Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Catherine Parr

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CATHERINE PARR (1512–1548), sixth and last queen of Henry VIII, was the daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal in Westmoreland, by Maud, daughter of Sir Thomas Green of Boughton and Green's Norton, Northamptonshire. Sir Thomas Parr was master of the wards and controller of the household to Henry VIII. He died on 11 Nov. 1517, leaving behind him three infant children in charge of his widow, to whom by his will he left all his lands for the term of her life. But he desired that his son William should have a rich gold chain of the value of 140l., which he had received as a present from the king, and that his two daughters, Catherine and Anne, should have 800l. between them as marriage portions. His widow, who at his death was only twenty-two, could hardly have failed to receive offers with a view to a second marriage, but, unlike most of the wealthy widows of those days, she refused them, and devoted herself to the education of her children, Catherine became an accomplished scholar, as her own writings remain to testify. Not only had she full command of Latin, but she was familiar with Greek as well, and had acquired great facility in the use of modern languages also.

In 1523 a negotiation was set on foot by Lord Dacre, between his son-in-law, Lord Scrope, and the Lady Maud Parr, for the marriage of Catherine, when she should attain a suitable age, to Lord Scrope's son. By the correspondence it appears that Catherine was not then twelve years old, so that she could not have been born before 1512 (Miss Strickland, placing the correspondence in 1524, though the dates July and December of the 15th year of Henry VIII refer to 1523, infers erroneously that she was not born before 1513). But the terms of the offer were not such as the Lady Maud could accept in accordance with her late husband's will, and the affair was broken off. A more satisfactory settlement, it may be presumed, from a pecuniary point of view, was afterwards offered by one Edward Borough, who became her first husband. It is to be hoped that modern writers are mistaken in identifying him with Edward, lord Borough of Gainsborough, an old man said to have been ‘distracted of memorie,’ whose second son had married a woman fourteen years Catherine's senior. Catherine herself could have been little more than a girl at the time, for she was certainly not seventeen at the utmost when Lord Borough died, which was in 1529, if not earlier. But we know too well that such revolting unions were not uncommon in those days, and were approved of even by mothers generally studious of their children's welfare. Lady Maud died in 1529 also.

Catherine next became the wife of John Neville, lord Latimer, a nobleman of extensive possessions, who had been twice married already, and had two children by his second wife. Snape Hall in Yorkshire was his principal seat, but he also possessed considerable estates in Worcestershire, which he settled on Catherine. The most notable event in his life was the part he took in 1536 in the rising called the Pilgrimage of Grace. Lord Latimer was appointed by the insurgents one of their delegates to represent their grievances, and the result of the negotiations was a general pardon. A new rebellion broke out early in the following year, but from this movement Latimer kept himself clear. He seems to have been in favour with the king, as it appears that his wife interceded successfully, about 1540, for the release from prison of Sir George Throgmorton, her uncle by marriage, who had been involved in a charge of treason by the fact of his brother being in the service of Cardinal Pole.

Lord Latimer died towards the close of 1542, or perhaps in the beginning of 1543. His will, which was dated 12 Sept. 1542, bequeathed to his widow the manors of Nunmonkton and Hamerton. She was immediately sought in marriage by Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the deceased queen Jane, who became lord admiral under Edward VI, and it seems that she fully intended to become his wife, but that her will, as she wrote to him in later days, was ‘overruled by a higher power.’ The higher power, whatever she may have meant by the expression, was in fact King Henry. It is stated, but not on very good authority, that when she first received his addresses she was terrified, and replied with considerable truth ‘that it was better to be his mistress than his wife.’ But this only made him press his suit the more, and on 12 July 1543, not many months after the decease of her last husband, she was married to the king at Hampton Court by Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, in the presence of Henry's two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. That she exercised a really wholesome influence over the king there can be no doubt. At the time of her marriage the dreadful severities of the Act of the Six Articles were being daily enforced. Catherine interceded for the victims of this persecution, and its violence abated to some extent while she was queen. She also procured the restoration of both Henry's daughters Mary and Elizabeth, who had been for some years treated as bastards, to their position as princesses, and she interceded particularly for Elizabeth, who a year after her marriage incurred her father's displeasure, and obtained her pardon, for which Elizabeth wrote her a very grateful epistle.

