On 25 February 1603, Queen Elizabeth I’ s cousin and friend – Katherine Howard, the countess of Nottingham – died. Although Katherine had been ill for some time, her death hit the queen very hard; indeed one observer wrote that she took the loss “muche more heavyly” than did Katherine’s husband, the Charles, Earl of Nottingham. The queen’s grief was unsurprising, for Elizabeth had known the countess longer than almost anyone else alive at that time. While still a child, Katherine Carey (as she then was) had entered Elizabeth’s household at Hatfield; a few years later, on 3 January 1559, though aged only about twelve, Katherine became one of the new queen’s maids of honour and participated in the coronation ceremonials, twelve days afterwards. What is more, Katherine was close kin to the queen. Her paternal grandmother was Mary Boleyn (the sister of the more famous Anne) and her father was the queen’s favourite male cousin Henry, Lord Hunsdon.
Although Elizabeth has a reputation for opposing her maids’ marriages – undeservedly in my opinion – she had welcomed Katherine’s marriage in July 1563 to another of her cousins on Anne Boleyn’s side, Charles Howard, son of Baron Howard of Effingham. Like a number of other favoured women, Katherine did not leave the queen’s service after her marriage, even when she was pregnant. No longer a maid, she became a gentlewoman of the privy chamber, often taking charge of the queen’s clothes and gifts of jewels. Later, she was promoted to the position of lady carver, with the task of receiving the queen’s food, laying it out on plates and presiding over the table. From 1572 onwards Katherine had the position of chief lady of the privy chamber, and in April 1598 she was recorded as being “grome of the Stoole”, taking responsibility for the royal chamber pot. As such she was one of a tiny number of people who would have had any physical contact with the Queen. Elizabeth liked to have her Boleyn relatives within the inner sanctum of the court, and Katherine was no exception. Kinship ties were always valued in the sixteenth-century, and Elizabeth believed that she could count upon the loyalty and devotion of close kin without royal blood.
Katherine’s husband Charles was also an intimate of the queen. His father had helped to protect the young Elizabeth during her sister’s reign, and on her accession Charles was appointed a gentleman of the privy chamber. Though slow to be granted important office, he nonetheless benefitted from his wife’s intimate relationship with the queen. In 1575 he was admitted to the elite order of the Garter, and entered the privy council in 1584, when he achieved major political status as Lord Chamberlain. In May 1585, he exchanged a household role for a martial one, when he was appointed Lord High Admiral. Although relatively inexperienced in naval matters, Howard successfully presided over the fleet during the crisis of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and saw active service in the 1596 Cadiz expedition. As a reward for the latter, he was elevated to the ancient earldom of Nottingham in October the following year. This title placed him as the second highest peer of the realm and most importantly meant that he had ceremonial precedence over his rival, Robert, 2nd Earl of Essex. Matters became more complicated when, to mollify a disaffected Essex, Elizabeth appointed him Earl Marshal, thus leap-frogging Nottingham in precedence, From then on the two men were enemies.
As far as we know, Katherine stayed outside these court rivalries. Nonetheless, an influential story was fabricated later in the seventeenth century, alleging that on her deathbed she confessed her part in the eventual execution of the ill-fated Essex. According to this account, Queen Elizabeth had promised the earl that if he ever incurred her anger, he should return to her a ring which she had given him; receiving this token, she would forgive him any transgression. From his prison cell in the Tower of London in February 1601, the story continues, the condemned earl desperately tried to get the ring to the queen, but it came into Katherine’s possession and she deliberately withheld it from her mistress. News of this supposedly reached Elizabeth two years later, when Katherine was dying, and her last words to the countess were said to be: “God may forgive you, Madam, but I never shall”. A romantic myth, with no foundation of truth, the ring story appeared as a fact on film and even in a devotional Christian text printed in 2007.
What is indisputably true is that after hearing of Katherine’s death, the queen fell into a deep melancholy and barely left her private rooms, except to walk in her privy gardens. Apart from grief at the loss of a friend, it seems that Elizabeth also felt the intimations of her own mortality. A Catholic informant reported that “The Queen loved the countess well, and hath much lamented her death, remaining ever since in a deep melancholy that she must die herself, and complaineth of many infirmities wherewith she seemeth suddenly to be overtaken.” Katherine’s brother Robert Carey, likewise found Elizabeth to be in “a melancholy humour”; when she talked to him at length about her sadness and ’indisposition’, he wrote in his memoirs, “she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs”, an unusual occurrence “for in all my lifetime before, I never knew her fetch a sigh, but when the Queen of Scots was beheaded.”
The day after the audience with Carey – Sunday 12 March – Elizabeth refused to leave her room to go to chapel, but lay on cushions in the privy chamber “hard by the closet door” so she could hear the service. As a Venetian ambassador observed, the queen allows “grief to overcome her strength.” He was right, for so began the physical decline that ended in the queen’s death during the early hours of 24 March.