Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII, played an important role in the lives of many key figures in the English Reformation.
She was born in c.1512 into a minor aristocratic family, some three years after Henry VIII had married his first wife Catherine of Aragon.
Her father died when she was five years old, and eventually her mother (Maud) secured a place for her at court as one of the queen’s ladies. There she became fluent in French, understood Latin, and was familiar with Greek and Italian.
Catherine was not wealthy, nor considered a beauty. She was of average height for the time (her coffin was just 5ft 4ins long), but nonetheless Maud looked to secure a good marriage for her.
Her first husband was Edward Burgh the younger (not, as previously thought, Edward’s grandfather). They married in 1529, when Catherine was just 17. Catherine’s father-in-law, Sir Thomas Burgh, was sympathetic to the Reformation cause gathering pace on mainland Europe, and had close links with Anne Boleyn. So it’s possible that at this time Catherine first came into contact with evangelical teaching.
It was during her marriage to Edward that Catherine heard of her mother’s death, and, just two years later after four years of marriage, Edward himself died. Catherine was unable to remain at the family home, which belonged, not to Edward, but to his father Thomas. So now as an orphan and widow she had no home to go to.
It is uncertain what happened to her next, except by the end of 1533 she had married the third Lord Latimer, of Snape Castle in Yorkshire. Her husband was the eldest son of his family, with no fewer than 14 brothers and sisters, some of whom exhibited unstable behaviour.
Thus Catherine, recently widowed and orphaned at the age of 22, had to adapt to being a stepmother to the two children of Latimer’s first wife, and maternal head of an extended, partly dysfunctional family — something it seems she accomplished with some success.
Margaret, her stepdaughter, stated in her will she was unable to render Catherine sufficient thanks ‘for the godly education and tender love and bountiful goodness which I have evermore found in her Highness’.
However, Catherine’s husband did not share his new wife’s developing evangelical views and was involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace — a rebellion objecting to the ‘new religion’ Henry VIII was introducing to the realm in a series of legislative reforms.
Henry called a truce and Latimer went south to try and make his peace with the king, but Snape Castle was invaded in Latimer’s absence and Catherine and her stepchildren were in considerable danger.
Although Latimer survived his part in the rebellion, Catherine knew that her husband had been compromised and that his life and possibly her own were now at risk. This second husband of Catherine’s died in 1543, when she was just 31 years old. However, in contrast to her first widowhood, she was now left well provided for.
It was at this time that Catherine was called to serve as a lady-in-waiting for Princess Mary, who was acting as a hostess at court, Catherine Howard (Henry’s fifth wife) having been executed for adultery.
Sir Thomas Seymour (brother to Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife) was close to Henry and a favourite at court. He was a handsome, wealthy, ambitious, but devious man. Despite his ambition, and at a time when financial and political advancement was so often secured by a strategic marriage, he showed an interest in Catherine Parr, seemingly because genuinely attracted to her. Catherine in turn, despite being financially independent, was attracted to him.
However, Henry thought Catherine — the intelligent, youthful widow — would make a good wife for himself, so Henry gave Thomas a clear message by sending him on an overseas posting!
On 12 July 1543, Henry married Catherine in a private ceremony at Hampton Court. Among those she appointed to her retinue was her stepdaughter Margaret, from her marriage to Lord Latimer.
Catherine must have had grave reservations about her new marriage. By now, Henry was overweight, his health in decline, and was considered by many a tyrant. Furthermore, his previous wives had suffered two divorces, two beheadings and a death in childbirth.
Deprived of the marriage she wanted, she nonetheless embarked on making the best of the new family situation. Catherine had now acquired three new stepchildren: Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, at 27 was only four years younger than Catherine herself; Elizabeth aged nine, the daughter of Anne Boleyn — the future Elizabeth I; and Edward, the future boy-king, now aged six.
For Edward, deprived of his mother within days of his own birth, Catherine was the only mother he ever knew, and he showed his affection for her throughout his short life. He, like Elizabeth, was intellectually precocious, and it seems certain that Catherine had considerable influence on his education and upbringing.
On his accession to the throne at the age of nine, many compared Edward VI to the reforming Old Testament king Josiah. David Starkey, in his inimitable style, gives an account of the family dynamics and the young king’s remarkable grasp of the theological issues of the day (www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mRFbmSga_4&index=6&list=FLVpQTy93qtcthhb-ghBNdWA).
It is thought that Henry was influenced by Catherine to reinstate the right of both Mary and Elizabeth to succeed to the throne, overturning his previous declaration that their ‘illegitimacy’ precluded such. Henry’s confidence in Catherine can be seen in the fact that in 1544, for the duration of his military campaign in France, he appointed her as his regent, leaving her in charge of the affairs of state.
During the regency, in addition to being responsible for the governance of Henry’s three children, it is thought her contact with Archbishop Cranmer exposed her to further evangelical teaching. At this time she encouraged the reading of the Bible in English, as she did the prayers, composing one to be read on behalf of the soldiers in France.