In 1544 an act was passed enabling the king to settle the succession by will on any children that he might have by Catherine. This enactment was made in view of the fact that Henry was about to cross the Channel to invade France in person; and by an ordinance of the privy council Catherine was, on 7 July 1544, appointed regent in her husband's absence. Her signature as regent, of which many specimens exist, is not a little peculiar from the fact that she appended her initials (K. P., for Katherine Parr) to the name itself, which is always written ‘Kateryn the Quene Regente, K. P.’ In this capacity she ordered, on 19 Sept., a public thanksgiving for the taking of Boulogne. But Henry returned to England on 1 Oct., and her regency was at an end.

The interest taken by Catherine in the studies and education of her step-children appears in many ways. Some have thought that even the handwriting of young Edward VI bears a resemblance to hers, which must have been due to her personal superintendence of his schooling, and it is a fact that Edward himself, writing to her in French, praises her belle écriture as something which apparently made him ashamed to write himself. But a more striking evidence was given on the last day of this same year, 1544, by the Princess Elizabeth, then little more than eleven years old, presenting her with an autograph translation, ‘out of French rhyme into English prose,’ of a work entitled ‘The Glasse of the Synneful Soule,’ beautifully written on vellum in small 4to, which she submitted to her for correction and improvement. Further, we have a letter from Catherine herself to the Princess Mary encouraging her to publish a translation of Erasmus's ‘Paraphrase of the Gospels’ with her own name appended. Piety and love of letters were indeed marked features of Catherine's character. Ascham addressed her in letters from Cambridge as eruditissima Regina; and not only was she a promoter of learning, but she occupies herself a place in the roll of English authoresses. One of her works, entitled ‘The Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner,’ was published by Sir William Cecil in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

Her biographers speak of her as a convert to protestantism, and suggest that her conversion probably took place after the death of Lord Latimer. But there could be no conversion to protestantism where there existed no such thing as a protestant community to declare what protestant principles were. In England most men had confessed the royal supremacy, and remained as good catholics as ever. A total repudiation of authority in such matters was then unheard of, and the open recognition of schism was out of the question. That Catherine favoured reformers like Miles Coverdale and Nicholas Udall by no means indicates that she was very anxious to commit herself to very advanced opinions. She employed Udall, who was master of Eton, to edit the translation of Erasmus's ‘Paraphrases’ by the Princess Mary, and it cannot be supposed that she purposely selected an editor whom Mary herself would at that time have considered an inveterate enemy of the truth.

Nevertheless, the question was perpetually arising, ever since Henry had proclaimed his own supremacy over the church, whether this or that opinion was really dangerous. Henry had to consider how much innovation he would tolerate in others besides the repudiation of the pope's authority. And now towards the end of his reign he found himself involved in a babel of controversy, of which he openly complained in parliament. He was becoming fretful and irritated over the whole business, and the pain he suffered from an ulcerated leg did not tend to make his temper more pleasant.

Catherine nursed his ulcerated leg and also conversed with him occasionally on the new theological questions that arose. On one occasion she had the misfortune to take a different view from the king. ‘A good hearing it is,’ he exclaimed afterwards, ‘when women become such clerks; and a thing much to my comfort to come in mine old days to be taught by my wife!’ We know not at this day what was the knotty question, and we need not take Foxe's word for it that Gardiner and Wriothesley conspired the queen's death. If the story has not been exaggerated, articles of heresy were actually drawn up against the queen and signed by the king's own hand, while she remained utterly unconscious. But one of the council let the paper fall from his bosom, and it was brought to her, on which she ‘fell incontinent into a great melancholy and agony, bewailing and taking on in such sort as was lamentable to see.’ In fact, it made her really very unwell, and the king sent his physicians to her, and also visited her himself to comfort her. Then, as she began to recover, she in return visited the king in his chamber, and when Henry led the conversation on to matters of religion she was careful to declare that it would be highly unbecoming in her to assert opinions of her own, especially in opposition to the king's wisdom. It was only meant ‘to minister talk’ and wile away the time in his infirmity. ‘Is it so, sweetheart?’ exclaimed the king; ‘then we are perfect friends.’ The very next day, while the king and queen were taking the air in the garden at Hampton Court, the lord chancellor arrived with forty of the king's guard, to arrest her and three ladies of her company. On seeing him the king suddenly broke off conversation with the queen, and, calling the lord chancellor aside, had a brief interview with him, in which Catherine could only distinguish the words ‘knave! beast! and fool!’ Catherine, on the king's returning to her, begged if the chancellor had done wrong that she might be allowed to intercede for him, believing that it must have been by mistake. ‘Ah, poor soul!’ replied the king, ‘thou little knowest, Kate, how ill he deserveth this at thy hands. On my word, sweetheart, he hath been to thee a very knave!’ The story rests only on the authority of Foxe, and has doubtless been considerably dressed up; but there is no reason to doubt its essential truth.

