Historical Biography: Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr became Henry VIII's sixth wife, though she loved Sir Thomas Seymour. After Henry's death, she married Seymour, and died after giving birth. Information on her life and importance.

Henry VIII's sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr (b. 1512 ?; d.1548), was married in 1526, at about the age of fourteen, to Lord Borough of Gainsborough, who was about sixty-three at the time of their marriage. Neither the bride's tender years or the groom's advanced age would have raised eyebrows at that time. In 1529 the elderly Lord Borough died, leaving Katherine a widow at age sixteen. Her mother died the following year, and Katherine, whose husband had left her a considerable fortune, became an independent woman of means. In 1533, or perhaps in the preceding year, at the age of eighteen or nineteen""records were not well kept in those days-- she married John Neville, Lord Latimer of Snape Hall, a man in his late thirties. In 1536 her husband, who was a Catholic, was pressured by other Catholics to play a leading role in the northern Catholic rebellion called the "Pilgrimage of Grace."

He later received a pardon from King Henry, though other rebel leaders were killed. Lord and Lady Latimer were often at court in the years following the Pilgrimage of Grace, and were on good terms with the king. Katherine was especially admired at court for her intellect and her learning, which was uncommon for a woman of that time. While married to Lord Latimer, it seems, she began to develop an interest in Protestantism, but because of her husband's orthodox Catholicism, and even later, for other reasons, she prudently kept her Protestant leanings to herself. When Lord Latimer became ill and lay dying, King Henry was already sending his soon-to-be widow gifts to signify his interest and esteem. Latimer died in March of 1543, and Henry waited awhile, as was proper, before openly pressing his suit. Katherine again inherited large estates and a large income, and at age thirty-one was once again an independent woman of means.

Katherine was both wealthy and attractive, and she drew the attention of Jane Seymour's handsome, dashing brother Thomas, who began to win Katherine over during the last two months of her husband's illness. Seymour was ambitious and opportunistic, and Katherine was quite a catch. Of course, Seymour was also considered a catch, for many women were attracted to him, and his late sister had, after all, been the king's most beloved wife. The two were soon making plans to marry.

The king was jealous of Thomas Seymour and determined to get him out of the way so that he could court Katherine himself. In May of 1543 Henry sent his rival on a permanent embassy to the court of the regent of the Netherlands in Brussels,. In July Henry proposed marriage to Katherine Parr. She was not happy with the proposal. In the first place, she had already given her heart elsewhere, and in the second, Henry was at fifty-two prematurely old. He was enormously fat, in ill health, and famously temperamental. And then there was his tendency either to repudiate his wives or to have them killed. But Katherine was all too aware that she had no real choice in the matter. King Henry VIII was not a man one could safely defy or refuse.

Henry and Katherine were married on 12 July 1543, not long after his proposal of marriage. Katherine proved to be a popular queen. Nearly everyone approved of her, because of her gentle nature, her virtuous demeanor, and her formidable intellect. She enjoyed theological discussions especially, and often engaged her new husband in such intellectual exercises, a fact that would later nearly prove her undoing, for although she agreed with him on most matters, she was willing to argue her own position when it did not coincide with his. Henry considered himself an expert on religious matters, and also subscribed to the common view of women's intellectual inferiority. He did not like being argued with by a mere woman over matters of religion. Katherine, on her part, was so eager to explain her own religious views that she actually published two books on the subject, a thing unheard of for a queen at that time.

Like Jane Seymour, Katherine was a kind and loving stepmother to Henry's children. At the time of her marriage to their father, all three of Henry's children lived away from the court. Katherine invited them to visit frequently. She undertook the management of the brilliant Princess Elizabeth's education, and became close friends with the Princess Mary, who was close to her in age. Prince Edward visited the court much less often than did his sisters, for his father feared exposing his only male heir to the risk of catching some deadly disease. Nevertheless, he was fond of his stepmother, and she of him.

