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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Katherine Carey Knollys

Katherine Carey Knollys, (b. 1524- d. 15 Jan 1569) Katherine was the daughter of Mary Boleyn Carey, one of Henry VIII’s mistresses and sister to his second wife Anne Boleyn, and therefore Elizabeth’s first cousin if not her half-sister. Katherine was shown affectionate favor by Henry VIII who gave her grants and an annuity when she was only 16.  In 1539 the king granted her the post of maid of honor to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and in 1540 she married Francis Knollys.  

After Henry VIII’s death, Katherine split her time between Edward’s court, Elizabeth’s household and the family manor at Rotherfield Greys where some of her children were born including the future Elizabethan ‘she-wolf’ Lettice Knollys, later countess of Essex and Leicester. In total, Katherine had 14 children, 13 living to maturity. A 1553 letter from Elizabeth to Katherine signed cor rotto or broken heart, gives us a glimpse of their close relationship. Katherine’s and Francis’s adherence to the new faith made it politic to leave England during Mary I’s reign. The family spent time in Basel and Strasburg. By June 1557 they were in Frankfurt Am Main. Shortly after Elizabeth’s accession, the family returned to England and started reaping the benefits of Katherine’s relationship with the queen. Katherine was appointed chief lady of the privy chamber on 3 January 1559. Her daughters Lettice, 15, and Elizabeth, 9, were sworn maids of the court at the same time. A few days later, her husband was sworn to the Privy Council and made vice-chamberlain of the household. Two other daughters and at least two granddaughters eventually served at Elizabeth’s court. Six sons and two grandsons were members of Elizabethan parliaments making them the largest single kinship block in Parliament. Katherine was independent and strong enough to warrant not only recognition in the monarch’s kinship network but also inclusion in all conjugal financial transactions. All the Elizabethan grants of land and rents were given to her and her husband jointly, not to him individually. In these grants she is referred to as ‘the Queen’s kinswoman’ while her husband is referred to as knight, councillor or vice-chamberlain. Certainly Francis treated her as his career partner when he begged her to engineer his recall from the unwelcome duty of guarding Mary Queen of Scots. Their marriage was clearly affectionate and in her husband’s eyes a marriage of equals as in a 1568 letter he addresses her ‘to youe that is an other my selffe’.  She was also stubborn following her own medical path against prescription much to the consternation of her husband, the earl of Leicester and William Cecil.  Unfortunately, her own treatments provided only a temporary respite from a lingering fever and she died suddenly at Hampton Court at the age of 45. The sudden death of Katherine Carey Knollys in 1569 transformed the queen ‘from a Prince wanting nothing in this World, to private Morning ’. Elizabeth paid for Katherine’s funeral burying her in Westminster Abbey with great ceremony.  Her hearse was so elaborate that the dean of Westminster and the heralds fought over it. After the burial, the queen provided for Katherine’s younger children including taking them into the royal household. Unsurprisingly, Katherine’s eulogy extols her virtues calling her a ‘myrroure pure of womanhoode’ with;

A head so fraight and beautified, With wit and counsaile sounde, A minde so cleane deuoide of guile, Is vneth to be founde.

In 1605 at Rotherfield Greys, her son William built an elaborate funeral monument honoring both Katherine and her husband. The monument displays Katherine’s badge of a cygnet with crown engorged. The cygnet was considered faithful, full of dignity and because of its singing voice, pleasing company. Clearly the queen thought so.

For further reading: Bundesen, K. ‘No other faction but my own: Dynastic politics and Elizabeth I’s Carey cousins’, unpublished PhD dissertation (University of Nottingham, 2009) Merton, C. ‘The women who served Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth: Ladies, gentlewomen and maids of the privy chamber, 1553-1603’ unpublished PhD thesis (Trinity College, Oxford, 1992) Hoskins, A. ‘Mary Boleyn’s Carey children and offspring of Henry VIII’, Genealogists’ Magazine 25 (1997) 345-52.


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