A Woman of Noble Wit
By Rosemary Griggs
Few women of her time lived to see their name in print. But Katherine was no ordinary woman. She was Sir Walter Raleigh’s mother. This is her story.
Set against the turbulent background of a Devon rocked by the religious and social changes that shaped Tudor England; a Devon of privateers and pirates; a Devon riven by rebellions and plots, A Woman of Noble Wit tells how Katherine became the woman who would inspire her famous sons to follow their dreams. It is Tudor history seen through a woman’s eyes.
As the daughter of a gentry family with close connections to the glittering court of King Henry VIII, Katherine’s duty is clear. She must put aside her dreams and accept the husband chosen for her. Still a girl, she starts a new life at Greenway Court, overlooking the River Dart, relieved that her husband is not the ageing monster of her nightmares. She settles into the life of a dutiful wife and mother until a chance shipboard encounter with a handsome privateer, turns her world upside down.…..
Years later a courageous act will set Katherine’s name in print and her youngest son will fly high.
Trigger Warnings: Rape.
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October 1557, Katherine’s children are at their lessons……….
In the hot summer months the thick farmhouse walls offered a pleasantly cool welcome. But on this October day, as the weather turned, the parlour struck chill and Bessie was kindling the fire. A sud-den downpour had driven them from their orchard classroom and they’d run for cover, pell-mell, all clutching their precious books. The unmistakable earthy smell of new rain had followed them into the parlour.
Walt’s none-too-clean finger slipped from the line of closely printed text he was following and he looked up. He glanced in Carew’s direction, then his piercing blue eyes sought Katherine’s boldly, though his brow puckered. “Mother, may I ask a question?”
“Of course, my boy,” Katherine replied. She had noticed that for once Walt’s mind was not on his lesson.
“Mother, is it so that God hates the Queen so much that he punishes all the people of England be-cause of her?” he asked, his voice rising to a squeak. “Will I be so punished?”
“Why ever would you think such a thing?” she asked. She sat down next to him and put an arm around his shoulder, noticing that his feet no longer dangled above the floor, but reached all the way down to sit squarely on the flagstones.
“Well, Ralph said that we’ve had bad harvests for two years in a row,” Walt babbled. “He said we’ve had murrains on the cattle and foot rot in the sheep. He said the new sickness is back and it’s killed off ever so many people. And another horrid storm’s brought all this rain again. Ralph said it’s all ’cause of the Queen. He said it’s God’s punishment on us all, and we’re all doomed.” The words came out fast and furious, tumbling over each other as he struggled to hold back his tears. Ralph was the miller’s son and the boys had been kicking a pig’s bladder round the yard with him that morning while the sacks of flour were brought from the mill.
Carew, seated at the end of the board, put the finishing touches to a laboriously produced line of curly ‘C’s on the page in front of him and set down his quill with calm finality. He seemed much less perturbed about Ralph the miller’s son and his dreadful prophecies. “He did say that, Mother, and I said to him it was nonsense, so I did,” he said with a gap-toothed grin. One of his front teeth was taking a long time to oust its baby precursor, and a gaping space still showed when he smiled. “I said, ‘Surely God would never have sent the Queen’s husband such a victory as we saw at Saint-Quentin if he hated her so?’”
Katherine bit her lip. What the miller’s boy had spoken was no more than others were saying. Men who cleaved to Popish ways might still support her, but most of the ordinary people had had enough of the prematurely aged Queen, her Spanish husband, and his war. The dreadful new sickness had taken more in the past year, leaving the workforce depleted. Many of those who survived had gone off to fight in the war. There were few left to garner the harvest, which, though it looked better than those of the past two years, would not be abundant. It was no surprise that the miller’s boy spoke so. His father depended on each harvest for his livelihood. No one had yet come to challenge Katherine, or to charge her with heresy, but it would be wise to take no chances. The boys should not speak so. That path might lead to danger.
