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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Katherine Carey Howard, Baroness Effingham, Countess of Nottingham

On 25 February 1603, the day of her death, rumours circulated that untold riches were secreted away in Katherine Carey Howard’s house. Both her husband, Charles Howard, Baron Effingham, Earl of Nottingham, and Queen Elizabeth went into mourning. Katherine’s brother Robert Carey reported that he had not seen the queen sigh so much since the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth died only four weeks later. This sentimental linking of Katherine’ death with Elizabeth’s underscores their long and close relationship.

Katherine Carey Howard, Baroness Effingham, Countess of Nottingham

Katherine was the daughter of Anne Morgan and Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon. She was the granddaughter of Mary Boleyn Carey, Henry VIII’s sometime mistress and sister to his second wife Anne Boleyn, and therefore a ‘cousin’ to the queen. If you believe, as I do, that Mary Boleyn’s Carey children were fathered by the king, then Katherine was the queen’s half niece.

In January 1559, although she was only 12, Katherine was given livery for Elizabeth’s coronation and served as maid of the court in between traveling back and forth to Berwick with her mother. In the early days of her reign, the queen disguised herself as Katherine’s maid to sneak out of the court at Windsor to watch Robert Dudley shoot.  

Katherine Carey Howard, Baroness Effingham, Countess of Nottingham. (The author believes that Mary Boleyn's children were fathered by King Henry VII not Mary's husband William Carey.)

The countess and earl of Nottingham were the Elizabethan power couple.  Charles Howard initially aspired to wed Elizabeth herself but, realizing that would never happen, he married Katherine in 1563, recognizing that her influence was potentially more valuable than marriage into a family of more rank or wealth. He was right. Their union was one of the most durable dynastic marriages of Elizabeth’s reign. All the grants and annuities to the couple in the published versions of the Calendar of Patent Rolls name both husband and wife, frequently including the phrase ‘for their service’. While Charles’s career had a solid start due to his natal family connections - he was a Howard after all - after his marriage it soared and included the lucrative post of Lord High Admiral. Charles and Katherine had 6 children. Both sons, Charles and William, served in Parliament and in military action.  We know that three of her daughters, Elizabeth, Frances, and Mary, served at Elizabeth’s court. [The fourth daughter, Margaret Howard, married Sir Richard Leveson. The marriage was unhappy and Margaret was labelled insane. ]

The queen apparently developed the habit of dropping in on the family without much notice presenting the Howards with a conundrum in 1593 when, as Charles wrote to Robert Cecil he hoped the queen would understand that the family had left Chelsea in advance of her visit because two of their sons were ill and might endanger the queen.

Seal of the Lord High Admiral, Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham, 1585

Although the family papers seem to have been lost, there is evidence that Katherine was more involved with the daily politics of the kingdom than has previously been thought.  While her husband co-commanded the Cadiz expedition in 1596, he sent letters to Katherine that she then shared with Robert Cecil so clearly there was more substance to the union than just marital respect and affection. 

A representation of the Battle of Cadiz in 1596. Painting dated 1608.

Katherine served at court throughout the reign moving from a maid to lady of the privy chamber, to lady carver, to chief lady of the bed chamber and in the final years of the reign was referred to as groom of the stool, a designation that was not used earlier implying that there was no more intimate title Elizabeth could bestow on her.

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