Katherine Knollys (née Carey)
Katherine was probably born in 1523 and was certainly the daughter of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s older sister and her predecessor as mistress of Henry VIII. Mary had married William Carey, a gentleman of the royal chamber, in 1520; but she is thought to have been Henry’s mistress between 1522 and 1525. At least, she was without doubt Henry’s mistress: on one occasion in 1535, Henry was accused of having slept with both Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary and her mother. ‘Never with the mother,’ was Henry’s curt response. The only doubt, then, is over the length of the relationship, but Katherine’s birth seems to fall well within any likely range of dates.
On her accession, Elizabeth made Katherine a lady of the bedchamber, a post which she held until her death in 1569, and she was generally considered to be favoured more greatly than her peers, although how much Katherine would have agreed with such an assessment is more open to question. Elizabeth’s relentless necessities frequently made her ‘weep for unkindness’, according to surviving correspondence.
Katherine married Francis Knollys in April 1540, and the couple had sixteen children together including Henry – who I have written about in The Favourite in his role as captain of a ship in Gilbert’s failed voyage of discovery of 1578 (Henry was a long-time patron of John Callis) – and Lettice, who secretly married Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester in September 1578. One can speculate whether Lettice’s possible royal bloodline played any part in either Dudley’s interest in her as a wife, or Elizabeth’s particular fury on discovering the marriage.
I should say that there was also a question mark at the time over the status of Katherine’s younger brother Henry Carey, born in March 1526, with the rumour of the king’s paternity being widespread enough for one man to refer to it in a speech on the scaffold awaiting execution. The current consensus, however, seems to be that Henry was William Carey’s son. Even so, he was at the very least Elizabeth I’s cousin and she rewarded him on her accession with the title of Baron Hunsdon, and he went on to serve her loyally until his death in 1596 in a wide range of capacities, although his preferred field of endeavour – military action – got scant opportunity for expression under his ever-cautious queen. Late in life he was also the patron of Shakespeare’s company of players.