Catherine Willoughby – An Outspoken Reformer

Catherine Willoughby – An Outspoken Reformer


When fourteen-year-old Catherine Willoughby married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in 1533, she became one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in England. Thirty-five years her senior, Brandon had been married three times before. His latest wife had been Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister – a marriage that had greatly increased his sphere of influence.

            We don’t know how Catherine felt about her marriage, but girls of her status didn’t usually have a choice. With Brandon she had two sons, Henry and Charles. In a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, the boys looked charming, their golden hair fashioned in the typical pageboy haircut.

            The family’s estate increased when Henry VIII abolished the monasteries and divided the church’s properties among his nobles. When, in 1536, a group of Roman Catholics rose in a protest known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, Charles Brandon was chosen to quench the rebellion.


Slow Religious Transformation

            If Brandon’s main motivation was obedience to the king and material prosperity, by this time Catherine was becoming increasingly influenced by the Protestant ideas that were infiltrating England and even her own household. In fact, in spite of his traditional views, Brandon tolerated the Protestant views of some of his helpers and administrators. For example, Pierre Valence, chosen by Brandon as tutor for his children, agreed with Luther’s protest against indulgences. Even the family’s chaplain, the Scottish Alexander Seton, believed in justification by faith alone.

            Catherine’s Protestant convictions were strengthened at Henry’s court, where new religious ideas circulated, in spite of the king’s adherence to most Roman Catholic doctrines. There, she became a close friend of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. In fact, she was at court when the queen was accused of possessing banned books and narrowly escaped execution.

            It’s hard to determine when Catherine fully embraced Reformed views, but she enthusiastically supported the Protestant King Edward VI after Henry’s death. By then, her husband had also died and left her with enough wealth to be able to finance causes she considered important, including the publication of Katherine Parr’s Lamentation of a Sinner, a controversial book that left no doubt on the former queen’s stand on justification by faith alone. Her correspondence around that time also makes reference to her study of the Scriptures.

            Catherine also promoted the circulation of Bibles in English and encouraged bishops to bring protestant clergy to local churches, particularly in her region. Between 1550 and 1553, she invited bishop Hugh Latimer to preach to her household at Grimsthorpe, Lincolnshire. In fact, most of his sermons, pregnant with the gospel message of justification by faith alone, survived thanks to Catherine, who financed their publication.

            When her sons grew old enough to attend university, Catherine placed them at St. John’s College, Cambridge, under the tutorship of Martin Bucer. Later, when Bucer became ill, she took care of him at her home.


Learning to Trust God’s Providence

            The toughest time in Catherine’s life was in 1551, when her two sons died hours apart. The cause was the so-called sweating sickness, a contagious illness that affected England, in a series of epidemics, from 1485 to 1551. It was probably a viral pulmonary disease.

            When the sickness broke out at Cambridge, Catherine moved her sons to one of her properties where they could isolate. But they had already been infected. Upon hearing of their illness, Catherine, also unwell, rushed to their side. She arrived too late to see Henry alive. Charles died soon after. They were 15 and 14 years old, respectively.

            Apparently, the boys had some premonition of death, as they each spoke, in their last days of life, of leaving this world. Friends tried to console her with the thought that they were preparing their souls, and were now with the Lord.

            But even some of her friends’ advice seemed painful at that time. When the poet Walter Haddon tried to comfort her by saying that it was a mercy that the boys died, avoiding the possibility to stain their reputation, she didn’t appreciate the comment. “But all these evils whereof you speak had not chanced,” she said. When Haddon told her they might have, since they happen often, she replied, “Yet I might have hoped.”[1]

            In a later letter to William Cecil, she confessed both her wavering faith and her unfailing certainty: “I give God thanks, good Master Cecil, for all His benefits, which it has 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. And to ascertain you that I have received great comfort in Him, I would gladly do it by talk and sight of you. But as I confess myself no better than flesh, so I am not well able with quiet to behold my very friends without some parts of these vile dregs of Adam to seem sorry for that whereof I know I ought rather to rejoice.”[2]

