• Kristin Bundesen, PhD

A Funeral Roll

Updated: Feb 25

Sounds sad. But quite an historical treasure!


A funeral roll is a draft of the order of ceremony for a funeral. If you were important enough, the order of ceremony was written down and rolled up. If researchers are lucky, the roll has survived in an archive somewhere and is properly identified.

Such is the case with the funeral roll for Katherine Carey Knollys. Belinda Fairthorne, head of the Greys Court Volunteers' History Group found the document in the Bodleian Library and passed it to Lynn Holmes another volunteer who works on the Knollys family. Greys Court was the home of the Knollys family and is nor a National Trust property Greys Court in Oxfordshire.


On my last visit to this property, Lynn kindly picked me up at the Henley-on-Thames train station, ferried me out to the property and gave me a thorough tour of the property and gardens on a very cold and rainy January day. Another researcher and writer, the lovely Adrienne Dillard, has also visited Greys Court and been hosted by Lynn.


Through a circuitous route, the three of us have puzzled over transcribing this 16th century document. I also employed a professional transcription service for yet a fourth set of eyes. Despite all of us staring at the images in high magnification and changing contrast levels, we still don't all agree on all the words in the document. The one thing we agree on is that this was a working document, a draft, with plenty of additions and deletions - and a valuable find!


Funeral rolls are full of information about the deceased. The first bit is that the person was important enough to have a planned service. In the case of Katherine Carey Knollys, she was important enough to be buried in Westminster Abbey. And because there were some conventions followed for elite Elizabethans we can learn things such as their friends, their servants, their relative importance based on who participated in the procession and a person's age. (Look for another post on Katherine's likely birth date.)


Katherine died in 1569 while her husband was guarding Mary, Queen of Scots. She had been ill for a bit and he was worried about her. So much so that he and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, were corresponding about whether Katherine was following doctor's orders or was wearing herself out serving Queen Elizabeth, her cousin and friend. Despite the close bond between the queen and Katherine, Elizabeth would not release Sir Francis from his responsibilities guarding Mary, Queen of Scots because he was one of the few people she could trust absolutely with such a dangerous visitor in the kingdom.


Katherine's brother, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon has the biggest and most ornate monument in Westminster Abbey. By comparison, Katherine's plaque on the wall in St. Edmund's Chapel is miniscule. There's also a typo. Yet her hearse was so richly adorned that the heralds and the Dean of Westminster fought over the right to keep it asking William Cecil to mediate. No wonder, Queen Elizabeth paid for it handsomely.


When I first started researching the Carey-Knollys family, my doctoral supervisor asked me why when they were so relatively unimportant. They weren't unimportant. They're under researched. According to the funeral roll, the following VIPs were part of the procession:

  • William Cecil, Master Secretary and his wife Mildred Cooke Cecil

  • Charles Howard, Baron Effingham, later Earl of Nottingham and Lord High Admiral, married to Katherine's niece and namesake, Katherine Carey Howard

  • Sir Christopher Hatton, gentlemen of the chamber and eventual Privy councillor among other titles

  • Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor of the Exchequer

  • Sir Thomas Heneage, soon to be Treasurer of the queen's household

The chief mourner was Frances Newton Brooke, Countess Cobham a friend from the queen's bed chamber described by some historians as unusually politically active. Although, I think all the women of the queen's household were politically active. It's just that some traditional historians haven't noticed.


Katherine's children were represented by her sons Henry (27), William (23), Robert (18), and Richard (16). Daughters in attendance included Elizabeth (19), Anne (13), and Maude Knollys (21) about whom we know very little past her birth date (30 March 1548). Thanks to this funeral roll, we know she was still alive in early 1569.


If we were to measure the level of esteem that a person held when alive by the size, pomp, and circumstance of their funeral, we must conclude that a woman of the court with a hearse so richly adorned that there were fights over who would get it as a hand me down, with over a 100 people, not counting Knollys servants, making up the formal procession including the highest ranking men in the kingdom leading the procession, and that the monarch decreed that the funeral take place in the most prestigious, some would say royal, abbey was important.


Thank you to Belinda, Lynn, and Adrienne for sharing this valuable find!