Katherine Parr: the truth about the wife who ‘survived’

The sixth and last wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr (1512-48) has gone down in history as the wife who 'survived'. But despite the common misconception that she was a middle-aged, pious 'frump', Katherine Parr was in fact the cleverest and most passionate of Henry VIII's six wives, says Derek Wilson. Writing for History Extra, Wilson introduces us to the queen who reconnected Henry VIII with his children, managed the king's final years with dexterity and compassion, and with her Lamentation of a Sinner became a published writer…

Katherine Parr (also Catherine), the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII, c1543. Engraving after a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. Katherine was no middle-aged frump but a clever, devout and passionate wife, says Derek Wilson. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Of all the wives of Henry VIII, the one most often misunderstood, if not largely ignored, is Katherine Parr. Her story, as usually told – when told at all – lacks the romance of ‘sex-bombs’ Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard; the heroic fortitude of Catherine of Aragon; the political intrigue surrounding the lives of Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves. Wife number six is famous for ‘surviving’. She was the twice-widowed, matronly bluestocking who patiently, submissively (and boringly?) tended the sick, aged, irascible king through the painful last years of his life and then disappeared from the ‘front page’ of history. The truth, however, is much more complicated. For my money Katherine was the cleverest, most devout and – yes – passionate of Henry VIII’s bedfellows.

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In 1543 when Henry proposed, Katherine was no middle-aged frump. She was probably 30 years of age, had been born into a courtier family and held a place in Tudor high society. She loved fine clothes, jewels and intelligent company. She was in many ways an excellent choice to be England’s ‘first lady’ – or so the king thought, and he was, by now well experienced in such matters. Katherine also had about her the radiance of a woman in love – more of that anon. For the moment let us try to gain a clear impression of the woman who was coming to terms with a royal offer of marriage.

c1540, a portrait of King Henry VIII. An engraving by T A Dean from a painting by Hans Holbein. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Chosen by the king

The first point to note is that Katherine Parr, aka Lady Latimer, was Henry’s choice. Former spouses had been urged upon the king by politicians, diplomats and ambitious aristocratic clans: the Howards, the Boleyns, the Seymours and Thomas Cromwell had dangled their candidates before Henry and each had their own agendas. But there is no evidence of any faction pushing the recently widowed Katherine into the king’s presence. Indeed, the common view in elite circles seems to have been that Henry would not risk a sixth disappointment.

Then there is the issue of sex. Everyone knew that marriage number four had been a fiasco because Anne of Cleves failed to please the king in bed. It’s not difficult to imagine the sniggering tales that would have been going around the royal court about the so-called ‘Flanders mare’ who was supposedly ugly and looked like a horse.

By contrast, marriage number five suggested a different kind of challenge. Henry had felt rejuvenated by nights spent with the teenage Catherine Howard (whom he married in July 1540). Therefore, to accept the royal proposal Katherine Parr would have to match up to the sexual fantasies of an overweight invalid whose nights were often plagued by anguished insomnia. In this regard Katherine had been well prepared by her two previous marriages, both of which had been with men who enjoyed good health. Documentary evidence is scanty, but what there is suggests a woman who used clothes, milk baths, perfumes, chamber furnishings, food, drink and conversation to provide the right ambience when her husband came to her chamber.

Portrait of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, from a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Katherine made a success of her marriage to Henry because she brought to it a combination of intelligence and passion – she spared no effort to make her marriage work. We might well argue that she had no real option: to turn Henry down could have had dire consequences for herself and her family. To say ‘yes’ would mean carefully avoiding all the pitfalls that had been the undoing of her predecessors. Her narrow career path lay before her and all she could do was walk it with cautious steps. But Parr was no mere pragmatist – she enjoyed all the obvious perks of her exalted position and was careful not to jeopardise that position by putting a foot wrong. We can make this bold assertion because, unique among Henry’s wives, Katherine left a volume of letters and extremely personal writings that reveal, in detail, what she thought and believed.

The passions of Katherine Parr

These writings reveal, first of all, that Katherine embarked on her marriage to Henry at great emotional cost: she was in love with someone else. Thomas Seymour, the king’s brother-in-law and uncle to Prince Edward, the heir to the throne, was in his mid-30s and one of the most dashing bucks of the Tudor court. Katherine later wrote to Seymour to tell him that as soon as her husband Lord Latimer had died in February 1543:

“As truly as God is God, my mind was fully bent… 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 that possible which seemeth to me most unpossible… to renounce utterly mine own will and to follow His will most willingly.”

Portrait of theologian and Bible translator John Wycliffe (c1330–84). (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Katherine asked Henry for time to consider his proposal and gave herself to earnest prayer. The modern historian runs into difficulties when explaining 16th-century attitudes to 21st-century readers. A secular age may find it difficult to understand Katherine’s zeal for her faith. In the spiritual autobiography Queen Katherine published for all the world to read, she declared:

“Neither life, honour, riches, neither whatsoever I possess here… be it never so dearly beloved of me, but most willingly and gladly I would leave it, to win any man to Christ, of what degree or sort soever he were.”

Did this last clause suggest that she hoped to win over the king to her way of thinking?

We cannot wholly avoid speculation when we relate Katherine’s conscience-searching in the summer of 1543, but the country’s extremely tense religious situation must surely have played a part in her thinking. With the execution of Thomas Cromwell in July 1540 the Reformation had stalled. The reactionaries had regained the initiative and a major part of their campaign was the removal from office of those they considered to be tainted with heresy. At the very time that Katherine was weighing her options, a witch hunt begun in Windsor had brought to the stake members of the royal household. More importantly, a widespread plot was underway aimed at destroying the leading reformer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. The intriguers had to tread carefully because the king was always wary of the purge getting too close to the court and his own personal attendants. Katherine, whose own sympathies lay firmly with the reformers, was well aware that, as queen, she would be entering dangerous territory.

Travelling Mass set, c1535, consisting of a silver-gilt chalice; a paten (Communion plate) and a glass bottle for wine, with a leather box in which to carry them. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Several religious radicals looked to Katherine for patronage and were delighted to learn that she was about to become Henry’s consort. One of them, Francis Goldsmith, compared her to Esther, the Old Testament Jewish heroine who became queen to the Persian King Ahasuerus and used her position to alleviate the sufferings of her people. It is not all that far-fetched to think of Katherine pondering the question put to Esther, “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther, 4, 14).

On 12 July 1543, Katherine Parr and Henry VIII were married quietly at Hampton Court. And Thomas Seymour? He was appointed to a succession of diplomatic and military positions that kept him out of the country for most of the rest of Henry’s reign.

The style of the sixth queen

The new queen certainly turned out to be a veritable Esther. As David Starkey has pointed out, “Henry’s sixth marriage marks a watershed in religious policy” because Katherine was “a woman with a mission”. During the crucial three-and-a-half years the pair were married the balance swung in favour of the reformers. This was not entirely due to Katherine – for example, the plot against Cranmer collapsed largely because the plotters (led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester) overplayed their hand. However, without the day-to-day influence of the queen it would have been difficult (perhaps impossible) for the evangelicals of court and council led by Thomas Seymour’s brother – Edward, Earl of Hertford – to have gained the controlling influence which proved decisive when Henry died in 1547.

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach, 1543. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Broadly speaking, Katherine’s contribution rested on two pillars: she proved herself to be an exemplary consort, and she used every means at her disposal to spread that brand of Christianity that, within a few years, would come to be called ‘Protestant’.

Katherine the stepmother

In her relations with the king Katherine was young enough to interest him sexually and mature enough to perceive and cater to his other needs. Dressing his suppurating sores can’t have been pleasant and diverting his attention from his pain with stimulating conversation must have been mentally taxing. But the queen went further – notably in reconnecting Henry with his children, whom he rarely saw. Mary (who was 28 in 1544), Elizabeth (11) and Edward (7) lived in various royal manors in the home counties. The girls had both been bastardised and were excluded from the court, while Edward, as the sole heir, was kept far away from the plague-ridden capital.

Katherine set out to be a means of drawing the royal family together – within a few months she arranged for Henry’s children to pay visits to their father and thus provide him with some semblance of the home life he had never had. Extant letters, written between 1544 and 1547, bear witness to a very warm relationship between the royal children and their stepmother. Whether sending a court musician to perform for Mary or correcting the Latin exercises of Edward and Elizabeth, Katherine took a keen interest in their wellbeing.

A portrait of Mary I. (Photo by Getty Images)

The queen also played a prominent role in state affairs. When Henry was absent on campaign in France between mid-July and late September 1544 he left Katherine to oversee a regency council headed by Cranmer (who was now fully restored to favour). She attended assiduously to her duties, meeting daily with her advisers.

And her loyal support for the military adventure was not confined to administrative activities in camera. A remarkable, recently-discovered religious anthem by the leading composer Thomas Tallis was written for a service at St Paul’s aimed at uniting the nation behind the invasion. The words were written by Queen Katherine. None of Henry’s wives played a more prominent and constructive role in the affairs of court and kingdom than wife number six.

