Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Catherine Willoughby, Queen of Poland

In June 1545 Elisabeth of Austria (b.1526), the first wife of Sigismund Augustus (1520-72), King of Poland, died, and therefore the Polish king was searching for a second bride. King Sigismund sent an ambassador to the English royal court of King Henry VIII a year later in 1546.

Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk by Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg
Catherine Willoughby

The Polish ambassador had come to the English court to offer a proposal of marriage to King Henry's eldest daughter Princess Mary. However, King Henry refused this match. The Polish ambassador then turned to the second choice of English bride for King Sigismund, Catherine Willoughby, the Duchess of Suffolk. Catherine's husband Charles Brandon had died in August 1545 and as a woman of only twenty seven years old and having had two sons already, she could be considered an ideal bride for a king needing an heir. 

The match between the King of Poland and Catherine Willoughby did not proceed, whether Catherine refused the idea or the Polish king did not find her to be of high enough status, is unknown. 
King Sigismund married in 1547 in secret to his mistress Barbara Radziwill (1520-51). And later in 1553 he married for a third time to Catherine (1533-72), the younger sister of his first wife Elisabeth.

In 1555 Catherine Willoughby was forced to flee England due to the Catholic rule of Queen Mary I. Catherine and her second husband Richard Bertie (1516-82) were of the Protestant faith and therefore faced persecution if they remained in England. Taking their daughter Susan with them, as well as Catherine being pregnant at that time with their son Peregrine, the couple fled to Protestant mainland Europe. The Berties fled to Germany, however there were warrants for their arrest for heresy from Queen Mary which followed them wherever they went.

A portrait of Sigismund II Augustus, in a black hat with a white feather, a white ruff on his neck, and an ornate gold chain around his neck.
King Sigismund Augustus of Poland

King Sigismund was highly tolerant of religious differences, and managed to maintain a successful balance between the Catholics and Protestants in his kingdom throughout his reign. His second wife Barbara was a Calvinist. 
In 1557 King Sigismund heard about the Berties' situation through Jan Laski, the reformer, and gave the family refuge in his kingdom. In addition to this, he named Catherine regent of the province of Samogitia - modern day Lithuania - which gave the couple rank and status during their exile. Samogitia was a largely Protestant area at this time, and the Berties were given a castle in the county of Crozan to live in. He also granted Richard Bertie the Earldom of Crolan as well as the position of Governor of Samogitia. The Bertie family lived quite contentedly in Samogitia, and the education of Catherine and Richard meant that their rule of the province was successful. The Berties returned to England in 1559 after the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I.

In 1624 playwright Thomas Drue (1586-1627) wrote a play called 'The Duchess of Suffolk', which incorporated the story of the King of Poland courting Duchess Catherine. The play was a heavily biased and emphasised Catherine's Protestant beliefs as well as her second marriage to Richard Bertie, who had previously been a servant in her household, after being sought out by many noblemen for her hand in marriage. By describing the perils which Catherine survived due to Protestant persecution, having to flee her country, travel through storms and be hunted down across Europe, only served to criticise Catholics and their actions. 

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1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I love Katherine Willoughby and I didn't know about the Queen of Poland suggestion.