This is an exceptional biography that does justice to the sixth and last consort of Henry VIII. For centuries, Katherine Parr was seen in an auxiliary role. The nurse, the one that survived because she was tactful where two of her predecessors were not, and finally, the surrogate mother.
Out of these three, there is truth to the last two.
The real Katherine Parr was a reformer. She had an active role in the English Reformation. While Anne Boleyn is credited with being the first royal consort to embrace Protestantism -and she certainly does deserve some of that credit- the truth is that it was Katherine Parr who was England’s first full fledged Protestant queen.
Where Anne believed that religious reformers should thread carefully and still embraced some of her forefathers’ traditions, Katherine Parr wanted to do away with almost every aspect of the old world.
In her view, women were the Protestant Reformation greatest asset. Women were supposed to be -according to the bible- virtuous. For this very same reason, Katherine encouraged her young charges to live up to the highest standard. Among her charges were the ill-fated Jane Grey and the future Gloriana, Elizabeth Tudor.
Linda Porter understands the period and her audience, including those who are new to this era. For this reason, she decides to cut straight to the chase and exclude details that might make newcomers lose interest.In spite of this, she weaves every thread to form a rich tapestry that presents us with a remarkable woman. Out of all of the Tudor consorts, she and Henry VIII’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon whom her mother -lady Maud Parr- served and whom she was named after) were the only queens to be appointed regents in their husband’s absence. Henry VIII saw in Katherine a nobility of spirit and intellect. When he left the country to seek glory in France, he entrusted the well-being of his nation and offspring into her hands. Though he had also left competent men who’d guide her through her new duties, the sole weight of England rested on her shoulders.
Katherine proved to be more than capable.
After having a brief brush with death, she spent her last years building a friendship with many members at court.
Porter is also quick to point out that while she did not want to take any credit for the English reformation, she was one of the de-facto leaders of this religious movement. Her last book, published months one year after Henry VIII died, helped shape Anglican thought.
Aside of her strict moral code, this biography also sheds light on her social life. Katherine fulfilled the other important functions of a consort by being an exceptional hostess. She loved to dance, hear her husband’s minstrels, and dress in rich gowns that would reflect well on the crown.
Porter is not afraid to touch on the controversy surrounding her youngest royal stepdaughter and ward, lady Elizabeth Tudor and her fourth and last husband, Sir Thomas Seymour, Baron of Sudeley.
Since most of our knowledge of that incident comes from sources that were written much later; she tries to be as factual as possible, delivering the most likely scenarios and the reason behind Katherine Parr reacting the way she did.
Lastly, this is one of the few books that paints a more complete picture of her noble ancestry. Out of all the four non-royals that Henry VIII married, her lineage was the most distinguished.
As previous stated, Linda Porter is not afraid of including the darker aspects of her life. In a perfect world, in a perfect time, she would have had it all. A learned and courteous woman, who was recognized for her intellect and her active role in the religious reformation, living happily ever after with a husband who loved and appreciated her with a child that will take after her mother. Nevertheless Katherine’s legacy lives through her writings and what she taught through her actions and her self to Elizabeth.
On the 5th of September 1548, the Queen Dowager, Katherine Parr, died of puerperal fever, at Sudeley Castle. Six days prior she’d given birth to her daughter, Mary Seymour, which she named after her eldest royal stepdaughter.
Following the birth, she became feverish and in her delirium she claimed: “Those that are about me care not for me” referring to her husband, Thomas Seymour, Baron of Sudeley, who was by her side, comforting her the entire time. Jane Grey and other ladies were also with her, reading her the scriptures.
Historian Amy Licence theorizes she could have been infected after the birth by the midwives’ unclean hands which would have made possible the passage of bacteria to her body. (The lack of hygiene during childbirth was not uncommon. If she had lived through the same ordeal now she would have been treated right away and saved but as it was, the only medicine then was based on plants and folklore beliefs that Katherine, given her extensive knowledge of the former would have known very well. It is not known if he midwives or she used any of these methods. In any case it was too late, the fever spread rapidly and claimed her on the morning of September fifth).
