The Reluctant Tudor Queen
There exists a phrase that helps us remember the numerous wives of a certain Tudor monarch and it goes like this: “King Henry VIII, to six wives he was wedded. One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded.” Succinct to be sure and it certainly identifies Henry’s spouses, but one of the most interesting of them is the one who survived — Catherine Parr. And indeed she did survive — three husbands — yet her fourth, the man she really loved, proved to be a great disappointment. Still, Catherine also survived in history partly since she was the author of Prayers and Meditations, the first book written by a woman under her own name in English, published in 1545.
Catherine Parr was born in 1512 as the oldest child of Sir Thomas Parr who was a descendant of King Edward III and a close associate of King Henry VIII — a connection that brought royal honors and appointments. Also, Catherine’s mother was close to Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In fact, Catherine Parr may have named for this queen and was certainly her Goddaughter. As she received a standard education for women at the time, Catherine displayed a great love of learning.
In 1529 at age 17 Catherine married her first husband, a young man in poor health who died in 1533. Then in 1534 she married an older man, John Neville, Baron Latimer who had two children from an earlier marriage.
This was a tumultuous time in England and part of that was in the area of religion. Henry was seeking a male heir, and had divorced his first wife and formed the Church of England, splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the king and the new church retained many of the traditional Catholic beliefs and liturgy.
Yet it was also a time when the newly available printed books and new English Bibles were available. With these resources, many literate people had come to believe that salvation came through faith in Christ and not just through the church, and they also challenged church liturgy and rituals. Catherine was one of these.
After her husband’s death in 1543, Catherine joined the household of Princess Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, her mother’s late friend. At that time she also became reacquainted with Sir Thomas Seymour, whose nephew Edward was Henry’s heir. She grew to love him, but there was a barrier for their marriage, and that was the aging king who was attracted to Catherine. Always before Catherine had dutifully married those who her family preferred. But now when she had the chance to follow her heart she again chose duty to marry the king in July, 1543.
Interestingly enough, though Catherine was sometimes considered the dullest Tudor queens, she was actually very pretty, vivacious, and loved music; in fact, one source called her the most intellectually curious of Henry’s wives.
Because of a chronic leg injury and obesity Henry could not walk or move without assistance. This meant that Catherine became a nurturing and caring consort to the king, and also a loving stepmother to his children, the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth as well as Prince Edward.
Then there came a challenge to Catherine and her faith. Her enemies proved to be members of Henry’s government, who sought to reduce her influence on the king, by accusing her of reading heretical books.
At the same time (probably coincidentally), there had been a royal rift when Henry became angry at Catherine, as she discussed her beliefs with him. This was because he had a hefty ego and disliked anyone disagreeing with him; particularly a woman who he thought should remain submissive. So when the queen’s enemies had an arrest warrant issued for her, and when Catherine became aware of it, she fought off her fear and became proactive. First, she and her ladies destroyed any questionable books, then she sought a reconciliation with the king.
Since Henry was a weak and frail old man, who only sought serenity in his last days, Catherine used a submissive approach to placate him.
In a quiet moment, she gently explained that she never meant to challenge him and that she had brought up the subject of religion as a way to distract him from his health issues as well as a chance for him to correct her. In one dramatized version she responded: “If I engage in debate it is only so I may benefit from your clear instruction not to defy or contradict you.”
The king was touched and they were reconciled—just as officers arrived to arrest Catherine. Henry angrily dismissed them and she learned her lesson. She kept her faith to herself.
Henry died in January, 1547 and with a supportive allowance, Catherine left court. Now she took her chance to choose love over duty and she and Sir Thomas Seymour were married. They went to live in the country, and then became guardians to the teenaged Princess Elizabeth, who was close to the former queen.
Then in March, 1548 Catherine discovered she was pregnant, but sadly at the same time it seemed that Seymour had developed an inappropriate interest in Elizabeth.
According to later accounts from one of the princess’ attendants, Seymour was a frequent visitor to Elizabeth’s room in the early morning, as he teased her into wakefulness. Also, at another time in the garden of their home Seymour playfully chased Elizabeth, and even cut her gown into shreds as part of a game. One version of the story had Catherine assisting in the prank, but after a while Elizabeth was relocated to another country home.
In June, 1548 Catherine gave birth to a daughter Mary, yet tragically as often occurred in Tudor times, within a few days Catherine herself had succumbed to “childbed fever”—a type of infection. Though her child was put under the care of other family members, there is no mention of her after two years so many historians died at about that age.
Sir Thomas did not seem to mourn his wife or child but instead pursued power by trying to manipulate his nephew young King Edward. Eventually he was charged with treason and was executed in 1549.
So, Catherine Parr was indeed a survivor as she put duty over her heart, but never seemed to find the love she sought.
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Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas where she writes an historical column for the local newspaper. She has published one book, and has written in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.