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Kat Ashley: Tudor Queen Elizabeth I's True Friend

Kat Ashley nee Champernowne was the future Queen Elizabeth I's governess and lady of the bedchamber. Their friendship endured many threats.

Katherine Champernowne, later Ashley was Elizabeth's governess and lady of the bedchamber. She was a staunch ally to the Tudor.

Katherine Champernowne, later Ashley was Elizabeth's governess and lady of the bedchamber. She was a staunch ally to the Tudor.

Katherine Ashley and Elizabeth I: Survival

At several points during the 16th century Katherine Champernowne, later Ashley (c.1502-1565) was the only person that the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) could rely on.

"Kat", as her royal charge called her, was at first the princess’ governess and rose to be the First Lady of the Bedchamber. She was a mother figure, a loyal friend and an ally in Elizabeth’s household. Kat helped Elizabeth to survive the countless slights, plots and intrigues that threatened any peace that she’d garnered in her life.

Elizabeth faced risks from Catholics who vowed to rid the world of a heretic, her father Henry VIII who loved or loathed her at his royal whim; her half-sister Mary who was defiantly Catholic in a Protestant country, and Edward, the youngest of the three half-siblings but the first to ascend to the English throne.

Kat Teaches the Lady Elizabeth

When Prince Edward (1537-1553) was borne by Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour on the 12th October 1537 Margaret Bryan, Elizabeth's “Lady Mistress” in charge of her upbringing was appointed to Edward’s household. Elizabeth’s new Lady Mistress Blanche, Lady Herbert of Troy remained with her until the mid-1540s.

Katherine Champernowne was a gentlewoman-in-waiting to the Lady Elizabeth from summer 1536. Elizabeth was referred to as a lady rather than a princess because Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, had excluded her from the line of succession.

The following year Kat was employed as her governess. Kat was gentle and well-educated. She imparted her knowledge of mathematics, languages, astronomy, embroidery, riding and dancing to Elizabeth. The young royal was also taught about court etiquette and why she should respect the powerful people in her father’s sphere.

Elizabeth was a capable student and was careful to always be polite in company. Later, Elizabeth recorded that Kat took “great labour and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty.” From 1548 the noted writer and scholar Roger Ascham was her tutor. Elizabeth liked him.

A 16 year old Princess Elizabeth.

A 16 year old Princess Elizabeth.

The Tudor Family Reunited

In 1543 an element of calm was restored to court. Henry VIII married his 6th and final wife Catherine Parr. She was keen to reunite the Tudors and to be a mother figure to Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. Importantly, she persuaded the king to allow Elizabeth and Mary back into the line of succession.

In 1545 Kat married the courtier and politician John Ashley (c.1507-1595). He was a cousin of Anne Boleyn’s through his mother’s line and so he was also related to Elizabeth.

Henry VIII died on the 28th January 1547 and Edward succeeded him as King Edward VI. His uncles Edward and Thomas Seymour used their influence over the 10-year-old Edward liberally; both were eventually executed. Thomas Seymour schemed for a match between himself and either Princess Mary or Elizabeth. He was denied both by his enemies and married Henry’s widow Catherine Parr.

Catherine Parr. Her 4th husband Thomas Seymour who she married for love, was not devoted to her.

Catherine Parr. Her 4th husband Thomas Seymour who she married for love, was not devoted to her.

Thomas Seymour Causes Scandal in Chelsea

Thomas, Catherine and Elizabeth moved to a residence in Chelsea and it was here that Kat was elevated to the role of Chief Gentlewoman of Elizabeth’s court. Tales of Seymour behaving inappropriately towards Elizabeth began in Chelsea. Either with or without Catherine’s initial compliance he flirted and apparently “tickled” and touched the princess.

When Elizabeth was reputedly found in Thomas Seymour’s arms Catherine was livid. Elizabeth and her household were sent away to Hatfield House. Kat sought to protect Elizabeth’s reputation and urged her not to allow herself to be compromised again. The two women guarded the secrets of what may or may not have happened in Chelsea.

Catherine Seymour died in childbirth in September 1548 and Thomas Seymour swiftly made renewed advances to Elizabeth. He was not encouraged.

Part of the old Hatfield House where Elizabeth and Kat were sent after the Thomas Seymour incident.

Part of the old Hatfield House where Elizabeth and Kat were sent after the Thomas Seymour incident.

Arrest and the Tower of London

On the 21st January 1549 Kat Ashley was arrested and questioned at the Tower of London about her role in Seymour’s scheme to marry himself to Princess Elizabeth. Her inquisitors believed her when she said that she was not party to his schemes and that she had done nothing wrong.

She did not implicate Elizabeth in any way either. Kat returned to Hatfield House exonerated from blame and was hugely relieved to be with Elizabeth again. Thomas Seymour was executed for treason in March 1549.

Edward VI died on the 6th July 1553 and after the disastrous 9 days reign of Lady Jane Grey England was ruled for 5 years by “Bloody Mary” or Mary I, famed for her tragic phantom pregnancies and her zeal for killing figures she believed were heretics. Mary and Elizabeth had always endured an uneasy relationship. They were in opposition; caught in a political, power and religion-related dance for survival.

Kat Ashley Arrested Again

In 1554 Mary had Elizabeth arrested and taken to the Tower of London and then to Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire for 4 years where her health suffered as she was confined in damp conditions.

Kat was not permitted to be with her throughout her incarceration. In late 1555 Mary allowed Kat access to Elizabeth but in spring 1556 Kat was arrested after rumours of yet another plot to dethrone Mary came to light. Kat was arrested for having seditious material in her possession but was not guilty of treason. She was sentenced to 3 months at London’s Fleet Prison. She was prohibited from seeing Elizabeth again.

Kat's husband John Ashley sometimes spelled Astley. He and Kat were rewarded by Elizabeth I.

Kat's husband John Ashley sometimes spelled Astley. He and Kat were rewarded by Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I's First Lady of the Bedchamber

The 42-year-old Mary I died, probably from cancer, on 17th November 1558.

Good fortune and liberty were restored to Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth I, and she rewarded the people that she knew she could depend upon. Kat was appointed the First Lady of the Bedchamber and John Ashley was made the Master of the Jewel House, in charge of the priceless crown jewels.

Courtiers viewed Kat as a valuable conduit to the queen. She wielded a great deal of influence and she used it not for them but to improve Elizabeth’s hold over the aristocracy and politicians.

On the 18th July 1565, Kat Ashley died whilst away from court and its duties. As her life ebbed away the devastated queen visited her repeatedly and mourned her as a mother.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle