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Who was the other Katherine Champernowne? Who was Kat Ashley?











It’s well known and well documented that a woman called Katherine Champernowne, later the wife of John Ashley (Astley), served as  governess to the future Queen Elizabeth I. She is often referred to as "Kat", and I have continued to use that name, both here and in my novel, because it is so well used, though she may have actually been known as Kate.

Surprisingly little is known of the early life of this influential woman.  It has even proved difficult to identify exactly who her parents were. 

Kat's relationship to the Katherine Champernowne who would become mother to both Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh —  the subject of my novel A Woman of Noble Wit —has often been thought to be that of aunt and niece.  In this article I explain why I have reached the conclusion, shared by recent scholars, that Kat and Katherine were actually sisters.


(Portrait via Wikimedia commons from the collection of Lord Hastings  - thought to be Kat Champernowne/Ashley (Astley).)



What is known...

Kat does not make her first appearance in the known historical record until 1536. Shortly after Anne Boleyn's execution, a number of women were appointed to serve Anne's duaghter, who was to be known as  "the Lady Elizabeth, the King's daughter". One of those women is named as  "Katheryne Champernowne". She would serve alongside, amongst others,  Mary Norice (Noriss) , who would later marry Sir George Carew, a cousin of the Champernownes. After George lost his life on the Mary Rose, Mary took as her second husband Sir Arthur Champernowne, brother of Kat and Katherine, the first of that name at Dartington Hall. Blanche ap Harry (Blanche Parry) was also appointed to serve lady Elizabeth and continued to do so until she (Blanche) died in 1590. 

After the birth of Edward VI in 1537 Lady Bryan, Elizabeth's primary governess, was moved to look after the prince. Katheryne Champernowne was then promoted to have charge of Elizabeth’s early education. It seems she did a very good job. When William Grindal became Elizabeth’s tutor in1544 he wrote to Kat expressing his astonishment and gratitude for her achievements.

“’Would God my wit wist (knew) what words would express the thanks you have deserved of all true English hearts, for that noble imp (Elizabeth) by your labour and wisdom now flourishing in all goodly godliness, the fruit whereof doth even now redound to her Grace’s high honour and profit. I wish her Grace to come to that end in perfectness with likelyhood of her wit, and painfulness in her study... which your diligent overseeing doth most constantly promise.’   

Kat taught Elizabeth reading and writing, introduced her to mathematics, geography, astronomy, history, French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish, as well as the required code of politeness and respect for her elders. The wide ranging curriculum also covered dancing, riding and needlework. By the age of six Elizabeth was sufficiently advanced with her needle to be able to sew a beautiful cambric shirt as a gift for her younger half-brother.  

Queen Elizabeth would later praise Kat’s early devotion to her studies saying that she took

"great labour and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty".

To achieve so much Kat must herself have had a very broad education. 

Elizabeth was only four years old when Kat entered her life. She had lost her mother in the most brutally tragic of circumastance and then her first governess had left her to serve her half-brother. So its not really surpising that the little girl developed a close bond with her new governess, perhaps a closer bond than she would ever forge with another woman. Despite enforced separations during troubled times they remained close until Kat died.













Portrait of John Astley, Master of the Jewel Office via Wikimedai Commons from National Tust Collections).

The bond between Kat and her mistress was perhaps strengthened even more towards the end of 1545 when Kat married John Ashley )(Astley), a cousin of Anne Boleyn and an attendant in the Princess’s household who would later become Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels. It seems to have ben a happy marriage built on love and mutual respect, although the couple never had children. By this time it is thought that Kat was around 40 years old and probably beyond childbearing age. After King Henry VIII died Kat and Elizabeth went to live with the former Queen Catherine Parr and her new husband Thomas Seymour, whose inappropriate attentions to the fourteen year old Princess must have put Kat into a difficult situation.  Kat's desperate attempts to keep them apart might well have put quite a strain on her relationship with Elizabeth, who it seems was becoming infatuated with the handsome Thomas. When Katherine Parr also became concerned Elizabeth was sent away to stay with another Champernowne sister, Joan, the wife of Sir Anthony Denny who had been groom of the stool to King Henry. (Joan is clearly identified as the daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne when the king  makes grants of land and property to the couple at their wedding in Febraury 1538 - Lettters and Papers Foreign and Domestic, King Henry VIII,Vol 13 Part 1, January - July 1538)

In 1549, as Thomas Seymour's downfall approached, Kat was arrested and taken to the Tower for questioning. After what must have been a terrifying ordeal no evidence could be found to suggest that either Kat of her mistress were involved in Seymour's plots or treason. Kat was eventually released.