When the king's Lord Chancellor died in April of 1544, he was replaced by Thomas Wriothesly, who was at the time a political ally of Stephen Gardiner, the conservative Catholic Bishop of Winchester. Wriothesly had helped to undermine the king's marriage to Anne of Cleves, and to bring down the king's fifth wife, Catherine Howard. He was always involved in one political intrigue or another, and was perfectly willing to aid Bishop Gardiner in his attempts to undermine the Protestant influence at court and to return the English Church to more orthodox practices.

Both men suspected the queen of heretical sympathies, if not outright Lutheranism, and watched her closely for any suspicious activities or contacts. Fortunately, Katherine was circumspect by nature, and intelligent enough to discern their intentions.

When King Henry set out in 1544 to undertake the invasion of France, he named his wife as regent during his absence, a sign of his great respect for her, as well as of implicit trust. When he returned from France later that year, he rode as hard as he could to reach his beloved wife's side. For the first three years of the marriage, Gardiner and Wriothesly saw no opening for their plan to undermine the king's trust in his wife.

Although Henry had instigated the break between the English Church and the Roman Catholic Church, he still thought of himself as a faithful Catholic, despite his refusal to accept the authority of the pope, whom he called the "bishop of Rome." He would not tolerate papists among his subjects, but he also recoiled against Lutheranism and was harsh in his treatment of suspected heretics. During one investigation into heresy in 1545 several people were arrested and questioned. One of these was a twenty-three-year-old woman named Anne Askew. In February of 1546, the king was informed that in a new confession, Mistress Askew had implicated the queen in the Protestant heresy. Katherine certainly knew that several members of her household""herself included""harbored secret Protestant sympathies, but there is no indication that she actually ever had anything to do with Anne Askew, or that Mistress Askew had ever actually mentioned Katherine Parr. But it took very little to plant the seeds of suspicion in King Henry's mind, and he was all too aware of his wife's tendency to dispute with him on obscure matters of religious doctrine.

Despite being horrendously tortured on the rack, Anne Askew refused to deny her Protestant faith or to implicate either the queen or any member of her household. Like so many others who were openly Protestant, she was burned at the stake as a heretic.

Bishop Gardiner and the conservative Catholic faction at court watched closely for an opportunity to discredit the queen in Henry's eye. After three years of marriage, the aging and peevish king was less enamored of his wife and her intellectual conversations,. After one such discussion with her, he was approached by Gardiner who suggested to the king that he was harboring a heretical serpent in his own bosom. Gardiner persuaded the king to allow articles to be drawn up against Katherine, with the object of putting her on trial for her life as a heretic.



The Council ordered the arrests of several of the queen's ladies, including Katherine's sister. They were questioned about heretical reading material they or the queen might possess, and their rooms were searched for forbidden books. Eventually a warrant for the queen's arrest was drawn up, and Henry signed it. Fortunately""or perhaps deliberately""a member of the Privy Council dropped it. One of the queen's servants found it and carried it to her. At the sight of her husband's signature on an arrest warrant against her, Queen Katherine became hysterical. She knew perfectly well that torture and burning at the stake awaited her if her enemies found her guilty of heresy, as she had no doubt they intended to do.

Her cries were so loud even Henry became aware of them. When he went to her apartments, he found her weeping uncontrollably, sobbing that she feared she had lost his favor. He sent his own doctor to see to her, and that good man warned Katherine that it was her disputations with the king that had put her in such peril. He advised her to bend herself to the king's will. Later that night she went to the king's bedchamber. When he raised a religious issue, she meekly replied that she would learn from him, for he was the supreme head of the English church. When he reminded her that she had often argued such matters with him, she cleverly explained that she was only using such argument as a means of learning from his wisdom, and also as a means of distracting him when the pain in his ulcerated leg was more than he could bear.

Henry was a suspicious man, of course, but he was also susceptible to flattery, and he really did not want to have to execute yet another wife""especially one who had been such an excellent nurse and gentle companion.

