Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Join #awardwinning author Rosemary Griggs as she shares her inspiration for A Woman of Noble Wit #HistoricalFiction #Tudors #BookSpotlight #TheCoffeePotBookClub @RAGriggsauthor @cathiedunn

A Woman of Noble Wit

Daughters of Devon

by Rosemary Griggs

THE COFFEE POT BOOK CLUB, BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARDS 2022 - SILVER MEDALS in each of the following categories - Women’s Historical Fiction, Historical Romance and for books set in The Tudors, The Stuarts, and The Commonwealth of England

Few women of her time lived to see their name in print. But Katherine was no ordinary woman. She was Sir Walter Raleigh’s mother. This is her story.
Set against the turbulent background of a Devon rocked by the religious and social changes that shaped Tudor England; a Devon of privateers and pirates; a Devon riven by rebellions and plots, A Woman of Noble Wit tells how Katherine became the woman who would inspire her famous sons to follow their dreams. It is Tudor history seen though a woman’s eyes.

As the daughter of a gentry family with close connections to the glittering court of King Henry VIII, Katherine’s duty is clear. She must put aside her dreams and accept the husband chosen for her.

Still a girl, she starts a new life at Greenway Court, overlooking the River Dart, relieved that her husband is not the ageing monster of her nightmares. She settles into the life of a dutiful wife and mother until a chance shipboard encounter with a handsome privateer, turns her world upside down......

Years later a courageous act will set Katherine’s name in print and her youngest son will fly high. 

A Woman of Noble Wit

My search for Katherine Champernowne, Sir Walter Raleigh’s mother

The history books are full of tales of the deeds of the seafaring men of Devon, but we know much less about the women who stood behind them. Women like Katherine Champernowne, mother of famous soldier, poet, courtier and explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh. These women managed households and often administered large estates when their husbands were away. They brought up the next generation. Through their marriages, great dynasties grew in wealth and status. They experienced both happiness and sorrow, leading fulfilling and captivating lives. They deserve to have their stories shared.

I have spent years searching for Katherine Champernowne, and I am not the only one to wonder who she was. Writing about the prodigious roll call of famous Devon seafarers, men like Hawkins and Drake, historian W. G. Hoskins (1) said:-

‘Last of this constellation to appear in the Devonshire sky was Walter Raleigh … Ralegh’s mother was Katherine Champernowne of Modbury. She was already the mother of Humphrey and Adrian Gilbert by her first marriage and not content with that, she produced a genius by her second marriage with Walter Ralegh of Fardel, the great Sir Walter’s father. One would like to have a portrait (2), and to know more of this remarkable woman.’

Many other historians have made similar comments about Katherine Raleigh. However, Sir Walter’s mother has left a light footprint on the historical record. Even establishing her date of birth with certainty is difficult because baptisms, marriages, and burials were not yet routinely recorded. Once married, she makes only a few appearances in the record, mentioned in a few land transactions and in her first husband’s will. She emerges, listed in her own right, in the 1586 tax return for Exeter (3) as a wealthy widow living in a house ‘close by the palace gate’ near St Peter’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, the page that should contain the record of her burial is missing from the parish register of Old St Mary Major’s church. The Victorians demolished the old church and even the replacement church was pulled down in the 1970s, so I can’t visit her grave. On the night of 4 May 1942, bombs fell in Exeter, destroying Katherine’s will, which had been written in April 1594. This will was one of the priceless documents kept at the City Library, which was destroyed in the second of two devastating raids. The Germans, during what came to be known as the “Baedeker Blitz” targeted Exeter and other cultural and provincial centres, relying on detailed maps from a series of German tourist guide books. Thankfully, in the nineteenth century, Mr Winslow Jones had the foresight to create a transcript of Katherine’s last wishes, which was passed down to us by the scholar, T. N. Brushfield (4).

Having said all of that, in one respect, Katherine is most unusual. She lived to see her name in print. The second edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (5) published in the early 1570s tells how a gentlewoman, Katherine Raleigh, kept vigil with Agnes Prest, a poor Cornish woman, on the night before Agnes walked the short distance from the prison cell’s beneath Exeter’s Rougemount Castle to the area now known as Southernhay, to be burned at the stake. Agnes was Exeter’s one and only protestant martyr during the reign of Queen Mary. Foxe describes Katherine as ‘a woman of noble wit and good and godly ways’, which gave me insights into her character and the title for my novel.

The historical record gave me only these few milestones on Katherine’s journey through life. But as a writer of historical fiction, my goal was not to tell readers what happened, but to help them imagine what it felt like to be there. That meant a deep dive into every aspect of life in sixteenth century England, focusing on women’s lives. I’ve read widely and spent many hours poring over old documents in archives. I have followed in her footsteps throughout Devon, seeking traces of her world, revealed in tantalising glimpses in churches and old buildings or amongst the green hills and woodlands. My costume work has also been enormously helpful — dressing as Katherine did has taught me things I could never have read in any book.

In order to bring Katherine's story to life, I felt it was important to delve deeper into her background. By uncovering information about her more well-documented relatives, I was able to piece together a picture of her world. Despite being often disregarded as ‘minor Devon gentry’, Katherine’s family, the Champernownes, actually had strong ties to the Henrican court.