On 28 Jan. 1547 Henry VIII died, and Catherine became for the third time a widow. It is said she was disappointed at not being left regent during the minority of Edward VI. Her important position as queen dowager was rather an element of disquiet added to many others, for of course she had powerful friends and persons jealous of her influence as well. Her brother, William Parr, who had married the heiress of the last Bourchier, earl of Essex, had suffered a great disappointment during the ascendency of Cromwell, when that minister got the earldom and all its lands conferred upon himself. After Cromwell's death, however, he was made Earl of Essex in right of his wife. Through Catherine's influence he became lord chamberlain, and now on the accession of Edward VI he was created Marquis of Northampton. On that same day (16 Feb. 1547) were various other promotions made to and in the peerage. Among them Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, the new king's uncle, who had already been appointed protector, was created Duke of Somerset, and his brother, Sir Thomas Seymour, Catherine's former lover, was created Baron Seymour of Sudeley.

One historian, Gregorio Leti, tells us that thirty-four days after Henry's death Lord Seymour and Catherine had plighted their troth to each other by a written contract, signed by each, and by an exchange of rings. The fact and even the date (which would be 3 March) are perfectly possible, indeed one may say probable; but as Leti lived long afterwards, and adds circumstances clearly erroneous, supported by spurious documents, he is not to be relied on. The engagement, however, is certain. On Tuesday, 17 May, Lord Seymour writes to Catherine from St. James's about her sister (whom he calls ‘my sister’), Lady Herbert, having wormed out his secret in spite of his efforts to cloak the stolen visits he had paid to Catherine at Chelsea, where it is clear he had already several times passed the night with her, though the marriage was not yet acknowledged. The couple had fully committed themselves to a step which, if known, might have been impugned as a very grave misdemeanor, and they were seeking to make friends and obtain formal leave to do what they had already done. The first thing was to apply to the young king himself, and Catherine did so, apparently in a very cautious letter, without stating her real object. She was rewarded by a cold epistle in reply, written certainly by Edward, but doubtless dictated by Somerset, and dated 30 May, formally thanking her and commending her good sentiments. The next process was to see if the Princess Mary would befriend them, and Lord Seymour wrote to her, asking if she would favour the suit he was making to the queen for marriage. She very wisely refused ‘to be a meddler in the matter, considering whose wife her grace was of late.’ Her letter to that effect is dated on Saturday, 4 June. Repulsed in two quarters the couple were, however, more successful in the way of personal intercourse with the sovereign, from which apparently the protector had done his utmost to debar them. Seymour at first found a medium to suggest to Edward in conversation the desirability of finding a wife for him, and the young boy himself thought of the Princess Mary (whom it would be a great object to convert), or perhaps Anne of Cleves, until his ideas were directed into the desired channel (Biographical Memoir prefixed to Literary Remains of Edward VI, p. cxv). Afterwards Seymour was encouraged to push the matter himself. Edward readily entered into the project, and wrote a letter to the queen, advising her to take Seymour for a husband. Of course she replied to him, expressing her utmost willingness to gratify his majesty in the matter, and we have his answer dated 25 June, thanking her for her compliance, and promising to smooth matters with the protector.

Nevertheless the entry that young Edward wrote in his journal upon the subject was as follows: ‘The Lord Seymour of Sudeley married the queen, whose name was Catherine; with which marriage the lord protector was much offended.’ The step was clearly indefensible from a political point of view; for the royal authority during the minority was properly vested in the council. Lord Seymour was a dangerous man, and seemed not unlikely now to supplant his elder brother the protector. The latter, however, seeing the thing beyond recall, became, after a while, reconciled, and even cordial. The ill-feeling between the wives of the two brothers is said to have been more serious, the Duchess of Somerset refusing any longer to yield precedence to the queen dowager. But Lord Seymour had now gained such a footing that he was likely to make more powerful friends than his brother. He allured the Marquis of Dorset to his side by proposing to marry his daughter, the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey, to the young king, whom Somerset proposed to match with his own daughter. Dorset, after the fashion of the times, sold the young lady's wardship to Lord Seymour; and Seymour advised him to make himself strong in the country that they might have matters all their own way. But before either the king or Lady Jane had come to marriageable age Seymour had paid the penalty of ambition, and Lady Jane fell into the clutches of a still more unscrupulous intriguer.

