Born around 1474, Katherine Gordon was the daughter of George Gordon, second Earl of Huntly, and Elizabeth Hay. Her father acted as Chancellor of Scotland from 1498 to 1501. Little is known of Katherine’s early life, but she was reputed to be beautiful and charming. The future Henry VIII is said to have ‘marveled at her beauty and amiable countenance, and sent her to London to the Queen’. On 13 January 1496, when she was about twenty-one, Katherine married the Yorkist pretender Perkin Warbeck. Her husband had claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV, since 1491. The prince had been incarcerated in the Tower of London by his uncle Richard III in 1483, and his fate was still unresolved eight years later. In 1495, Perkin arrived at the court of James IV of Scotland, having previously been supported by Charles VIII of France, Emperor Maximilian and Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy. Shortly after his marriage to Katherine, Perkin was granted Falkland Palace as a base for his adherents and as the headquarters at which his invasion of England was planned. Henry VII of England, in response to Warbeck’s activities, prepared an army with which to invade Scotland.
Little is known of the nature of Katherine’s marriage to Perkin; whether she actually believed that her husband was the younger son of Edward IV is uncertain. Warbeck arrived in England at Whitesand Bay in Cornwall in September 1497, a few months after rebellion had broken out in Cornwall caused by the king’s perceived excessive taxation demands. Warbeck’s force, which allegedly numbered eight thousand, besieged Exeter on 17 September. They were rebuffed by the Earl of Devon and his army, and eventually withdrew to Taunton. Warbeck and his army escaped on 21 September when news reached them of the advance of the king’s army. With three of his companions, Warbeck entered sanctuary at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire. He was seized and taken before the king at Taunton Castle in October, where he confessed to being an imposter. At this time, Katherine was also in sanctuary, at St. Buryan. After her husband’s confession, she entered the service of Henry VII’s consort, Elizabeth of York. If he had succeeded in fooling her, Katherine might have believed that her husband was actually the queen’s younger brother, but if so his confession swiftly put paid to that notion.
Warbeck accompanied the king on his progresses until the summer of 1498, when he escaped and hid in the Charterhouse at Sheen. He was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London. The following year, he was alleged to have plotted with the royal prisoner Edward, Earl of Warwick to escape from the Tower and seize the throne in one of their names. Tried and found guilty, Warbeck was executed on 23 November 1499 at Tyburn; the earl was beheaded a few days later. How Katherine responded to these developments is unknown, but she did not suffer greatly from the loss of her husband, in the sense that she was treated generously by Henry and Elizabeth and continued to reside at court. The Privy Purse accounts record gifts made to Katherine by the king and queen. On 25 January 1503, she witnessed the proxy marriage of James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, and acted as chief mourner at the funeral of Elizabeth of York the following month.
During the reign of Henry VIII, Katherine received the manors of Philberts at Bray and Eaton at Appleton, both in Berkshire. By 1512, she had remarried. Her second husband was James Strangeways of Fyfield, then in Berkshire. Strangeways was a gentleman usher, but their marriage was to prove short-lived. Katherine married for the third time in about 1517 to Matthew Craddock of Swansea; her husband provided her with an income derived from the lands of Dinas Powys and Llanedeyrn. Matthew’s date of death is unknown, but Katherine married for the fourth and final time to Christopher Ashton of Fyfield by about 1531. She died at the end of 1537, aged about sixty-three. Katherine was buried at the church of St. Nicholas in Fyfield. It was an obscure end to a dramatic life in which Katherine had been the wife of an infamous pretender, the reputed Richard, Duke of York, and the recipient of marked royal favour.
Conor Byrne is the author of Katherine Howard: A New History and Queenship in England: 1308–1485 Gender and Power in the Late Middle Ages. He is a British graduate with a degree in History from the University of Exeter. Conor has been fascinated by the Tudors, medieval and early modern history from the age of eleven, particularly the lives of European kings and queens. His research into Katherine Howard, fifth consort of Henry VIII of England, began in 2011-12, and his first extended essay on her, related to the subject of her downfall in 1541-2, was written for an Oxford University competition. Since then Conor has embarked on a full-length study of Queen Katharine's career, encompassing original research and drawing on extended reading into sixteenth-century gender, sexuality and honour. Some of the conclusions reached are controversial and likely to spark considerable debate, but Conor hopes for a thorough reassessment of Katherine Howard's life. Conor runs a historical blog which explores a diverse range of historical topics and issues. He is also interested in modern European, Russian, and African history, and, more broadly, researches the lives of medieval queens, including current research into the defamed 'she-wolf' bride of Edward II, Isabella of France.
Conor has just completed his Masters.