After Edward VI died Queen Mary I came to the throne, heralding dangerous times for Elizabeth and for Kat. Mary's marriage to Philip of Spain was a step too far for many of those who embraced the Protestant faith and plots to remove Mary from the throne and have Elizabeth rule in her stead began to surface. In 1555 Elizabeth came under suspicion of being implicated in the the so called "Wyatt rebellion". She was imprisoned and separated from Kat and her other servants.

The close connections between the Champernowne siblings and their Carew relations are evidentAnother Champernowne cousin, Sir Peter Carew, was clearly involved in the plot and had to make a hasty exit from England to avoid arrest, conveyed to France by Walter Raeligh Senior (by that time married to the other Katherine Champernowne). Sir Arthur Champernowne and his uncle, Sir Gawen Carew, were also imprisioned, but soon released.  Although not supected of any invioolvemnt in these plots Kat's husband spent several years on the continent during Queen Mary's reign, as did many who were uncomfortable with Mary's ploicy on religion. Joan Denny and her husband were both by now dead and John took the Denny boys with him "to continue their education'.

Later, in 1556, Kat would be arrested and held in the Fleet Prison following the discovery of suspiciously heretical books in her possession. Rumours of plots abounded in those years and life must have been extremely uncertain for Elizabeth and also for her faithful Kat. 














When Mary died in in 1558, Elizabeth came to the throne.  One of her first actions was to confirm Kat’s position at court by appointing her Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber.  She enjoyed a level of favour in those first years after Elizabeth's accession matched by no other woman and by few men.

When Kat died after a short illness in July 1565 Elizabeth was reported to be devastated.  She said:

“We are more bound to them that bringeth us up well than to our parents, for our parents do what is natural for them, that is bringeth us into the world, but our bringers up are the cause that make us live well within it.”


So who was this remarkable woman?

It seems quite extraordinary that we know so little about a woman who served Elixzabeth so faithrfully and arguably had considerable influence over her.  A Google search brings up several suggestions as to who Kat's parents might have been. She is variously identified as:

– the daughter of Sir John Champernowne (died1503) and his wife Margaret Courtenay;

– the wife of Sir Philip Champernowne (Sir John’s son, Katherine (nee Carew);

– a distant unrecorded relative from a lesser branch of the family; 

– Katherine Basset, the daughter of Honour Grenville, later Lady Lisle, (granddaughter of Isabelle Gilbert, Aunt to Otho Gilbert, first husband of the “other” Katherine Champernowne).  Katherine Basset married Sir Henry Ashley, a Dorset knight apparently not related to Kat Ashely’s husband John, though the name   may explain that particular confusion;

– the daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne.

At the time she first appears in the historical record listed as a member of Princess Elizabeth’s household in 1536 "Katheryn Champernowne"  was sufficiently confident to write to Thomas Cromwell in October of that year to ask for a stipend in her new position. Her letter makes it clear that her father is still living. She says :

“loath y will be to charge my father who hath as myche to do wt that lytell levyng he hathe as any man that y knowe”

This rules out the writer being Sir Philip’s wife Katherine (nee Carew), since the death of her father Sir Edmund Carew, felled by a stray canon ball during the siege of Therouanne in 1513, is particularly well documented, and there are eye witness accounts. Nor can the writer be the daughter of Sir John Champernowne and Margaret Courtenay, since Sir John died in 1503 as evidenced by an Inquisition Post Mortem (IPM) taken in Oxford on 10 February, 23 Henry VII which gives his date of detaj as 30 April 18 King Henry VII (1503) Calender of Inquisitions Post Mortem, Series 2,Vol 3, Herny VII.

While  it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Kat came from some other minor branch of the family, it seems very odd that no evidence to support that has yet been found.  We might also ask how a girl from a minor, unknown branch of the family came to secure such a position, or could have received such a broad education.  There is, however, evidence that Philip Champernowne was in favour of giving girls a good education.  Another daughter, Joan Denny,  was particularly  noted at court for her book learning and was described by David Starkey in  Elizabeth:The Struggle for the Throne as "somethng of a blue stocking". Starkey also suggests that Sir Philip Champernowne, who engaged in learned discussions about his family history with the antiquary John Leland, gave his children the beneifts of the new interest in classical education. That makes Sir Philip a good fit as the well-educated Kat's father. Starkey refers to Joan Denny as Kate Ashley's sister.

