Katherine Willoughby was rather well connected for Tudor times. Her mother, Maria de Salinas, had arrived from Spain with Catherine of Aragon as a lady-in-waiting (and was Catherine’s best friend). Her father was William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, the largest landowner in Lincolnshire. Katherine was her parents’ only child, so when Baron Willoughby died in 1526, seven-year-old Katherine became Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. Though she did not inherit all of her father’s lands – due to portions that could only be left to heirs male – she was still one of the wealthiest heiresses in England.
Katherine’s uncle, Sir Christopher Willoughby, decided to take advantage of the young baroness by disputing some lands that Katherine and her mother had received after William’s death. Because men were still considered “owners” of their women and children, minor heiresses to lands and titles were made “wards” of their “feudal overlords.” In Katherine’s case, this meant she became a ward of the King. Wardship came with stipends from the ward’s lands or occasionally from the king himself. Wardships could be sold to other nobles, even the child’s mother, if they could afford it. Maria was probably unable to afford the price of her own daughter because of the litigation of her brother-in-law. Instead, King Henry VIII sold Katherine’s wardship to his own best friend/brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. Maria used this to her and Katherine’s advantage and enlisted the duke’s help in the land dispute. As is the case with most wardships, Katherine was also betrothed to Suffolk’s oldest son, Henry Brandon, Earl of Lincoln. Since they were both children (Katherine was actually four years older than Henry), they were not meant to be married for many years.
Due to the chaotic nature of Katherine’s childhood, not much is known about her day-to-day life and education. However, we can confidently say that she was very well educated based on writings and translations that she completed later in life, as detailed below. It is also known that Catherine of Aragon was well educated and surrounded herself with educated women, thus promoting female education in Katherine’s inner circle. With her mother’s friends in high places, Katherine’s childhood went better than it could have gone otherwise.
But in 1533, when Katherine was fourteen, life would take a strange turn. Suffolk’s wife, Mary Tudor, passed away of a long illness. Since she had been like a second mother, Katherine served as one of the chief mourners at Mary’s funeral, alongside Mary’s own daughters. Two months later, though, Suffolk broke Katherine’s engagement to his own son and married Katherine himself. At the time of their marriage, Suffolk was 49 and Katherine was only 14. We can absolutely say that he married her for her money and land. However, the marriage was as successful as such circumstances would allow. They had two sons’ together in 1534 and 1537 respectively (meaning Katherine would have only been 15 and 18 years old at the time of their births).
Suffolk and Katherine also seemed to get along fairly well. His former wife, Princess (and former Queen of France) Mary Tudor, was brave enough to defy her brother to be able to marry him, so Suffolk was not afraid of strong women. Katherine was “noted for her wit, sharp tongue, and devotion to learning,” which was enabled, and probably even encouraged, by her husband. She was known to dislike Bishop Gardiner, a man fairly close to the king. In fact, she named her dog “Gardiner” and spoke with disdain to the Bishop to his own face. During a dinner party game where the partygoers had to sit with the person they liked the most, Katherine chose Gardiner since she could not choose her husband as host. She said it was “because she liked him the least”. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, she became a deeply devout (though still semi-secret) Protestant and eventually became close friends with King Henry VIII’s final queen, Catherine Parr. She funded Catherine’s book, Lamentations of a Sinner, as well as those of other religious authors, after the deaths of both of their respective husbands.
Suffolk died when Katherine was 26 and, sadly, her sons by him only lived a few years longer, both passing away of sweating sickness. The duchy of Suffolk passed to the children of Mary Tudor, leaving Katherine with just her own lands in Lincolnshire. She maintained a friendship with her stepdaughter, Frances Brandon, now Duchess of Suffolk. For most of her later life, she laid low, politically speaking. Her biggest scandal was that she married her gentleman usher, Richard Bertie. While he was of a much lower rank than she was, he was only three years her senior. Because the Tudors themselves descended from such unions on both sides (Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor, for example, and Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Richard Woodville), gossip was the worst thing the couple had to endure.
After the Catholic Queen Mary I ascended the throne, Katherine and her husband fled with many other Protestants to the continent, where they stayed until Queen Elizabeth I ascended. The couple had two children together, the second one being born while in exile. Upon returning to England, they lived a fairly quiet life in Katherine’s Lincolnshire estate until her death at the age of 61.