Monday, February 13, 2012

Consort Profile: Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr, famous for being the last of the ill-fated six wives of King Henry VIII of England, was born in or around 1512, the eldest child of Sir Thomas Parr, Sheriff of Northamptonshire and Comptroller to the King. Her mother had been an aid to Queen Catherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr was named after the Queen who was her godmother. The family rose in importance during the reign of Henry VIII and Sir Thomas Parr was a good friend of the monarch. As a child, Katherine was well educated and very intelligent, learning French, Italian and Latin. She had no interest in the usual feminine pastimes and preferred more intellectual pursuits. Coming from a good family, she was only twelve when her mother started negotiating for an appropriate husband for her (she herself had only been 17 when she gave birth to Katherine) but it took some time to make a match. Finally she was married to Sir Edward Borough, Baron of Gainsborough who was 63 whereas Katherine was only 14 at the time. Naturally, he had been married before (his wife having died) and he already had three children. Still, this was not that uncommon at the time and the wedding went off without a hitch.

Katherine had stepchildren older than she was but this odd arrangement was not to last long as Lord Borough died not long after in 1528, leaving Katherine a widow and probably giving her a rather pragmatic or even cynical view of marriage. She was a free woman briefly but only a couple of years later in 1530 she was quickly snatched up by John Neville, Lord Latimer of Snape Castle. She was 18, he was in his late 30’s and had been married twice before. It was during her time as Lady Latimer that Katherine first caught the eye of King Henry after the execution of his fifth wife Katherine Howard. She was 31 with a husband whose health was failing and the King began sending her presents. After his last marriage he had been a little reluctant to marry again and even when he made up his mind to, he found brides much harder to come by. Most of the princesses of Europe had come to view the “job” of Queen consort of England as anything but desirable. No perks could be worth the risk of ruinous divorce or beheading. So, once again, the only option the King seemed to have was marrying one of his own subjects.

In 1543 Lord Latimer died leaving Katherine Parr a free, still attractive and wealthy woman in her own right. She remained at court after the death of her husband because of the growing possibility of romance with Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane and so uncle to the future King Edward VI. Seymour was everything Katherine was not. She was responsible and intelligent, he was hot-headed and unscrupulous. She was principled and he was mercenary. Yet, he was famously handsome and Katherine was as susceptible as many otherwise intelligent women in falling prey to the dashing image of a ’fancy’ man. For his part, Seymour was anxious to gain the considerable fortune Katherine had and she was not an unappealing woman on her own. Marriage rumors soon began to circulate. It was then, however, that the King intervened and it soon became clear that he wanted Katherine for himself even though Katherine, like most women at this point, had not the slightest desire to be wed to the old, increasingly ailing and notoriously cantankerous monarch. Still, she put her own feeling aside and did what she considered her duty even after Henry had Seymour put out of the way by sending him as his ambassador to Brussels.

Her reluctance notwithstanding, Katherine Parr was probably the most qualified of any of the recent consorts to be the wife of Henry VIII. She was experienced at being a wife and being a nurse to a dying husband. She had a winning personality, was very charming, an excellent conversationalist and seemed interested in everything. What could have been problematic was her intelligence. She was very well read and loved religious arguments and theological discussions. In the past, the King had shown very little tolerance for this, especially when the source was his wife who he traditionally preferred to be demure, submissive and obedient. However, after his last wife, he might have considered this less important that the fidelity that Katherine Parr was quite known for. There would certainly be no surprising revelations concerning the past when it came to Katherine Parr. She would also be acceptable to the Protestant faction at court as she was very vocal about her belief that the King was supreme in religious matters and that the Pope in Rome was a horrible monster who was a worse persecutor of the people of God than the Biblical Pharaoh of Egypt. Just what Henry liked to hear.

So it was that on July 12, 1543 King Henry VIII and Katherine Parr were married, one of the witnesses being Henry’s ex-wife Anne of Cleves, and almost everyone was happy at the news. Her submission to the King in religious matters was immediately tested when he had three Protestants burned for heresy in Great Park at Windsor but the new Queen made no objection even though her Lutheran sympathies were well known and a cause for concern in more Catholic quarters. As Queen consort, one of things Katherine is most known for is her work in bringing about a reconciliation in the often dysfunctional Tudor Royal Family. Mary and Elizabeth had both, at various points, been declared bastards by their own father. Mary had seen her mother cast aside and waste away under house arrest until her death at the hands of the King, Elizabeth knew her father had her mother put to death on absurd charges of adultery and the little prince Edward had been a source of intrigue and a jockeying for position almost since the day he was born. Reconciliation was both needed and long over due if the House of Tudor was to be expected to long survive.

