We tend to think of her as the woman who comes from nowhere, she's not. In many ways she's the most interesting, the most exciting, the best educated, and the cleverest of Henry's wives. -David Starkey
Katherine Parr has been remembered through history as King Henry VIII's sixth and final wife. The fortunate wife that survived. She has been labelled as merely Henry's nurse, tending to the sickly king's infirmities. Essentially, she is believed to be little more than Henry's companion in his final years, with no great achievements of her own. She is often viewed as a wife of lesser importance, in contrast to the hugely popular Anne Boleyn whose legacy has been carried through centuries of intrigue and fame. This article intends to demystify the myths associated with Katherine Parr's turbulent life, thus to reveal a more realistic view of a women who was well read, deeply religious and ultimately important during her time.
Katherine Parr was likely born in August of 1512 to Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and Maud Green. The Parrs were a well-to-do gentry family from the North of England with many knights filling their family tree. Katherine had two younger siblings, William (later Marquess of Northampton) and Anne. In 1529, at the age of seventeen, Katherine married her first husband, Sir Edward Borough. When he died in 1533 she remarried and became the wife Sir John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer. Katherine had now married into the peerage, no longer was she a mere gentry woman but an honourable member of sixteenth century aristocracy. Katherine now possessed the security she required to live a comfortable life. She possessed a title, with a respectable husband who had powerful connections in the North. She also developed a close connection to her step daughter Margaret. In 1543, after a short illness, Lord Latimer died. In the late Lord's will, Katherine was named guardian of Margaret, whom she continued to be devoted to. Although left a wealthy women, Katherine was still only in her late twenties, still of marriageable age and without issue.
Thanks to her mother’s friendship with the late Queen Katherine of Aragon, the former Lady Latimer became a close friend of the Lady Mary Tudor, the King’s eldest daughter. By 16th February 1543, she was already a member of Mary's household. Katherine had been at court earlier, for example in 1542 where she met Thomas Seymour. After the death of her sickly husband, she became romantically involved with Seymour. However, once at court she caught the attention of England's notorious king and it wasn't long before Henry offered a marriage proposal. It's hard to imagine how Katherine must have felt about this. The King had executed two of his wives and annulled his marriages to two others, so being offered a marriage proposal from her sovereign must have filled her with terror. Regardless of her personal feelings, Katherine saw it as her duty as a loyal subject of the King to accept his request. The two were married at Hampton Court Palace only 12th July 1543.
The first and most popular myth of Katherine Parr would be the prevailing view that she was merely Henry's nursemaid during his last years. It is believed she tended to his infirmities and cared for him in old age. This legend is presented quite clearly presented in the 1970 BBC TV series "The Six Wives of Henry VIII". Katherine is seen as overweight and drab, attending to her husband's wounds. As can be clearly seen from Katherine’s portraits, however, she was a most glamorous and imposing queen. The Melton Constable portrait presents an exquisitely dressed and attractive women in the finest clothing, dripping in opulent jewellery. Popular culture, such as the television series, gives an inaccurate portrayal of a queen who was fabulously dressed, a patron of the arts and Henry's most painted wife.
Both beautiful and elegant, Katherine was also highly important during her reign as queen, most thankfully to her incredible intelligence. She was the first queen of England to release an academic piece of work. This type of achievement went against the patriarchal standards of the day and what was expected from sixteenth century women. Her first piece was ‘Prayers or Meditations’ which was released in 1545. According to Katherine Parr's biographer Linda Porter, the piece was so successful that an enlarged version was brought out as early as November the same year. With the success of her first piece, Katherine released ’The Lamentations of a Sinner’ which was published after King Henry’s death in 1547. The latter publication was sponsored by the queen’s close friend Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. We cannot be sure of the King’s opinion of his wife's academic abilities, but the fact that Katherine did not release her second piece until the King had died perhaps reveals he was not too impressed by her studious behaviour. Katherine’s academic achievements were a triumphant success for a women of her time and reveal a brave queen that dared to go against the norm. As Linda Porter states in her biography of Queen Katherine: "She was an expressive writer, as her letters show, and her literary projects would demonstrate her competence as an editor and patroness of learning."
