19 September 2019

Death of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and the mystery of her curious tomb at Spilsby

Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, 12th Baroness Willoughby d'Eresby and subject of my new book, Katherine - Tudor Duchess, is one of the most unusual ladies of the Tudor court. A favourite of King Henry VIII, Katherine knew all his six wives, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and his son Edward, as well as being related by marriage to Lady Jane Grey.

Her mother, Maria de Salinas, was the Spanish lady-in-waiting and companion to Queen Catherine of Aragon, and her father was William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby. King Henry VIII granted William and Maria Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire as a wedding present.

Katherine married Charles Brandon (subject of my book Brandon - Tudor Knight), and became Duchess of Suffolk at the age of fourteen. Katherine and Charles Brandon were chosen to welcome Anna of Cleves when she arrived in England, and when Katherine’s good friend, Catherine Parr became the king’s sixth wife, they worked together to promote Protestant reforms.

After Charles Brandon's death Katherine married a member of her household, Richard Bertie, who was her Gentleman Usher and Master of Horse. As leading Protestants, they were forced to flee into exile by Queen Mary I, only returning after Mary's death. 

Portrait of Katherine in later life, on display at Grimsthorpe Castle
Katherine died at Grimsthorpe on the on 19th September 1580 after a long illness aged 61, and is buried with her second husband, Richard, in Spilsby, Lincolnshire.

As part of the research for my book on Katherine I visited Grimsthorpe Castle and saw her chapel, as well as the Tudor rooms where it is likely she spent her last days. I also made the journey to the Lincolnshire town of Spilsby, where Katherine was laid to rest in the Willoughby Chapel of St James Church with her husband Richard.

St James Church, Spilsby

There are a number of mysteries about Katherine's tomb, the most striking of which is that the effigies of Katherine and Richard seem far too small and out of proportion for the space they occupy. Close inspection reveals that they seem to have been cut off at chest height. (My theory is that there was a serious misunderstanding about the size required!)

Katherine, a strict Protestant and averse to unnecessary decoration of churches, is also flanked by three life-sized figures, which are thought to represent a hermit, a Saracen king and the pagan 'green man' of the forest. It's possible these might be derived from old Willoughby motifs, as Grimsthorpe is decorated with a stylised Saracen's head, to mark the family involvement in the crusades. 

As well as concluding my Brandon trilogy, Katherine’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with the best-selling Tudor trilogy and leads to my forthcoming Elizabethan series, with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I.

Tony Riches

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