were to explain that yes, actually, they were married and so the fact she was pregnant was totally not a problem. Only one side could win; the marriage would either be legally recognized, or not. While Katherine was having obviously a miserably time being nine months pregnant and having to undergo days-long interrogations, Elizabeth was also doing poorly. Like her sister Mary I, she lost her appetite when she was distressed. A courtier who saw her at around this time described the Queen as looking “extremely thin and the colour of a corpse.”
So: nobody was having a good time with any of this. And then things got worse for everyone when Katherine gave birth on September 24th to a boy. This is the perhaps the one time in Tudor history when everyone was hoping very hard for a baby girl, and the arrival of a boy would cause everyone to despair. Katherine named her son Edward Seymour, Viscount Beauchamp. Two days later, baby Edward was baptized in the Tower chapel, feet away from where his aunt Lady Jane Grey, both grandfathers, and other relatives had been interred following their executions. There was finally a Protestant male heir to the throne of England, and this boy was potentially the new heir to the throne of England. The only thing in his way, at this point, was the question of the legitimacy of his birth.
While Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, and literally everyone was running around scheming and screaming, Katherine recovered from childbirth. She had been moved to live within the mansion of the Tower’s Lieutenant, so at least she had a nice place to stay. She was also able to keep her pet spaniels and monkeys (???) with her. (I do not know at what point she acquired pet monkeys, but it’s nice she had them with her). Ned was kept in the same mansion, in a separate apartment about ten feet away. The couple weren’t able to see each other, but through bribery and sympathy, were able to exchange notes via their guards. Ned was determined to appeal if their marriage was found invalid, but for the time being, all they could do was wait.
Elizabeth ordered an official Church commission to investigate the legality of Katherine and Ned’s marriage. Of course the whole point of this was for them to find the marriage invalid, no matter what it took, but they had to give the appearance of actually investigating. The tricky thing is that the only requirements for the marriage to be found legal was for the brie and groom to consent to marry in front of witnesses. Katherine and Ned both said, again and again, that they had done this. But Jane’s death and the mysterious identity of the priest ((Katherine and Ned both said if they saw him in person they probably wouldn’t recognize him) worked against them.
Ned bribed the guards to let him visit Katherine, which he did on May 25th and did they have sex? Of course they had sex! He managed to sneak into see her again four days later, and again they had sex, and do you see where this is going? Because it is going to: Katherine became pregnant again. And now it’s all even more complicated, because by now they had both declared they were married in front of numerous witnesses (e.g. the interrogators) and so this second child would be 100% legitimate, no question about it. Katherine now knew intimately what pregnancy was like, and when she figured out she was pregnant again she had a letter sent to Ned. He was thrilled! She was also happy! Their little jail family would soon get one new member.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s issues with Mary, Queen of Scots were taking up much of her attention. And then Elizabeth came down with smallpox! Everyone was like, “It sucks you’re so sick, but who is your heir?? Mary, Queen of Scots? Katherine Grey? Baby Edward? Who???” And Liz was like, “I won’t tell you because I refuse to die!!!” And she was right, she survived. And she was like, “I’m twenty-nine years old and might have a child one day and will not tell you who my heir is!” And her councillors were like, “But what if we told you that Katherine Grey is pregnant again?” And Elizabeth was like “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME???”
Like, she was incredibly upset about this for all of the above reasons. She had the Lieutenant of the Tower thrown in jail for allowing the couple to hook up. Katherine and Ned were brought in for new interrogations. But not even Elizabeth could stop nature, and on February 10, Katherine gave birth to a second son, who she named Thomas Seymour. And although Elizabeth was freaking out, public opinion was very much on the side of Katherine, Ned, and their little family. Of course it was! Because this is an incredibly romantic love story, and if not for the political angle, everyone knows that the pair would have been considered married in the first place! Elizabeth wouldn’t allow a priest to attend Thomas’s baptism, but two of the prison guards agreed to stand up as his godparents, because the jailers were total #KatheriNed shippers and loved their babies.
