They include Queen Katherine Parr, Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, heiress of the Willoughby de Eresby family in Lincolnshire, second wife of Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk, and ancestress of the Bertie families, her step-daughter Frances Duchess of Suffolk and her daughters Lady Jane Grey, Lady Catherine Grey and Lady Mary Grey. For these four I would recommend Lucinda de Lisle's biography The Sisters who would be Queen, as a balanced assessment of their lives , families and times. In addition there was the assertive Anne, Duchess of Somerset, wife of the Protector, Anne, Countess of Sussex and Anne Askew , whose life and death, shaped by those who used her to attack more prominent figures is in many ways a counterpart to that of the Catholic Nun of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, in the 1520s and 1530s.
As a group they were related, or part of patterns of connection and friendship, and the extent to which they influenced one another looks not inconsiderable. As supporters of evangelical ideas they were serious and articulate and cannot be seen as mere followers of ecclesiastical fashion. Thanks to John Foxe both Ann Askew and Lady Jane Grey acquired a hagiography as martyrs for the Protestant cause.
Lady Jane Grey
This miniature by Lievine Teerlink is now considered to be the only,
or best surviving, likeness
Lady Catherine Grey with her son.
She is wearing a miniature of her husband, William Seymour
Earl of Hertford.
Miniature by Lievine Teerlink
Image: Lisby 1 on Flickr
These were all, in their own ways, determined, forceful women, and not easily persuaded to keep quiet about their opinions. In many ways they had the advantages of their social position, which gave them independence and the ability to move as Anne Askew did to London.
One other thing, apart from good birth and controversial religious opinions, which links them as a group is that most of them managed, despite their noble, or at least good, birth to contact marriages with second or subsequent husbands well below their own station. This, which was so often a worry for families with daughters of marriageable age, was something they discarded. Moreover these marriages were sometimes arranged with what looks like indecent haste. Not for them the traditional life of the pious widow or vowess. Some of the marriages seem surprising given the background of the ladies and their husbands, who were not in a position to aid their wives as Lord Stanley had been able to support Lady Margaret Beaufort.
Katherine Parr's fourth marriage as Queen Dowager to Lord Seymour raised eyebrows, and, although not without parallel (Adeliza of Louvain and Katherine of Valois come to mind), appears hasty and unusual. In the case of the Grey sisters their position as heirs or potential heirs made their marriages ones of immediate concern to the monarch at the time.
Determination to achieve what they wanted, be it in religious, political or personal terms seems to be the distinguishing mark of these women. the cost might be high, indeed fatal on occasion, but they were not to be deterred.
Women of more humble origins have not left such ample evidence of their lives and opinions, but it seems not unreasonable to think that sixteenth century women of all classes and opinions were perfectly well able to give voice to their opinions and ideas within the society in which they lived - something which has not always been appreciated by historians or their readership.