During late summer 1544, Katherine Parr, sixth and final wife of Henry VIII, wrote a letter to her husband. Imbued with passion, love and a profound sense of duty, each line of Katherine’s missive is a testament to her devotion to the king. “Thus love maketh me in all things to set apart mine own convenience and pleasure, and to embrace most joyfully his will and pleasure whom I love,” Katherine declared. “God, the knower of secrets, can judge these words not to be written only with ink, but most truly impressed on the heart.”


Henry received the letter while laying siege to the town of Boulogne, during what would be his final military campaign in France. Here was a leader embroiled in the great affairs of state. Yet so, too, was his queen. For, in his absence, Henry had appointed Katherine regent of England, an honour he had only bestowed on one of his previous five wives, Catherine of Aragon, decades earlier.

Born in 1512, Katherine could not claim a royal upbringing, but she carried out her role of queen consort (1543–47) to perfection. She was a devoted wife, a loving stepmother, a unifier and a role model. Above all, as the responsibility she was given in the summer of 1544 demonstrates, she wielded influence – and commanded the respect of the king. Beneath her royal mantle of dutiful wife, she was a fiercely spiritual woman, of passionate religious and personal convictions.

However, Katherine has not captured our imagination to the same degree as Henry’s first two queens, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Historian Susan James argues that Katherine has been marginalised primarily due to a lack of research into her life, as well as our lack of understanding of her role in the politics of Henry’s final years. Perhaps it is also a question of timing.

The dramatic personal, political and religious events that engulfed the first three tumultuous decades of Henry’s reign shaped our view of the era for centuries to come, leaving little interest in the later part of his life. Our impressions of Katherine are also influenced by our knowledge of Henry’s ill-health, which led many 19th-century historians to diminish Katherine’s role, arguing that Henry chose a nursemaid for his wife.

She was a devoted wife, a loving stepmother, a unifier and a role model. Above all, she wielded influence – and commanded the respect of the king. Beneath her royal mantle of dutiful wife, she was a fiercely spiritual woman

This version of Katherine was as a fitting companion for the ageing king, by then so corpulent of body and tyrannical of mind. She was a “sophisticated bluestocking”, a mature wife and confidante who cleaned the sores and changed the bandages on Henry’s ulcered legs, reading to him before bed – a maternal, soothing presence. It sounds like a dull story indeed, complete with history’s epithet for Katherine, that of “survivor”, as if to suggest that her sole achievement was to outlive Henry.

The myth of the dull 'survivor'

In recent decades, however, historians have challenged these old myths, most notably Katherine’s biographers, Linda Porter and Susan James, who have rejected the indifferent views of previous eras to rescue Katherine from obscurity. Moving away from the stereotype of the dutiful nursemaid, they have successfully demonstrated that her story is not simply one of survival.

They present Katherine as an attractive, intelligent woman with a love of finery, dancing and music; as an influential queen, who actively engaged in and promoted religious reform; as a scholar and the first English woman to write and publish her own works under her own name; as a dedicated stepmother who shaped the lives and views of her royal stepchildren.

Most married queen meets most married king

Katherine Parr’s marital tally was only two short of Henry VIII’s notorious six. She married for duty as well as for love but, as her life after Henry’s death proves, could sometimes be blinded by the latter. She could be impulsive and irrational, human traits that make her all the more accessible to us today.

Katherine enters the royal sources late in Henry’s life, but her family had been part of the Tudor social fabric for many years, and her parents were actively engaged at the court of the young Henry VIII. Her father, Thomas, was part of the king’s circle; her mother, Maud, was a close friend and lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon; and her uncle, William Parr, served as chamberlain in the household of Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond.

Katherine Parr as a stepmother to Mary

Her influence on the king's eldest daughter was not as a mother, but a role model

Henry’s decision to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon upended the life of his elder daughter, Mary. Once Henry’s “pearl of the world”, Mary was now exiled from her father, and forbidden to see her mother. Katherine campaigned for Mary’s restoration to the succession.

With only four years between them, she never tried to be a mother figure to Mary. Instead, she was a role model, and Mary would have observed how Katherine used her power as a regent.

The two women shared a love of music, with Katherine sending Mary musicians she might enjoy. They also held similar intellectual interests, and Katherine supported Mary’s scholarly pursuits. Both Mary and Katherine admired the philos pher Desiderius Erasmus, and Katherine encouraged Mary to translate his work and publish under her own name.

Tension crept into the relationship, not because of their religious differences (Mary was devoutly Catholic), but because of Katherine’s choice to remarry so hastily following Henry’s death. As time progressed, however, warmth seeped back into their correspondence, especially when Katherine became pregnant.

In 1529, at the age of 17, Katherine was married to Sir Edward Burgh, but the union was short-lived, with Edward dying in 1533. Just over a year later, Katherine married the twice widowed John Neville, Baron Latimer, from one of the most influential families in the north. She was now a woman of position and influence.

