Elizabeth I practically did not know her mother, Anne Boleyn, who was executed at the behest of her father, King Henry VIII, when the princess was still a baby. Not that, if the circumstances were different, she would be personally raised by Anna. It was common for royal children to be educated by others, far from Court. But the fact that her mother was officially killed as a traitor to the King and a witch has made little Elizabeth an outcast, thrown and thrown between guardians to survive.
Two women became Elizabeth I’s surrogate mothers and stood the test of loyalty. Part of that story will be in the next episode of Becoming Elizabeth. Lady Margaret Bryan, who didn’t even appear in the series because she was taken from Elizabeth to take care of Prince Edward VI, was the first caretaker of the Princess. The second and most important was Katherine “Kat” Champernowne (Ashley), this one prominently, protected little Elizabeth as best they could, but they couldn’t always shield her from trauma. Worse yet, Kat will be pitted against the princess in one of the most defining moments of her youth, nearly costing both their lives.
Katherine Champernowne Ashley was close to Anne Boleyn‘s family and chosen to take care of the princess, thus leaving an important bond between the future Elizabeth I and her renegade relatives, the Boleyns, and creating a minimum of stability in the child’s life, thrown around. Effectively, Kat was the closest figure of a mother to Elizabeth I. She stayed by her side until her death in 1565. Historians believe that it was the nanny who preserved some positive memory of Anne Boleyn for her daughter (only after her death did they discover that the Virgin Queen always carried a pendant that had a hidden picture of her mother). But it was also Kat who nearly either cost Elizabeth her life or saved it, in the scandal of her youth that is Becoming Elizabeth‘s heart.
When Lady Margaret Bryan was transferred to the Crown Prince’s service, little Elizabeth was first placed in Lady Troy‘s care while Kat was one of the child’s ladies-in-waiting, later, when Lady Troy retired, she took on the role of Governess, and, effectively, “mother” to the princess. It was she who directly educated Elizabeth to be respectful and polite, as well as to do what was expected of women at that time: embroider, dance, ride horses, and play instruments. It was so efficient that it is said that at the age of six, Elizabeth I managed to sew a beautiful chambray shirt as a gift for her younger half-brother. Furthermore, it was Kat who also taught the precocious princess math, geography, astronomy, history, French, Italian, Flemish, and Spanish. The princess has always credited the nanny for her intellectual, spiritual, and integrity training. The two were extremely connected and Kat knew absolutely everything that happened in the princess’s life. All.
The connection between the two became even blood when Kat married Elizabeth’s cousin, John Ashley, in 1545 and the future queen’s childhood gained some stability when her father married Catherine Parr, with whom she got along very well and went to live. even when she became the King’s widow. But it was also in Catherine’s custody that Elizabeth would experience one of the greatest traumas of her life.
Court intrigues often mixed Power and Love. Catherine Parr was already involved with the ambitious Thomas Seymour even before she became Queen and it took just 2 months after being widowed to secretly marry him. Before opting for the widow, he tried to confirm if he could marry Elizabeth but was denied. Nobody points out – therefore – that what happened next was romantically motivated.
Historians differ on what actually went on when the princess was just 14 years old, based solely on Kat’s account. Some claim that Sir Thomas Seymour “flirted” with the princess, who was either flattered or terrified, depending on the version, but either way amused everyone, including the nanny. Many believe that even Kat was also “in love” with him, thus also feeding the heart of a needy teenager with romantic fantasies. What causes controversy, in addition to the difference of 26 years that separated the two, was what happened next.
Always according to Kat, the “fun” ended when Thomas started to enter the young princess’s room in the morning, when she was still in her nightgown, tickling her while lying in bed. The intimacies continued and, even in the same account (obtained under threat of torture), the housekeeper would have alerted Catherine Parr, but the stepmother ignored the warning and participated in the “jokes”, including the occasion in which she held Elizabeth while her husband cut her dress. “in a thousand pieces”.
And here lies the main mystery. The nanny reportedly confirmed that it was after catching Elizabeth and Thomas kissing, that Catherine, pregnant, kicked her stepdaughter out of her home. Another version says that Kat claims to have warned the princess about the risk to her reputation in the face of the boldness of her “stepfather” and convinced her to leave Chelsea to live at Hatfield House, but by then the gossip had already gathered steam. The narratives also differ on how far the flirtation went. Some say that the relationship was consummated (the series Becoming Elizabeth opted for this one) and others that Elizabeth was “saved” before.
‘Anne Boleyn gave me life, but Kat Ashley gave me love’Queen Elizabeth I
However, Elizabeth was in exile when her stepmother died after giving birth to a baby girl. The nanny said that she had tried to convince Elizabeth I to write to Sir Thomas, to “comfort him in his sadness”, but that the princess would have replied that he was not so sad as to need words of support, something that has been confirmed when he then proceeded to harass her, now with the intention of marrying the princess. Already astute, Elizabeth refused to accept him without official Council approval. Anticipating the denial, Thomas took the radical step of trying to “take possession of the King”, to convince him directly. He was arrested trying to break into Edward VI’s room while he was sleeping.
As an immediate consequence, both Elizabeth I and Kat were arrested as co-conspirators in an assassination attempt. Until then, the scandalous gossip of a flirtation between the princess and her stepmother’s husband had no reliable source, but thanks to Kat’s official account, everything changed. Trapped in the Tower of London, facing possible execution, the nanny told her everything. They spent three months in prison.
The narrative, however, protected the princess and apparently did not create major problems between the two because the governess stayed with Elizabeth in Hatfield until, in 1554, Elizabeth was arrested again, now at the behest of her sister Mary I, on suspicion of participating in a coup to remove the Catholic queen from the throne. The governess asked and was allowed to join Elizabeth in October 1555, only the following year she was sentenced to prison alone, after the discovery of books considered seditious (threatening the Catholic faith). Kat spent three months in Fleet Prison and was banned from seeing Elizabeth again after her release. Suffering for both.
It was not until Mary I’s death and Elizabeth’s accession to the throne that the two found peace. The Queen promoted her nanny to First Lady of the Bedroom, one of the most trusted positions of a sovereign, consolidating Kat into one of the most influential people in the Kingdom, after all, she was the main source of information for both the Queen and the Queen. queen, being harassed by nobles seeking favors.
Elizabeth I bestowed gifts and honors on her foster mother until her death in 1565, aged 63. The Queen was very sorry to say goodbye to the only woman who loved her unconditionally as her own daughter. Kat Ashley died on July 18, 1565, and Elizabeth reportedly stated: ‘Anne Boleyn gave me life, but Kat Ashley gave me love’.
Actress Alexandra Gilbreath, better known for EastEnders, is the one who plays Kat in the series Becoming Elizabeth. Were it not for the nanny’s testimony, we would not have known the facts, even if the Queen later tried to erase them from her biography. It is with what her foster mother revealed that we can understand how Elizabeth I made the later decisions not to marry and, even more, to keep her secrets and thoughts to almost anyone.
We will see all of this in the next episodes of the series.