Katherine Ashley (1502 – 18 July 1565) (or Astley), née Katherine Champernowne, was governess to Queen Elizabeth I of England and became her close friend in later life. She was known to the Queen as “Kat,” and it is by the name “Kat Ashley” that she is generally known to history.
Katherine Champernowne, the daughter Sir John Champernowne of Dartington and Margaret Courtenay, was born in about 1502. She was related by marriage to all the leading gentry families of the west country.
In 1537, Kat became Elizabeth’s primary caretaker, and it is then (with Elizabeth being roughly four years old) that their close relationship began to form. Kat spent hours teaching Elizabeth what a lady and Princess should know geography, mathematics, dancing, reading, languages, needlework, riding, writing, etc. Elizabeth would later say that Kat took “great labour and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty.”
In about 1545 Kat married Elizabeth’s senior gentleman attendant (and Anne Boleyn’s cousin) Sir John Ashley (Astley) who became Master of the Jewel Office to Elizabeth I.
In 1543, Henry VIII had married Catherine Parr. Parr gave Elizabeth a more stable family life and brought Elizabeth and Kat to Court. However, Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by his son, Edward VI.
Thomas Seymour investigated whether he would be permitted to marry either Mary or Elizabeth he was refused. He immediately began courting Catherine Parr. (They had been romantically linked before she became Queen). In her early 30s, Parr agreed to marry Seymour almost at once, only two months after Henry’s death. Seymour and Parr married and lived in Chelsea with Kat, the young Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey.
When Thomas Seymour began a flirtation with the 14-year-old Elizabeth, Kat Ashley first thought this amusing. However, he entered Elizabeth’s bedroom in the morning in his nightshirt and tried to tickle her while she was still in bed. Kat, who may herself have been infatuated with him, became concerned and advised Catherine Parr, who was later accused of taking part in holding down Princess Elizabeth while Seymour slashed her gown “into pieces.” The rumours about Thomas Seymour’s flirtation with Elizabeth emerged in 1548 as his other political manoeuvres were revealed. On 21 January 1549, Kat was arrested and taken to the Tower, for possible involvement in Seymour’s activities. She told her story and was found to have done nothing treasonous. She was released thirteen days before Seymour’s execution. Despite detailed questioning, Kat did not implicate Elizabeth in Seymour’s schemes. By August 1549, Kat had returned to Hatfield and stayed with Elizabeth until Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower by Mary I in 1554. Kat was allowed to rejoin Elizabeth in October 1555, but she was arrested in May 1556 following the discovery of seditious books. Kat spent three months in Fleet Prison and after her release, she was forbidden to see Elizabeth again.
When Mary I died in 1558, the order was revoked, and Kat was made First Lady of the Bedchamber. She became influential as a source of information for the Queen and as a means of asking favours of the Queen. Robert Dudley soon emerged as one of Elizabeth’s leading advisers and was given the post of Master of the Horse. Kat warned Queen Elizabeth about rumours and commented that she was behaving in such a way with Robert that would sully her “honour and dignity” and would in time undermine her subjects’ loyalty.
When she suggested that Elizabeth should end her relationship with Dudley, the Queen angrrily retorted that if she showed herself gracious towards her Master of the Horse he deserved it for his honourable nature and dealings: “She was always surrounded by her ladies of the bedchamber and maids of honour, who at all times could see whether there was anything dishonourable between her and her Master of the Horse.” Katherine actively promoted rivals for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. This angered Sir Robert Dudley, and led to two more brief periods of imprisonment. Ashley remained in Elizabeth’s service for the rest of her life. She died in the summer of 1565, to Elizabeth’s great distress. Kat was not in attendance at court when she died. Every year on Kat’s birthday Elizabeth would dismiss her ladies and sit for hours reading Kats old letters. Although she had no children of her own, she always considered Elizabeth the only daughter she needed, and it is clear that the feeling was mutual. Later in life, Elizabeth would say, “Anne Boleyn gave me life, but Kat Ashley gave me love.”
Portrayal in popular culture
.Elizabeth R (1971 mini-series) – Rachel Kempson
.Blackadder II (1986 sitcom) – Patsy Byrne as Nursie
.The Virgin Queen (2005–2006 mini-series) – Tara Fitzgerald
.Elizabeth (1998 feature film) – Emily Mortimer
.The Tudors (2007–2010 TV series) – Maude Hirst
.The Lady Grace Mysteries written by Patricia Finney
.The Queen’s Governess written by Karen Harper