Ranking the Six Wives of Henry VIII: #2 Catherine Parr
Catherine Parr is one of my absolute favorite women in history, and she’s also (in my experience) the most misunderstood of Henry VIII’s wives. In fictional portrayals of Henry’s reign (at least those in which Catherine actually makes an appearance), she is usually depicted as an older nursemaid figure. In the king’s later years, after dealing with the debacle of his marriage to the teenaged Catherine Howard and after sinking into ill-health, he chose a mature, matronly woman. While it is true that Catherine Parr was, in many ways, the complete opposite of her young predecessor, this characterization of Henry’s last wife and queen is unfair.
Catherine was older than any of Henry’s other wives at the time of their marriage - she was thirty and the king was fifty-two. She was also already a widow, having been married twice before. Despite all of this, however, Catherine was still young, and she was quite a catch for any man. As a widow, she could have lived comfortably as a single woman or she could have married the man of her choice (it is clear that she had hoped to marry Thomas Seymour, a man five years younger than she was). Catherine was also still considered quite beautiful by her contemporaries, and she took great pride in her appearance by dressing in lavish clothing and, once she was queen, adorning herself with jewelry. Aside from Catherine of Aragon, we have more portraits of Catherine Parr than any of the other wives, as she enjoyed the grandeur of portraiture. Despite all of this, Catherine is usually depicted as an overly-conservative, matronly woman, whose only job is to nurse the king in his old age. Even in The Tudors (which I think did a fine job with Catherine), Joely Richardson is too old for the part (Richardson was forty-five playing a thirty-year-old Catherine Parr).
Catherine was also the true Protestant queen, rather than Anne Boleyn. As queen, Catherine used her influence to patronize zealous reformers, to instruct her ladies in theology, and even to publish her own religious works. Catherine was, theologically, more Protestant than Anne Boleyn had been, and she was nearly arrested for heresy in 1546. Catherine’s cool-headedness and intelligence saved her, however, for she skillfully argued her case to Henry and he forgave her. Her interference also helped ensure that Henry’s son, Edward VI, was brought up in the Protestant faith. She also had much influence on Elizabeth I’s character and religious beliefs. Although she was not the most educated of Henry’s wives, Catherine valued learning and she used her position as queen to continue her education.
The thing I find the most fascinating about Catherine, however, is the fact that she was complex and unpredictable. Her decision to marry the king is often portrayed as self-sacrificial - she put aside her own desires and married the old king, knowing that she could help the Protestant cause. This is, in my opinion, a faulty analysis of Catherine’s personality and motives. Catherine was an incredibly ambitious woman, and she enjoyed being queen. As mentioned before, she wore lavish clothing and jewelry, she patronized the arts, and she brought her friends and family to court. After the king died in 1547 and she lost her position, Catherine complained bitterly that other ladies at court, particularly Anne Stanhope (the Lord Protector’s wife), had usurped her place. In the spring of 1547, mere months after the king’s death, Catherine was married for the fourth time, to Thomas Seymour. This marriage was a love match, but it was also ambitious and ill-advised. Her period of mourning was not complete, and Henry’s subjects (particularly his daughter, Mary) resented Catherine’s impropriety. Thomas Seymour was also a power-hungry courtier, jealous of his brother’s newfound power as Edward VI’s Lord Protector. Catherine, who resented not being named regent for her royal stepson, probably chose to marry Thomas in order to challenge the Lord Protector. Unfortunately, she died after giving birth to a daughter in 1548. Her husband was executed within a year, however, for attempting to kidnap the young king.
Catherine died at age thirty-six with much unfulfilled potential. She had continued to publish her religious writings during Edward VI’s reign, and, had she lived through Mary I’s Catholic reign, she could have been an influential figure at the court of her youngest stepdaughter, Elizabeth I. Her complexity, unpredictability, and intelligence place her very high on my list.
Agree or disagree with this placement? Want to tell me your own rankings? Let me know your opinion!
Kateryn Parr was a fascinating woman, and it’s a shame she doesn’t get more attention from Tudorphiles. Like Katharine of Aragon, she’s often given that “matronly” affect in her portrayals, but her portraits were sometimes confused as being those of Lady Jane Grey, a woman half her age.
As fascinating as her life was, Kateryn also had an interesting journey after her death.
One wishes she could have had a happier ending, that Thomas Seymour would have been worthy of her. It would have been lovely to hear of Kateryn living for at least a few short months in happiness with her new husband instead of becoming uncomfortably aware that his “games” with his stepdaughter, Elizabeth, weren’t the innocent fun she seems to have thought.
What happened to her daughter, Mary, I’ve always wondered? She ended up staying with Katherine Willoughby Brandon (the widow of Charles Brandon, who’d once eloped with Henry VIII’s sister, and who’d married his young son’s fiance when the princess died, leaving him in debt to her brother.) There were a few resentful letters about the expense of rearing a child who must be housed in a manner befitting a daughter of a Dowager Queen, but whose father’s estate had been seized and provided no income - and then Mary Seymour vanishes from the historical record around her second birthday.
It’s easy for a curious mind to invent suspicions of neglect, or an even more nefarious end for her, though the simplest - and most likely - explanation is that Mary fell victim to the near 50% mortality rate for children of the era. Still, it’s sad that no grave survives, no record was kept, and no one seems to have mourned this poor little orphan, born under such restless skies.