‘The Lord Sudeley,’ says Hayward, ‘was fierce in courage, courtly in fashion, in personage stately, in voice magnificent, but somewhat empty in matter.’ His discretion certainly was not equal to his ambition. He had married Catherine, as was afterwards alleged, so soon after the death of Henry VIII that if she had borne a child within the next nine months there might have been a question as to its paternity, and the future succession to the crown. Another matter in which he showed even a greater want of decency was his conduct towards the Princess Elizabeth, who was under the care of the queen dowager his wife. He used many familiarities towards her even in his wife's presence at Chelsea, and declared he cared not if everybody saw it (Cal. State Papers, Foreign, 1558–9, pref. p. xxxi). The same things went on at Hanworth and at Seymour Place when the household removed thither; till Catherine apparently was really somewhat annoyed, and caused Elizabeth's household to be separated from her own.

Sudeley Castle belonged to Lord Seymour only by a grant under the authority of the council, and Catherine was aware that it might be resumed when the king came of age. Speaking once to Sir Robert Tyrwhitt of the probability of a general resumption, the latter observed, 'Then will Sudeley Castle be gone from my lord admiral.' 'Marry,' replied the queen, 'I do assure you he intends to offer to restore the lands and give them freely back when that time comes.' Seymour probably trusted, however, that by that time his influence with the king would enable him to get a fresh grant. At this time he was busily engaged in putting the castle in a thorough state of repair, and making it a suitable place for his wife's confinement. Here she had a household consisting of a hundred and twenty gentlemen, and some of the leading reformers were her chaplains. A picturesque window in the old building belongs to the room known to this day as 'Queen Catherine's nursery.'

The expected event took place on 30 Aug. 1548. The child born was a girl—somewhat to the father's disappointment, but 'a beautiful babe,' and he received the cordial congratulations of his brother the protector. But on the third day after Catherine's delivery puerperal fever set in. She raved and said she was ill treated by those about her. The words of the poor distracted woman may have been made a ground of the imputation afterwards preferred against her husband, that he hastened her death by poison; but the charge is utterly incredible. On 5 Sept. she dictated her will, which in a few brief lines gave all her property to him, and expressed a wish that it were a thousand times the value. Two days later she breathed her laet. A brief account of the last rites is preserved in a manuscript in the Heralds' College, printed by Miss Strickland.

Catherine died at the early age of thirty-six. 'She was endued,' according to a contemporary, 'with a pregnant wittiness, joined with right wonderful grace of eloquence; studiously diligent in acquiring knowledge, as well of human discipline as also of the holy scriptures; of incomparable chastity, which she kept not only from all spot, but from all suspicion, by avoiding all occasions of idleness, and contemning vain pastimes.'

In 1782 her remains were disturbed by Mr. John Lucas, who occupied the lands about Sudeley Castle, of which Lord Rivers was the owner. At that time her place of burial was unknown to antiquaries, but an inscription on the outside of the leaden coffin made the matter certain. Mr. Lucas, out of curiosity, opened the coffin, and discovered the body wrapped in six or seven cerecloths, through which he made an incision into one arm of the corpse. The flesh was still white and moist. The coffin was again opened several times in succeeding years, when the flesh, having been exposed to the air, had become putrid, and a description was given of one of these openings by Mr. Nash to the Society of Antiquaries. At last Mr. John Lates, rector of Sudeley in 1817, caused the coffin to be removed into the Chandos vault to protect the remains from further outrage. Nothing but the skeleton then remained, with a quantity of hair and a few pieces of cerecloth.

Catherine was undoubtedly a little woman, but whereas Mr. Nash reported the lead which enclosed her coffin to have been only five feet four inches long, a more careful measurement taken by Mr. Browne, the Winchcombe antiquary, declares the coffin to have been five feet ten inches in length, while its width in the broadest part was only one foot four, and its depth at the head and in the middle five and a half inches.

[Dugdale's Baronage, ii. 381; Whitaker's Richmond, i. 384 sq.; Archæologia, ix. 1; Testamenta Vetusta; The Parrs of Kendal Castle, a paper by Sir Geo. Duckett; Foxe's Martyrs (Townsend's edit. 1838), v. 553-61; Literary Remains of Edward VI; Haynes's State Papers, pp. 61, 62, 95 sq. 102-5; R. Aschami Epistolæ, 303 (cd. 1703); Miss Strickland's Queens, vol.iii.; Dent's Annals of Winchcombe and Sudeley; Sir John Maclean's Life of Sir Thomas Seymour in Under the Crown.]

J. G.