On July 12th 1543, a rather low key royal wedding took place. The groom was Henry VIII and his sixth wife was Katherine Parr, a relatively unknown minor noblewoman who had risen from daughter of a knight to Queen of England in thirty years. The woman who became a royal bride on that July day at Hampton Court was also one of her country’s most interesting consorts – here are ten reasons why Katherine Parr is a queen well worth remembering.
1. Katherine was named after Henry VIII’s first wife
Katherine Parr was born around 1512, about three years after Henry VIII had married Catherine of Aragon. Her mother was an ambitious and sensible woman called Maud Green who had been a lady in waiting to Catherine and named her first little girl in her honour. Maud would be a major influence on her daughter as Katherine’s father, Sir Thomas Parr, died when she was about five years old.
But Maud’s most lasting influence was to ensure that the final consort of England’s most married king was actually named after his first queen.
2. Henry wasn’t Katherine’s first husband
In fact, the Tudor terror wasn’t even husband number two. She might have been wife number six but for Katherine, Henry was husband number three. And he wouldn’t be her last either. Kate married for the first time at sixteen, plighting her troth to a teenager called Sir Edward Borough who was in line to become a baron – a good match for Miss Parr who was descended from knights, not nobility.
Sir Edward died four years later but Katherine didn’t stay widowed for long. In 1534 she wed John Neville, Lord Latimer and the Parrs were finally peers. That marriage, childless like her first, lasted nine years and when her second husband died in March 1543 at the age of 51, 31 year old Katherine set off to London to make her fortune at the royal court.
3. Katherine was in love with someone else on her wedding day
The romantic telling of Katherine’s story has it that when she arrived at the court of Henry VIII she fell in love with Thomas Seymour, brother of Jane and uncle to the future Edward VI. One letter from Katherine to Seymour tells of how she was ‘fully bent…to marry you before any man I knew.’
Less romantically, Thomas and Katherine were both shrewd and ambitious. Seymour’s family were influential and would become even more important as Edward grew older. Katherine was wealthy, thanks to her inheritance from Lord Latimer, and smart meaning Thomas would get a wife who could help him negotiate court politics. All these years later, we’ll never know how Thomas and Katherine really felt about one another. We do know their abandoned affair of 1543 wasn’t the end of the story.
4. She was the first royal Kate to become a fashion icon
Katherine Parr has gone down in history as the frumpy wife who nursed the grumpy Henry through his last illnesses. In fact, she was a fashion icon who loved clothes and who was noted as one of Europe’s snappiest dressers.
Records from her household show that once Katherine got that royal wedding ring on her finger, she set about dressing like a queen. One set of accounts shows an order for yards of black velvet, another for epic quantities of satin for some very royal frocks. Five hundred years before the Duchess of Cambridge set the fashion world alight, there was a royal Kate setting trends of her own.
5. Katherine Parr ruled England
History tells us that Henry VIII wasn’t that keen on women holding power – after all, he changed his entire kingdom just to try and have a son to whom he could leave his crown. And yet he allowed Katherine Parr to rule in his place when he had one last go at war in Europe in the summer of 1544.
Henry had only made one of his other wives regent – Catherine of Aragon had exercised the monarch’s powers in 1513 on another of Henry’s campaigns in France. But the first Catherine was the daughter of two of Europe’s most famous monarchs and cousin to several more continental rulers. Katherine Parr has a place in history as the first commoner queen to rule as regent.
6. She almost lost her head
Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Katherine Parr certainly ended up with the happiest fate of any of Henry’s wives according to the old rhyme. But this Kate came close to being the third Mrs Tudor to face the chop.
By 1546, Henry VIII was ill and his sixth wife was at the height of her powers. Her strong opinions, especially on religion, gained her enemies who whispered to the king that she was up to no good. Henry agreed to have her arrested but wife number six got wind of that and managed to convince her husband she had only talked so much about religion to take his mind off his ulcerated leg. Henry was more than happy with that and when the guards turned up to arrest her the next day, he sent them packing. Katherine kept her head but kept her opinions to herself after that.
7. Katherine caused a huge royal scandal
Tudor tabloids would have loved Queen Kate, or KP as she signed her letters, because in 1547, five months after the death of Henry VIII, she married her lover. In secret. Katherine Parr caused one of the biggest scandals in royal history up until then by taking her former love, Thomas Seymour, as her husband and not telling anyone until it was too late.
Henry had left Katherine well provided for in his will but he hadn’t given her any part in the upbringing of Edward VI, the boy king to whom she had been very close. By marrying his maternal uncle, Katherine gained another family link to the young man destined to rule England. Did true love or true ambition govern Katherine’s decision to marry for the fourth time? Either way, Queen Katherine well and truly shocked Europe by her actions.
8. Katherine Parr inspired Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I had been motherless since the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536 but the arrival of Katherine Parr as stepmother number four changed all that. Elizabeth was greatly influenced by Katherine and some historians argue that the successful regency of 1544 provided the Virgin Queen with a template of female rule.
Katherine loved learning and even wrote several books herself. After Henry’s death, she brought Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey to live with her and continued their education. But Thomas Seymour then began a flirtation with Elizabeth who, aged around fourteen, reciprocated. Katherine sent her stepdaughter away and there was no chance of a reconciliation before the queen’s sudden death in 1548. Even so, the influence she had on the young princess was huge and helped turn her into the powerhouse that she became.
9. She accused her husband of trying to kill her
After an action packed life, it’s no surprise that Katherine kept fighting even while she lay dying. She contracted childbed fever after delivering her only child – a daughter born on August 30th 1548 at Katherine and Thomas’ home at their home at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. And as the fever took hold, husband number four came under fire.
Katherine accused Thomas of trying to kill her by keeping her own doctors away from her. He was reported to have tried to soothe her but for several hours, the dowager queen was having none of it and raged against her husband. She regained her calm and died on September 5th 1548.
10. Katherine’s funeral made history
After breaking plenty of rules in life, KP continued to do things her own way in death. Her burial was the first public Protestant funeral for a major figure to be held in England. She was laid to rest in the chapel of Sudeley Castle with Lady Jane Grey as her chief mourner.
In the English Civil War, Sudeley was bombarded by Cromwell’s forces and fell into disrepair. Katherine’s grave disappeared and wasn’t rediscovered until 1782. She now lies in the church at Sudeley Castle beneath a marble tomb designed in the late 19th century. Nearby is an inscription which reads
‘Here Lyes Queen Kateryne, Wife to Henry VIII. And last the wife of Thomas Lord of Sudeley, High Admirall of England. And unkle to King Edward VI.’
History, until recently, saw women as bit part players so Katherine is remembered by her relationship to three men. But in reality, she was one of England’s first female rulers and a major influence on the girl who grew up to be one of our most famous monarchs of all. It’s perhaps time to stop remembering the royal bride of July 12th 1543 as a nursemaid and see Katherine Parr as one of the most interesting queens England has ever had.