Although graceful and elegant, the queen delighted in religious discussion. Katherine was undoubtably raised Catholic as she was born before the Reformation, but she soon became interested in the reformed faith. Evidence for Katherine's interest in the reformed faith of the 1540s is evident from an extract of her own publication, 'The Lamentations of a Sinner': "Our king who hath taken away the veils, and mist of errors, and brought us to the knowledge of the truth, by the light of God’s word." She is referring to Henry's break with the Roman Catholic Church, thus establishing the Church of England. Although opinionated and with a sharp brain, Katherine could not have been unaware of the danger involved in immersing herself in the politics of religion. She continues in her publication that "if they be women married, they learn of St Paul to be obedient to their husbands and to keep silent in the congregation." From this, we know Katherine was intelligent enough to realise what was expected of her as a female in a male dominated society.
Although a reformist with a close group of friends, such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who shared the same religious beliefs, the conservative faction at the Tudor court was still strong and saw the queen as a potential threat. Katherine came under pressure from conservative men at court who had influence over the king, such as Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. According to John Foxe Katherine would regularly have discussions with the king regarding religion and expressed her opinions to further reform the church of England. Apparently, after one religious debate, Henry spoke to Stephen Gardiner of his wife: "A good hearing, it is, when women become such clerks; and a thing much to my comfort, to come in mine old days to be taught by my wife." Conservatives such as Gardiner and Henry Wriothesley (Lord Chancellor) were concerned with Katherine's influence at court, and with her influence over the King. There was even a plot to have Katherine arrested and Henry issued a warrant for her arrest. When Katherine was informed of the preposterous accusations against her she visited the king the following night. She cleverly submitted to him revealing that she only spoke of religious matters to take the King's mind of his ailing health and so she might learn from him. Henry was satisfied with her forgiving and honest declaration that he pardoned her of any crime and declared the two friends once more.
Having addressed the importance of Katherine's academic and religious attributes, I shall now focus on her maternal characteristics. The queen was a successful mother to her three step-children: the Prince Edward and the King's two daughters Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth. Her involvement with them had a positive impact on all three children and she became especially close with Lady Elizabeth, whom she helped restore to the succession along with the Lady Mary. Letters from this period express the warm relationship between Katherine and her step-children, for example a letter from Prince Edward to Katherine in May of 1547: "Since you love me, I cannot but love you in return; and since you love the word of God, I do love and admire you with my whole heart." This clearly expresses the fondness Edward held towards his step mother and the admiration of her religious beliefs which he also shared.
When King Henry died in January of 1547 he granted Katherine £7,000 annually to support herself. The now dowager queen retired from court after her stepson's coronation on 31st January to Old Manor in Chelsea with the Lady Elizabeth, who was now under her guardianship. With the King dead, Katherine had little influence over the court and its plans for the young King Edward, who was only nine years of age. His uncle, Edward Seymour (Thomas Seymour's older brother), soon became protector of the realm. Now Katherine was once again widowed, for the third time, she turned to the affections of her former love, Thomas Seymour. Seymour has been notorious through history as a charismatic, but irrational figure who women adored. The two married in secret only six months after the death of King Henry. Within months of the undisclosed marriage, King Edward, his council and the Lady Mary discovered what had happened. They were furious that the queen had married without permission and in such a short space of time after King Henry's death. Katherine was a queen dowager and Seymour a Baron. It was a socially unequal union and can be seen as a huge mistake on behalf of Katherine, but she was brave enough to marry the man she loved. The couple remained together and in March of 1548 Katherine, to her surprise, became pregnant. She was now around thirty-six years of age and had never conceived with her previous three husbands. Katherine gave birth to a daughter named Mary on 30th August 1548. Sadly, six days later, Katherine died, likely from puerperal fever. Death by complications from childbirth were common in this period due to the lack of medical technology and hygiene.