Elizabeth, of course, had to do something about all of this. The more people sided with Katherine, the more likely it was that her supporters might try and depose Elizabeth. It wasn’t possible to declare Thomas illegitimate, but Elizabeth did what she could: put Ned publicly on trial for 1) “seducing a virgin of the blood royal,” 2) conspiring with the Lieutenant to see her again, and 3) sneaking out of his jail cell. He was found guilty on all charges, and fined £5,000 apiece for each crime. Remember how Jane Seymour paid the random priest £10 and that’s worth $5,000 modern-day dollars? £15,000 is worth, according to this currency converter, infinity modern-day dollars. It was not an amount that Ned would be expected to repay; the point of it was to punish him forever and to show everyone that Elizabeth was not someone to be messed around with.
Now, England was coming up to the ten-year anniversary of Lady Jane Grey’s death and her story was becoming trendy again. Rumour had it that Jane had been pregnant upon the time of her execution (she was not), but this connected her with her sister Katherine, now in jail with a baby and a toddler and facing her own possible execution. Support for Katherine’s claim continued, much to Elizabeth’s chagrin. And the image of pretty Katherine, a married woman with two sons was the ideal foil to Elizabeth’s unmarried childlessness. It was around this time that a portrait was made of Katherine with her son Edward, which was duplicated and spread around as propaganda to support her against the Queen. (It is also apparently the oldest known image of an English woman with her baby).
“While I Lived, Yours”
Later that same year, there was an outbreak of plague in London. Elizabeth (like her father before her) fled for the countryside. Katherine, trapped in the Tower with two sons (and monkeys and dogs) was desperate to avoid the disease. Her advocates begged the Queen to let her move elsewhere, and finally Elizabeth relented, allowing Katherine to be moved into house arrest. But there was a catch: Katherine was to be separated from her husband and one of her children. Ned and baby Edward were sent to live with Ned’s mother. Katherine and Thomas were sent to stay with her uncle, Lord John Grey. Katherine was forbidden to contact Ned, or her sister Mary Grey (who was still a Lady in Waiting), or to visit with anyone while she was in her uncle’s house/jail.
Less than a month after her arrival, Katherine was reported to have fallen into a depression. I mean, understandably given her postpartum status as well as literally everything that had happened in her life to date. She missed Ned and Edward terribly, cried constantly, ate little, and said things like, “I would to God I were buried.” William Cecil still supported her as potential heir, and helped her compose a plea to the Queen to relent. Robert Dudley agreed to deliver the letter, because he was the only person who could safely do so without incurring the Queen’s wrath. Katherine was hopeful that this petition would free them all, and wrote a letter to Ned sharing her hopes and goal of them getting to reunite soon. But Elizabeth rejected her appeal. The lovers were to remain apart.
Katherine’s misery was complete. She wrote to Cecil, “I rather wish of God shortly to be buried… than in this continual agony to live.” Her uncle John Grey was implicated in some scheming in support of Katherine, and when Elizabeth found out, he and the other conspirators were thrown in jail, where John died perhaps by suicide or depression. Katherine and Thomas were moved to a different house/jail, where they remained for the next three years. This time, her jailer fell ill, necessitating her relocation. She continued to communicate via letter to Ned, who replied to her letters with gifts and tokens.
Another major blow to both Elizabeth and Katherine occurred when, in 1566, Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to a son. Katherine was now no longer the only Tudor heiress married with a son, and Mary (being a literal Queen) had much more power than the depressed, imprisoned Katherine. Elizabeth secretly preferred Mary as her heir, and worked (at this point) to protect her interests while simultaneously punishing Katherine and Mary Grey (who, at this point, had been jailed for her own secret marriage).
