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The Tragic Story of Lady Katherine Grey

Date: 08 November 2022

Author: Tracy Borman

Lady Jane Grey is a well-known tragic figure in the long history of the Tower of London. But the lives of her sisters have received much less attention. Chief Curator Tracy Borman takes a look at the life of Katherine Grey, who like her sister was imprisoned at the Tower.  

Image: Portrait miniature of Katherine Grey, c.1555-1560. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portrait miniature of Katherine Grey in a circular frame

The line of succession

I make little secret of the fact that Elizabeth I is my all-time historical heroine. I’ve pitched her numerous times as Britain’s greatest monarch – for good reason. As the younger, illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII from his marriage to Anne Boleyn, she overcame all the odds to be crowned queen and went on to reign for longer and more successfully than any of the other Tudor monarchs.

But Elizabeth could be every bit as ruthless as her father, particularly when it came to rival claimants. I first discovered this tragic story when researching my book, Elizabeth’s Women, fifteen years ago and it has fascinated me ever since. Katherine was the elder of two surviving sisters of Lady Jane Grey, the ill-fated ‘Nine Days’ Queen’ who had been executed at the Tower in 1554. From the moment she came to the throne, Elizabeth made it clear that she ‘could not abide the sight of her’. Highly sensitive to questions over her own legitimacy, Elizabeth naturally distrusted any other persons of royal blood, particularly those whose place in the succession had been confirmed by Act of Parliament – as Katherine’s had.

A dangerous marriage

At 18, Katherine was seven years younger than the new queen. She had inherited the characteristic red hair and long nose of her Tudor relatives, but also the famous beauty of her maternal grandmother, Mary Tudor (sister of Henry VIII). She had inherited some of the Tudor arrogance, too, and often boasted of her royal pedigree. Her rift with Elizabeth made Katherine a natural focus for all those who opposed the new queen and before long there were plots to put her on the throne, supported by the might of Catholic Spain.

Katherine lacked the political guile to chart the dangerous waters in which she found herself and in 1560 she took the reckless step of marrying Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, nephew of Henry VIII’s third queen, Jane Seymour. For a person of royal blood to marry without the monarch’s consent was treasonous, and when Elizabeth heard of it she wasted no time in placing Katherine (who was already pregnant) and her new husband in the Tower.

Image: Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1575. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of Elizabeth I wearing a prominent phoenix jewel on her chest, which was an emblem for rebirth and chastity. She also wears a heavy jewelled collar with a red and white Tudor rose in the centre.
Portrait of Katherine Grey and her son Edward within in a black and golden frame

A fatal transgression

In September 1561, Katherine was delivered of a son. The boy was christened in the Tower’s Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, under the flagstones of which lay his aunt, Lady Jane Grey. The birth of a male heir to her despised rival intensified Elizabeth’s fury, and she ordered that Katherine and her husband be kept strictly apart. But their gaolers evidently took pity on them because, in February 1563, Katherine gave birth to a second son in the Tower. The couple had established quite a cosy fraternity within their prison because two of the Yeomen Warders stood as godfathers at the christening in the Tower chapel.

When Elizabeth found out, her fury knew no bounds. The Spanish ambassador observed that she turned ‘the colour of a corpse’. She ordered that Katherine and her husband be removed immediately from the Tower and sent to different places of imprisonment, many miles apart. She also levied the colossal fine of £15,000 on Seymour (equivalent to £3.5 million today).

Image: Katherine Grey and her son, Edward Seymour. Courtesy of Syon House.

A Tragic End

Katherine wrote at once to beg the Queen’s forgiveness ‘with upstretched hands and down bent knees, from the bottom of my heart.’ Her words fell on deaf ears. Heartbroken at being kept from her beloved husband, Katherine’s health suffered a serious decline, exacerbated by her refusal to eat. In January 1568, a little under five years after leaving the Tower, she died, aged just twenty seven. ‘In the world to come I hope to live for ever’, she told one of her attendants, ‘for here is nothing but care and misery.’

Hounded as she had been by Elizabeth in life, Katherine may have derived some satisfaction in knowing that after her death, her descendants would be a constant source of anxiety to the Queen. When Elizabeth lay dying in 1603, one of the claimants vying for her throne was Katherine’s grandson, Edward Seymour.

Tracy Borman, Chief Curator
You can watch Tracy exploring Katherine’s tragic story in episode 3 of Inside the Tower of London, 20.00 on 10 November, Channel 5.

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