The loyalty of the Latimers to the king was tested during the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, which ignited in Yorkshire and spread to other parts of the country. The young Katherine witnessed a mob of religious rebels ransacking their residence, taking Latimer with them in an attempt to coerce him into joining the pilgrimage. They later went so far as to hold Katherine and her stepchildren hostage in Snape Castle, threatening to kill the family if Latimer did not comply.

While no violence came to pass, in the aftermath Latimer felt it prudent to attend court with his wife often, to prove his loyalty to the crown. Latimer’s health declined in late 1542, and in February 1543 (a month before Latimer’s death), the king emerged as a potential suitor.

Henry was then two decades older than the 30-year-old Katherine and, to complicate matters, she had already fallen in love with Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane. The two had even discussed a mutual life after Latimer’s death. By now, however, Henry was determined to marry Katherine.

Parr's relationship with Henry VIII was not that of a nurse-maid

In her, he sought the full package: a companion who would share his bed, as well as his own interests; a wife who could take care of him; and a dignified queen who would also be a mother figure to his children. His attachment put an end to Katherine and Thomas’s relationship. She chose duty over love. She married Henry in the Queen’s Closet at Hampton Court Palace on 12 July 1543, in the presence of Henry’s three children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward.

Her letters to Thomas Seymour, however, following Henry’s death in 1547 speak of the emotional turmoil she felt even as she accepted her fate: “As truly as God is God, my mind was fully bent the other time I was at liberty, to marry you before any man I knew. Howbeit, God withstood my will therein most vehemently for a time and, through his grace and goodness… made me to renounce utterly mine own will and to follow His will most willingly.”

Despite her feelings towards Seymour, there is ample evidence to suggest genuine love and affection between the royal couple, even a physical attraction. Moving behind the doors of the bedchamber, we know that the marriage was consummated, perhaps assisted by Katherine’s penchant for black satin nightgowns, similar in style to those that Henry had once gifted to Anne Boleyn.

How Katherine Parr channelled the five queens before her

It is also clear that Katherine’s deeply held religious beliefs surpassed all else, and she genuinely believed that her new position as queen had been divinely guided, bestowing on her a spiritual purpose. Katherine chose the motto “To be useful in all I do”, a promise she took to heart. Whether by design or not, she embodied some of the more admirable traits of her five predecessors.

Katherine commanded the respect of the court, just as Catherine of Aragon had done. Echoing Jane Seymour, she sought to strengthen the bonds between Henry and his children. Like Anne of Cleves, she could be tactful in expressing her views and understood when to capitulate. Much like Catherine Howard, she had a lively disposition, and was fond of music, dancing, fashion and jewellery. And like Anne Boleyn, she had a burgeoning interest in religious reform and used her royal position to promote it.

Katherine Parr as a stepmother to Edward

Loving and attentive, she was the mother he never had

Edward had grown up without a mother, and Katherine, to a certain extent, fulfilled this role, taking charge of the young heir’s education and upbringing. Katherine certainly helped shape his religious beliefs, appointing reformist and humanist tutors for both him and his sister, Elizabeth.

Katherine’s correspondence with her stepson clearly shows their close and affectionate bond. Edward was only nine years old when he took the throne in 1547, and there is some indication that Katherine had hoped to remain as regent until he was of a more suitable age to rule by himself.

Instead, Henry appointed a regency council, and the young boy was surrounded by ambitious men with their own agendas, in particular his uncles, Edward and Thomas Seymour. King Edward was close to his uncle Thomas, and when Katherine married Thomas secretly, the couple petitioned the king to shield them from the anger of the royal council, and Edward Seymour, Lord Protector.

While Edward knew the marriage would cause scandal, his letter to Katherine demonstrates his love for his stepmother, concluding: “Wherefore, if there be anything wherein I may do you a kindness, either in word or deed, I will do it willingly.”

We do not have evidence of Edward’s reaction to Katherine’s death, but he likely mourned the loss of the woman who had been such an important presence in his life.

The religious rift between Katherine Parr and Henry VIII

The queen’s rooms were a place to engage in spirited theological debates, where she hosted sermons by leading reformers and promoted the study of evangelical texts. She believed that scripture was the sole authority for the Christian faith. In 1544, she published anonymously an English translation of Latin psalms.

Katherine was emboldened by her success and heartened by Henry’s confidence in her, as evidenced when he entrusted her as regent. Her 1545 publication, Prayers or Meditations, was an English compilation of devotional texts, which made clear her intention to publicly champion reform.

In the final years of Henry’s reign, especially as his health began to fail, factional politics was rampant and religious policy became contradictory, often due to the king’s ever-changing whim. Conservative spheres at court were clawing back whatever religious authority they could, and Katherine attracted their attention when her religious views moved beyond her own chambers.