But then the whole thing happened where Mary, Queen of Scots’s husband Lord Darnley was found murdered and his house exploded, and it looked like Mary had conspired to murder him. Katherine’s supporters all spread the rumour that Mary was responsible for her husband’s murder, and Elizabeth was unable to continue protecting her. Meanwhile, Katherine herself (and her sister Mary Grey) posed no threats personally; it was just the people working in their names who threatened Elizabeth. To keep Katherine from becoming a figurehead to these rebels, Elizabeth instructed Katherine’s jailers not to let her interact with anyone. Katherine was moved again, to her fifth prison in seven years. When her new jailer saw her, he was shocked at how poorly she looked; pale and thin, shoulders bowed, not a hint of her former vitality or joie de vivre. The various descriptions of her throughout this period sound like those of prolonged depression. She had low energy, ate little, and spoke of wanting to die.
On January 26, 1568, a doctor was sent for. He found there was little to be done for her. She seemed to have starved herself, and would no longer eat. Katherine recited prayers and had psalms read to her. The household servants surrounded her, one encouraging her to that she could yet live a long life. Katherine replied, “No, no. No life in this world; but in the world to come I hope to live ever. For here is nothing but care and misery, and there is life everlasting.” After several hours, Katherine passed along her final requests. She asked for a message be sent to the Queen, begging forgiveness for marrying without permission; she also wished the Queen be asked to be good to her children and to Ned. Katherine then asked that Ned be sent tokens: the pointed ring he gave her upon their betrothal, her wedding ring, and a third memento mori ring. This third was engraved with a message for Ned: While I Lived, Yours.
Katherine’s final words were, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” She then closed her eyes with her hands. Her death was recorded at 9 o’clock that morning. She was twenty-eight years old.
Four-year-old Thomas Seymour was moved to live with his father, Ned, and six-year-old brother, Edward. Queen Elizabeth ordered Katherine’s final jailer to oversee the her cousin’s internment and burial. Katherine was buried in a chapel near her final prison-home in Yoxford, rather than in Westminster Abbey as her royal relations (including her mother) had been. However, much as Elizabeth wanted to downplay Katherine’s importance, she was a Tudor and certain protocols had to be adhered to. Just as had been done for Mary I, Katherine’s body was embalmed and set out for a round-the-clock vigil, watched over by servants. Seventy-seven official mourners were dispatched from London, who arrived with an impressive entourage. Elizabeth did not attend the event, but was said to have unconvincingly performed grief back at home. Nobody bought her act, obviously. Katherine’s death was a relief to her as, noted the Spanish ambassador, the Queen had long been afraid of Lady Katherine Grey.
Two years after Katherine’s death, Ned was freed from house arrest. He would go on to marry twice more, weirdly both of them secret elopements, landing back in prison once more for this odd habit of his. Throughout his life, he worked to try and have his sons Edward and Thomas restored to the royal succession. They never were.
When Edward was nineteen years old (and, coincidentally, staying in the same house where his parents had first met), he fell in love with a gentlewoman named Honora Rogers. Queen Elizabeth happily permitted this marriage, as this would effectively remove Edward from ever being King because his wife wasn’t grand enough. One less heir for her to worry about.
When Elizabeth died in 1603, she named James Stuart (the son of Mary, Queen of Scots), as her heir. However, a faction continued on to believe that Katherine’s sons were the true heirs. This bothered James nearly as much as it had bothered Elizabeth.
Ned lived until 1621, dying at age eighty-four. In 1625, James was succeeded by his son King Charles I. Charles didn’t much worry about Katherine Grey, meaning that finally her descendants were able to have her remains reinterred next to Ned in Salisbury Cathedral, where their joint tomb can still be viewed. The Latin inscription on their tomb translates to:
Who, experienced in the vicissitudes of changing fortune
At Length, in the concord that marked their lives,
Here rest together”
Katherine’s Grey’s descendants, through her son Edward, include Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother (née Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon). Through her, Katherine Grey’s descendants include Queen Elizabeth I and all of her heirs, including Prince William and Prince Harry.
Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey by Nicola Tallis