Katherine Cotgreve almost disappeared from history. But for one document, apparently written by her brother, nobody would know who she was, even though she was at Henry VIII’s court and that of his daughter Elizabeth I. She was married twice to men whose lives made it into the Dictionary of National Biography, both of whom were known to have had wives called Katherine, but she would otherwise be anonymous.
Hidden away in a sixteenth century pedigree that somehow found its way into an Oxford College, John Cotgreve and his wife Alice are shown to have a daughter “Kateren fyrst wyf to Antony Tott & after to Will’m Grysse”.
Antony Tott is better known as Antony Toto, but his real name was Antonio di Nunziato d’Antonio and he came to England from Florence, probably to work for Cardinal Wolsey. But when Wolsey died he transferred to the king’s service and became “serjeant painter,” working on all sorts of design and artistic projects. Surviving accounts show him being paid for designing cloth and tents, painting coats of arms and directing other painters and designers. His father, who was generally known ad Nunziata, was also a Florentine artist, and remarkably, an image of him survives. His friend Ridolfo Ghirlandaio included his face in an altarpiece for a church in Florence and the picture The Procession to Calvary, is now in the National Gallery in London.
When Toto died in 1554, Katherine Cotgreve married William Le Grice, a Norfolk Gentleman who was an MP and who worked as Clerk of the Royal Stables near what is now Charing Cross station.
They lived in Fleet Street, near the French Embassy, and in 1584 William and Katherine began some building work. John Bossy in his book about the French Embassy pointed out that “there is nothing like building work for souring relations between neighbours, and Grice and his builders were not tactful men”. They smashed the ambassador’s drains and covered his windows with filth. When the embassy staff complained, Grice and his men shouted abuse and called them French dogs. Grice claimed that as a servant of the Queen, he had authority to “teach the French a lesson”. He rounded up some thugs and they threw stones, bricks and even crossbow bolts through the Ambassador’s windows, then the mob broke in and smashed the place up.
Grice was a religious reformer; in his will he asked God to accept him into “the elect and chosen” and he said there was no point in his family praying for his soul because intercessory prayers would not work. This must have been a big change for Katherine, since the Italian Antony Toto, who came to work for a Cardinal, was presumably a lifelong Roman Catholic.
Confirming the relationships shown in the Oxford manuscript, in 1560, Katherine’s mother Alice Cotgreve gave evidence in a court case with William le Grice, saying that her daughter had been married to “Antony Tot late of Fleet Street”.
Grice died in 1593, and from his will, it is clear that Katherine was already dead by then.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Queen’s College Oxford, MS 80
Surrey History Centre LM/1892, 1893; Z/407/MSLb
Giorgio’s Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters
National Gallery, London: NG1143
History of Parliament, 1558-1603
Bossy, J. (1991) Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair
Calendar of the State Papers Foreign Series, Volume 19
National Archives: C24/50