Catharine (sometimes spelled Catherine, Katherine or Katharine) Parr (1512–1548) was the sixth and last wife of England's King Henry VIII. Reputedly kind and quite well educated for the time, she apparently enjoyed a fairly harmonious relationship with the king and his three children, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward. Indeed, many credit her with convincing the king to reinstate Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, a decision that eventually led to the Golden Age of Elizabethan England.
Catharine was born about 1512, the first of the three children of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and Maud, daughter of Sir Thomas Green. Her brother, William, and sister, Anne, followed in quick succession. It was just three years into the reign of King Henry VIII. Her father had been knighted at the king's 1509 coronation, and both parents served as courtiers, Thomas as Master of the Household and Maud as a lady-in-waiting to the king's first wife,
Although Catharine's deeply religious mother was only 22 years old at the time of her husband's death, she spurned all offers of marriage and dedicated herself to the education and upbringing of her children. They were brought up at the home of their uncle, Sir William Parr (later to become Lord Parr of Horton and Lord Chamberlain of Parr's royal household), in Northamptonshire, and schooled in scripture and languages. In the tradition of the period, Catharine and her sister were also taught the skills necessary for managing a noble household, as well as music and dance. And, also according to the dictates of the era, the mother soon began looking for suitable matrimonial partners for her offspring.
Catharine was just nine years old when her mother instituted negotiations for her betrothal to one Henry Scrope. Those talks fell through, however, and sights were set on Edward Borough of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. There is, however, some dispute as to who this suitor was. Some sources allege the man was the 2nd Lord Borough, who was in his late fifties or sixties around the year 1526. Others believe he was the eldest son of Thomas, the 3rd Lord Borough, and thus not nearly so old. In any event, an agreement was struck with one of the two, and Catharine was married around 1526, at the approximate age of 14. She was then widowed in 1528 or 1529, while still a teenager.
Shortly after Catharine became a widow for the first time, she also became an orphan upon the death of her mother. With her mother's passing, Catharine inherited a fair-sized fortune. But she was not destined to be on her own for long, as she soon attracted the attentions of John Neville, Lord Latimer. He had been married twice before, once to Dorothy de Vere, mother of his two children, and then to Elizabeth Musgrave, who died soon after they were wed. Nonetheless, the 40-something lord took the much younger Catharine as his third bride early in the 1530s.
As Lady Latimer, Catharine took over the household duties at her husband's immense estate, Snape Hall in Yorkshire. She was adept at her new responsibilities, and was well-liked both at home and at court. A mighty tension came about in 1536 though, as a rebellion called the "Pilgrimage of Grace" against Henry VIII's abolition of papal supremacy (1534) and the ensuing confiscation of monastic properties arose in the North. Latimer, his daughter Margaret, and Catharine were kidnapped and/or held under house arrest by the rebels, but that did not prevent the king from summoning Latimer to London to clarify his loyalties. And although Latimer was found innocent of any complicity in the uprising, the ordeal broke his health and Catharine was soon nursing another ill husband.
Despite the temptations of a young and frivolous court in London, there was never any indication that Catharine was anything less than solicitous and compassionate in the care of her invalid husband. It was undoubtedly helpful to her to have the companionship of her sister, Anne, who had married the grandson of the Earl of Pembroke and was at court as a lady-in-waiting. For all of his wife's tender care, however, Latimer died in the spring of 1543. He left Catharine the care of Margaret and his estates of Nunkmonton and Hamerton. Widowed again at only 31 years old, Catharine had the debatable consolation of being very well off in her own right.
At the time of Latimer's death, King Henry VIII had recently become a widower via the execution of his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. He had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, along with the Roman Catholic Church, in order to marry his second, Anne Boleyn. After having Boleyn executed, he had married Jane Seymour, who had borne his only legitimate son (Edward) and died soon afterward. Anne of Cleves was the king's fourth bride, but that union had ended in divorce as well. In addition, the years had rendered the king overweight and in poor health. In sum, partly in spite of and partly because of, his royal title, Henry VIII was no longer considered the most desirable bachelor in the land—unquestionably, his attentions had proved to be a definitive liability to many. And that attention was now directed at the Widow Catharine.