Her husband was grief-stricken, unable to believe that she was gone that he later said: “I was so amazed that I had small regard to either myself or to my doings”.
Katherine was buried days later with full pomp and ceremony. Jane Grey acted as her chief mourner, walking behind her coffin with Lady Elizabeth Tilney carrying the long train. Katherine Parr was the first Royal to have a Protestant Funeral. Miles Coverdale headed the funeral which was in English and concluded it with the following eulogy:
“A beautous daughter blessed her arms, An infant copy of her parents’ charms. When now seven days this tender flower had bloomed Heaven in its wrath the mother’s soul resumed Our loyal breast with rising sighs are torn, With saints she triumphs, we with mortals mourn.”
Her husband and daughter did not survive her for long. Sudeley was arrested at his house while entertaining a guest, and sent to Tower under charges of treason. He was found guilty and beheaded on March 20 1549. Afterwards, their daughter was given over to Catherine Brandon nee Willoughby, Duchess Dowager of Suffolk in whose care she probably died as she disappears from the records a year after.
Despite leaving everything to her husband, the Protectorate took her wealth and this made Sudeley angry, and he ended up conspiring with the Marquises of Dorset (Henry Grey) and Northampton (William Parr -Katherine’s brother), against his brother. The Duchess Dowager of Suffolk begged the Council many times to help her with her charge’s finances but they never took her pleas seriously until 1550 when Katherine Parr’s wealth was given back to her daughter, but by then she was probably sick or dying because she is never mentioned again.
Katherine Parr has gone down pop culture as Henry’s nurse and staunch Reformer but she was so much more than that. She and Mary I’s mother were the only two of Henry’s wives who served as Regents during his absence, and they were two of the most learned women in England who caused great impact on their respective faiths and both were known for being kind and generous. Eustace Chapuys before he left England on the summer 1545, commented that out of all of Henry’s Queens, with the exception of Katherine of Aragon, Katherine Parr was the only one who was worthy of her position. She was a good friend with Mary I, who was encouraged by her to translate one of the gospels of the New Testament and who followed her wherever she went.
In Bed with the Tudors by Amy Licence
Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of of Katherine Parr, the Last Wife of Henry VIII by Linda Porter
On July 31st, 1544 the Lady Elizabeth Tudor wrote to her fourth stepmother, Queen Katherine Parr, expressing her desire to spend more time with her. Some historians have interpreted this as a symbol of the King’s annoyance with his youngest daughter, however it could have simply been a demonstration of her affection for the queen, namely because her father was away at the time (fighting in France). The letter goes as follows:
“Inmical fortune, envious of all good and ever revolving human affairs, has deprived me for a whole year of your most illustrious presence, and not thus content, has yet again robbed me of the same good; which thing would be intolerable to me, did I not hope to enjoy it very soon. And in this exile I well know that the clemency of Your Highness has had much care and solicitude for my health as the King’s majesty himself. By which thing I am not only bound to serve you, but also revere you with filial love, since I understand that your most illustrious Highness has not forgotten me every time you requested from you. For heretofore I have not dared to write to him. Wherefore I now humbly pray your most excellent Highness, that, when you write to His Majesty, you will condescend to recommend me to him, praying ever for his sweet benediction, and similarly entreating our Lord God to send him best success, and the obtaining of victory over his enemies, so that Your Highness and I may, as soon as possible, rejoice together with him on his happy return. No less pray I to God, that He would preserve your most illustrious Highness; to whose grace, humbly kissing your hands, I offer and recommend myself. From St. James this 31st July Your most obedient daughter and most faithful servant, Elizabeth.”
The letter was written in flawless Italian and there is nothing weird about her location since Henry, conscious that he could die during the war, had left specific instructions for the council, including his wife’s regency during his absence and the places his children would stay. St. James was the designated place for his youngest daughter. As one historian pointed out in her latest book, Bess learned so much from Katherine Parr -namely the power a woman could wield through her smile (courtly manners) and intelligence- that she could not get enough of her. She wanted to spend time with her as much as possible.
Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne by David Starkey
Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family by Leanda de Lisle
Henry VIII married Katherine Parr at the Queen’s Privy Closet on Hampton Court Palace on July 12th 1543. Katherine Parr was Henry VIII’s sixth wife. She was a rich widow who’d been married twice, first to Sir Edward Burgh and then to John Neville, Lord Latimer. In Katherine Parr, Henry VIII got a Consort who many agreed was worthy of her position. The Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys who was very critical of the English court, had nothing but good things to say of her, saying that besides Queen Katherine of Aragon, Katherine Parr was the only other wife worthy of being Queen. There were some rumors that Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, now the King’s sister, was very angry when she found out that Henry chose the Lady Latimer as his next consort. She reputedly said that she could not understand why he did this when she (Anne) was more attractive. We have to be careful to take these sources as the ultimate truth. It could be that Anne felt jealous because Henry chose someone she didn’t consider beautiful, or she simply didn’t approve of Katherine. Regardless of this, Henry’s new Queen had many notable qualities. Born in 1512, she was a close friend of the Lady Mary who was four years her junior. She was a descendant of Edward III through her father Thomas Parr, and related to the King’s great-grandmother Elizabeth Woodville, through her mother Maud Parr (who had served under the first Queen Katherine and stayed loyal through her throughout Henry’s marriage to Anne). It is very possible that she was named after Henry’s first wife who made education for girls fashionable, and like her namesake, she followed in her footsteps.
The marriage contract had been drawn up two days before by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ceremony had been conducted by Bishop Gardiner “in the presence of noble and gentle persons” being “private” and “without ceremony”. There is no record of what Katherine Parr wore to the ceremony but records display the names of the people present. Among them was her family, including her brother William Herbert and the Earl of Hertford and his wife Anne Stanhope. The Earl of Hertford, Edward Seymour was brother to Sir Thomas Seymour, the man that Katherine wished to marry. He was obviously not present because the King had sent him abroad so he could marry Katherine. Other guests included Catherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk (married to the King’s best friend and brother-in-law, Charles Brandon), John Dudley’s wife Jane, the King’s niece Margaret Douglas, and his daughters the ladies Mary and Elizabeth Tudor.
The vows that had been written for the King and Queen-to-be are still went as followed:
“I. Henry, take thee, Katherine to my wedded wife to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, and thereto I plight thee my troth” “I, Katherine, take thee Henry to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to be Bonaire and buxom in bed and at board, till death do us part, and thereto I plight unto thee my troth.”
These words are still being used for Anglican weddings. After the King and Queen said their vows, the King put on her wedding ring, then the Bishop pronounced them man and wife.
People noted how Henry spoke his vows “with a joyful countenance”. A member of Katherine’s household once said that her “rare goodness” made “every day a Sunday.” Everyone soon found out this was true. The new Queen was intelligent and lively. She loved to dance and dress in the latest fashions, and engage in good debate, as well as enjoy a good poetry book. And what was more, she got along with all of her royal stepchildren, especially the Lady Mary Tudor whom she spent more time (since the two were closer in age). She had been very influential making sure that Prince Edward’s tutors continued with his Protestant instruction, and she developed a relationship with the youngest Tudor that influenced her in more ways than one.
Her chaplain Francis Goldsmith remarked that “God has so formed her mind for pious studies, that she considers everything of small value compared to Christ. Her rare goodness has made every day like Sunday, a thing hitherto unheard of, especially in a royal palace. Her piety cherishes the religion long since introduced, not without great labor, to the palace”. She surrounded herself with other religious intellections such as George Day, the Bishop of Chichester who worked as her almoner, and the humanist Sir Anthony Cope who acted as her vice-chamberlain. It is also worth to point out that during her time as Queen, Henry VIII restored his daughters to the line of succession.
Linda Porter in her latest book Tudors vs Stewarts notes that “in observing Katherine Parr as regent and Queen consort, Elizabeth learned a good deal about how women could think for themselves and govern. She greatly admired her stepmother’s literary output and clearly discussed religious ideas with her when they met, which was not nearly often enough for Elizabeth’s liking”.