The Lamentation of a Sinner

Katherine’s contributions to the spread of her faith was well in excess of that of her predecessors. Not only did she study the Bible and listen to favoured preachers with her ladies in the seclusion of her own chambers; and advance the careers of favoured clergy – all that was common enough. Katherine did something quite novel, something that women at the time simply did not do: she ventured into print. Her first forays, published in 1544 and 1545, were devotional books – prayers and reflections on the Psalms. Then, in 1546, she began an intensely personal testimony, The Lamentation of a Sinner, in which she chronicled her journey from the traditional Catholicism of the pope, the “persecuter of all true Christians”, to the justification by the only faith of which Luther spoke. The Lamentation of a Sinner was not published until after Henry’s death in January 1547 and until then Katherine had to be very circumspect about her theology.

An anonymous portrait of Katherine Parr, c1545. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

There was a time in the summer of 1546 when Katherine came within a whisper of being executed for her faith. Bishop Gardiner and his associates were growing increasingly anxious as the end of Henry’s reign drew nigh. Henry was a semi-invalid in constant pain from the festering sores on his legs and was only able to move with the aid of servants. Everyone knew what no one dared say – that the king’s days were numbered.

Leading councillors and courtiers were discreetly making plans for the accession of a minor. If the prince’s uncle, Edward Seymour, grabbed the reins of power, England would be carried farther along the road of religious reform. Gardiner and his conservative associates needed to prevent that at all costs.

Thus a campaign was launched against the queen using a formula that had been well tried in the past. They brought to trial a notoriously outspoken heretic with court connections by the name of Anne Askew, subjected her to fierce and unprecedented torture and promised that her sufferings would end if she would but name members of the royal court (including the queen) who shared her heretical beliefs.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 1587. From ‘The Island Race’, a book written by Sir Winston Churchill and published in 1964 that covers the history of the British Isles from pre-Roman times to the Victorian era. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Had they succeeded, Henry would probably have sanctioned a thorough search of Katherine’s quarters, which might have revealed copies of William Tyndale’s English New Testament and other banned books. But Anne did not break under pressure. Katherine was warned of the plot by her physician, Robert Huick, who ‘found’ a paper revealing the Catholic scheme. Or, perhaps, the discovery was engineered by Henry himself, who never lost his sense of theatre. Either way, the queen hastened to Henry’s chamber and threw herself on his mercy, thus enabling him to make a great show of support and affection.

For the traditionalists this was the last throw of the dice. Their failure left the advocates of reform in power when the Tudor tyrant eventually breathed his last. Katherine Parr, therefore, holds an important place in the history of the English Reformation.

A tragic death

We may hope that Katherine was aware of this fact and took satisfaction from it, particularly because the brief remainder of her life was decidedly tragic. She was, at last, able to marry her true love, Thomas Seymour, but it did not bring her happiness. The wedding was a clandestine ceremony and one that provoked scandal: the Seymour clan tore itself apart in rivalries and competing ambitions. Thomas, having been granted no place on the regency council, tried to ingratiate himself with the young king and to undermine the influence of his brother, Edward, now Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. The duke’s wife bitterly resented Katherine’s presence in the family, seeing it as a challenge to her own pre-eminence.

The family feud escalated rapidly. In one letter to her husband Katherine confided about a meeting with her brother-in-law, Protector Somerset: “It was fortunate we were so much distant, for I suppose else I should have bitten him”. But the dowager queen’s anger was soon turned against Thomas himself. She had brought the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth to live with her but Thomas soon began indulging in intimate horseplay with the teenager and the behaviour became more outrageous after Katherine became pregnant at the end of 1547. He would visit Elizabeth, clad only in his nightshirt, and tumble with her on her bed. For a while Katherine was tolerant, even at times joining in the horseplay, but when on one occasion she came upon her husband and her royal ward embracing, she sent Elizabeth away.

Portrait of the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) aged 14. Illustration after a picture in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On 30 August 1548 Katherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary, but immediately succumbed to puerperal fever. Eight days later Katherine died. In her last moments of consciousness, she accused Thomas of poisoning her. It may well have been the delirium speaking, but Seymour was outrageously ambitious and it is quite possible that he entertained hopes of picking up his relationship with the princess where it had left off…

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Derek Wilson is author of The Queen and the Heretic – How two women changed the religion of England (Lion Books, 2018).