The wayward arrest warrant had been immediately replaced where the servant had found it, and retrieved by the councilor who had dropped it The day after that memorable reconciliation in the king's bedchamber, Lord Chancellor Wriothesly and forty guards confronted Katherine and three of her ladies in the palace garden, where Katherine was keeping company with the king. When Wriothesly told the king he had come to serve the arrest warrant, the king erupted in a rage, driving the Lord Chancellor and the guards from the garden.

On 28 January 1547 Katherine Parr became a widow for the third time when her husband, King Henry VIII, died at the age of fifty-six.

Edward Seymour, the elder brother of Henry's third wife Jane, became head of the regency council of the boy-king Edward VI. As Lord Protector, Seymour conferred patents of nobility on himself and the other councilors, as well as on his younger brother, Thomas, who had not been included on the regency council. Thomas Seymour thus became Baron Seymour of Sudley Castle.

Lord Sudley, at forty, was still handsome and much sought after. He did not immediately renew his suit for Katherine Parr's hand, for he was angling for bigger fish. He first proposed marriage to the Princess Elizabeth, who was second in line for the crown""behind the Princess Mary--should Edward die. Elizabeth was probably flattered by the attention of this dashing older man, but she wisely rejected his proposal. Only after Elizabeth had turned him down did Seymour once again ask Katherine Parr to marry him. They conducted their courtship secretly, for it was only two months since the king's death, and Katherine was officially in mourning. Besides, it was likely that the regency council would be unwilling to permit the two to marry, for Seymour's ambition and impetuosity was much mistrusted.

Seymour wanted Katherine to marry him immediately, but they would have to accomplish it in secret, for the regency council would certainly not allow a marriage so soon after the king's death. If Katherine were to become pregnant, there would be some question as to whose child it was, and that might jeopardize the succession. Seymour secretly sent word to his nephew, the young King Edward, asking his permission to marry the boy's stepmother. The king gave his permission, and Seymour and Katherine were wed near the end of April, though they continued to meet in secret and to hide the fact of their marriage until the end of the following month.

Katherine's reputation was tarnished by the haste of her marriage, as her third husband had been dead only three months when she took her fourth. Her once close friend Princess Mary turned away from her, and remonstrated with her sister Elizabeth for continuing to see her.

In 1548 Katherine invited the fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth to join her household at Chelsea, unaware that her husband had once proposed to her stepdaughter. Seymour frequently was the one to wake Elizabeth in the morning, entering her bedchamber in his nightgown and slippers, tickling and teasing the girl, and otherwise behaving in an unseemly fashion. It was some time before Katherine, who was by now pregnant, became suspicious of her husband's behavior toward her stepdaughter, but eventually she came to believe that he was trying to seduce the girl. Once, after her suspicions were aroused, she went looking for Seymour and Elizabeth, and found them alone together in one another's arms. Elizabeth was sent away from Chelsea, and Katherine made a great effort to rebuild her relationship with her husband.

All seemed well enough, but the wound of the betrayal must have continued to fester. Katherine gave birth to a daughter at Sudley Castle on 30 August 1548, but soon developed puerperal fever, the postpartum infection that so often killed women before medical practitioners learned to wash their hands to avoid passing infection to their patients. In her final hours, Katherine was delirious, and she no longer hid her true feelings about her husband's attempt to seduce her stepdaughter. She accused him and chided him for an hour or more, though when her fever subsided later that day she had no memory of the episode.

Katherine Parr died on 7 September 1548. She was much mourned by her husband, who despite his improper behavior, actually had cared for this admirable, amiable, intelligent woman. She was also mourned by the Princess Elizabeth and King Edward, to whom she had been such a loving stepmother. But her erstwhile friend, the notably stiff-necked Princess Mary, was unable to forgive Katherine for having married another man so soon after King Henry had died.

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