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What really happened to Henry VIII’s last queen? Inside the mysterious death of Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr, Queen of England

History remembers her as the ‘survivor’. Katherine Parr, last queen of Henry VIII, managed to get to the end of his reign with her marriage and her head intact. It was no mean feat. Yet, just over a year later, Kateryne The Quene was dead. How did the story of a royal woman who had navigated the pitfalls and caprices of the last days of Henry VIII end so soon afterwards?

The accepted version is, on the surface, obvious. Katherine Parr married again within months of Henry’s death and died in September 1548 after giving birth to a daughter. She was buried in the chapel of the castle she called home and is remembered now as the dowdy sixth wife who dabbed Henry’s leg ulcers while the Tudor court buzzed with intrigue over who would hold power when the great king was gone. Katherine became the mousy queen who fell in love and met a tragic end.

Except the Katherine involved in that telling of her story is very far removed from the woman who lived. And the conclusion that childbirth had caused her death was arrived at in the 18th century after decades of speculation that she had been poisoned. What’s more, Katherine’s funeral was one of the oddest of any queen of England and her grave was lost only to be rediscovered centuries later and turned into a macabre tourist attraction. So what really caused the death of Katherine Parr, Queen of England?

There is no doubt that she died six days after giving birth. Katherine Parr had remarried within months of Henry’s death and in August 1548, she was at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, the home of her new husband, Thomas Seymour. He was a maternal uncle of the new king, ten year old Edward VI, but he had been frozen out of power by his own brother, Edward Seymour, and was more than resentful about it. Katherine gave birth to a daughter on August 30th and appeared well. The only surviving account of her final days, from one of her ladies, Elizabeth Tyrwhit, said the queen seemed strong but became convinced, on September 3rd 1548, that she was about to die. Katherine accused Thomas Seymour of hastening her end and died in the early hours of September 5th, with her husband leaving Sudeley almost immediately afterwards.

Historians in the centuries afterwards wrote that her death was ”not without suspicion of poison”. It was only in the 18th century, when her passing became a fashionable topic amongst antiquarians, that childbed fever was attached to her passing. There was a growing body of scientific research into the condition at the time. Katherine’s symptoms were seen to match the emerging evidence. She had appeared well but had begun to act strangely around four days after birth, taken as a sign of delirium as infection set in.

However, the rest had to be imagined. For Elizabeth Tyrwhit gives no physical description of Katherine’s condition. And the circumstances of her evidence were also seen as suspect. She had only recounted the queen’s death as part of the process of declaring Thomas Seymour a traitor. By the time Elizabeth was telling her tale, he had attempted to take control of Edward VI and was locked in the Tower. It was concluded that Lady Tyrwhit had delivered a description of a ruthless man accused of murder by a queen to fit the unstoppable narrative of a wicked, grasping villain.

Yet, there was no evidence to suggest she was wrong. Thomas Seymour was a reckless man who did whatever he thought would get him what he really wanted – power. His marriage to Katherine had already run into disaster after he tried to seduce Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was in the care of the queen. He created such a web of deceit and disaster around himself in the months after Katherine’s death that his own execution as an enemy of the state became inevitable. And although it was normal for husbands to miss the funeral of their wife at the time, his departure from the scene of Katherine’s death was hasty at the very least.

For Katherine was buried within 48 hours of dying. In Tudor times, royal funerals often took weeks to arrange. But the queen was interred just two days after dying. Given that her place of death was over 100 miles from London, it isn’t even certain that the court knew she was dead before she was buried. Katherine was a devout Protestant and would have shrunk from the idea of a grand funeral in a major church or cathedral. But royalty had as little control over what happened to them in death as anyone else. Katherine was still regarded as a queen of England at the time of her passing and yet it was taken as totally acceptable that she be buried in a tiny chapel with no pomp or ceremony at all.

Her funeral is regarded as the first public Protestant funeral of a major English figure in history, a fitting end to the story of a woman who had been an ardent campaigner for religious reform. Handily, her almoner, Miles Coverdale, was on hand to carry out this milestone moment. He had been in exile for his reformist views but was now back in England and at the side of the queen in her final days at Sudeley. There is a written account of her funeral which is notable for its simplicity. And yet the most mysterious part of it all is barely mentioned.

For Katherine was buried in so many layers of cere cloth and in a lead casket so tight that it stopped her body from decomposing. There was no real reason for this. Kings and queens were often heavily embalmed as their bodies would be taken on long journeys for burial and their funerals could be months after their actual deaths. Katherine had died just yards away from what would become her grave and she was carried there just two days later. Yet much of the 48 hours between her death and burial was taken up by wrapping her in waxed cloth and sealing her in a fitted lead casing.

It raises the question of why? Did someone want to make her body inaccessible? Or had Katherine succumbed to another condition just as notorious at the time for claiming lives? Did the last queen of Henry VIII die of plague?

Katherine’s tiny tomb was lost in the 17th century when the English Civil War took hold. It was found in the late 18th century by a farmer who went digging after being persuaded to explore by a group described as ”lady sightseers’. News of his discovery soon spread and in the years that followed, the queen’s grave was dug up again and again. Her body had been in perfect condition when first discovered, owing to those many layers of cere cloth and the lead casket she had been buried in. But soon, Katherine’s corpse began to decompose. Eventually, the queen’s remains were reinterred safely inside the chapel, away from the curious. She was given another burial in the 19th century when the magnificent tomb that now marks her resting place was built.

It was the final chapter in the strange and mysterious death of Katherine Parr, a woman so powerful that she once ruled England for Henry VIII while he campaigned in France but who was shut out of the inner circle of control that sprang up around his successor, the boy king Edward VI, and who ended her days miles from the court she had once commanded. The question remains – how did Katherine Parr, Queen of England, really die?

The story of Katherine Parr’s death is explored in the new book by Royal Central’s Editor in Chief. The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr , published by Pen and Sword Books, is available now.

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About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.