In conclusion, Katherine was undoubtedly a fascinating woman and incredibly important during her time. She was a widely acclaimed published author, an influence on women at her court and she suffered many hardships in her life. Katherine ultimately survived. Not simply the King, but she also championed through the many difficult challenges her life encountered - from the loss of her beloved step daughter Margaret to being widowed three times. Katherine also endured suffering from conservative enemies at court who wished to see her downfall. She was a queen who treasured the arts and who was arrayed in the finest and most fashionable styles of the day. Her high intellect granted her the ability to be confident, sharp-witted and diplomatic. She was a devoted mother to many step-children. Her warm relationship with the Lady Elizabeth, with whom she shared religious and educational interests, would have a lasting legacy on the future queen regnant whose reign would become famously known as the Golden Age.
Alexander Taylor is an undergraduate history student from the south-west of England. He initially found his interest in Tudor history around three years ago when he stumbled across one of his mother's historical biographies of Queen Katherine Howard, and since then he's been utterly fascinated by this unique and exciting period.
Notes and Sources
- Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable life of Katherine Parr - Linda Porter.
- LindaPorter.Net Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr.
- Quote from David Starkey taken from one of his lectures at Sudeley Castle in 2012 on Katherine Parr.
- Luminarium.Org - King Edward VI to Katherine Parr 1547 Letter - http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/edwardtoparr1548.htm
Catherine’s influence in the last months of Henry’s life should not be underestimated. Gardiner and Wriothesley thought her sufficiently important to attack. This was part of their campaign against reformists in the royal household. Because of the king’s ill health he spent most of his time in the privy apartments, which now became more important than the Council chamber. The summer of 1546 saw a series of desperate attempts to have close attendants on the king denounced as heretics. These included the queen herself and also the wives of Edward Seymour and John Dudley, the leading reformist councilors. The failure of these stratagems left the progressives in the ascendant when the king went into his final decline. The cultural atmosphere at court with its strong leaning towards the New Learning had much to do with the piety and intellectual vigour of the queen and the preachers and scholars whom she patronised. One observer said that in her chamber it was ‘always Sunday’. He meant it as a compliment!
I’m curious about the mention of Catherine’s portraits and the description of her as Henry’s “most painted” wife. The portraits I remember being described as Catherine thirty years or so ago have since been discredited. I know that a full-length portrait formerly supposed to be of Lady Jane Grey is now thought to be Catherine – and the attribution seems right to me – but are there other portraits that can be authenticated as Catherine’s likeness? The portrait above is gorgeous and the sitter certainly looks to be the same person as the former Lady Jane painting. She also looks alert, lively, stylish and intelligent, as I imagine the real Catherine would have been – no dumpy, dull widow! I would be interested to know what other likenesses there are.
I agree that Catherine was an important figure. She may not have been queen for many years but the timing of her tenure, coinciding with Henry’s old age and the susceptible ages of his younger children, not to mention the changing religious culture of the country, made those years very significant.
I’ve tried to connect with Cathrine Parr but I find her the least interesting of Henry’s wives , maybe I’m over looking something
Have you tried reading a biography of her, Lynne? Linda Porter’s one of her is very good, as are the ones by Elizabeth Norton and Susan James.
I loved this article. In the movie “Young Bess”, when Debra Kerr enters the scene as Katherine Parr, I can now see where the either the producer must of researched Katherine sufficiently as being very beautiful, intellectual, caring, etc. I did not realize that she had been married twice before marrying Henry VIII. At least the movie got it correct when Katherine married Thomas Seymour. I must admit I admire her most of all. She must have had parents that wanted her to know more than reading and writing. She is definitely one I truly admire for her strength through everything she had gone through.