However, Henry was always ambivalent about the new evangelical teaching and Catherine had to tread carefully. Nonetheless, at this time, she discussed religion daily with her husband, and in 1544 her Prayers or meditations was published. This was not specifically a Protestant work, but it is notable that there are no appeals to the ‘saints’.
But Catherine soon found herself on the wrong side of one of Henry’s many swings between conserving the nation’s Roman Catholic heritage and pressing on with the reform agenda. She misjudged this new direction of travel and began to annoy Henry in her defence of the newer evangelical beliefs.
Furthermore, Anne Askew, who embraced evangelical convictions, was arrested for denying the real presence in the mass, and it emerged that, while Anne was in prison, she had received money from the queen’s inner circle of friends.
Those who wanted to see a return of the ‘old religion’ saw their chance and suggested to Henry that Catherine was usurping her role and secured his permission to have her arrested for heresy. But Catherine learned of the plot and made a direct appeal to Henry, emphasising that she had not meant to challenge him and that she saw her first duty was as a Christian wife.
This speech saved the day for Catherine. However, Anne Askew, having suffered the torture of the rack and unable to walk, was carried to the stake to be burnt to death on 16 July 1546.
The next year, on 28 January 1547, Henry died. With the freedom this brought Catherine, she published The lamentation of a sinner, which clearly demonstrates her evangelical beliefs.
In it she claimed that she had neither ‘hope nor confidence in any creature, neither in heaven nor earth, but in Christ… [her] whole and only Saviour’. And, ‘I think no less, but many will wonder and marvel at this my saying, that I never knew Christ for my Saviour and Redeemer until this time’: giving the impression that, although her interest in evangelical teaching can be traced back to her first marriage, her conversion came later — perhaps during the time she was married to Henry when she had had regular contact with the evangelical Archbishop Cranmer.
As dowager queen, Catherine was expected to leave court. Princess Mary returned to her own estates, but Catherine was granted guardianship of Elizabeth.
Despite having had three arranged marriages, Catherine was still only 35 and there was now the possibility of marrying Thomas Seymour. A letter written early in 1547 shows the depth of feeling she had for him and, sometime around May, they became betrothed and, shortly after, married. This was in secret because they feared the public reaction to such an early match.
The newly married couple wrote to Princess Mary to try and gain retrospective approval for the marriage, but Mary strongly disapproved and Catherine’s relationship with her was never the same again. Elizabeth suggested to her stepsister Mary that she too had misgivings, but it was also clear that Elizabeth was happy for her stepmother and, most importantly, the young King Edward accepted the match.
Catherine’s new marriage meant that she spent much time with Thomas Seymour’s ward, the ten-year-old Lady Jane Grey. Catherine supervised the education of both Jane and Elizabeth. Like Edward, Jane was intellectually precocious, with strong evangelical convictions. She was later executed when others tried to crown her queen on Edward’s early death.
Although Thomas did not share Catherine’s religious convictions, she seemed happy in her marriage. She appointed the reformist John Parkhurst as her chaplain and the Bible translator Miles Coverdale as her almoner. Coverdale remained in her household until her death.
But all was not as it should be. Thomas was attracted to his 14-year-old stepdaughter Elizabeth, and it seemed clear to others that he was developing an inappropriate relationship with her. Catherine at first naively turned a blind eye, but eventually grew concerned. Although not blaming Elizabeth, she sent her away to stay with friends, to protect her from Thomas’s advances.
At this time Catherine, to the surprise of many including herself, discovered she was pregnant, and on 30 August 1548 she gave birth to a girl she named Mary. But, within days, Catherine died of puerperal fever, at the age of 36.
Shortly after her death, Thomas, who had been trying to undermine the government of the day, was arrested for treason and executed, leaving his daughter Mary an orphan. Little is known of her subsequent life, which suggests that she died as an infant.
In a strange postscript to Catherine’s story, Sudeley Castle chapel was destroyed in the civil war of the next century and all trace of her burial place was lost. But, in May 1782, her lead-lined coffin was found on the derelict site and, when opened, the body was still well preserved.
The coffin was later opened twice more; the second time in 1786, revealing only bones. It was not until 1863 that Catherine’s remains were finally laid to rest in a restored chapel.
Catherine, in her short life, had to navigate three arranged marriages and cope with diverse stepchildren. Although her marriage to Thomas Seymour was of her own choice, he proved to be an unstable husband and caused her much sorrow. But Catherine’s developing evangelical convictions (even though dangerous in Tudor society) and her eventual conversion brought her comfort.
Although possessing considerable intellectual abilities, she saw that her key role was, as a Christian wife and mother, to create, as far as she was able, a stable family life in each of her marriages.
It is clear from the testimony of many that she had considerable success in this. In the process, she influenced and supported many of the key players in the English Reformation. In this role, it is difficult to overestimate her influence during this turbulent period of our nation’s history.
Colin Hamer served for many years as an elder of Grace Baptist Church, Astley. He was recently awarded a PhD by Chester University for the thesis: Marital imagery in the Bible: an exploration of Genesis 2:24 and its significance for the understanding of New Testament divorce and remarriage teaching which is to be published by Apostolos this October.