She took delight in engaging her husband in religious debate, often directly encouraging him to continue what he had begun when he broke from Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn. This, however, was a misstep. Henry’s anti-papal stance was for the most part political, but at his core, Henry was conservative in his faith, and would not tolerate being lectured to on matters of religion.

She took delight in engaging her husband in religious debate, often directly encouraging him to continue what he had begun when he broke from Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn. This, however, was a misstep

His increasing irritation allowed the conservative faction to move against Katherine and those close to her, until finally the queen herself was alerted that a warrant had been drawn up for her arrest, with the king’s permission. This was a pivotal moment for Katherine, and her course of action very likely saved her life. She visited her husband’s rooms, and a conversation about religion arose.

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But she would not allow herself to be drawn in to the discussion and conceded that her opinions were those of a mere woman, whereas it was best that she was guided by her husband, “a prince of such excellent learning and wisdom”. Henry had “much mistaken the freedom she had taken to argue with him”, she stated, which she had only done to learn from him, and in which she engaged in the hope that it would provide a distraction from his pain and illness.

The queen knew every note to hit and by the end of the night they were reconciled. However, Henry’s council, unaware of the update, interrupted the royal couple the next day to arrest Katherine, and were given a very public dressing down. Henry’s authority over his wife as well as his councillors was re-affirmed in a most public fashion.

The one who “survived”: life after Henry VIII

Katherine was wise enough to bide her time before promoting her religious cause again. She did not have to wait long, as Henry’s health began to decline in 1546, and on 28 January 1547 he died. Katherine became queen dowager to lead the nation in mourning. She had indeed outlived Henry and negotiated her own survival. Throughout, she had showed remarkable clarity of thought.

In fact, only one man seemed to bring out her more impulsive nature, and would prove to be her undoing, tainting her reputation for centuries to come. That man was her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour. We do not know exactly when Katherine married Thomas, but we do know that she caused a scandal at court, and risked her close relationship with her stepchildren by cutting the traditional mourning period alarmingly short.

Katherine Parr as a stepmother to Elizabeth

The two formed a deep and strong relationship, threatened by Katherine's new husband

Of all her stepchildren, the bond between Katherine and Elizabeth was especially strong. Elizabeth was not even three years old when her father executed her mother, Anne Boleyn, and Katherine genuinely adored her stepdaughter as if she were her own child.

There is some evidence that Katherine wanted to honour Anne Boleyn and keep her memory alive for her daughter. Katherine recognised in Elizabeth a keen intelligence and aptitude for learning, and she appointed tutors of whom Anne Boleyn would have approved.

Elizabeth was a keen student; for a new year’s day gift in 1545, the 11-year-old translated the theological work The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, written by Marguerite of Navarre, the sister of the French king, Francis I, and a woman Anne Boleyn knew well from her time in France.

Elizabeth also embroidered the cover, and dedicated it to Katherine, writing: “To our most noble and virtuous Queen Katherine, Elizabeth her humble daughter wisheth perpetual felicity and everlasting joy.”

Following Henry’s death, Elizabeth came to live with Katherine and her husband, Thomas Seymour, at Sudeley Castle. Scandal erupted in the household when Thomas attempted to seduce the young Elizabeth under his wife’s nose. There was clearly a breakdown in what had been a close and loving relationship, and Elizabeth was sent away while a pregnant Katherine prepared for her confinement.

Letters between the two repaired their bond to some extent, but they would never see one another again, and with Katherine’s death, Elizabeth lost one of the most influential women in her life. Elizabeth would feel the absence of Katherine’s guidance for years to come, but in Elizabeth’s reign, we see elements of Katherine’s influence.

Katherine had gambled everything on a marriage for love, but it would be far from happy. Seymour was ambitious and reckless, inviting even more scandal when accusations of gross impropriety were lodged against him regarding his behaviour towards Katherine’s 14-year-old stepdaughter, Elizabeth, who lived with them at Sudeley Castle.

The scandal caused deep rifts between the couple, but they seemed to reconcile. In late 1547, Katherine fell pregnant and gave birth at Sudeley on 30 August to a daughter named Mary.

Katherine Parr's happiness was short lived. Likely suffering from puerperal fever, she died on 5 September 1548, aged 35 or 36.

Following her death Katherine’s commitment to reformed religion became clearer than ever, as hers was the first Protestant burial conducted in English. Her place in the story of the English Reformation was assured.

Katherine’s life is rich with passion and scandal. Yet it’s seldom told – long eclipsed by the men in her life. However, we are now seeing a shift in the trend, with the popular Starz series Becoming Elizabeth depicting a younger and far more vibrant Katherine. The 2024 movie Firebrand will be the first to feature Katherine as the main protagonist.

It seems that our attention is at last turning to this fascinating woman, with all her imperfections and complexities. After almost 500 years, Katherine Parr deserves to step out of the shadows and take centre stage.


This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine


Lauren MackayHistorian

Lauren Mackay is a historian specialising in Tudor England and the author of Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn (IB Tauris, 2018)