The Duchess of Suffolk

Written by Victoria Male

“You’re nervous.”

Charles’ observation jolted Catherine from her thoughts. “Suppose I forget to curtsy? Or I speak out of turn? Mama says prudent ladies hold their tongues.”

She conjured her mother’s stern eyes and disapproving, downturned mouth. Despite Maria’s efforts to prepare her daughter for the intricacies of the Tudor court, Catherine was out of her depth.

“That may be true, but Henry does not care for prudent ladies. He much prefers extraordinary women.”

Before Catherine could contemplate the meaning of her new husband’s words, they’d reached the hall. She had to crane her neck to see the vaulted ceiling. Her eyes almost crossed at the finery of the elaborate tapestries that lined its lower perimeter. No one had exaggerated the grandeur of the palace, that was certain.

Charles took his place among the courtiers thrumming in every corner of the space. While he conversed with his peers, Catherine stood silently beside him, still lost in wonder.

Inevitably, she looked toward the thrones at the head of the room. The King was impossible to miss. Perspiration dotted Catherine’s hairline. He had the power to kill her and everyone in this room. Henry VIII was divinity on earth, and more incredibly, Charles was his closest friend. Catherine averted her eyes the way one does after staring at the sun for too long. She’d glimpsed the Queen earlier at the christening, yet Catherine was still entranced by the petite woman and the paradoxical power she wielded over Henry. The rumors about her had also been true. Anne was no great beauty, but she possessed an undeniable magnetism.

Maria told Catherine that Anne was a witch, that she’d destroyed the sanctity of England and their monarch, but Catherine couldn’t help but feel pity for the new Queen when she stood at the baptismal font that afternoon alone. If Anne was a witch, wouldn’t she have ensured the child she bore was a boy?

“Are you prepared to meet His Majesty?”

Again, Catherine had retreated so deeply into her mind she hadn’t noticed that Charles had moved to another gaggle of guests, nor that the two attendees she despised had descended on her.

Whereas Catherine was now expected by most to behave far beyond her fourteen years, Bess Holland and Margery Horsman had the peculiar ability to reduce her to feeling as if she was no more than six. They regarded Charles with an unnerving familiarity that Catherine had recently come to recognize meant that one of them, if not both, had shared his bed.

She scrambled to collect herself. “I believe so.”

“A word of advice,” Margery began, though Catherine hadn’t asked for any. “‘Tis best to remain invisible rather than risk a misstep.”

“You are so young after all,” Bess’s condescending tone made her skin crawl.

She swallowed her retort. Prudent ladies held their tongues. “Thank you for your counsel.”

Though their relationship had been strained since the wedding, Catherine left at once to rejoin Charles. His presence was safer than the predatory ladies-in-waiting. That safety was dissipated, however, when he led her toward the thrones. Catherine’s heart threatened to thunder out of her chest. She’d been short on oxygen to begin with, her corset laced cruelly tight, and as the King and Queen drew nearer, Catherine struggled further to breathe.

Upon seeing his friend, the King rose, abruptly ending his conversation with another courtier. “Charles!”

“Your Graces.”

“I am confused – I was told you would bring your new wife to court, not one of your daughters.”

The room erupted into laughter, Charles included. Catherine’s cheeks burned with humiliation. While there was nothing extraordinary about Charles taking a younger wife, the thirty-five years between their ages was. When Catherine became the Duke’s ward, she’d been promised to Charles’s son. Yet he had pressing debts to pay, and Catherine needed to secure her inheritance from her uncle’s greedy fingers, so Charles had usurped his son’s bride for himself.

“You know that I prefer certain things untouched if I can help it.”

Another raucous laugh. Catherine fought the urge to shrink in on herself.

“Allow me to present Catherine, the Duchess of Suffolk.”

She curtsied.

Where Henry’s eyes raked over her, the Queen scrutinized her with a searing gaze as if she was sizing up an opponent. It was a preposterous notion, but Catherine had quickly learned that court was a merciless place.

“You are Maria Willoughby’s daughter.”

Catherine faltered at Henry’s direct address. “Y-yes, Your Grace.”

It ought to have been the extent of their interaction, but Catherine’s mouth moved independent of her mind.

“And I expect a ship dedicated in my name, as you bestowed upon her. By spring, preferably.”

Henry’s gaze snapped back to Catherine. The hall suddenly hushed. She didn’t dare breathe while her imagination supplied her punishment for addressing the King as she did. Charles would beat her. If not Charles, then certainly her mother would.

Another laugh from the King punctured the tension. Charles followed suit, then, in the span of an instant, the entire hall joined in. Catherine basked in the attention, wearing a wide, relieved grin. She was already mentally composing the letter to Maria to inform her that the King preferred her wit to that of a prudent lady’s reserve. 

Her sense of victory hollowed, however, when Catherine caught sight of Anne’s features pinched in distaste. A glance to the side confirmed that Bess and Margery were scowling at her too. Was this the price for winning the King’s favor — the enmity of the women surrounding him?

Finally Catherine understood her mother’s admonition. Maria hadn’t feared how her daughter would fare with the men at court, rather it was the women’s reception to Catherine’s sharp tongue she’d sought to blunt.

A fire ignited in her bosom. Catherine decided her wit was a weapon, one that she would not sheath for the acceptance of middling others. She steeled herself. Her adversaries had revealed themselves, now it was time for Catherine to forge her allies.


Read, E. (1963). My Lady Suffolk: A Portrait of Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. Alfred A. Knopf.

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