As Henry VIII's notice was becoming focused on Catharine, she was enjoying her first flirtation with a contemporary in his prime. The object of her affection was Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane and uncle to Prince Edward. However, the king's wishes and Catharine's finely honed sense of duty nipped the bourgeoning romance in the bud, and Seymour was packed off to Brussels on a long-term diplomatic mission. Catharine became the sixth wife of Henry VIII in a ceremony at Hampton Court on July 12, 1543.
Catharine promptly put away whatever misgivings she may have had about her third match and set about making it a success. She chose "To Be Useful in All That I Do" as her motto, and lived up to it admirably. To the king, she was an excellent companion and caring nurse. The two shared a love of music, conversation, and finery that helped bridge the years. To his children she became a champion, overseeing their education, working at reconciliation with their father, and very likely being the moving force behind the new Act of Succession of 1544, which placed the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth back into line for the throne. And with the courtiers, she retained the widespread popularity she had enjoyed as Lady Latimer. Indeed, the king was so well pleased with Catharine that he appointed her Regent of England when he went to war with France the year after their marriage.
All were not enamored of Catharine of course. As queen, she continued to exercise her intellectual abilities by becoming proficient in Italian and Latin, and was competent in Greek. She also published her first book, Prayers and Meditations , in 1545. But it was her lively interest in the new Protestant faith, about which she liked to engage both the king and courtiers in debate, that nearly brought about her downfall. Theology was a touchy subject in England at the time, as the king had denied papal supremacy and installed himself as head of the Church of England back in 1534. He was, however, equally antagonistic to the teachings of such Protestant reformers as Martin Luther, whose views were seen as heretical. Catharine, nonetheless, found the new faith enticing, much to the hostility of Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, among others. Charges of heresy were drawn up against her in the summer of 1546, but Catharine managed to reconcile with the king in the eleventh hour and avoid arrest.
As 1546 progressed, Henry VIII's health declined steadily. Catharine continued to attentively nurse him and attend to her other duties. By winter the king was gravely ill and on January 28, 1547, he died at the age of 55. Catharine thus became a widow once more at 35; but this time, she also was the dowager queen.
Prince Edward was crowned King Edward VI on January 31, 1547, and Seymour's older brother, Edward, was named to rule in the young king's name. Catharine chose to retire from court to her house in Chelsea. Her old beau Seymour was back, now resplendent as Baron Seymour of Sudeley Castle, Lord High Admiral for life, and member of the Order of the Garter. He renewed his suit for her hand and, for the first time in her life, Catharine was free to follow her heart. So, with what many considered unseemly haste, Catharine and Seymour were married in the spring of 1547.
Dashing and successful, Seymour was a man of consummate ambition. There were even rumors that he had made advances toward the young Princess Elizabeth that necessitated cutting short her stay in the newlyweds' household at Sudeley Castle. Nonetheless, Catharine apparently loved him and was delighted to find herself pregnant with her first child in November of 1547. That same month and year, she published her second book, The Lamentations of a Sinner , which enjoyed widespread acclaim. This idyllic period was unfortunately short-lived. Catharine gave birth to a daughter named Mary on August 30, 1548 and died within the week of puerperal fever. Seymour was executed for treason the following year.
Although it was a sad ending for a woman who had devoted her life to others, Catharine's legacy was more far-reaching than that of a simple kindness of spirit. It was likely that through her efforts the daughters of Henry VIII were restored to the line of succession in 1544. And it was certainly under her guidance that they were highly and broadly educated. While this direction may have produced less than pleasing results in the case of the elder, Princess Mary, its fruits became abundant and obvious when Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 and ushered in the Golden Age of Elizabethan England.
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