Taking all of this into account Sir Philip emerges as the strongest candidate to be the father or the woman who wrote that letter to Cromwell. Sir Philip was very much alive in 1536. However,  at first glance the mention of her father being fully occupied with his own “little living” might seem to rule him out. Sir Philip Champernowne came from a high profile and well connected family who had found favour under the Tudors. His father was knighted at the wedding celebrations for Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur in 1501.  When he died two years later Sir John Champernowne was said to be possessed of 28 manors. Philip served as squire of the body to HenryVIII and  was appointed keeper of the park at Curry Mallet, Somerset in April 1523. By all accounts he kept a fine house in Modbury. His cousin Sir Gawen Carew was a close friend of Sir Charles Brandon, (also close to King Henry VIII),  and went on to marry Brandon's sister.  So, on the face of it, Philip was moving in high circles and we might assume he was quite wealthy.

However, there are indications that by 1536 Sir Philip Champernowne may have been in some financial difficulty.  He had shouldered a portion of the massive debt racked up by his father-in-law.  Sir Edmund Carew had been selling off Carew lands in the years preceding his death to fund his position as a leading military adviser and diplomat under both Henry VII and his son. (Documents in the National Archives show that John Gilbert of Compton was one of those to whom Sir Edmund owed a hefty sum when he died.) As early as 1510 we find Philip named in the Pardon Roll as guarantor for Sir Edmund’s debts, along with his brother-in-law Thomas Carew of Bickleigh. In 1517 Philip is listed alongside the late Sir Edmund and his oeldest son, William Carew, as still owing money to the Crown.

In 1528 Philip transferred the prestigious manor of Ashton Rohant in Oxfordshire, said to be his father's favourite manor (John Champernowne died there), to Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, to whom he was related through his mother Margaret. Perhaps this settled some outstanding debts, but it is clear that Philip still owed money to the Marquess in 1538.  After Courtenay’s arrest we find Philip frantically trying to convince the Duke of Norfolk that he only had anything to do with the Marquess, for whom he deputised as Warden of the Stannaries, because of some outstanding bonds. In December 1538, Norfolk writes to Thomas Cromwell:

“This night after I had supped, Sir Philip Shamborne (Champernowne) desired to speak with me. He said he was in danger for my lord Marquis in divers bonds and only "used familiarity" with him till they were discharged, when he intended to give up the office of the Stannery under him.” Leters and Papers, Foreign and domestic, Herny VIII, vol 13,oart 2. August - December 1538.

John Gilbert’s will of 1539 tells us that Philip had not by that date paid him the money agreed as dowry when Katherine and Otho married some years earlier. This does not sound like a man of ample means. 

Sir Philip had many calls on his purse, including a need to provide dowries for his daughters.  By 1536 four of his six daughters had married.  The elder Joan  married Robert Gamage, a member of a wealthy family from Coity in South Wales. Elizabeth and Frances had married local Devon landowners, while Katherine had married Otho Gilbert.  In 1538 the second Joan in this large family married Anthony Denny, a man rising in the Royal service. Providing dowries for all of those girls must have been a costly business. 

Another argument advanced in the past against Kat being Philip’s daughter is that Philip’s wife, Katherine Carew, may have been too young to be Kat’s mother.  Kat is thought to have been born by 1505. It is very difficult to pinpoint Katherine Carew’s birthdate, but her parents’ marriage settlement survives and is dated 1479, when Sir Edmund Carew was 15. The eldest son, William, was born in 1483, verified in his father’s IPM, but the dates of birth of other children are uncertain. Katherine Carew  and Philip Champernowne were already married and living at Aston Rohant when Sir John Champernowne died in 1503 as mentioned in John's Inquisition Post Mortem.  So it seems quite plausible that Katherine Carew was of child bearing age by 1505.

There are a lot of Katherines in this family. Sir Philip Champernowne died in 1545. In the Inquisition conducted after his death, a deed of 1543 is given which mentions “Katherine, eldest daughter of the said Sir Philip”.  Philip’s will  refers to “my daughter, Catherine Champernowne”. The “other” Katherine was, at the time he made his will, (1 August in the 37th year of Henry VIII: ie 1545), married to Otho Gilbert with whom by then she had three sons and at least one daughter. Had this been arefrence to her the convention would have been for Sir Philip to name her as "my daughte,r now the wife of Otho Gilbert". None of Sir Philip’s married daughters are mentioned in his will, having already been provided for on marriage, as was usual.

Kat was single when Philip’s will was proved, only marrying later in 1545. Sir Philip mentions his wife Katherine as still living, as well as Katherine the widow of his son John Champernowne.  He mentions his younger son Arthur (aged 21 in 1545) and his six year old grandson and heir, Henry, son of his deceased elder son John.  But he makes his eldest daughter Katherine Champernowne his executor along with George Carew clerk, his wife's younger brother. 

Interestingly we find a Katherine Champernowne and George Carew named together in a number of other documents, including one dated 1538 which concerns trespass in a property in Greyfriars, in which George Carew, Cleric, refers to Katherine Champernowne as his niece.   They are also named together as executors in the will of John Pollard, Cleric, in 1557 – but this time the execturtix is anmead Katherine, the wife of John Ashley. This all adds weght to the indentifuation of Kat as Siur Philip's daughter. 