Katherine Parr is the only other Consort besides Katherine of Aragon who was appointed Regent when Henry left to engage in another expensive war against France in 1544. Katherine Parr remarried almost immediately after Henry’s death to Sir Thomas Seymour who was elevated to Baron Sudeley after her stepson became King. Sadly, her life took a turn for the worst when she found her household embroiled in scandal. It is unclear what the nature of Thomas Seymour’s relationship with Elizabeth was, if he had forced himself on the fourteen year old, or if it was something else. But it upset Katherine greatly and although Thomas Seymour tried to make it up to her, in her delirium (after giving birth to her only daughter whom she named after her eldest royal stepdaughter) she blamed Thomas for all her ills. She died days after and her husband soon followed after he was involved in a plot to depose his brother the Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. Their daughter, Mary Seymour probably died a year after in 1549.
Great Harry: The Extravagant Life of Henry VIII by Carolly Erickson
Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, the Last Wife of Henry VIII by Linda Porter
Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
The way Amy Licence writes the story of the wives and the mistresses is so unique and beautiful and this is a must-read for everyone that hasn’t read about the wives yet. Amy starts with setting the stage by explaining about the different beliefs regarding sex, conception, and the many methods …used in each. Religion also played an important part in this period, so a lot of the book focuses on the religious aspect from Catholicism to the different sects of Protestantism that were taking over England. The book dedicates a huge chunk on Henry’s first wives and deconstructing these women from what is believed to what actually happened. There were many other things that I wasn’t completely aware of this period that blew my mind when I found out. And this is how Amy writes, she does it in such a way that she dispels all the myths regarding these elusive figures, namely the women who are still seen through a male objective lens. She starts by Katherine of Aragon, including all the important details regarding her education, her preparation for her future role as Princess then Queen of England to all the contributions she did when she finally became queen, from being a great patroness of artists and humanists, to being the first of Henry’s wives to become Regent and on top of that, enjoy a very amorous and passionate relationship with him. The image that we have of Katherine as prude and old is not very accurate. As she got older she did become more pious and secluded from the material world -though she still enjoyed many of his banquets and participated in the jousts, observing her husband ride like he was still the passionate youth from his younger days. But in her youth she was a highly pragmatic, energetic, passionate and attractive young woman who probably caught Henry’s attention since he led her down the aisle to marry his older brother, the crown heir, Arthur. But there was also another aspect to Katherine and that was that in her years of political limbo, when her father’s enmity with her older sister and her husband forced her to be stranded on England with little to no help from anybody, made her highly dependent on her lecherous priest Friar Diego which in turn, turned out to damage her reputation for a while.
This is not to say that Katherine wasn’t strong. She was but she was also human and very young at the time and with her mother gone, her father and sister far away and at war with each other, she had very few people she could trust, and there was also that cunning and ambitious element of her that is often neglected. Katherine did everything she could after her father came with a temporal solution to alleviate her status by making her his unofficial ambassador. She sought Henry out more, she ingratiated herself with his sister, made sure she was pleasing to both of them, especially the young boy who turned out to be more handsome and athletic than his late brother at his age. By all means, crowned jointly and enjoying equal status, Katherine believed her marriage would be successful but two things happened: Her new year baby died and she suffered a horde of miscarriages and as she did, she also lost her figure and as her looks faded Henry turned his attention to other women. And this is where the author provides evidence that defies the notion that Henry was a prude with only two official mistresses.
Henry wasn’t the libertine monarch that Francis was. He didn’t flaunt his mistresses in Katherine’s face or showed them off to everyone or gave them official status of mistresses as he did. Henry, always concerned with his image, was cautious and with a great network of servants who were willing to do anything to please their king, they helped him keep most of these affairs secret. But occasionally word got out and on two of these occasions it put a strain on his first marriage. Katherine was humble and loyal but she could not accept at first that there was another woman besides her sharing her husband’s bed, she didn’t believe his servant was sleeping with Anne Hastings and argued ferociously with Henry about it but she soon became pliant and docile but her anger turned up again after he had a son with Bessie Blount which he showed off to prove that the fault lay in Katherine not in him for his lack of legitimate sons. Katherine’s discomfort became well known when Henry ennobled him with titles and mansions and gave him almost equal status to that of her daughter.
