Life in the time of Catherine Parr
By Trisha Hughes
When you look at the six marriages of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr, or Kateryn as she preferred to be called, sounds dull and uninteresting. Her story lacks the intense passion of both Anne Boleyn and her cousin Catherine Howard, the quiet, heroic strength of Catherine of Aragon, the romance of Jane Seymour and the political intrigue of Anne of Cleves. What wife number six of Henry is most famous for however is simply surviving. This blue-blooded, twice-widowed, patient woman nursed the sick, aged, irritable king through the final, painful years of his life when he was swollen to the point of bursting. The handsome man who in his youth had led armies, excelled in jousts and hunts, had become so bloated he could barely move and out of his large face with double chins glowed small piggish eyes. But as boring as her marriage may appear, Kateryn’s story is much more complicated than it sounds.
At the time of Kateryn’s marriage to Henry, the hostility between England and Scotland still smouldered along the border. When James V’s mother (Henry’s sister Margaret) died, the smouldering flickered once more into flame. The Scots made an alliance with France and defeated the English at Halidon Hill only to lose nearly 10,000 men under the Duke of Norfolk’s attack. Then when news came that at the second battle, James V was killed leaving the kingdom to an infant of one week, Mary Queen of Scots, Henry was so jubilant.
Kateryn arrived on the scene one year after Catherine Howard’s two years of wedded bliss to Henry came to an abrupt halt. Marriage number five to Catherine suggests a kind of challenge for Henry. He had felt rejuvenated by nights spent with the teenager but on 13th February, after being charged with treason and adultery and waiting a year in limbo, Catherine climbed the scaffold, looking pale and terrified, and made a speech describing her punishment as “worthy and just”. Her final words were “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper.”
Henry did not attend the execution. Instead, he locked himself away in Hampton Court for days on end mixing remedies from his royal herb garden to try and heal his festering leg. By this time in his reign, Henry had begun eating so much that his bed had to be enlarged to a width of seven feet. Henry had developed a binge-eating habit consisting of a diet of fatty red meats and very few vegetables. His weight had ballooned even more and he was covered in pus-filled boils and suffered from gout. No wonder he had mood swings and a lousy temperament.
Through all of this, it’s understandable that a depression hung over him. But Henry still longed for female companionship and one year after Catherine Howard’s execution, he stood confidently before Kateryn Parr and proposed marriage to the serious little 32-year-old widow. And he fully expected her to swoon with delight.
It was a definite improvement in Kateryn’s current status as lady-in-waiting to Henry’s daughter Mary but her own credentials weren’t too bad either. Through her father, Kateryn was a descendant of Richard Neville who was himself the grandson of John of Gaunt, Edward III’s son. She had fine clothes, beautiful jewels and a clever wit. She was in many ways an excellent choice to be England’s first lady, or so Henry thought, and he regarded himself very experienced in such matters.
Kateryn asked Henry for time to consider his proposal but really, it wasn’t like she could turn him down. He was after all Henry Tudor, King of England, notorious for his quick temper and sly mood swings and anyone who dared deny him what he wanted would see the inside of the Tower before losing their head pretty soon afterwards.
Kateryn would have looked up at the huge man standing before her, as round as he was tall, and seen a sallow 51-year-old man with thinning hair who still thought of himself as a handsome virile young man, a golden-haired God almost, riding and jousting with the best of them, with not a woman in all of England who could resist him. She would have seen swollen lips smiling wetly down at her, not quite hiding his yellow decaying teeth and foul breath, sharp little eyes almost hidden under his fat eyelids and she would have known the reason why he leant heavily on one leg. His other leg was bandaged not quite hiding the yellow pus that bubbled into the dressing and not quite disguising the horrible odour the wound emitted. She would have dreaded the moment he would bend down to kiss her and she would have wondered how she could ever escape. She was, after all, still in mourning after the death of her second husband but more importantly, she was desperately in love with Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother, and she fully expected to marry him after the suitable mourning period had elapsed. So, what Henry saw as happiness at his marriage proposal was actually the radiance of a woman in love…for Thomas Seymour.
She showed little enthusiasm at Henry’s offer of marriage, (she had after all watched the number of heads falling), but in the end, she had no other choice than to accept him. Perhaps she would have felt like shuddering as she smiled modestly back at Henry and she perhaps she would have known that she was gambling with her life. Instead, she kept her silence. Henry on the other hand was so jubilant that all the heaviness of his past wives left him.
From the beginning of the marriage, Kateryn made an attempt to be a good wife. Her face was always wisely masked with concern for Henry and she kept her eyes filled with affection for her husband. She was experienced in nursing cranky old men as she had already nursed two previous husbands on their deathbeds so she knew what was expected of her. The brilliant young, handsome king had grown old and wrathful in his advancing years. The constant pain in his leg made him bad-tempered with anyone who crossed him and at all times, people weighed up replies to his questions, never sure if he would change his opinion at a moment’s notice. It was much safer to simply agree with him on everything.
