16th-century portrait of Katherine Parr. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
This article was first published in the March 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
On 12 July 1543, as plague began to take hold in London, two dozen guests crammed into a small chapel at Hampton Court to see Henry VIII marry for the sixth time. The wedding, a low-key affair, took the diplomatic community in London by surprise.
It was noted that “the king espoused the queen privately and without ceremony”. The bridegroom was, however, enthusiastic as he took his vows “with a joyful countenance”. Henry was 52 years old and ailing. His new wife, Katherine Parr, was not quite 31, twice-widowed and an experienced stepmother. Surely this was a marriage born of common sense, where passion would play little part? The Victorians depicted it as the union of an irascible tyrant with a worthy matron. The truth, however, was very different.
Henry was looking for a wife, not a nurse or homemaker. He wanted a companion for his bed who might provide further heirs and could carry the role of queen consort impressively. Katherine, who had given up another man to marry the king, was well aware that her duties would definitely run to more than polite conversation and soothing the royal brow. Her determination to be a success led to a deep bond of affection between the royal couple which may, in 1546, have saved her life.
It is not surprising that Henry was drawn to the comely widow. She was a slim, attractive redhead whose unimpeachable reputation hid a sensual nature. Her other suitor, Sir Thomas Seymour (the king’s brother-in-law), had already realised this and probably Henry did, too.
Until now, the curtains around the marriage bed of Henry VIII and his last wife have remained firmly closed. Yet theirs was undoubtedly a sexual relationship. Katherine took seriously her vows to be “bonaire and buxom in bed and in board”. She took milk baths to keep her skin soft and the day after her wedding, she ordered “fine perfumes” for her bedchamber at Hampton Court. She was clearly determined to make her body and her bedchamber as enticing as possible.
Henry lumbering into view in his nightshirt must have been a daunting sight. A year before his final marriage it had been noted that he was “already very stout and daily growing heavier… three of the biggest men to be found could get inside his doublet”. Pain and the disease in his legs had left their mark on him. Between 1543 and 1545 he got through 300 pairs of hose a year. This was the man that Katherine had taken as her third husband. Very soon he doted on her – but could she possibly have loved him?
At the outset, almost certainly not. She married him for the advancement of her family and because he could not be refused. She was dutiful and keen to convince herself that her fate was God’s will. Yet Katherine was also a loving and optimistic woman, as well as intelligent. She knew the opportunity that had come her way and thought hard about how to turn it to her advantage.
Developing a good relationship with all three of the royal children was certainly important but at the heart of Katherine’s strategy was the king himself. Henry was not simply an overweight monster but a lonely and unhappy man after the disaster of his marriage to the foolish Catherine Howard. Katherine Parr recognised his need for love and attention. Circumstances permitted her to establish herself swiftly as a major influence in his life, as the plague kept them continuously outside the capital and in each other’s company for six months. It was an ideal foundation for their relationship. So the king showered her with jewels and beautiful clothes, entrusted the country to her regency while he fought the French one last time in 1544, and greatly hoped for children with her.
Henry and Katherine shared many interests, from hunting and archery to music, masques and books. She was a graceful dancer and they both loved the Venetian Bassano brothers, musicians patronised by Katherine. Henry, a cultured man, was delighted to have a queen who commanded respect from ambassadors and with whom he could discourse. Both husband and wife were committed to the 16th-century belief in lifelong learning. Katherine brushed up her Latin and also began to edit and write religious books, as her commitment to advancing the cause of further reform grew. In 1545 she became the first queen of England to be published when copies of her Prayers or Meditations were produced by the king’s printers. Her influence over Henry seemed unshakeable.
But in 1546, the last full year of the king’s life, Katherine’s position came under threat. Henry’s health declined alarmingly and the negative attributes of his personality, his capriciousness, cunning and imperiousness, were amplified by the reluctant acknowledgement of his own mortality. A power struggle for the future of England was fought out over his diseased frame and his loyal wife, who had felt secure in his affection and returned it with devotion, found herself at the centre of the struggle.
A bitter fight
The story of plots against the queen was recounted dramatically by John Foxe nearly two decades later. By the time Foxe was writing, almost all of those who had been close to Katherine Parr were dead, so the detail cannot be verified. Katherine never spoke of such things herself. But it is certain that the bitter fight between the forces of religious reform and conservatism came close to Katherine.
The ladies of her bedchamber were targeted in the search for banned books, and an outspoken reformer, Anne Askew, was tortured to get her to reveal links to those who served the queen. Anne was later burned at the stake without divulging anything. But Katherine hastily hid many items in her own book collection, changed locks on trunks and coffers and summoned her sick uncle to support her at this difficult time.
Henry must have known his wife’s views and interests. If Foxe is to be believed he found them progressively irritating, not so much for their content as for the fact that she presumed to contradict him in public. Nor had she conceived, and time was passing. Henry’s tendency to become bored with his wives after a couple of years may also have been a factor.
Yet whatever happened in the summer of 1546 did not destroy their marriage. Perhaps Henry did, as Foxe claimed, take a penitent Katherine on his knee and reassure her of his love.
In fact, he seems to have been eager to make amends by ordering “all manner of jewels, pearls and precious stones… skins and sable furs… for our dearest wife, the queen”. She, however, knew that her position had changed. After a second honeymoon in the autumn, they parted before Christmas. Henry needed to put his kingdom in order and prepare for death. There is no evidence that Katherine ever saw him again. Her New Year’s gift to Prince Edward was a portrait of herself with his father, a telling clue that she hoped to cling on to the influence she had once enjoyed.
Henry died on 28 January 1547. Katherine’s hope that she would be made regent for the boy-king was dashed when Edward Seymour took power. In the spring of 1547 Katherine secretly wedded Edward’s younger brother, Thomas, whom she certainly loved, though the pair hoped also to regain control of the royal children through their union.
The marriage was stormy. Katherine suffered considerably during a difficult pregnancy as her husband flirted with Princess Elizabeth, who lived under her care. She died of childbed fever on 5 September 1548 after giving birth to her only child, a daughter. It was a tragic end for this remarkable woman, who had found that marriage to Henry VIII was perilous but brought great rewards. She set out to win his heart and amply succeeded.
Henry’s first five wives
1) Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was an able consort. She adored him and for some years they seemed happy. But the lack of a male heir and the temptation of Anne Boleyn made Henry decide to end their marriage.
2) Anne Boleyn waited six years for Henry but his passion for her did not long survive their wedding. Proud, sensitive and hot-tempered, Anne was a difficult spouse. By 1536 Henry could not abide her. Anne was accused of adultery and executed.
3) Henry married Jane Seymour ten days after Anne’s beheading. Her blonde submissiveness pleased the king but Jane’s true feelings for Henry are unknown. She died shortly after the birth of her son, the future Edward VI, in 1537.
4) Anne of Cleves married Henry in 1540. The king had been entranced by her portrait but was repelled by the real woman. He failed to consummate the marriage and divorced her after a mere six months. She was, however, reluctant to be cast aside.
5) Catherine Howard had already caught Henry’s eye. He was besotted by her vivacity, youth and sexuality. She wanted only to be queen. The discovery of Katherine’s steamy past and secret liaisons devastated Henry. She went to the block in 1542.
Linda Porter is the author of Mary Tudor: The First Queen (Piatkus, 2009) and Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (Pan Macmillan, 2011).