In June 1547 it became public knowledge that the dowager queen, Katherine Parr had married the Lord High Admiral, Sir Thomas Seymour Baron Sudeley. Elizabeth was thirteen-years-old when the admiral joined the household at Chelsea. Although he was twenty-five years older than Elizabeth the admiral had previously approached the Privy Council in February 1547 with a view to marrying her and Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley, had been rather taken with the idea.
It is difficult to see any positive reason for Seymour’s decision to make unannounced early morning visits to his step-daughter’s bedchamber to bid her “good morrow.” On occasion Elizabeth would rise early so that Seymour would not catch her in her bed. Seymour’s actions became increasingly familiar, he smacked and tickled her on the buttocks on another occasion her servants hid her behind the curtains so that Sir Thomas might not find her. Kat Ashley eventually told the whole story when she was questioned in the Tower but only after Sir Thomas Parry had made his confession: “And if she were up, he would bid her good morrow, and ask how she did, and strike her upon the back or on the buttocks familiarly, and so go forth through his lodgings; and sometime go through to the maidens and play with them, and so go forth.” If this was a modern situation the word grooming would probably be at the forefront of our minds. But at thirteen in Tudor England Elizabeth was old enough to be married and Sir Thomas was something of a ladies man – if claver capable Katherine Parr’s head was turned by the Lord High Admiral what chance did a young girl stand?
At Hanworth, another of Katherine Parr’s properties Kat Ashley (pictured right in some sources but identified as Lady Joan Denny by the V & A – Joan was Kat’s neice) spoke sharply to Seymour telling him of the inappropriateness of his early morning visits but Seymour protested that he was doing nothing wrong. Ashley was increasingly concerned that Seymour arrived barelegged and in his slippers each morning as well as trying to climb into the same bed as Elizabeth. Servants talked and Elizabeth could not afford to have scandal attached to her name given the charges that had been levied against her mother.
After that Kat had no choice but to tell Katherine Parr who made little of the incidents – believing them to be nothing more than horseplay. Accounts include details of Katherine joining her husband in the early morning romps and on one occasion in the garden pinioning Elizabeth whilst Seymour slashed her mourning gown. Dunn argues that Elizabeth was a willing participant in these events. Indeed, Kat Ashley only became concerned by the admiral’s visits when she considered the gossip that might ensue.
In June 1548 Katherine caught Seymour embracing Elizabeth and sent the girl to Cheshunt to the home of Sir Anthony and Lady Denny.
Three months later on the 5 September 1548 Katherine Parr died as a result of complications in childbirth. As she lay dying she refused Seymour’s attentions claiming that he had never loved her – the scene was witnessed by Lady Tyrwhit. Later Katherine would demonstrate her love for Seymour by leaving everything she possessed to her spouse which would mean that when he was attainted of treason her infant daughter would be left with nothing.
In the meantime Seymour needed a new wife. He planned to marry Elizabeth amongst other things. Thomas’s jealousy of his brother the Lord Protector had grown beyond reason. He was bribing one of Edward VI’s servants, a man called John Fowler, to say nice things about him to his nephew and was giving the king pocket money but as none of this seemed to be having the desired effect Seymour now planned to kidnap his nephew. He made his attempt on the night of 16th January 1548 when his brother was in Scotland doing a spot of Rough Wooing. Edward VI’s pet dog began to bark and Seymour shot it dead – which cannot have endeared him to his nephew. Eleven-year-old Edward remained safely at Westminster while Thomas fled into the night. He would later claim that he was testing royal security.
The Imperial Ambassador, Francois van der Delft reported events to the Emperor at the end of January:
Sire, I have heard here that the Admiral of England, with the help of some people about the court, attempted to outrage the person of the young King by night, and has been taken to the Tower. The alarm was given by the gentleman who sleeps in the King’s chamber, who, awakened by the barking of the dog that lies before the King’s door, cried out “Help! Murder!”
Everybody rushed in; but the only thing they found was the lifeless corpse of the dog. Suspicion points to the Admiral, because he had scattered the watch that night on several errands, and because it has been noticed that he has some secret plot on hand, hoping to marry the second daughter of the late King, the Lady Elizabeth, who is also under grave suspicion. On my arrival in England, however, I will write the truth more fully to your Majesty, having nothing now to go upon beyond the information given by those who repeat common report.
Six months later Seymour died a traitor’s death on Tower Hill. The Bill of Attainder was passed against him on the 5th March 1549 and on the 20th he was executed. He was charged with three counts of treason: first attempting to kidnap the king, planning to marry Elizabeth and third keeping armed men at Sudeley with the intent to rebel.
Thomas’s plots caught members of Elizabeth’s household in the governmental dredging-nets. Sir Thomas Parry and Kat Ashley were known to have associated with him. They were arrested and carted off to the Tower for questioning on the 21st January. Elizabeth found herself being interrogated by Sir Robert Tyrwhitt the husband of Lady Tyrwhitt – who was intent on finding out whether Elizabeth had been part of a so-called marriage plot – he stated that he could see in her face that she was guilty. Elizabeth for her part may have cried and begged for the release of her governess and Sir Thomas Parry but she did not incriminate herself and ultimately she won Sir Robert’s reluctant respect who complained that Elizabeth “sang the same song” as Parry and Ashley and that nothing could be got out of her.
Ultimately Parry, who was Elizabeth’s coffered told what he knew much to Kat Ashley’s disgust. Kat it should be noted had been left in a cold and dark cell and she had not told any tales until it became evident that her interrogators knew everything and even then she had to be taken to see Parry to confirm his words.
It became clear that Seymour had wanted to marry Elizabeth, that his behaviour in Chelsea was not that of a gentleman – this is how history knows about the frock shredding- and that he had discussed Elizabeth’s estates with Parry when Parry had visited Seymour in London. None of them would admit that there had been any plans for a marriage without the consent of the Privy Council.
Elizabeth for her part wrote to the Lord Protector demanding to know what the Privy Council was doing about the rumours that she was pregnant and when Somerset wrote back saying that she should name names she responded by saying it would be better if she was seen.
Lady Tyrwhitt was set to be Elizabeth’s governess. It could not have been a pleasant experience for either of them given that the lady had puritanical tendencies and Elizabeth was not in a happy frame of mind. Elizabeth demanded the return of Kat and not unreasonably given the story that had eventually surfaced it was felt that she wasn’t suitable for the role.
Elizabeth set about reinventing herself as a sober and industrious Protestant princess. It is clear from the accounts of the time that Elizabeth liked Seymour and would have married him had the Privy Council given its permission but the lessons she learned were to reinforce that love was a very dangerous game that could cost you your life if you weren’t careful and that public image was everything.