Medieval manuscripts blog

12 December 2021

Princess Elizabeth and her governess

‘We are More Bound to Them that Bring us up Well Than to Our Parents’

On 7 March 1549, the 15-year-old Princess Elizabeth wrote to the most powerful man in England, the lord protector, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset. She petitioned him to release her governess, Katherine Ashley, from the Tower of London. Ashley had been imprisoned there for conducting secret marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and Thomas, Lord Seymour.

A portrait of Princess Elizabeth, wearing a red dress and a pearl necklace

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after William Scrots, 16th century: Private Collection

Two days before Elizabeth wrote her letter, Thomas Seymour was found guilty of treason for plotting against the government. For Elizabeth the stakes were high: despite being Somerset’s youngest brother, Seymour was condemned to death. Although she did not ‘fauor her iuel [evil] doinge’, in a display of rhetorical skill that was a product of her advanced education, Elizabeth made a strong case for Ashley in her letter to Somerset (Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r). Ashley had long served her, she said, taking ‘great labor, and paine in brinkinge of me vp in lerninge and honestie’. It seems that Ashley had taught Elizabeth needlework, deportment, manners, music, and perhaps the rudiments of Latin. In her letter Elizabeth emphasised her debt to Ashley by alluding to St Gregory of Nazianzus’s ad 379 funeral oration on St Basil the Great, that we are more bound to those who bring us up well than to our parents. She then explained to Somerset how Ashley would never have encouraged Seymour’s marriage suit if Ashley had not believed that Seymour had the privy council’s consent. Lastly, if Ashley was not released, ‘it shal and doth make men thinke’ she had sacrificed her own freedom to protect Elizabeth’s. ‘Thus hope preuailinge more with me than feare hathe wone the battel, and I haue at this time gone furth with it.’

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, 7 March 1549: Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r

Seymour’s interest in Elizabeth stemmed from her status. Following the destruction of her mother Anne Boleyn in May 1536, Elizabeth had been declared a bastard and excluded from the succession. However, in 1544, as a precaution against dying on campaign in a new war against France, her father, King Henry VIII, restored both Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, to the succession, but he did not legitimate them. In his last will, Henry directed that each daughter should receive a dowry of £10,000 when she married, but could be offered less if she did so without the consent of his executors. Both were also provided with an estate valued at £3,000 a year while they remained unwed. After Henry’s death in January 1547, these executors duly became the privy council of his 9-year-old son and successor, Edward VI, headed by lord protector Somerset.

Portrait miniature of Thomas, Lord Seymour

Portrait miniature of Thomas, Lord Seymour, by an unknown artist, c. 1545–47: National Maritime Museum 42085

In spring 1547, Elizabeth went to live with Henry’s widow, Queen Katherine Parr. Katherine’s new husband, Thomas Seymour, quickly became unduly solicitous towards her young charge. He sometimes visited Elizabeth in her bedchamber before she had risen or was dressed, and would ‘strike hir vp[p]on the bak or on the buttock[e]s famylearly’ (Hatfield House, Cecil Paper 150/85). Elizabeth was smitten with the charming, glamorous and roguish Seymour. She would sometimes blush at the mention of his name. On one occasion Katherine helped him as he cut Elizabeth’s dress ‘yn a c [100] peces’ as they all frolicked in the garden at Hanworth in Middlesex (London, The National Archives, SP 10/6/21, M. f. 55r); on another, she found Elizabeth ‘in his armes’ (Cecil Paper 150/79). After this, Elizabeth was sent away to form her own household, headed by her cofferer, Thomas Parry, and her governess, Katherine Ashley, servants she trusted completely.

Following Thomas Seymour’s arrest in January 1549, Elizabeth and her household came under investigation. Parry and Ashley were dismissed from her service and imprisoned in the Tower, where they were regularly interrogated. Even Elizabeth and her brother Edward were questioned, as the government tried to get to the bottom of Seymour’s treason. Elizabeth wrote to Somerset five times between 28 January and 7 March, petitioning him to issue a proclamation against ‘the slaunderouse rumor, sprong vp’ that she was pregnant with Seymour’s child, requesting an audience with the king, and for her servants to be reinstated (Private Collection, f. 9r). At first she was rebuffed. One of her letters elicited an acid rebuke from Somerset, penned by his secretary, William Cecil. Her plight increased. On 20 March Seymour was beheaded on Tower Hill at the second stroke of the axe. He ‘dyed very daungerously, yrkesomlye, horryblye’, his confessor recorded (Hugh Latimer, The seconde Sermon … preached before the Kynges maiestie ([London, 1549]), sig. M2r). Afterwards it was discovered that he had tried to secretly communicate with Elizabeth from the Tower.


Hugh Latimer, The seconde Sermon … preached before the Kynges maiestie ([London, 1549]): RB.23.a.7820.(2.), sig. M2r

But Elizabeth’s persistence paid off. The government issued a proclamation scotching the pregnancy rumours and Ashley was eventually released and reinstated. Elizabeth and Ashley remained particularly close, their relationship founded on Ashley’s unswerving loyalty and on their deep emotional bond. When she became queen, Elizabeth appointed Ashley chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, and granted her a unique level of trust and favour. Ashley’s death in July 1565 robbed Elizabeth of one of her closest companions, one who had played a formative role in her childhood and youth: ‘our brinkers up ar a cause to make us liue [live] wel in [the world]’, Elizabeth once said of her (Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r).

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

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