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Katherine Willoughby, the Puritan Duchess (1519-80)

January 2020

Katherine Willoughby 1548
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‘[She] was born a Catholic and became a convinced and zealous Puritan; she was born to a sheltered and secure life and, by her own honesty and outspokenness, she courted persecution and lived in danger. She was a woman of wit and beauty and charm, and of great integrity… Many whose thinking and writing and preaching were basic to the Protestant Reformation owed much to her generosity and religious zeal and to the stimulus of her eager mind’.

So writes the biographer, Evelyn Read of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. Historian Alec Ryrie described her as an ‘evangelical firebrand’, perhaps ‘the most aggressive of the reformers’ within Henry VIII’s royal circle.

Early years and marriage to Charles Brandon

Katherine’s life began in a staunch Roman Catholic environment. Her mother was a Spaniard, Doña Maria Sarmiento de Salinas. She was also a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. Maria probably named her daughter after her. Moreover, Willoughby’s godfather was Stephen Gardiner, an ardent Roman Catholic and later Bishop of Winchester.

Queen Mary Tudor, 1554
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When she was seven, Katherine’s father died and she found herself inheriting much land and wealth. As her mother was frequently at the royal court, the young Katherine became a ward of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk in 1528. Brandon’s wife was Mary Tudor, sister to the king.

In Brandon’s home, Katherine would have been educated in reading, writing, Latin and Greek. Charles and Mary had married in 1515 and their children included Frances Brandon, mother of Lady Jane Grey. The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk were also conservative Roman Catholics.

Mary Tudor died in 1533. Ten weeks later, 49-year-old Charles Brandon married Katherine, his fourteen-year-old ward. Customs have certainly changed since, but such a match was not uncommon in Tudor England.

Massive religious change characterised the 1530s as reformist ideas spread from Europe to England. Katherine would have heard Hugh Latimer preach at the royal court. Nevertheless, she remained an avowed Catholic. This is evident from her friendly relations with Princess Mary (later Mary I); her close relationship with her conservative Catholic mother; and even small things like using saints’ days to date letters.

During the 1530s, Katherine had two sons: Henry and Charles. She also became a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife. The marriage was short-lived (ending in annulment), as was Henry’s fifth, to Katherine Howard (ending in her execution).

Katherine Parr
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In 1543, Katherine Parr became Henry VIII’s final wife. Parr was an evangelical and close friend of Katherine Willoughby.


When did Katherine convert to evangelical convictions? What turned this brilliant woman into what one writer termed an ‘unquenchable, irrefutable’ adherent of the Reformation? This is hard to determine.

In an MA thesis, Megan Spruell argued that it was her appointment as Parr’s lady-in-waiting in 1543 that set her on a path to evangelicalism. Spruell itemises three key elements in Katherine Parr’s household that led to Katherine’s conversion.

First, as a member of the queen’s household, Katherine would have been expected to attend daily sermons in which evangelical beliefs would have been expounded. Second, Katherine Parr would also have initiated discussion of religious ideas that would have been an integral part of Willoughby’s daily life in the queen’s service. Third, Katherine Parr also ordered that copies of her work, Prayers or Medytacions (1545) – which included evangelical teachings about salvation – be given to every woman in her household.

By the mid-1540s, Katherine became convicted that Scripture was the supreme guide to the Christian faith. She had acquired a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament and openly criticised Roman Catholicism. She also gave up the Catholic practice of using saints’ days to date her letters.

Hugh Latimer
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Willoughby’s husband died in 1545, after which she became more openly evangelical. By the late 1540s, she had rejected the notions of transubstantiation and salvation by faith and works. In the late 1550s, she embraced the doctrines of predestination and election.

As one of the richest women in England, Katherine utilised her wealth to support the cause of reform. In Lincolnshire, for example, she endeavoured to have every parish church equipped with a Bible. She was a patron and supporter of many reformers, including Martin Bucer and Hugh Latimer.