The reconciliation between the King and Elizabeth was the most significant of all. Edward was his hope for the future, Mary he had known the longest and become accustomed to but until Katherine went to work the King had never been comfortable around his second daughter, perhaps because the memories she evoked of Ann Boleyn were too painful than he liked to admit. Queen Katherine took Elizabeth under her wing and supervised her education, meaning that the woman who was destined to gain fame as England’s greatest queen was in very good hands. Princess Mary, having for so long been discarded, was thrilled at simply being treated as she deserved, like a royal princess and the daughter of a King. Prince Edward was kept the most from her but she still managed to have a positive influence on the boy and he developed a real affection for her. For perhaps the first time since Henry VIII put away Katherine of Aragon the English Royal Family was together and at peace with each other. No small accomplishment that.

In affairs of state, the influence of Queen Katherine was negligible. After Queen Marie of Guise rejected the proposal that her daughter marry Prince Edward, Henry VIII sent an English army to invade Scotland which sacked and burned numerous cities, religious houses and ultimately accomplished nothing more than making the Scots hate England more than ever before and make them even more dependent on their alliance with France. Henry VIII had done what few Scottish kings ever managed to do: uniting the squabbling nobles of Scotland, at least for a time and on the sole basis of their hatred of England. Katherine played little to no part in this but she did surprise some by influencing the King to keep Princess Mary as second-in-line for the throne after her younger brother, despite the two having very different religious views. It was good for peace in the family and would be good in keeping on friendly terms with the Empire at a time when England had been acquiring more enemies than was healthy for a country not exactly at the peak of its power. So impressive was Katherine in her dealings with the family, foreign officials and so remarkable was her intelligence that Henry felt no hesitation about naming her regent to rule on his behalf when he left for his long-planned invasion of France.

As with almost everything in post-Catherine of Aragon England, the one most controversial aspect of Queen Katherine was her religion. It is often misunderstood that England was Catholic before Henry wanted a divorce and then Protestant after he broke with Rome in order to give himself one. It was not that simple. There were traditional Catholics like Princess Mary who despised giving up an inch of the “old religion”, there were pro-Lutheran Protestants who wanted a total religious “do-over” in the country and then there were the people like Henry VIII often was who were somewhere between these two. They might have despised the papacy and the religious orders but they still considered themselves part of the historical Catholic Church and viewed Protestant beliefs in many instances as heretical. Because of this it can sometimes be disputed as to whether this or that individual fit into the Catholic or Protestant camps. There were also numerous people who crossed back and forth between the two depending on the prevailing political winds.

Katherine Parr, based on her background and her own writings, was firmly in the Protestant camp though not everyone would have known it at the time. Eventually there was no getting around the fact that she was more religiously radical than Henry VIII and the Catholic faction at court tried to convince the King she was no good for him. However, Katherine was a good enough wife that she had little trouble in getting Henry to overlook her religious opinions. It is also true that she enjoyed religious debates and could participate in them without rancor or hatred toward those she was arguing with. Henry VIII, despite his rejection of the authority of Rome, did not consider himself a Protestant and, indeed, despised them. Nonetheless, his marriage to Katherine was an overall happy one. She was attentive to him, conversed with him to take his mind of his problems and ailments and in his declining years she was an able and conscientious nurse to him. She was a remarkably dutiful wife given that she probably never really loved the king at all in the way most people today would understand it. Before Henry VIII died he left orders that she be treated as Queen of England for the rest of her life, as if she were still the royal consort and he made generous provision for her.

Thomas Seymour quickly returned to Katherine and less than a year after the death of Henry the couple were finally married. This caused some raised eyebrows at court but it was nothing no one couldn’t get over. She continued to write, her works being quite well received and, to the surprise of all, at the age of 35 she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Mary Seymour who was born in 1548. Sadly, Katherine died of fever less than a week later.

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