Kat Ashley

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Portrait of "Kat" Ashley. Collection of Lord Hastings

Katherine Ashley (née Champernowne; circa 1502 – 18 July 1565), also known as "Kat Ashley" was the first close friend, governess, and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth I of England. She was the aunt of Katherine Champernowne, who was the mother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert (first marriage) and by her second marriage Walter Raleigh.[1]


Arms of Champernowne: Gules, a saltire vair between twelve billets or

Katherine Champernowne's parentage is not known for certain. There are two principal candidates for her father.

One is Sir Philip Champernowne, although there is a 1536 letter from Kat to Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex which makes reference to her father as having "much to do with the little living he has. At the time of her birth, Sir Philip's wife, Catherine Carew, was sixteen years of age. However, no contemporary records refer to Kat Ashley and Joan Denny being sisters.[2]

The other candidate is Sir John Champernowne, whose wife was approximately 43 at the time of Kat's birth, which some people believe to be too old, but Catherine Knollys had her last child at 38. Sir John died a year after her birth, but the fact that Kat wrote to Cromwell in 1536 mentioning her father in the present tense suggests he isn't her father, unless an unknown stepfather is meant. If Kat was the child of Sir John Champernowne, then her niece was Joan Champernowne, who married Sir Anthony Denny, Groom of the Stool and most trusted servant to King Henry VIII.

On the other hand, Katherine may have been from another branch of the Champernowne family altogether.

Royal governess[edit]

After Prince Edward's birth, Elizabeth lost her governess, Lady Margaret Bryan, who was transferred to her half-brother's service. She was placed in the care of Lady Troy, who remained Elizabeth's governess until she retired in late 1545 or early 1546. Katherine Champernowne was appointed as gentlewoman in waiting to the then Lady Elizabeth in July 1536.

In 1537, Katherine became four-year-old Elizabeth's third governess. Sources state that she accustomed the little girl to the "elaborate code of politeness and respect to her elders". In addition, she taught her charge pursuits such as needlework, embroidery, dancing, and riding. By the age of six, Elizabeth was able to sew a beautiful cambric shirt as a gift for her younger half-brother. Evidently, Katherine had been well educated for she effectively taught the precocious princess mathematics, geography, astronomy, history, French, Italian, Flemish, and Spanish. Elizabeth herself praised Katherine's early devotion to her studies by stating that Kat (as the future Queen called her governess) took "great labour and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty".


In 1543, Henry VIII had married Catherine Parr, who gave Elizabeth a more stable family life, restored her right to succession, and brought her household to the royal court. In 1545, Katherine married John Ashley, Elizabeth's senior gentleman attendant and cousin of Anne Boleyn.[3] She was over 40 years old at this date, which heavily implies John Champernowne of Dartington was her father since Sir Philip's wife, Catherine Carew, was only 10 in 1505. However, King Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by Edward VI, whose uncles Edward and Thomas Seymour tried to get control of him. Shortly after Henry VIII died, Thomas Seymour investigated whether he could be permitted to marry either the Princess Mary or Princess Elizabeth, but he was refused. Seymour immediately began courting Parr as they had been romantically linked before she became Queen. In her early 30s and still childless, Parr agreed to marry Seymour only two months after her husband's death and was able to secure royal approval to take young Elizabeth to her new home in Chelsea with Kat as the princess' Chief Gentlewoman.

After Thomas Seymour began a flirtation with the 14-year-old Elizabeth, Kat first thought this amusing. However, this changed after he entered the girl's bedroom in the morning in his nightshirt and tried to tickle her while she was still in bed. Kat became concerned and advised Parr, who was later accused of taking part in holding down Elizabeth while Seymour slashed her gown "into a thousand pieces."[4] There was a major incident in which Kat said that the Dowager Queen had caught Elizabeth in Seymour's arms,[5] which caused both stepmother and governess to lecture the princess about the need to protect her reputation. Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth and her household moved to Hatfield House, but gossip already spread. After Parr died after childbirth on 5 September 1548, Ashley tried to convince her mistress to write to Thomas and "comfort him in his sorrow", but Elizabeth claimed that he wasn't so saddened by her stepmother's death as to need comfort. Indeed, Thomas renewed his attentions towards Elizabeth with intent on marrying her.

The rumours about Thomas Seymour's "flirtation" towards Elizabeth emerged in 1548 as his other political manoeuvres were revealed. On 21 January 1549, Katherine was arrested and taken to the Tower for possible involvement in Seymour's activities. She told her story, was found to have done nothing treasonous, and was released thirteen days before Seymour's execution. Despite detailed questioning, Katherine didn't implicate Elizabeth in Seymour's schemes. Blanche Parry, second in the household, was Elizabeth's Chief Gentlewoman while Katherine was in prison. By August 1549, Katherine had returned to Hatfield and stayed with Elizabeth until her mistress was imprisoned in the Tower by Queen Mary I in 1554. Katherine was allowed to rejoin Elizabeth in October 1555, but was arrested in May 1556 following the discovery of seditious books. She spent three months in Fleet Prison and was forbidden to see Elizabeth again after her release.

Favourite of Queen Elizabeth[edit]

After Mary I died in 1558 and Elizabeth became Queen of England, Katherine was appointed First Lady of the Bedchamber while her husband was appointed Master of the Jewel House.[6] Katherine became very influential as a source of information for the Queen and as means of asking favours for the nobles. She helped to form a strict aristocracy, which helped to maintain the Queen's dominance over government for most of her reign.

In May 1561, Queen Elizabeth made Katherine a gift of an old French velvet gown lined with taffeta and wide sleeves cut up to make cushion covers.[7] In 1562 she was given a pewter metal doll for the use of Ippolyta the Tartarian, a young woman brought from Russia by Anthony Jenkinson.[8] Katherine peacefully died in the summer of 1565 possibly at the age of 63, to Queen Elizabeth's great distress since her dear friend wasn't in attendance at court when she died.[9] Parry succeeded her as Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. When on her death bed Elizabeth continually visited her and mourned her sincerely and unaffectedly.[10]

Portrayal in popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ 4th daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne (1479–1545) lord of the manor of Modbury (Vivian, Lt.Col. J.L., (Ed.) The Visitations of the County of Devon: Comprising the Heralds' Visitations of 1531, 1564 & 1620, Exeter, 1895, p.162)
  2. ^ "Kate ASHLEY". Tudor place. Retrieved 26 January 2019.
  3. ^ Guy, John (2013). "In the beginning". The Children of Henry VIII. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191655944.
  4. ^ David Starkey (2000) Elizabeth. Evidence for Catherine Parr's initial complicity stems from Ashley's deposition of 1549, Haynes, ed., State Papers, (1740), 99–101.
  5. ^ Weir, Alison (1996). "2". The Children of Henry VIII. Ballantine Books. p. 53. ISBN 0345391187.
  6. ^ Whitelock, Anna (2013). "3. Familia Regina". Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court. A&C Black. ISBN 9781408833636.
  7. ^ 'Copy of an Original Order of Queen Elizabeth', Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, 24 (London, 1754), p. 163
  8. ^ Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd (Leeds, 1988), p. 107: Bernadette Andrea, 'Ippolyta the Tartarian', Carole Levin, Anna Riehl Bertolet, Jo Eldridge Carney, eds, A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen (Routledge, 2017), pp. 512-3.
  9. ^ Loades, David (2003). Elizabeth I. New York, NY 10010: Hambledon and London. p. 148. ISBN 1852853042. She seems to have died in her home and not at court, but nothing is known of the circumstances.CS1 maint: location (link)
  10. ^ W.G. Gosling The Life of Sir Humphrey Gilbert

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