Rosemary Griggs banner

Who was Kat Ashley? Kat and Katherine.........................

Who was Kat Ashley?  Kat and Katherine…..

It’s well known that a woman called Kat (Katherine)  Champernowne, later the wife of John Ashley (Astley) was Queen Elizabeth 1’s governess

But surprisingly little is known of Kat’s early life.   Her relationship to the “other” Katherine Champernowne, heroine of my novel A Woman of Noble Wit, was previously thought to be that of aunt and niece.  In this post I’ll explain why I have reached the conclusion, shared by recent scholars, that Kat and Katherine were sisters.

This portrait from the collection of Lord Hastings is thought to be Kat.






After the birth of Edward VI in 1537 Kat Champernowne was promoted to have charge of young 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 introduced the little girl to the required code of politeness and respect to her elders and also taught her 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. Kat herself must had been very well educated for her curriculum also covered mathematics, geography, astronomy, history, French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish. Elizabeth later praised Kat’s early devotion to her studies saying that she took

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

A close bond seems to have developed between Kat and the young Princess and, despite enforced separations during troubled times, they remained close throughout Kat’s life.  The bond between them was perhaps strengthened towards the end of 1545 when Kat married John Ashley, a cousin of Anne Boleyn and an attendant in the Princess’s household who would later become Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels.

Kat’s role in some events in Elizabeth’s life is well documented, including in the Thomas Seymour affair and in the aftermath of the Wyatt rebellion when Elizabeth’s fate lay in the balance on the decision of her sister Mary.

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 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 women and 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 it is quite extraordinary that we still know so little about this woman who had such influence on Elizabeth 1, arguably England's most glorious monarch. Even Kat’s parentage has been in doubt. A Google search brings up a number of alternative ideas.  Kat is variously identified as:

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

– Sir John’s son, Sir Philip Champernowne’s wife Katheirne nee Carew;

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

– Sir Philip Champernowne’s daughter.

I’ve also seen her confused with 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)h.  Katherine Basset married Sir Henry Ashley, a Dorset knight apparently not related to Kat Ashely’s husband John, which may explain that particular confusion.

Kat first appears in the historical record listed as a member of Princess Elizabeth’s household in1536.  She 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 clearly rules out the writer being 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.   Nor can the writer be the daughter of John Champernowne and Margaret Courtenay, since John died in 1503, as evidenced by his Inquisition Post Mortem.

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 of their existence has 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 come by such a broad education.  There is, however, evidence that Philip Champernowne was in favour of giving girls a good education.  Another daughter, Joan who married Sir Anthony Denny in 1538, was noted at court for her book learning.  So, for me, Philip emerges as the strongest candidate. to be Kat’s father

On the other hand the mention of her father being fully occupied with his own “little living” might seem to rule Philip out.   He came from a high profile and well connected family who had found favour under the Tudors. John Champernowne was knighted at the wedding celebrations for Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur in 1501.  When John died two years later he 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.  So, on the face of it, Philip appears quite wealthy.

However, there are indications that by 1536 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 for years to fund his position as a leading military adviser and diplomat under both Henry VII and his son. As early as 1510 we find Philip named as guarantor for Sir Edmund’s debts, along with his brother-in-law Thomas of Bickleigh.  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. In 1517 Philip is listed alongside the late Sir Edmund and his son as still owing money to the Crown.

In 1528 Philip transferred the prestigious manor of Ashton Rohant in Oxfordshire to Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, to whom he was related though his mother Margaret. Perhaps this was  to settle some outstanding debts, but 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 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.”

By 1536 four of Philip’s daughters had married.  The elder Joan (see below)  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 (see below) married Anthony Denny, a man rising in the Royal service. Each marriage required a dowry to be paid.  But John Gilbert’s will of 1539 tells us  that Philip had not yet 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.

Another argument offered against Kat being Philip’s daughter is that Philip’s wife, Katherine Carew, was too young to be Kat’s mother.  Kat is thought to have been born by 1505 – she and John Ashely had no children so she was likely past childbearing when they married in 1545. It’s very hard to pinpoint Katherine Carew’s birthdate.   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.  The dates of birth of subsequent children are uncertain. But Katherine Carew  and Philip were already married and living at Aston Rohant when Sir John Champernowne died in 1503, and it is quite possible that she was already of child bearing age.

In the inquisition after Philip’s death in 1545, a deed of 1543 is given which mentions “Katherine, eldest daughter of the said Sir Philip”.  Philip’s will  refers to “my daughter, Katherine 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 at least three sons and a daughter.  She would surely have been referred to as Otho’s wife, not as Katherine Champernowne. Kat was still unmarried when Philip’s will was proved, only marrying John Ashley later in 1545.  None of Philip’s married daughters are mentioned in his will, having already been provided for, as was usual.   He mentions his wife Katherine as still living, as well as Katherine the widow of his son John Champernowne, his younger son Arthur and his grandson Henry, the heir.  But he makes his eldest daughter Katherine Champernowne his executor along with George Carew, his wife's younger brother.

Interestingly we find Katherine Champernowne and George Carew named together in other documents, including one dated 1538 which concerns trespass in a property in Greyfriars. 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 – this time Kat is referred to as the wife of John Ashley.

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, 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 lists only four girls 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 the right to bear arms and descent through the male line, concentrating on the eldest son.  So the Visitation records are often less reliable for girls and sometimes 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 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.”

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 from the list.

Giving  the same name to a second child while the first of that name is still living may seem to us rather odd. But 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 sibling, often distinguishing between the two by birth order, or a pet name used in the family.  For example, Thomas Tomkins (1573–1656), the Elizabethan composer, shared his Christian name with his brother who was a lay-clerk at Gloucester Cathedral. 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. In the course of my 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.

Same name surviving siblings are not uncommon, and the evidence does support Philip Champernowne and his wife Katherine Carew having  two daughters both named Joan and also two named Katherine.

So, taking all of the above into account, I beleive that Kat and Katherine were sisters.


Rosemary Griggs

26 September 2021