Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded.
So goes the school child’s rhyme detailing the brutal marital record of King Henry VIII. There simply is no romanticizing this monarch or this period, fascinating as both the man and the times are. Henry VIII may have considered himself a suave suitor (evidence does suggest that he was highly sentimental) but ultimately he married and schemed and slept around and divorced and killed all in the name of one goal: the production of male heirs. England had torn itself apart over the succession for 30 years during the Wars of the Roses; Henry VII had usurped the crown at Bosworth Field to bring those wars to an end – but his claim rested on very thin ice indeed. Boy babies were in short supply among the Tudors, and so desperately needed to shore up the dynasty.
Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, was born around 1512 to Sir Thomas, a descendant of Edward III, and his wife Maud. Though not wealthy, as Northern family, situated at Kendal in Westmorland (part of modern Cumbria), they were connected to the important people of that area, including the Nevilles. Thus, as Katherine grew, she did not lack for suitors.
She did, however, lack a father. Sir Thomas died in 1517, leaving Lady Parr, only around 22 years old, to raise Katherine and her siblings. She took her task seriously, refusing to remarry and focusing all of her attention on her children. Lady Parr was marked as a very religious woman in an age when such a title did not come easy given the permeation of spirituality throughout every aspect of daily life. It is no surprise, then, that her children were educated not only in reading and writing, but were guided into a very simple yet fervent love for God.
By the time Katherine was 31, she had been widowed twice. Both marriages had been with much older men and produced no children. Her second husband, Lord Latimer, provided for her in his will and she became an independent woman of substantial means. Around this time she began a relationship with Sir Thomas Seymour, brother to the late Queen Jane (who had given Henry VIII the son he wanted). It was not long before she began to contemplate a third marriage, this time for love.
Then Henry VIII stepped in.
To our modern eyes, it makes little sense that Katherine would turn away from Seymour and agree to marry Henry VIII, a man she did not love. We must not cast our sensibilities onto people who lived in a very different era. The king was absolute master of his realm. To go against his wishes was to invite major consequences for oneself and one’s family, up to and including death. And so, in 1543, she became his wife.
Katherine was not praised for her looks, though there is no indication that she was unattractive. It appears that she was not a conventional (for that time) beauty, and what drew Henry VIII and others to her was her personality. She was warm, witty, amiable and enjoyed good conversation. She worked hard to reconcile the king to his three children. Above all, she was intelligent.
The love of God that Katherine developed as a child matured and sustained her in adulthood. Her chief interest was theology and she came down on the side of the Reformers. Though Henry VIII had broken with Rome during the Catherine of Aaragon/Anne Boleyn years, he remained largely Catholic in his spiritual outlook. He also grew increasingly unstable, prone to sudden shifts of mood and changes of mind, as he aged. For Katherine to take a decided stance on any subject, let alone theology, was dangerous indeed.
in November 1545, an arrest warrant for Queen Katherine was drawn up. The king signed it. Bishop Stephen Gardiner, opposed to nearly all reform of the church, had made his play. He knew that the queen was zealous in her views. He knew that she invited what were considered radical preachers, among them Anne Askew, into her rooms for teaching and discussion. He knew her ladies often occupied themselves with Scripture study and translation.
He also knew that Henry VIII hated to be lectured by anyone. Gardiner began to cast the lively theological debates between the king and queen as just that: lectures from a wife to her husband. It was the order of life turned on its head.
The arrest warrant was providentially dropped on the floor and discovered by a servant loyal to the queen. Katherine took to her bed in terror, which likely saved her life. Henry VIII was moved by her distress and visited her himself, despite his lifelong fear of illness. That same evening, she went to the king, unsure of what awaited her. She threw herself upon his mercy, claiming to be only a weak and feeble woman, whose only desire had been to distract Henry VIII from his pain (due to a festering leg wound).
Again, this makes little sense to us. Why would a powerful and intelligent woman be so quick to conform to stereotypes? Why would she not defend herself? We must understand that Katherine’s display was a masterstroke. She preserved not only her own life but that of the Church of England. Bishop Gardiner and the other traditionalists were disgraced. Henry VIII’s heir, Prince Edward, would continue to be educated in the Protestant fashion. Men and women who longed to be free to worship God without the restraints of ritual would live to fight another day.
Her advocacy for and preservation of the Protestant cause would have made Katherine a great, if not showy, queen, but this is not her real legacy. That distinction belongs to the three books she wrote: Psalms or Prayers, Prayers or Meditations and The Lamentations of a Sinner. For the first time, a queen of England dared to publish in her own name. This alone was radical enough, but consider that she was a woman writing on theological topics. Realize that she spent many hours translating Scripture from one language to another. There are many men today who find the idea of women doing such things abhorrent.
Sadly, Katherine Parr outlived Henry VIII by only a year and eight months. She married Sir Thomas Seymour as soon as she could and the couple was overjoyed when she discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1548. Katherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary, on August 30 and died six days later of childbed fever. (Puerperal sepsis, a common killer of women due to lack of hygiene and proper medical care). Mary Seymour disappears from the historical record in 1550, leading to the conclusion that she did not live past toddlerhood.
In her short 35 years, Katherine was a queen, a loving stepmother, a gifted intellectual, a shrewd politician and a champion of reform. May we learn from her example and take every opportunity available to serve God and others.
For all entries in the 31 Days for the Ladies series, go here.
Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, (New York: Grove Press, 1991), 483-571.