John Champernowne, Katherine’s grandfather, received his knighthood in 1501 at the wedding celebrations for Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur. His prestigious estate at Ashton Rohant, Oxfordshire, was convenient for the court where Katherine’s father, Sir Philip Champernowne, served as squire of the body to the young King Henry VIII. Katherine’s brother John was, according to Richard Carew in his Survey of Cornwall (6), published in 1602, something of a favourite with King Henry, and ‘through his pleasant conceits’ won ‘much good grace with the King’. John died young, in Vienna, while on an adventurous mission with his reckless cousin, Sir Peter Carew.

At least two of Katherine Raleigh’s sisters served as ladies-in-waiting for Henry’s queens. Joan married Anthony Denny, groom of the stool to King Henry, an executor of the king’s will. Even after Henry’s death, Denny remained influential at court as a privy councillor under Edward VI. Joan served Queen Katherine Parr and shared the queen’s views on religion.

Another sister, better known by her married name, Kat Ashley / Astley, joined the household of Elizabeth Tudor when the princess was very young. Kat became First Lady of the Bedchamber when Elizabeth came to the throne. It was said that the queen was devastated when Kat died in 1565 after a brief illness.

Another brother, Arthur, became Sir Arthur Champernowne of Dartington. Arthur married the widow of his cousin, Sir George Carew (of the Mary Rose), became Vice-Admiral of the Fleet of the West under Elizabeth I and was a powerful supporter of the Huguenots during the French wars of religion.

Through her paternal grandmother, Margaret Courtenay, Katherine Raleigh was related to Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, son of Katherine Plantagenet Courtenay, King Henry’s aunt. Courtenay grew up with the King. He held a prominent position at court until he fell out of favour and was executed in 1538 on suspicion of being part of the ‘Exeter conspiracy’. Katherine’s brother John married Catherine Blount, whose sister was Henry Courtenay’s wife.

Elizabeth Poyntz (nee Huddesfield), Katherine Raleigh’s maternal great aunt, almost certainly served in the nursery of the ill-fated first-born son of King Henry and Catherine of Aragon. One of Katherine’s maternal uncles, Sir Gawen Carew, married the sister of King Henry’s close friend Charles Brandon. Another relative was the cleric George Carew who achieved prominence in the church, reclaimed his position after being deprived of it during Mary’s reign because of his marriage. In 1559, as Dean of the Chapel Royal, he was among the priests to officiate at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

With so many members of her family close to the crown, it is not surprising that Katherine’s sons did so well. A network of family ties brought them within a circle of influential individuals. Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh were both talented writers and thinkers. Sir Walter’s writings need no introduction. He always took a chestful of books with him wherever he went, even on his long sea voyages. Humphrey wrote A Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage and visionary proposals for a training academy for young gentlemen before his ill-fated voyage to claim Newfoundland for the queen. Adrian, the only one amongst her five surviving sons not knighted, was a talented garden designer, who invested in voyages of exploration and dabbled in chemistry. Perhaps they got their love of learning from their mother.

It has been a privilege to uncover and imagine the life of this amazing woman in my novel, A Woman of Noble Wit. I have met many other fascinating women in my research and have set out to tell their stories in a series of books called Daughters of Devon.

My next novel, The Dartington Bride, due out in March 2024, concerns a woman who was born far from Devon, married into the Champernowne family and found her life going in a surprising and worrying direction.

Rosemary Griggs
January 2024


(1) W G Hoskins Devon

(2) So far, no one has found a portrait of her. The one on the cover of A Woman of Noble Wit is an artist’s impression inspired by portraits of her sisters — Joan Denny and the ‘other Katherine Champernowne’, known to many people as ‘Kat’ Ashley / Astley.

(3) Lay Subsidy returns for the City of Exeter 1586 — Katherine Rawlie, widow, in lands £IO.13s.4d.

(4)  T.N Brushfield Ralegana

(5) John Foxe The Actes and Monuments, 2nd Edition

(6) Richard Carew of Antony the Survey of Cornwall

Rosemary Griggs

Author and speaker Rosemary Griggs has been researching Devon's sixteenth-century history for years. She has discovered a cast of fascinating characters and an intriguing network of families whose influence stretched far beyond the West Country and loves telling the stories of the forgotten women of history – the women beyond the royal court; wives, sisters, daughters and mothers who played their part during those tumultuous Tudor years: the Daughters of Devon.

Her novel A Woman of Noble Wit tells the story of Katherine Champernowne, Sir Walter Raleigh’s mother, and features many of the county’s well-loved places.

Rosemary creates and wears sixteenth-century clothing, a passion which complements her love for bringing the past to life through a unique blend of theatre, history and re-enactment. Her appearances and talks for museums and community groups all over the West Country draw on her extensive research into sixteenth-century Devon, Tudor life and Tudor dress, particularly Elizabethan.

Out of costume, Rosemary leads heritage tours of the gardens at Dartington Hall, a fourteenth-century manor house and now a visitor destination and charity supporting learning in arts, ecology and social justice.

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