English Aristocrats in the Mid-16th century Kražiai

In the small town of Kražiai, not far from Kelmė, between the middle of 1557 and March 1559, lived Catherine Willoughby (1519/1520–1580), the Duchess of Suffolk, and her second husband Richard Bertie (1517–1582), who were closely connected with the English royal family. She later became famous as a faithful Protestant, and several ballads, plays and films were made about her.

The drama of life and religious persecution

In her childhood, the future Duchess of Suffolk had learned music and dance, Latin and Greek, and the basics of running a household. In September 1533, at the age of 13 or 14, she married the 47-year-old Charles Brandon (1484–1545), the Duke of Suffolk, by whom she had two sons, called Henry (1535–1551) and Charles (1537/38–1551). Both of them died within hours of each other on 16 July 1551, of an unexplained acute infectious illness (the sweating sickness, in English “sweate,” in Latin sudor anglicus), manifested by high temperatures and profuse sweating. English men between the ages of 15 and 45 were most affected by this disease; the last time anyone died from it was in 1551.

After her husband died, the rich and beautiful widow secretly married Richard Bertie (1517–1582), her master of the horse and gentleman usher, early in 1553. He had no title, but he was educated at Oxford, and knew French, Italian and Latin (which came in useful in exile). Both of them were ardent Protestants. Their marriage provoked much gossip. The couple belonged to the Protestant Church, and unlike many others, such as the duchess’ old friend William Cecil, they refused adamantly to return to the Catholic faith, or otherwise agree with the restoration of the old religion by Mary Tudor, who became queen in July 1553.

Educated, rich and well known in society, Catherine Suffolk was an open supporter of Protestantism.

The couple would have been executed if they stayed in England. So, after finding a practical solution to the management of their estates (they let them to Bertie’s parents), in 1555 they fled to the Continent.

Their wanderings led them to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The duchess left as a voluntary exile, with her small family and a handful of servants. They took with them their young daughter Susana (1554– after 1596). For more than two years, the family wandered through various German lands. In 1555, their son Peregrine was born (1555–1601; he was legally naturalised when he returned to his homeland on 2 August 1559). Later, more than 15 men in the Bertie family were given the same name as the famous English military commander. 

When the fugitives felt they were in danger in Weinheim, in the Duchy of the Rhine, King Sigismund Augustus invited them to come and live in his country. Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, the chancellor of the GDL and palatine of Vilnius, also wrote them a special letter. It is believed that the Calvinist Jan Łaski, who had been in England two years previously, and who was acquainted with William Barlow, a former bishop and zealous Protestant, had informed him about these noble religious fugitives. Acting as an intermediary, Łaski presented their noble gifts to Sigismund Augustus, and he brought from the king the documents for the lease of the property at Kražiai. A rumour circulated that Catherine, the Duchess Suffolk, was one of the candidates to be the wife of Sigismund Augustus when Queen Barbara died in 1551. By inviting them, Sigismund Augustus showed clearly what his religious sympathies were at the time, and also the clear religious tolerance that was taking shape under Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black. To the exiles, the country appeared rather Protestant, and safe.

In April 1557, accompanied by several horsemen, the couple and their two small children set out for Poland in a large carriage, and eventually arrived in the GDL. It is doubtful that the poor roads and humble abodes afforded the newcomers much pleasure, but they were safe, protected by the monarch and by some influential nobles, and there was a house waiting for them in which they could live until better times at home.

The Protestant Lithuanian environment

Why did they choose the GDL? It is believed that it was because of the position taken by Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, the palatine of Vilnius and chancellor of the GDL. Why did they choose Kražiai? The property was large and comfortable, there were several estate buildings, and there was a church in the town. The Samogitian courts held their sessions in Kražiai. After the death in 1554 of the former tenant, the Calvinist Stanisław Kieżgajło (the property was awarded for life, and from 1549 it carried the title of Count of Kražiai), the property reverted to the king. Possession of it was awarded temporarily to Hieronim Chodkiewicz, the elder of Samogitia. There must have been quite a few Protestants living there. The manor, small town and parish were granted to the English aristocrats, who gave the treasury jewels worth 3,666 thalers, or 1,613 Lithuanian groats. The king appointed two experienced and educated people to help them, Jerzy Kamieński, the German-speaking owner of the Gaurė manor and a servant of Mikołaj Radziwiłł, and Stanisław Skaszewski, his first son-in-law (who was married to Kamieński’s daughter Jadvyga), the Latin-speaking owner of Kurtuvėnai manor and a former client of Kęsgaila. Like his patron, he was also a follower of Protestantism. He had been the holder since 1551 of a property at Kražiai which yielded an annual income of about 280 grosz. In letters written from Kražiai, the two described themselves as “the Elder of Kražiai” and “the Manager of the Estate of the Suffolk Dukes.” Skaszewski collected the rents on the estate.

For almost two years, the aristocrats lived in Kražiai “quietly and respectfully.” At the end of 1558, they learnt that Mary Tudor had died on 17th November. The duchess sent the new Queen Elizabeth I a New Year present of a cushion richly embroidered with pearls, and a luxuriously bound Book of Ecclesiastes. Letters she wrote in Kražiai (“from our house of Crossen”) on 28 January and 4 March 1559 still survive: the first was to Queen Elizabeth, and the second was to an old friend, William Cecil, the queen’s secretary and advisor. 

The couple returned to England in the summer of 1559. The same year, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black bought the estate at Kražiai from them. Their property in their homeland was returned to them, and they were relieved of the debts they had incurred to the state under Mary Tudor. The Duchess of Suffolk did not have much influence at court, and she was frustrated by the new monarch’s compromises on religious matters. For the rest of their lives, they lived at Grimsthorpe Castle in the county of Lincolnshire. Both are buried in the family mausoleum in the parish church of Spilsby.

Aivas Ragauskas