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Researching A Woman of Noble Wit and sixteenth century Devon
by Rosemary Griggs
What I learned at school about the sixteenth century centred largely on the happenings in King Henry’s Court. I think the dissolution of the monasteries was also mentioned in passing, perhaps the reign of so called “Bloody Mary” and certainly the glorious times of Queen Elizabeth when England repelled the Spanish Armada. But that’s just about all I was told many years ago; a list of dates to remember, the old rhyme about Henry’s wives and a smattering of Shakespeare. Then I was put into the science stream and that was it. But it was enough to spark a flicker of interest that has grown and grown. I’ve fed my fascination with the past, particularly the times of the Tudor’s and Elizabethans, throughout my life by reading, reading and more reading.
It’s about seven years since I first met the remarkable Devon woman who was Sir Walter Raleigh’s mother. I soon realised that if I was to bring Katherine Champernowne’s story to life I’d have to delve deep into the history books and archives. I needed to find out who she was and to understand what life was really like for a woman like her living in Devon during those momentous times.
Searching for Katherine in the historic record proved very challenging. Born before baptisms, marriages and deaths were recorded in parish churches — a system first introduced in 1538 — I still can’t fix her birth date with certainty. Even after churches recorded such details some parish registers, kept for generations in the “parish chest,” have been lost or damaged. I’ve found no record of either of her marriages and, sadly, the pages that cover the year of Katherine’s burial are missing from the register. Like many women of her time her story has remained hidden from view, amongst the army of forgotten wives, mothers, and sisters who stood behind famous men.
I had a lucky break early on. One of my first ports of call was the Devon Archives held at the South West Heritage Trust (SWHT), where the staff have been unfailingly helpful. During an early visit I stumbled across a wonderful typewritten account and boxes full of letters and notes. It was a history of the Champernownes drawn up by one of the family in 1953. I owe an enormous debt to Miss C. E. Champernowne whose painstaking work has pointed me in the right direction for many sources. I stand in awe of her achievement to draw together such as complex piece of research without the aid of online catalogues, and search engines, which I use extensively. After that, my visits to SWHT, Exeter Cathedral Archives, the Devon Rural Archive and the National Archives at Kew turned up a wealth of documents; all pieces of the puzzle that was Katherine’s life. I also read every biography I could find about her famous boys, her Carew cousins and other Devon notables like the Raleighs and the Courtenays. Gradually I felt I was getting to know the forest of intertwining branches that links the family trees of our great Devon families.
Some big surprises were lurking amongst all those dusty documents. I really didn’t expect to find that a member of the Raleigh family had a house just down the road in the Devon town where I live. Katherine’s stepson, John Raleigh, was heavily involved in his father’s shipping business which veered between merchant trading, privateering and piracy. He was named co-lessee when Walter Raleigh senior renewed the lease on the farm at East Buddleigh in 1551, but later he had a house in Newton Abbot where he married the widow of a prominent figure in the town’s history. He even had his own private door into, the nearby church, which can still be seen when the Tower, all that remains of St Leonard’s chapel, is open to the public.
Another real surprise was to find evidence that one of Katherine’s sisters married a priest in the time of Edward VI and suffered the consequences under Mary. I plan to publish those research findings, which gave me a sub-plot, soon.
I had a head start discovering how people like Katherine lived though my research into sixteenth century clothes. Learning how to create the sort of clothes Katherine wore, stitching them by hand, and literally walking in her shoes in the places she knew has really put me in touch with her world.
My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of all the books I’ve consulted.
Books like Alison Sim’s The Tudor Housewife, Elizabeth Norton’s The Lives of Tudor Women, Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Tudor and Barbara J Harris’ English Aristocratic Women have given me valuable insights into how less well known women lived in Tudor and Elizabethan England — a rich background against which to explore Katherine’s own life and times.
One of the things that surprised me most was just how much to a well born girl was expected to learn to equip her to make a good dynastic marriage. She must acquire a huge range of “housewifely” skills to enable her to manage a large household, with a brewhouse, bakehouse, still room and herb garden. She must know how to harvest and preserve enough food to withstand hard winters and how to prepare and use medicines to treat the sick. She must be a skilled needlewoman, able to stitch and embroider. She must be able to sing, play an instrument and dance so as to be an ornament to her future husband’s home. On top of that some girls were also educated in languages and the classics alongside their brothers. There’s every indication that Sir Philip Champernowne favoured the increasingly popular humanist approach and believed his daughters should be as well educated as his sons. You only have to look at the list of subjects Katherine’s sister Kat Ashley was able to introduce in princess Elizabeth’s curriculum to see what a paragon of academic virtue she must have been. (There’s a blog post on my website all about Kat and her relationship to Katherine https://rosemarygriggs.co.uk/blog/21/ ) To learn all of that at such a young age — it looks as though Katherine Champernowne was in her early teens when she married Otho Gilbert — must have placed huge expectations on these girls. In the patriarchal society that was Tudor England girls were treated very differently to boys. To receive a broader education but still have so little choice must have been hard for bright young women, constrained by family duty to comply.
As I followed Katherine’s footsteps I was surprised to find just how much of her Devon can still be glimpsed if you look hard enough in the right places.
|The River Dart, Dartmouth|
I’ve found her beside rivers, in woodlands, in the city of Exeter, in grand houses and smaller ones and churches that have changed little since her day.
The biggest problem with research like this is knowing when to stop. There’s always one more avenue to explore, one more source to uncover. Getting the balance right between research and writing is really tricky. I hope readers will think I’ve pulled it off in A Woman of Noble Wit.
ABOUT THE BOOK
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.
Trigger Warnings: Rape.
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About the author:
Rosemary Griggs is a retired Whitehall Senior Civil Servant with a lifelong passion for history. She is now a speaker on Devon’s sixteenth century history and costume. She leads heritage tours at Dartington Hall, has made regular costumed appearances at National Trust houses and helps local museums bring history to life.
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