“Are you sure we’re being followed?” Catherine kept her head down and nestled her face into the folds of the hood she wore.
It was coarse. Uncomfortable.
But she had deliberately chosen to disguise herself as a servant in an attempt to keep a low profile.
“Yes, my Lady” her most trusted servant whispered as he hurried to keep pace with her. “I think it is one of our own servants from the house. He must have heard us leaving.” Catherine nodded as she quietly contemplated the situation.
The man was probably curious. Wondering what was happening. That was natural of course. The times were dangerous and he was a servant in a decidedly Protestant household. But it would not do for him to know what was going on. They had to preserve secrecy at all costs.
“Have the party split up” she finally murmured. “You take the menservants and go straight to the quay along the Thames. The two maidservants and I will duck into that alleyway ahead and hide there”
“But my Lady…” the man began to protest.
The Duchess was pregnant and they were carrying her one-year-old daughter with them. “If anything should happen to you or the child, Master Richard…”
“Master Richard and I have already calculated the risks” Catherine interrupted impatiently “We know that we have as great a chance of being apprehended as we do of escaping”.
She paused to suck in a deep breath. “Now go” she commanded authoritatively.
With that, she quickened her pace and suddenly ducked into the alleyway. Her maids followed swiftly and the menservants kept walking towards the quay.
The ploy was a success. The man following them was confused and turned back. Catherine and the maidservants then made their way down to the quay and the company boarded a vessel headed to their rendezvous point with her husband Richard Bertie.
Onboard the vessel Catherine clutched her sleeping baby in her arms and shut her eyes in prayer. Her mind skimmed over events of the recent past. Master Latimer arrested and imprisoned for his faith. He had been her chaplain. Master Ridley ensconced in the tower of London, also for his faith. She had sent him what money she could for necessities. Finally, she remembered Thomas Bilney, the man responsible for Latimer’s conversion. The man who had become one of England’s first Protestant martyrs.
Her mind curled around the one verse that had transformed Bilney. She savored its beauty. Willed it to seep into every pore of her soul.
“Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am chief”.
Nothing else mattered. Gardiner would not break her.
“My Lord Chancellor” Stephen Gardiner looked up at the man who addressed him and narrowed his eyes as he took in his face.
“What is it?” he asked testily.
“My Lord, we have news” the man paused hesitantly “The Duchess of Suffolk has left her house in London. We have reason to believe that she is fleeing the country”
Gardiner’s face twisted in anger.
Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, had been a thorn in his side for far too long. He knew he should never have given her husband a license to travel. Richard Bertie had come to him under the pretense of paying off a debt he owed to Charles V. He had believed the man and given him authority to travel to Germany.
Gardiner closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
Had his threats not been strong enough? Had he not intimidated that awful woman enough?
The Duchess was a strong proponent of Protestantism and her title had so far offered her a great deal of immunity. But that would not last long in Mary’s England. Gardiner had warned them. He had arrested her husband Richard and brought him to this very place. He had warned him that if he did not recant his Protestant views and embrace Catholicism both he and the Duchess would meet the same fate as Latimer and Ridley.
Clearly, it had all been to no avail.
“My Lord” the messenger finally broke the silence that hung heavily in the room. “What should we do?”
Stephen Gardiner opened his eyes and looked sharply at the man. “Send men to her house in London. Search every vessel and inn and port in the country” the anger radiated from him in almost tangible waves. “Find her and bring her to me”
Richard Bertie paced the floor of the small room anxiously. The last news update he had received had chilled him to the bone. Gardiner had sent men to search their home in London and every inn and vessel in every port they could get to.
They were fugitives. Capture meant only one thing.
Where was she? Was she alright? The servant who had brought him word had told him that he believed the Duchess was staying under a false identity and moving from place to place in an effort to evade capture.
There was a sharp rap on the door and Richard’s head snapped up. “Who is it?” He asked in an almost trembling voice.
Had he been discovered?
The sound of the small familiar voice made him weak with relief. He strode to the door and grabbed hold of his wife and daughter and pulled them in for a quick, hard hug.
“Thank God you’re safe,” he said.
“They are on my heels Richard” Catherine said her voice breaking with emotion “They nearly caught us but we managed to escape and make it here safely but I know they aren’t far behind”
Richard nodded quickly and pushed her gently out of the door and into the narrow hallway of the small inn. “We sail in the next half hour” he whispered as he hurried her down the passageway and towards the entrance.
They managed to board the vessel with their company of servants but the pursuit was far from over. Gardiner’s men assembled along the quay and began to search the waiting ships one by one.
“My Lady” one of the servants whispered “the Lord Chancellor’s men have boarded this vessel. They are asking for you and Master Bertie.”
Catherine then heard her name being called in a distant part of the ship.
“My Lady” the servant’s voice tensed “What shall we do?”
Catherine turned to Richard, her eyes wide with fear and exhaustion. She had been running for days. “I will not recant,” she told him quietly, “Christ and his cross mean more to me than a thousand titles of nobility, wealth or privilege” her voice shook slightly as she continued “mean more to me than my life. I will not let Gardiner take what matters most.”
Richard’s mouth twitched in a small smile as he took in the earnest face of his exhausted wife. “Then we will stand together,” he said “and if need be, we will fall together – for Christ” Catherine nodded mutely, tears stinging her eyes as she thought of her children but her resolve was unshaken. “For Christ” she whispered back fiercely.
At this, the servant quietly left the room shutting the door behind him. A moment later Catherine and Richard heard the terse conversation between him and Gardiner’s men.
“Who boards in these quarters?” Gardiner’s men demanded. “A merchant and his wife” the servant replied quietly; the lady is tired, pregnant, has a small child, is in no state to be seen. A short edgy conversation followed and finally Gardiner’s men left. The fugitives were safe at last.
Catherine Willoughby and Richard Bertie escaped the terror of Mary Tudor’s reign and made it safely to the Netherlands where they lived in exile for many years.
Their story bears witness to the reality of Revelation 12:11; “And they overcame him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives, even unto the death.”
For every story of harrowing loss faced by the Protestants during the Reformation, there are also stories like that of Catherine Willoughby. Stories of courage and faith and the tender watch-care of God towards those who chose to be faithful.