Katherine of York, Countess of Devon & the Courtenays


Remarkably given their dynastic importance, the chaos with which they were surrounded and their potential for mischief, the daughters of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were a quiet lot. Much like the eldest, Elizabeth of York, there are only flashes of agency against an overarching pattern of obedience for the younger daughters.

While we know that Elizabeth became the queen consort of Henry VII and the third sister, Anne of York, married Thomas Howard, future 3rd Duke of Norfolk, today we’re going to focus on the second-to-youngest daughter, Katherine, whose life followed a very interesting Medieval pattern.

Katherine was born at Eltham Palace on August 14, 1479, the ninth of her parents’ 10 children. Ahead of her were four older sisters, Elizabeth, Mary, Cecily and Anne, and two older brothers, Edward and Richard. But for all that Katherine entered into the well-oiled machine of a large family late in her father’s reign, she did not get very many years to enjoy it. In 1482, when she was three, the 14-year-old Princess Mary died and the following spring, Katherine’s father, Edward IV, passed away, throwing England into the second of three years in which it would see three kings.

The throne passed to the 12-year-old Edward V under the protection of their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Within weeks, Edward was deposed and Gloucester ascended the throne as Richard III. Katherine entered sanctuary with her mother, sisters and youngest brother shortly after Edward’s accession and remained there with them (even after Richard of York was removed) until March 1484. While that several-month period was no doubt scarring to her mother and older sisters, it’s unclear of how much Katherine and her youngest sister, Bridget, would have been aware.

Elizabeth Woodville

Katherine was three when her father died and four when she left Westminster – while she no doubt noted the absences of her father and brothers, her memories of them were likely hazy at best by the time she reached adulthood. After their release, she remained with her mother and moved to Heytesbury. She would have had little concept of the intrigue that was spreading through England or the looming threat of an invasion by Henry Tudor.

Less than a week after Katherine turned six, her uncle was killed at the Battle of Bosworth and Henry Tudor ascended the throne as King Henry VII. That autumn Katherine followed her mother and sisters back to London where her eldest sister, Elizabeth, prepared to marry the King. Henry re-legitimized the York princesses, recognizing Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville as valid.

Henry and Elizabeth married in January 1486 and by that September, Elizabeth had given birth to their eldest son, Arthur. The following year, Elizabeth Woodville retired from court for Bermondsey Abbey, a common practice for widows at the time, though her motivation for doing so remain a matter of debate. Regardless, the move marked the separation of Katherine from her mother for the first time in years, which while unremarkable by normal royal standards, was likely a pivotal moment for Katherine given how closely they had all been living with one another.

It’s unclear what relationship the York women had with one another or how they felt about where the chips fell after Henry ascended the throne. In 1492, shortly before Katherine’s 13th birthday, the Dowager Queen died and she was given a small, humble funeral in alignment with her last wishes. Elizabeth of York, pregnant with her fourth child, wasn’t there, which has led to speculation that she wasn’t close with her mother. Maybe she wasn’t, but the reason for her absence was simply that she had already entered confinement. The next eldest sister, Cecily, was already married and didn’t attend either, likely due to either pregnancy or illness.

As a result, the funeral was led by the next sister,  17-year-old Anne. Katherine attended, as did Bridget, who had already entered Dartford Priory as a nun. Their elder half-brother, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, from their mother’s first marriage, and an illegitimate daughter of their late father’s, also paid their respects.

Elizabeth of York

In the five years between Elizabeth Woodville’s departure from court and death, Katherine lived in Elizabeth of York’s household. She essentially lived the life of a court damoiselle in the Queen’s household, except of course she was privileged and honored as a princess of the blood. Once an adolescent, discussion of her marriage began. Cecily had married John, Viscount Welles in 1487 and Anne had been betrothed to Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey’s son, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth, since 1484. Though it’s unclear why there was such a long delay, Anne and Howard were finally married in February 1495 and immediately after that, Anne left court and never returned.

Cecily appears to have taken a similar route and rarely pops up in the court records after her marriage, drawing into focus one important link between all the sisters: none sought the spotlight unnecessarily so. Elizabeth appears to have played a strictly ceremonial role during Henry’s reign and, with the exception of Bridget who obviously lived apart as a nun, the other sisters actively chose to stay away from court. In theory, Anne and Cecily’s decisions to retire could be seen as further evidence that the York women’s relationship, but considering it appears to be a character trait they shared with Elizabeth, it may be reasonable to postulate that the drama of the 1480s, which included the upheaval of their extended family, informed how they lived their lives – quietly and without political interest.