“Carew has the right of this, at least in part,” she said. “The war is going well, and some will say that is through God’s support for their cause. Now, Walt, some of the Queen’s ways are cruel indeed. You’ve heard me say as much. But it will be for the Queen to answer to God for herself, as we all must one day. It is not for us to speak of her so, nor to listen to gossip.” She spoke more sharply than she had intended, and, seeing Walt’s face crumple, took his hand and went on more gently. “Nor do I think that God is punishing the people as Ralph said. You have nothing to fear. I can remember other years when people went hungry, or fell to the plague and suchlike diseases. Yes, it’s true that the weather has turned foul, that we struggled to get the harvest in, that prices are sky-high, and that the sickness has returned. When times are hard people always look for someone to blame. Then better years come again, they forget, and everyone is happy. So it will be this time, I’ve no doubt of it.”
“So, why does it rain so hard, and why are so many people sick, Mother?” asked Walt, still looking perplexed.
“Why, those are big questions, my boy!” she said, ruffling his curly hair, so like Walter’s. “So long as we study and ask such questions, so our knowledge will grow. One day I believe we’ll come to un-derstand what really causes such sickness, whether it be foul humours that come into the body through the skin, or by some other means. This illness is different from those we’ve known before, but I do believe our best defence is cleanliness.”
Walt looked anxiously at his fingers and rubbed them on his shirt.
“And if I could predict the weather, then I’d be the wealthiest woman in the land,” she went on with a chuckle. “But, boys, consider this. There are things we know now that were not even thought of years ago. Why, one hundred years ago no one knew that there were those lands across the sea to the west. But Master Cabot sailed there and our fishing boats now trawl the northern waters, and we learn more and more of a New World.”
“Humphrey says the Spanish have taken the lands over there and send huge ships of treasure back to Spain,” Walt cut in, his face brightening.
“Well, that’s as may be, my boy. Humphrey says all sorts of things,” she said. “But my point is that new knowledge comes to us all the time. It is through people studying, experimenting and asking questions, and through brave men setting out into the unknown, that our knowledge will grow. Now, the best thing is for you to apply yourselves diligently to your studies, both of you. Learn from what is already known, learn of the ideas of others, but always ask questions, always stretch your understanding. Then you can stand well prepared for what fortune brings. So, Walt, return to Master Aesop’s tale, if you will.”
They all loved to read, just as she did, and had all learned their letters at her knee, girls and boys alike. Now it was Walt’s turn to wrestle with the mysteries of the written word. With Agnes Prest’s words ringing in her ears, Katherine had set about the task with renewed vigour. She smiled and ruffled his hair as she listened to him confidently reading aloud. He took to it as a fish does to the sea, and learned at a prodigious rate; just as quick on the uptake as Humphrey had been at the same age. Walt had such a way with him. He could charm the very birds from the trees, should he want to. He was never short of sweetmeats and treats from the kitchens, and he’d got Walter wrapped neatly round his pudgy finger.
She turned to look at the two girls seated together by the window, heads touching over their book. Margaret, near ten years old, was a thoughtful, steady girl, happy in her close friendship with the lovely Mary. Those girls would not suffer as Katherine had: married when she was no more than a child, far too young to be the mother Katie had deserved. She swallowed hard and wiped away a tear, then squared her shoulders. Best not dwell on that girl. Better to give her love to the others and teach them well. All those long hours with Johnny and old Smythe at Modbury had been worth-while, and she could give the girls an education far beyond the wifely skills and arts. In the Mod-bury household, education had been sacrosanct, and you only had to hear the praise heaped upon Princess Elizabeth to see that Kat had taken that same approach when bringing up her charge.
Carew had taken up the pen again and was practising his whole name. Versions of ‘Caro Ralygh’ crowded the page amongst a cloud of swirly scribbles.
“Spend your time wisely when practising this art, Carew,” Katherine said. Any sting from the mild reprimand was diminished by the chuckle that followed as she recognised the faces he had drawn. “I would have you boys well able to wield the quill yourselves, to set down your own thoughts clearly. Better that than to yield the power of the pen to a scribe.” She had no small regret that she had neglected to practise her writing as a girl. “Now, Mary, shall we have some music, please?”
Rosemary Griggs is a retired Whitehall Senior Civil Servant with a lifelong passion for history. She is now a speaker on Devon’s sixteenth century history and costume. She leads heritage tours at Dartington Hall, has made regular costumed appearances at National Trust houses and helps local museums bring history to life.
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