It is unknown when Katherine Champernowne, or Kat Ashley as she was later known, it is believed that she was born in 1502 and that her parents were Sir John Champernowne and Margaret Courtenay.
Kat’s early life is unknown and but she appears to have been appointed a waiting gentlewoman to Elizabeth in 1536, shortly after Anne Boleyn had been executed. Kat intended to keep Elizabeth’s mother’s memory alive with the infant.
After the birth of Henry VIII’s son, Edward, a new household was set up to care for him this included Lady Bryan who had been until then Elizabeth’s nurse. As a result in 1537 Kat was appointed governess to Elizabeth.
In her role as Elizabeth’s governess Kat would teach her young charge in every aspect from geography, astronomy, history, maths and many languages including French, Italian, Spanish and Flemish. Away from the classroom Kat would also teach Elizabeth dancing, riding, embroidery and needlework and by the time Elizabeth was six years old she was able to sew a cambric shirt from her brother, Edward. Elizabeth said later in life that Kat ‘took great labour and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty.’ Kat played a huge part in shaping who Elizabeth would be in later life.
In 1545 Kat married Elizabeth’s senior gentleman attendant, Sir John Ashley, who was also a cousin of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn
In 1543 with King Henry VIII marrying his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, Elizabeth began attending court more and more and Kat would accompany the young Elizabeth. With the death of the King, Elizabeth and Kat would go and live with Catherine and her new husband Thomas Seymour in Chelsea. However, it was not to be an easy time.
Thomas Seymour, despite his hasty marriage with the King’s widow, took a shine to Elizabeth and began a flirtation. Kat would witness Seymour’s attempts to potentially seduce the young girl and tried to stop them warning Elizabeth away from Seymour. Kat would eventually report her concerns to Catherine Parr, who instead of stopping it joined in and reportedly held Elizabeth down whilst Seymour slashed at the 14 year olds nightgown. However, things turned serious when Catherine caught Elizabeth in Seymour’s arms and Kat lectured Elizabeth on the need to stay out of trouble and protect her reputation especially as she was second in line to the throne.
These events would be eventually investigated by King Edward’s Privy Council when Seymour was being investigated for treason. On 21st January 1549 Kat was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London whilst the claims were investigated. Kat told the investigators everything she knew and protested Elizabeth’s innocence as well as her own and was eventually declared innocent and released in early March 1549.
Kat would return to Elizabeth who was now residing at Hatfield and would remain with Elizabeth until 1554 when Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower by her sister, Mary I. Elizabeth was later released and Kat rejoined her charge but it was short lived as in May 1556 Kat was arrested and sent to Fleet Prison after books that were discovered in her possession that was considered treasonous. Kat was imprisoned for just three months but on her release she was forbidden from seeing Elizabeth again.
Upon Elizabeth taking the throne the order was revoked and Kat returned to Elizabeth and was appointed First Lady of the Bedchamber and became one of the most influential people in Elizabeth’s court.
Kat Ashley died on 18th July 1565 and Elizabeth was left heartbroken at the loss of her long term companion. After Kat’s death Elizabeth would say of the woman who stayed by her side since she was four. ‘Anne Boleyn gave me life but Kat Ashley gave me love’.