Sarah Gristwood on a readable biography of Henry VIII's last wife
Reviewed by: Sarah Gristwood
Author: Elizabeth Norton
Price (RRP): £9.99
Every school child once knew the roll call of Henry VIII’s wives – ‘Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived’.In fact Catherine Parr’s reformist religion brought her close to a more dramatic fate, when in 1546 her enemies came within an inch of getting her arrested, and perhaps executed, as a traitor and heretic.
Before the recent rash of biographies, Henry’s last queen had suffered a degree of benign neglect; less because of her comparatively brief tour of wifely duty than because she seemed to have lived a life more ordinary than her predecessors. But is that really true?
Already twice widowed when she reluctantly married Henry, Parr soon emerged not only as a published author but as a political animal shrewd enough to be appointed regent in Henry’s absence. It’s ironic she should survive the most famously dangerous husband in history only to make a final marital mistake; but Elizabeth Norton’s eminently readable biography presents her unfortunate choice of Thomas Seymour not just as a woman being fooled by a handsome face, but also as an alliance of those disenfranchised by the new regime.
Norton’s strength is her use of original sources, such as Catherine’s letter about a heated meeting with Protector Somerset: “It was fortunate we were so much distant; for I suppose else I should have bitten him.”
Not bad, for a woman often dismissed as Henry’s most placid queen.
Sarah Gristwood is the author of The Girl in the Mirror (HarperPress, 2011)