Catherine Parr was Henry VIII’s last wife, who continued the reformation work of Anne Boleyn and who provide Anne’s daughter with a model of female strength and independence.
Elizabeth Norton : ‘She was the most reluctant of all Henry VIII’s queens, but she was also one of the greatest’
In 1543, at the age of 31, Catherine Parr was newly widowed and had high hopes of marrying a man of her own choosing – Thomas Seymour – the brother of the late Queen Jane. Catherine’s first two marriages had been arranged and this must have felt like a time of great freedom for her. Her second husband had been twenty years her senior and the young, vibrant and ambitious Seymour undoubtedly made quite a comparison. Unfortunately for her she caught the eye of Henry VIII and he proposed marriage to her.
Catherine was a highly intelligent woman and far from being excited about the prospect of being Queen of England she was well aware of the dangers in accepting this proposal. Also, her love for Seymour appears completely genuine and therefore, she would have felt great disappointment. However, she was in no position to refuse the King of England – a proposal was tantamount to a command.
Catherine was also a very religious woman, committed to the reformation faith. Once she had agreed to marry the King she looked upon it as giving her the opportunity to do the work of God and to complete England’s conversion to Reform. She was married to Henry on 12 July 1543 at Hampton Court Palace. Henry would have been 51 at the time and is reported to have been aging visible and rapidly.
Catherine gave Henry his first real taste of family life. Something he seems to have very much enjoyed. Prior to their marriage Catherine met both her step-daughters and they were honoured guests at the wedding. Catherine appears to have a natural understanding of how to form relationships with all Henry’s children. This domestic harmony had been missing from the English court for some time and her domestic influence even raised remarks from other European courts.
Henry clearly had great faith in Catherine’s abilities as when he was abroad on a joint invasion of France in 1544 – with Spain – he left her as Queen Regent. Catherine was kept busy at home overseeing the domestic council, the supplies for the war and acting as the Head of the Royal Family. As acting head of the Royal Family, Catherine maintained the domestic harmony – remaining in contact with the three children and eventually bringing them all together at Hampton Court. On 30 September 1544 Henry returned home, and Catherine returned from Queen Regent to Queen Consort.
Catherine sought to promote the reformation cause through the publication of her own book, Prayers Stirring the Mind unto Heavenly Meditation. Just as Anne Boleyn, Catherine was using her position as Queen to advance her own religious beliefs, in this case the words of the gospel. Her name greatly helped the circulation of the book, and proved her natural ability when it came to writing and publication. It also prompted jealousy from Henry VIII, and could have potentially led her into great danger.
In 1546 Catherine’s outspokenness about reform led to a plot against her by the conservative religion faction, which went as far as gaining a warrant for her arrest. However, Catherine was warned of the arrest and feigned illness in order to prepare herself. Henry on hearing this went to Catherine to chastise her for her frankness on religious reform. Catherine defended herself, by saying that she was just diverting him from the pain caused by his leg and wanted to learn from him through debate. This flattery of the King led to reconciliation between them and the plot was defeated. This must have been a very frightening incident for the Queen remembering those who had gone before her.
Catherine had a profound effect on the young Elizabeth. She introduced Elizabeth to her first experience of family life (by Tudor standards). She also ensured the education of the children, engaging excellent tutors including Roger Ascham for Elizabeth. Ascham was a celebrated Cambridge scholar who was dedicated to the education of women and a convert of the reformed faith. Catherine was also a role model for Elizabeth – here was an independent and intelligent woman, with a strong religious faith, who managed the country successfully in the King’s absence and who retained her authority in the very masculine Tudor court. Undoubtedly Elizabeth learnt much from Catherine about statesmanship, power and the Reformation – Elizabeth herself would complete the work of the Reformation with the Elizabethan Settlement.
When the King died in 1547 Catherine was finally able to marry Thomas Seymour. It seems that their feeling for each other had not changed – although they received criticism for the haste of their marriage. Catherine continued to play an active role in Elizabeth’s life and education – unfortunately this meant bringing Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour together – it is alleged that her ambitious husband made advances to Elizabeth. She also became pregnant with her longed for child – although, six days after giving birth to a girl she died of puerperal fever. A swift and sad ending, for such an impressive woman.
Catherine Parr is another example of Henry VIII being drawn to an intelligent, independent and politically aware woman. A woman with passionate religious beliefs, who was unafraid to use her position to promote Reform. A woman who kept her authority in a man’s world, and in doing so influenced a future Queen. Henry’s six wife’s fascinate us, not just by their number, but for their individual stories and I agree with Norton that Catherine is one of the greatest.
If you are interested in reading more about Catherine Parr I would highly recommend the very readable, Catherine Parr by Elizabeth Norton.
“Catherine sought to promote the reformation cause through the publication of her own book, Prayers Stirring the Mind unto Heavenly Meditation. Just as Anne Boleyn, Catherine was using her position as Queen to advance her own religious beliefs, in this case the words of the gospel.”
Catherine’s book was called “Prayers and Meditations”. She would write two books and several prayers that would circulate and are still found today. Catherine used her position as queen to further the cause of the Reformation, however Anne Boleyn used it more to become queen. I do not see a comparison with the two as Catherine did more for the Reformation than Anne would ever do — including risking her own life. She also made sure that the two younger children, Edward and Elizabeth, were educated and brought up in the Protestant faith. She was a strong and stable woman on her own with extraordinary family links and ancestry that was deeply rooted at court and the royal family well before she became queen. Parr can not be compared with or lumped with Anne Boleyn.
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