Katherine Willoughby On The Run

The door of the little cottage crashed loudly against the wall and Richard Bertie stood framed in the doorway. A freezing gust of wind swirled into the house around him, bringing with it a sheet of rain.

The loud crash of the door had startled Katherine. She jumped up from her chair beside the fireplace and looked at her husband anxiously. Richard stepped into the house and shut the door, mercifully blocking out the wind and the rain.

“What is it, Richard?” Katherine asked, finally finding her voice.

“We have to leave,” he said, striding into the house without bothering to take off his wet coat and hat.

“Leave?” Katherine murmured gripping the edge of the chair she now stood behind “Why?”

Richard was busy rifling through some papers that he had pulled out of a little cubby hole in the wall. He looked up momentarily and paused when he caught sight of his wife’s pale face.

“The bishop has gone to the authorities about us. They suspect, and rightly so, that we are hiding our identities. They think we might be criminals or worse, Protestants. They’re coming for us Katherine, there’s no time to lose”

In her past life, Katherine had been Katherine Brandon, Baroness Willoughby and 2nd Duchess of Suffolk. She still retained those titles when she was in England but she wasn’t in England anymore.

Standing in the little peasant’s cottage in the town of Stanton in the Duchy of Brabant, she had a completely different identity.

She had to. Her life depended on it.

“Katherine” Richard’s voice was tinged with impatience “did you hear a word of what I just said?”

She nodded slowly, her mind assessing the situation they were facing.

“How long do we have?” she asked, her brow furrowing in concentration.

“Not long, they are conferring together as we speak”

“I’m thinking we should go on foot. To Wesel.”

“On foot? And only to the next town?” Richard shook his head “I was thinking we needed to leave the Duchy altogether”

“No” Katherine shook her head “We don’t have time to muster up a grand scheme. I think the safest thing is to go on foot to Wesel, leave everything else behind. If they are conferring as we speak then they will soon be here. We need to leave now.”

Richard sighed. She was right. Their best bet was to keep things simple and low key. Escape as fast as they could and give themselves some time to regroup and think through their long-term options.

Katherine was already moving across the room. She hurried through the house marshaling the two servants and gathering up their children. Within 30 minutes the little family was ready to march.

Rank and Riverbank

Together they trudged down the road to Wesel. The ground was frozen solid and a blighting rain pelted them, drenching their clothes and seeping through each layer to settle against their skin.

Walking through the driving rain, sheltering her children as best as she could, Katherine’s mind reached back to recall better times.

Times when she had been one of the most prominent courtiers in the land. The second wife of Charles Brandon, the grandfather of the infamous Lady Jane Grey and the brother-in-law of the equally notorious Henry VIII. But the titles had meant little to her after she had discovered the beauty of scripture.

She had spent hours picking the brain of the inimitable Hugh Latimer. Latimer had been her chaplain and spiritual mentor and she owed the deep roots of her spirituality to his careful and prayerful instruction.

The gospel of Jesus Christ became a fresh, new reality in Katherine’s heart and mind, growing brighter and more glorious till it eclipsed every other consideration in her life. Nothing else mattered more deeply than the cause of Christ.

Which is precisely why she had married Richard Bertie. At first glance, Richard was a terribly unsuitable match for the Duchess of Suffolk. His father was a manual laborer. Richard had managed to scrape together enough money to go to Oxford and upon returning had been employed in her household as a member of her staff.

It had caused a bit of a sensation in court circles when word got around that the Duchess of Suffolk, Baroness Willoughby had actually married Richard Bertie, one of her servants. Katherine hadn’t cared one bit. Richard was devoted to the cause of the Reformation. His experience with God was so rich and vibrant that it attracted her to him above everything else.

Rank or riverbank didn’t impress her anymore but seeing Jesus in Richard’s life did.

A Quivering Boat On A Boundless Ocean

“We’re coming up on the outskirts of the town” Richard called from up ahead

Katherine’s mind snapped back to the present and she quickened her pace. The streets of the village were quiet but the small flicker of movement behind window panes that were warm with the firelight’s glow alerted the Bertie family to the fact that they were being watched.

“We must be a sight to behold” Katherine murmured to herself in amusement as she caught sight of the silhouetted form of a woman standing behind a gauzy curtain watching them pass in front of her yard.

Every inn they stopped at refused to house them. Finally, in desperation, Richard offered the various innkeepers large amounts of money but that made matters worse. Not only were they suspicious, foreign-looking peasants, they were also peasants with large amounts of money.

The doors banged thick and fast in their faces until drenched and too frozen to feel their extremities they huddled together in the doorway of the local parish church. The fact that they spoke limited German compounded matters even further. Richard tired in vain to hail passers-by but no one wanted to have anything to do with them.

He left them at the church and wandered off in the rain to see if he could find someone who would be willing to shelter them for the night.

So many times over the past year Katherine had wondered if she was doing the right thing by her children. They had chosen to be Protestants in the treacherous and blood-soaked times of Mary Tudor. Then when things had become too dangerous they had chosen to cross the channel and flee to Europe. They had arrived in Brabant and had worked hard to conceal their identity for fear of being discovered but that scheme had only landed them here, exhausted and without shelter in the middle of winter.

What else could I have done differently? Katherine thought, shaking her head and gathering her children tightly against her. But the more she thought about it the more she realized that she wouldn’t change a single thing. It was more important for her children to have the freedom to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, to know and embrace the gospel,  than all the comforts that the Court of England offered.

No. As a mother, she would rather put her children on a quivering boat upon the vast and unbounded ocean where they could be free than to shelter them in a land where they could never know that freedom.

The Rock That Is Higher Than I

Richard returned a little while later with a young schoolboy he had befriended. The boy took them to one of the homes in the village where they were offered shelter for a few days. By the following week, word had gotten around that the new visitors were English nobility. Wesel embraced the Berties and soon became a center for Protestant refugees looking for shelter. Katherine rallied those who came and established an English speaking Protestant church in the village.

When word got back to England regarding the whereabouts of the Duchess of Suffolk and her husband Richard Bertie, Mary Tudor’s agents began to conspire against them. First, they threatened to confiscate all their goods but the house of commons vetoed that. Next, they maneuvered to have Austrian troops march through Wesel to pick up the Berties but they were tipped off and fled to the Palatinate where they received a warm welcome.

Holding on to her faith was never an easy thing for Katherine Willoughby to do but when she chose to take the plunge and give her life to Jesus she counted that cost and decided that it was a small price to pay for the fellowship she would gain in return.

 Citations and Further Reading

  • Van Doodewaard, R. (2017) – Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.