Sometime in the late summer and early autumn of 1495, when she was 16, Katherine married Lord William Courtenay. The match was arranged by Henry and Elizabeth and honored the Courtenay family who were descended from Edward I  and had long supported the House of Lancaster. William’s father, Edward, had supported Henry’s claim during Richard’s reign and eventually left England to join him in Brittany before fighting for him at the Battle of Bosworth. For his loyalty the family had been granted the earldom of Devon and it was a solid match for Katherine, one which ensured she was physically and financially comfortable.

Katherine, unlike Cecily and Anne, did continue to visit court and remained a part of Elizabeth’s circle. She split her time between her husband’s homes in Devon and his residence in Newgate, London on Warwick Lane, which they moved to in 1500 – the same year that Henry called them to court. By then, Katherine had three young children, Henry, Edward and Margaret. There is no direct evidence to suggest what the nature of her marriage was, but descriptions of William from contemporary chroniclers are favorable and Katherine’s later actions suggest that they had a positive, even if not romantic, relationship.

In 1501, Henry granted William an annuity for his attendance on him and, worth noting, this was of course the year Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales married Katherine of Aragon. After a long betrothal and multiple proxy weddings, Katherine arrived in England for the first time in the autumn of 1501. Their wedding on November 14th at St. Paul’s Cathedral was a huge, expensive event for which Henry was intent on showing off the English treasury. Katherine and William were certainly in attendance at the ceremony and took part in the epic banquet that followed, during which their nephew, the future Henry VIII, threw off his doublet and danced to the delight of the guests.

A week later Katherine, alongside Cecily, was in attendance for a another banquet at White Hall featuring the entire Royal Family. Three tables were set up, one led by Henry, another by Elizabeth and a third by Arthur. Both sisters sat below the Queen at a table set up at the foot of the chamber’s bed, a sign of importance. After eating, the guests moved to Westminster Hall for pageants, dancing and a procession of lavish gifts.

Two months later, Katherine was there for the signing of the marriage treaty between her niece, Margaret Tudor, and James IV of Scotland – at one time betrothed to Cecily before Edward IV’s death. It would be one of the last moments of peace for Katherine for a while.

Henry VII

Three months later news would reach London from Wales that Arthur was dead and nine-year-old Henry was now the heir. Even before that, court was rocked by the growing split with the de la Pole family. The de la Poles were related to Katherine and her sisters by blood, which is to say they were Plantagenet descendants. The head of the family was Edmund de la Pole, then in his early 30s. His mother was another Elizabeth of York, older sister to Edward IV and Richard III, and his father was John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. Since his parents had married in the late 1450s, the de la Poles had been loyal Yorkists and though they had submitted to Henry at Bosworth, their eldest son, John, had been viewed as Richard III’s heir and led an uprising against Henry in 1487 that ended in his death.

Despite this, Edmund had been allowed to inherit the dukedom of Suffolk after his father’s death, though it was demoted to an earldom in 1493, a clear insult from the King. In 1501, Edmund left England with the apparent intention of eventually launching an invasion. He failed to gain the continental support he needed and, in 1502, Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, promised Henry he wouldn’t help Edmund if asked.

So, what does this have to do with Katherine? Henry had been having noblemen suspected of supporting Edmund monitored and it came to his attention that William and Edmund had dined together shortly before the latter left England. Further evidence came to light that William and Edmund had been corresponding. In February 1502, just weeks after witnessing the signing of the Scottish treaty, William was arrested from his home in the middle of the night and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

There’s no note in the record of Katherine being present, but it’s entirely possible that she was also in London that night. Even if she had been in Devon, she likely hightailed it to the capitol as quickly as possible to speak to her sister. It was rumored at the time that Katherine had made disparaging remarks about Henry’s claim to the throne, and while that might be true, it’s more likely that William was dealt with harshly because of his marriage to a Yorkist princess and Henry was overly cautious.