            Catherine maintained this trust in God’s providence throughout her life. In a later letter, she expressed her conviction that “sickness, adversities, persecution, or what else in this world can happen us that they be sent of God for our profit and that nothing can happen amiss to his elect children.”[3]


A Painful Exile

            Catherine is famous for her bluntness, particularly against bishop Stephen Gardiner, one of the main investigators in Katherine Parr’s religious beliefs and, according to his contemporary historian John Foxe, the main reason why Henry VIII refused to adopt Thomas Cranmer’s religious reforms. According to the bishop, Catherine insulted him by naming her dog Gardiner and dressing him in a bishop-like attire (an accusation that her second husband, Richard Bertie, confuted).

            When, imprisoned for refusing to accept King Edward’s religious reforms, Gardiner allegedly tipped his bonnet at Catherine from his cell’s window. To this, she replied that “it was merry with the lambs, now that the wolf was shut up.”[4]

            This attitude toward the bishop came back to bite her when Mary Tudor rose to the throne and appointed Gardiner lord chancellor. During an interrogation, Gardiner asked Bertie if the duchess were “now as ready to set up the mass, as she was lately to pull it down.”[5]

            On this point, however, Bertie could not concede. Catherine’s convictions, he said, had been maturing “not only through the council of divers excellent learned men, but by universal consent and order.” Should she recognize the Roman Catholic mass now, she would “both to Christ show herself a false Christian, and to her prince a masking subject.”[6]

            Bertie pointed out the difference between those who come to their convictions by careful reasoning and those who change easily. “One by judgment reformed is worth more than a thousand temporizers. To force a confession of religion by mouth, contrary to that in the heart, worketh damnation, where salvation is pretended.”[7]

            To Gardiner’s objection that this argument fails when it comes to returning to the “ancient religion,” Bertie replied with a wise observation Catherine had given some time before, “that religion went not by age but by truth.”[8]

            In the end, Gardiner seemed to believe that Bertie would succeed in changing Catherine’s mind, but that was far from the truth. By proposing a trip to recover some family properties, Bertie was able to get Queen Mary’s permission to travel outside of England. He left in June 1554, planning for Catherine to follow.

            Catherine left on New Year’s Day, slipping out of her home dressed as a merchant’s wife, together with her their baby Susan and two servants. She became pregnant soon after reuniting with her husband and had a son, Peregrine.

            The account of their great hardships as they traveled throughout Flanders and Germany with very limited funds is recorded in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments. It is also the subject of a ballad by Thomas Deloney, The Dutchesse of  Suffolkes Calamitie, telling how “for the love of Christ alone her landes and goodes she left behinde, seeking still for that precious stone, the word of God so rare to finde.”[9]


Early Puritan

            The Berties returned to England in 1558, after Mary I died. They resumed their properties and continued to support the preaching and printing of God’s word. Though rejoicing that Elizabeth I had replaced Mary on the throne, Catherine was frustrated with the new queen’s compromises in the matter of religion. She supported preachers such as John Hooper, John A Lasko, John Field, opening to them the parish of the Holy Trinity Minories in London, which was under her jurisdiction. In her home, she employed as preacher and tutor for her children Miles Coverdale, who is known as an early Puritan.

            She continued her activities for the benefit of the church until 1580, when a long illness prevented her from action and finally ended her life. She was 61. She was buried in Spilsby church, Lincolnshire. When Richard Bertie died two years later, he was buried next to her.

[1] Thomas Wilson, Art of Rethoric (1560), Peter E. Medine, ed. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994, 209

[2] Elizabeth Sophia Heathcote Drummond Willoughby, Chronicles of the House of Willoughby de Eresby, London: Nichols & Sons, 1896, 90

[3] Melissa Franklin-Harkrider, Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, , duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire's Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580, Boydell Press, 2008, 57

[4] John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, Vol. 8, 570.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thomas Deloney, Strange Histories of Kings, Princes, Dukes, Earles, Lords, Ladies, Knights, and Gentlemen, London: William Barley, 1602, 15.


Simonetta Carr