Evidence of her faith

1551 saw an outbreak of sweating sickness in England. Those afflicted with the disease initially experienced shivers, dizziness, headaches and other bodily pains. This was followed by intense perspiration, exhaustion and occasionally death. The disease claimed the lives of Katherine’s two sons and she was grief-stricken. She wrote to her friend, William Cecil in September of 1551:

‘I give God thanks… for all his benefits which it hath pleased Him to heap upon me; and truly I take this last (and to the first sight, most sharp and bitter) punishment not for the least of His benefits; inasmuch, as I have never been so well taught by any other before to know His power, His love, and mercy, my own weakness, and that wretched state that without Him I should endure here’.

The letter reveals Katherine’s awareness that, amid great sorrow, God is good and using misfortune to teach her about ‘his power, his love, and mercy’.

Marriage to Richard Bertie and exile

Richard Bertie joined Willoughby’s household in the 1540s as her ‘gentleman usher’, escorting her during official functions. He also handled her extensive business affairs. Richard spoke several languages and was an evangelical. By 1552, he and the Duchess were firmly in love and were married by Hugh Latimer.

Mary I, a staunch Roman Catholic, became queen in 1553. Katherine became in danger of incarceration or pressure to violate her evangelical convictions. Richard was commanded to appear before Bishop Gardiner, who aimed to compel the couple to avow Roman Catholicism. However, Richard protested to Gardiner, ‘To force a confession of religion by mouth contrary to that in the heart, worketh damnation where salvation is pretended’.

Following the encounter, Katherine and her husband decided to leave England for the continent. She was prepared to relinquish extensive lands, wealth and social standing for the sake of her faith.

Travelling through Germany, the couple reached Poland, where Protestantism flourished. Following the advice of the reformer, Jan Łaski, the King of Poland (Sigismund II) provided refuge for Katherine and Richard. In 1558, the king also gave Richard an administrative role in advancing reform in the region.

Further evidence of Katherine’s faith

Mary I died in 1558 and it was safe to return to England. Hearing the news of Elizabeth’s accession, Katherine wrote to her. She spoke of the God-ordained desire of man to ‘embrace liberty’ – particularly liberty of conscience – and what a blessing it was to enjoy liberty after a period marked by its absence (such as Protestants endured under Mary I).

Elizabeth I
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Katherine also acknowledged God as the creator and liberator of humanity, he who ‘in all his works is good’. She also rejoiced in Elizabeth, she wrote, as the Israelites rejoiced in Deborah at the time of the Judges. Katherine anticipated returning to England, ‘to rejoice together with my countryfolks, and to sing a song to the Lord in my native land’.

Return to England

Katherine and Richard returned in 1559. As with many who would later be termed Puritans, Katherine was disappointed by the Queen’s religious policy. While Elizabeth shared many of their theological convictions, she insisted that she was the head of the church and she authorised worship practices which reminded Puritans of medieval Catholicism.

Katherine expressed frustration at the sovereign’s pursuit of a ‘middle way’ to William Cecil in 1559. Quoting Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal, she wrote, ‘How long halt ye between two opinions?’… If the Mass be good, tarry not to follow it… but if you be not so persuaded, alas, who should move the Queen’s Majesty to honour it with her presence?’

A believer in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, Katherine also affirmed that, ‘Christ… hath left his Gospel behind him, a rule sufficient and only to be followed’.

Indeed, in true Puritan fashion Katherine wanted a Bible-led and Bible-organised church. She wrote of urgency in the endeavour of reform: ‘To build surely is first to lay the sure cornerstone, today and not tomorrow’.

Final days

The final twenty years of Katherine’s life were marked by her frustration at the Elizabethan settlement and the snail’s pace at which reformation progressed.

When she died in 1580, Katherine’s husband had a sculptor erect a memorial to her in the parish church of St. James, Spilsby. On the back of the memorial were included some scriptural words expressing Katherine and Richard’s hope: ‘We know that our Redeemer lives, and we believe that we shall rise again out of the dust and though after our skin worms destroy our bodies, yet shall we see God in our flesh, and not another’.

A.G. Haykin, FRHistS is Chair and Professor of Church History & Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

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