A letter written by  Philip’s grandson, Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1601 refers to Kat as his “aunt Ashley”. Admittedly the term “Aunt” was often used somewhat loosely at this time but, in her compilation of Raleigh’s letters the eminent historian of Devon and Exeter, the late Joyce Youings, is very clear that Raleigh is referring to Kate Champernon, elder sister of Raleigh’s mother.

Vivian’s record of the Herald’s Visitations of Devon is not particularly helpful in this instance. It lists only four daughters of Philip Champernowne: Elizabeth, Joan, wife of Sir Anthony Denny,  Frances wife of Roger Budockshed, and Katherine, wife of Gilbert and Raleigh.   The prime purpose of the Heralds’ enquiries was to establish who had the right to bear arms and descent through the male line.  So the Visitation records are often less reliable for girls and for younger sons. Vivian has omitted not only Kat but also the second daughter named Joan.  There is clear evidence that this Joan “the elder” who married Robert Gamage of Coity, was in fact Sir Philip’s daughter. In a letter dated 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh writes  to Sir Edward Stradling concerning the heiress Barbara Gamage.  Raleigh writes

Her father and my selfe came from tow sisters, Sir Philip Champernowne’s daughters.”

She cannot be the same Joan who married Sir Anthony Denny since  Robert Gamage of Coity was still living in 1538. So Vivian is proved to be incorrect in the case of the two Joan’s and may be equally in error in leaving Kat’s name off the list.

Same name siblings living at the same time?

Giving the same name to a second child while the first of that name is still living may seem to us rather odd. That notion has perhaps been a barrier in the past to acceptance that Kat and Katherine were sisters.  However, during the middle ages and into the sixteenth century it was not unusual for a new born child to be given the same first name as an elder living sibling, often distinguishing between the two by birth order, or a pet name used in the family. Relatively few given names were in use and inevitably, because children were often named for a benefactor or godparent, the same names recurred. 

Well documented examples include 

Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk (1443 – 21 May 1524) who had two living daughters named Elizabeth and two living sons named Thomas.( He may also have had two sons named Richard, although the records are not clear and these may be  the same person.)

Protector Edward Seymour (1500 - 22 January 1552) had a son named Edward (Lord Edward Seymour of Berry Pomeroy), born 1529, to  his first wife Katherine Filol and a sedond boy named Edward, (Ist Earl of Hertford), born 1537 to Anne Stanhope, his second wife, a replacement for a third Edward, (Edward Seymour, Viscount Beauchamp of Hache)  born 1537, who died aged two years. 

John Paston I (10 October 1421 – 21 or 22 May 1466) who had two sons named John – Sir John Paston  who was born before 15 April 1442 and who died November 1479 to be succeeded by his brother of the same name, Sir John Paston (1444 – 28 August 1504)

Thomas Tomkins (1573–1656), the Elizabethan composer, shared his Christian name with his brother who was a lay-clerk at Gloucester Cathedral.

John Kellaway was born in Cullompton, Devon about 1480 and married twice.The pedigree of his first wife, Elizabeth, is not recorded and she probably died during the birth of their only child Mary, who was born in 1512. His second wife was Joan Tregarthen and their first daughter, Ann was born about 1515. Another daughter was born about 1524, and also named Mary –  it is well documented that there were two – Mary the elder and Mary the younger.

In the course of my detailed research I examined the will of Christopher Chudleigh who died in 1570 and makes a brief appearance in my novel.  I found bequests listed to his three daughters named as Bess the Elder, Bess the Younger, Mary and Anne.

Duffy’s study of the Devon parish of Morebath tells us that in 1534 one family included three unmarried brothers all named John, but recorded respectively as John major, John minor and John minimus.

Sometimes same name siblings are born to different mothers, but this is not always the case. 

Since same name surviving siblings are not uncommon, I believe there is sufficient evidence to support Philip Champernowne and his wife Katherine Carew having  two daughters both named Joan and two named Katherine.  

Taking all of the above into account, I believe that Kat and Katherine were sisters.


Historians who have identified Kat Ashley as the daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne and/or the sister of Joan Champernowne Denny include:

David Starkey in "Elizabeth the Struggle for the Throne" ;

Tracy Borman in  "The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen";

Mathew Lyons "The Favourite" Raleigh and his Queen

Joyce Youings in "The Letters of Sir Walter Raeligh" (with Agnes Latham)

.Anna Witelock "Elizabeth's Bedfelllows"


Rosemary Griggs

26 September 2021 (updated 19 june 2023)


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