Elizabeth seems to have had had a head’s up what Henry was planning, and it’s possible that Katherine at least knew William’s arrest was a possibility, because a few weeks beforehand Elizabeth took charge of the three Courtenay children. She paid for them to be moved from Devon to Essex, ensuring their protection. Katherine was already receiving a modest pension from Elizabeth, but once William was imprisoned, those payments began to be supplemented by gifts, signaling Elizabeth’s continued support for the family. That May there is a record of payments for clothing for William, including cloth, fur and a night bonnet to supplement a bare bones wardrobe. Her generosity is particularly notable given that in the middle of all of this, she learned of Arthur’s death and by the end of the spring, she was pregnant yet again.

That summer Katherine traveled with Elizabeth as her sister undertook a progress, a rather remarkable fact for the latter given both her condition and that it was rare she spent that much time apart from her husband. Elizabeth’s biographer Alison Weir has posited that the travels may indicate a rift between Henry and Elizabeth due to the King’s treatment of William and other matters, but there is no concrete evidence of what the motivation was.

By the middle of July the sisters split up and Elizabeth fell ill. That winter, Elizabeth lodged in the Tower of London and gave birth to her last child, a daughter named Katherine (likely after her sister) who didn’t live long. On February 11, 1503, her 37th birthday, the Queen died, plunging the royal court into unexpected mourning.

Katherine served as her sister’s chief mourner. While the honor should have gone to Cecily as the next eldest sister, who did attend, she was in disgrace for having remarried after her husband’s death without the King’s permission. And Anne, the next sister after her, didn’t attend for unknown reasons. Within this role, Katherine sat through multiple night vigils next to Elizabeth’s coffin, while she was attended to by her cousin, Elizabeth Stafford (daughter of her aunt, Katherine Woodville). On the day of the funeral itself, including a procession from the Tower to Westminster that mirrored the route of Elizabeth’s coronation in 1487, all four sisters, including Bridget, came together to walk.

That evening Katherine presided over a supper in Elizabeth’s great chamber at Westminster and the next morning led other female mourners during a mass within the Abbey, which had been shrouded in black cloth.

The ceremony behind them, Henry soon ordered Katherine and her children back to Devon, Elizabeth’s patronage no longer available to them. She spent the next six years living on her father-in-law as a dependent, though she also continued to visit court. In 1509, when Henry VIII ascended the throne, the new king ordered his uncle’s release. That same year William’s father died, in theory leaving the earldom of Devon to him, however because he had been attainted, he could not hold the title until formally given the right by the king, which was done in 1511.

Henry VIII c. 1509

Within months, however, he was dead and Katherine made a public vow of celibacy in front of the Bishop of London that July. Katherine remained a reliable figure at her nephew’s court during the early years of his reign and she was repeatedly honored, no doubt in part because of how close she had been to Elizabeth. In 1516 she was named godmother to Henry and Katherine of Aragon’s daughter, Princess Mary.

Katherine outlived all of her siblings, not dying until November 15, 1527 at the age of 48. Only one of her children, Henry, outlived her. Her younger son, Edward, died as a child in the summer of 1502, while her daughter, Margaret, died in 1512 at the age of roughly 13 or 14. Margaret had been married to Henry Somerset, who eventually became the Earl of Worcester.

Katherine’s eldest son, Henry, lived until December 1538 when he was executed by Henry VIII on charges of treason, an ironic twist given how loyal Katherine’s nephew had been to their family for years and how close William had come to the same fate.

Katherine’s son, Henry, is shown second from the left, c. 1535

Katherine died at Tiverton Castle in Devon and is buried at the local church. For a time a memorial to her stood nearby, erected by her son, however it has since been destroyed.

4 thoughts on “Katherine of York, Countess of Devon & the Courtenays

  1. Anonymous

    Your post on Margaret Pole also cites her as bring godmother to princess Mary Tudor. Who exactly was the godmother to Princess Mary?

  2. Anonymous

    I have just finished reading a work of fiction, The Boleyn Reckoning, by Laura Andersen. She created a living Tudor-Boleyn male heir and a related loyal friend of the king. By my calculations, the friend would be equivalent to Katherine’s son Henry’s child Edward. That, however, is not his name in the book. Am I right in my research guesses?

  3. Susan Zimmer

    I have just finished reading a work of fiction, The Boleyn Reckoning, by Laura Andersen. She invents a Tudor-Boleyn male heir and a loyal friend of the king. Although this friend has a different name, some hints lead me to think he might be based on Katherine’s son Henry’s child Edward. Would this be a logical deduction?

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