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Early Modern Britain

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Edited from Channel 4's The Six Wives of Henry VIII series by Doctor David Starkey, September 2001

Part 7: Katherine Parr

A new law made it treason for any future queen to conceal her pre-marital affairs.

It would take a bold or a modest woman to become fifty-two year-old Henry's wife. When, in 1543, thirty-two year-old widow Katherine Parr came to court, she had been married twice. She was independently well off, with neither parents nor children. (Her name is sometimes alternatively shown as Katheryn or Catherine.)

Immediately Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane and one of the most eligible bachelors at Henry's court, was attracted to the wealthy, good-looking widow. The feeling was mutual, but Henry had fallen in love with Katherine and he showered her with gifts.

In May, Henry cleared his path by sending Seymour to be resident ambassador in Brussels and then he proposed marriage to Katherine. She accepted not for personal, political, or dynastic ambitions, but because God had told her to. They married on 12 July 1543 at Hampton Court, making Katherine the last queen consort of the Tudor dynasty.

Both of Henry's daughters, the young princesses Mary and Elizabeth, were present at the wedding and Katherine took a keen interest in the education of both Elizabeth and Edward. In fact it was Katherine who was influential in getting Henry to pass the Third Succession Act in 1543 which restored Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. She also acted as regent between July and September 1544 while the king was campaigning in France. If he failed to return then she was to maintain the position until young Edward came of age.

Katherine believed it was her task to complete the conversion of king and country to the reformed religion, an ambition which drew sympathies from Archbishop Cranmer. She had already anonymously published her first book in 1543, Psalms or Prayers.

Anti-Protestant officials immediately placed her in their sights. Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, disliked nothing more than a woman with opinions, especially anti-Catholic opinions. By 1545 his hunt for heretics began to close in on the queen.

Katherine's religious opinions were known in detail because, most unusually for a sixteenth century woman and still more remarkably for a queen, she was a published writer as mentioned above. Her first work to be published under her own name was the Prayers and Meditations, printed in 1545.

Part 1: Marriage Lines
Part 2: Catherine of Aragon
Part 3: Anne Boleyn
Part 4: Jane Seymour
Part 5: Anne of Cleves
Part 6: Catherine Howard
Part 7: Katherine Parr

A warrant for her arrest was drawn up in the same year by her enemies. Katherine knew she had to follow her conscience and face death, or subdue it and survive. She told the king, ill with thrombosis of his leg, that her opinions 'were woman's opinions of no importance and never had been'. The king was convinced of his wife's innocence and they were reconciled.

Gardiner was dismissed from the king's Privy Council and the duke of Norfolk was sent to the Tower. Henry's death in 1547 ended the debate.

Katherine retained her jewels and gowns and may even have been classed by the court as the queen dowager while she lived. She became guardian to the future Elizabeth I and also published a second work under her own name, entitled The Lamentation of a Sinner.

In her personal life Katherine returned to Seymour. They married and one year after Henry's death she was pregnant. She gave birth to a girl, but fell ill and died. She was buried as Henry's widow, but not in a fashion of which he would have approved. It was the first Protestant royal funeral.



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