The most opposition that Henry would face however would not come from his first wife but from Anne. Katherine despite failing to keep her anger and hatred over his affairs secret at times, was true to her motto of ‘Humble and Loyal’ and became beloved by the people for the charity work she did, her time as Regent defending the English borders from the Scots and emulating the virtues that were expected of women -especially royal consorts- at the time. Anne was very different in that respect. She was a cosmopolitan and highly energetic and like Katherine, highly educated woman who sported different religious ideas and whose path with him might not have been intentional as Amy Licence points out. After all, who could refuse the king of England? Nobody. Anne’s strong moral convictions and her refusal of Thomas Wyatt years before, as well as learning from experience after Wolsey had broken up her intended union with Percy, echoed those found in Vives’ books that women had to be on the look out for men’s attentions and refuse any sexual advances. Yet, the author also defies the notion that Henry abstained himself from sex the entire time and the proof of this once again lies in the contemporary sources listing the women present at the time who served or whose husband served Henry and whom he might have fathered illegitimate children with.
Anne’s tragic fall from grace lay in her failure to deliver (as her predecessor) a son. Shortly after her brother and alleged lovers and her own execution, Henry remarried. His third wife, Jane Seymour is more of a mystery and I wish there was at least one more chapter dedicated to her but this is possibly owed to the fact that her reign was very short. However she does dedicate a great deal of attention regarding the time of her son’s conception to Edward’s birth and her death and the possible causes for it. It is well known that Jane died of childbed fever but what led to it? At the time of the birth she was attended by male doctors who did not have the experience or knowledge that midwives did. It is at this point that women stories start to get omitted and women’s labor changes drastically because of it. Midwifery is start to be seen as superstitious whereas ‘learned’ men such as doctors are the new norm. Unfortunately theory is very different from practice and if they had just bothered to ask one of their female counterparts for directions like washing their hands, etc, Jane could have avoided her death.
Between the period of his mourning and courting for royal matches, Henry might have been spending time with other women and this is not such as a stretch as we have seen by the earlier examples. But as a king he needed to marry and unlike two of his wives, he needed a royal match to cement an alliance and the lucky bride was Anne of Cleves whom he later declared was unattractive and that she was not a virgin just by looking at her. The notion is so ridiculous as Amy notes, yet once Henry’s mind was made up, it was made up! And what could you do about it? Poor Anne of Cleves knew very little about the country she was about to get married in. She had been pre-contracted to the Duke of Lorraine and that was used as an excuse to annul her marriage. As a girl she had been trained to be the perfect duchess, not a queen. When she reached Calais her brother wrote to Wriothesley and other royal officials to teach her sister of the English ways and they did just that, but they failed in teaching her about the masques that her future husband loved to engage in. This one omission made a great difference. When Henry met her in disguise, Anne had no idea he was the king and turned away from him coldly exclaiming she didn’t find his attentions funny. This was the whole catalyst for his dislike of her. His next wife was the contrary. She was energetic, to his judgment she was a virgin, and like his third wife Jane Seymour she adopted a similar motto that was meant to express she would be the perfect docile wife. But her past soon caught up with her and when Henry was told of it in a letter he devastated. Katherine Howard would share the same gruesome fate as her first cousin, Anne Boleyn. But her relationship with Thomas Culpeper is also put into question. Was it sexual or just platonic? We will probably never know.
The last wife to take the center stage is the rich (twice) widowed, Katherine Parr. Like the first Katherine she inspired confidence and she was kind, humble and loyal. She was married to Henry for nearly four years, his second longest marriage. She encouraged him to see his children more and she was partly responsible for reinstating Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. And far from the ‘nurse’ stereotype that is attached to her figure, she was an educated, highly pragmatic and religious advocate whose work helped fast forward the Reform movement in England.
Like with all her books, Amy Licence lays out the facts for you but it is up to you to make the decision whether you believe them or not.
This book is a great addition to the Tudor shelves and to women’s histories which she tells in such a way that hasn’t been told before.