by Mary Jo
We Wenches are delighted to have Honorary Word Wench Karen Harper return as a guest! Karen has had an amazing career, writing everything from historical romance to romantic suspense to historical mystery and mainstream historicals. Over the years, she has continued to grow as a writer, leading her readers into fascinating new territory.
But today, she's her to tell us about her new Putnam hardcover, The Queen’s Governess. She offered us a choice of blog topics and we all wanted to hear more about Kat Ashley, the Queen’s governess herself.
The Tale Begins:
In my previous historical novels focusing on Elizabeth Tudor, I have used her governess and friend, Katherine Champernowne Ashley, as a secondary character or a mere walk on. In my nine-book series THE QUEEN ELIZABETH I MYSTERY NOVELS, she was a crime-solver with others in the queen’s inner circle.
But my curiosity about “Kat,” as Elizabeth called her, got the best of me, and I began to research the queen’s governess as a central character. I found she was Elizabeth’s mother figure and, during Elizabeth’s early years, her protector.
Although Kat Ashley appears in records and writings once she became Elizabeth’s governess, her beginnings are obscure. Perhaps that’s why—as far as I can tell—no book focusing on her has been written before. Although Elizabethan spelling was not standardized, even the spelling of Kat’s maiden and married names is argued, so I had to make a decision on that. Her married name, Ashley is sometimes written Astley, but since the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth spelled the name of her beloved friend and governess as Kateryn Ashiley, I have let the princess decide on the h sound instead of the t.
Which of several Champernowne families in Devon Kat came from is unclear, though it is narrowed down in a letter she wrote to Thomas Cromwell. Henry VIII’s henchman was Kat’s early sponsor at court. Now that is intriguing, and Cromwell plays a major part in my novel, just as he does in the current bestseller Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. In the letter of 1537, Kat asks Cromwell for money to buy clothing for Elizabeth and indicates that her own father was still alive then. She writes Cromwell that, “I am loath to beg for moneys from my own father, who has as much to do with the little living he has as any man.” This also suggests her father is not well-to-do, which eliminates some families.
Life in the Tudor Court
However, once Kat gets to court, evidently brought there by Cromwell to at first serve (or spy on) Anne Boleyn, Kat’s times with the Tudors are much easier to follow. It was also very convenient for me that Kat had a great love story, marrying John Ashley, a Boleyn cousin. John was a great horseman and author: his book The Art of Riding, was popular for centuries. As far as I can tell, his instructions about humane training make him the original horse whisperer.
I was especially drawn to Kat as a main character because Elizabeth herself testifies to how much this woman, her early tutor and mother figure, (Anne Boleyn was beheaded when Elizabeth was three) meant to her. When Kat and John Ashley were in the Tower, threatened with torture and stringently questioned about Elizabeth’s role in the Tom Seymour treason plot, Elizabeth wrote to Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector of the young King Edward IV, “As for Kat Ashley, I request that it would please Your Grace and the rest of the Council to be good unto her. First, because that she hath been with me a long time and many years, and hath taken great labor and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty.”
By the way, those interrogations in the Tower are recorded in detail, which is why we have so much information on Tom Seymour’s attempts to seduce Elizabeth when she was living with her step-mother, the Dowager Queen Katherine Parr at Chelsea Manor. Several years later, after the Wyatt Rebellion against Queen Mary Tudor, Kat was sent to the noisome Fleet Prison while Elizabeth, again suspected of treason, was sent to the Tower.
So The Queen's Governess is faction—fiction based on fact—on any research I could find about this dynamic woman who helped to make Elizabeth Tudor the great queen she was. It is a mother-daughter story too, both loving and contentious when Kat took a stand against Elizabeth’s great, illicit passion for Robert Dudley. Yet in the end, I like to think that Elizabeth put it this way: “Anne Boleyn gave me life, but Kat Ashley gave me love.”
The most brilliant woman of her age, Elizabeth the queen, wrote the following which shows she realized how key Kat was in her life: “We are more bound to them that bringeth us up well than to our parents, for our parents do that which is natural to them—that is bringeth us into the world—but our bringers up are a cause to make us live well to do it.” When Kat died, years after Elizabeth claimed the throne, it is recorded that her passing was “deeply mourned by the queen.”
MJP: Karen’s earlier historical novels are The Last Boleyn and The First Princess of Wales.
Karen has generously offered to give away copies of both The Queen's Governess and Mistress Shakespeare to two lucky people who leave comments between now and Saturday midnight.
Karen, thanks so much for visiting us again! I hope to see you again in the future–