So she nursed Henry’s stinking ulcerated leg that grew steadily worse and rubbed balms on them to relieve the pain for the four years of their marriage until his death. In her relations with Henry, Kateryn was young enough to interest him sexually and mature enough to perceive and cater to his other needs. Dressing his suppurating sores can’t have been pleasant and diverting his attention from his pain with stimulating conversation must have been mentally taxing.
But she went further than that. She reconnected Henry with his children, whom he rarely saw. In 1544, living in various royal manors, were Mary aged 28, Elizabeth aged 11 and Edward aged 7. The girls had both been bastardised and were excluded from the court, while Edward, as the sole heir, was kept far away from the plague-ridden capital of London for safety. Kateryn set out to be the means of drawing the royal family together and within a few months she had arranged for Henry’s children to pay visits to their father and thus provide him with some semblance of the home life he had never had before. Letters written between 1544 and 1547 bear witness to a very warm relationship between the royal children and their stepmother. Whether sending a court musician to perform for Mary or correcting the Latin exercises of Edward and Elizabeth, Kateryn took a keen interest in their wellbeing.
There was a time in the summer of 1546 however when Kateryn came within a whisper of being executed for her faith. She had been brought up as a Catholic but had become secretly sympathetic to, and interested in, the “New Faith”. But Bishop Gardiner of Winchester had his ear pressed firmly against the walls and he was aware of everything going on at court, no matter how covert. And he was growing increasingly anxious as the end of Henry’s reign drew nigh.
By then, Henry was a semi-invalid in constant pain from the festering sores on his legs and was only able to move with the aid of servants and Kateryn. Everyone knew what no one dared to say – the king’s days were numbered – and Bishop Gardiner, plus leading councillors, were discreetly making plans for the accession of Prince Edward, still a minor. If the prince’s uncle, Edward Seymour, grabbed the reins of power, England would be carried further along the road of religious reform and that, Gardiner believed, he needed to prevent from happening at all costs.
Everyone was fully aware of Kateryn’s past romance with Thomas Seymour and hadn’t she already placed herself in favour with Edward? Thus a campaign was launched against Kateryn using a formula that had been well tried in the past. They brought to trial a notoriously outspoken heretic by the name of Anne Askew and subjected her to fierce and unprecedented torture, breaking bones and dislocating limbs, and promised that her suffering would end if she would but name members of the royal court (including the queen) who shared her heretical beliefs.
Had they succeeded, Henry would probably have sanctioned a thorough search of Kateryn’s quarters, which might have revealed copies of William Tyndale’s English New Testament and other banned books. But Anne Askew did not break under pressure and Kateryn was warned of the plot by her physician, Robert Huick, who ‘found’ a paper revealing the scheme.
Perhaps, the discovery was engineered by Henry himself who had never lost his sense of theatre. Either way, Kateryn was smart enough to hasten to Henry’s chamber and throw herself on his mercy, thus enabling him to make a great show of support and affection for his wife.
For the traditionalists, this was the last throw of the dice. Their failure left the advocates of reform in power when Henry eventually breathed his last. Kateryn Parr, therefore, holds an important place in the history of the English Reformation.
We may hope that Kateryn was aware of this fact and took satisfaction from it, especially after her years of silent service to Henry and particularly because the brief remainder of her life was decidedly tragic. She was, at last, able to marry her true love, Thomas Seymour, but it did not bring her happiness. The wedding was a clandestine ceremony performed six months after Henry’s death and it was one that caused a small scandal.
The Seymour clan proceeded to tear itself apart in rivalries and competing ambitions and Thomas, having not been granted a place on the Regency Council as he had hoped by his brother, Edward Seymour now Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset, tried to ingratiate himself with the young king and to undermine the influence of his elder brother. Edward Seymour’s wife, Anne, also had a gripe with Kateryn. Anne argued that Kateryn should no longer be entitled to wear the jewels belonging to the wife of the king. Instead, as wife of the Protector, she should be the one to wear them. Eventually Anne won the argument, leaving the relationship between the two brothers in an even worse state and the family feud escalated rapidly. In one letter to her husband Kateryn confided about a meeting with her brother-in-law, Protector Somerset: “It was fortunate we were so much distant, for I suppose else I should have bitten him”.
But Kateryn’s anger was soon turned against Thomas himself. She had brought the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth to live with her but Thomas soon began indulging in intimate horseplay with the teenager and the behaviour became more outrageous after Kateryn, at the age of 35, became pregnant at the end of 1547. Thomas would visit Elizabeth, clad only in his nightshirt, and tumble with her on her bed. For a while Kateryn was tolerant, even at times joining in the horseplay, but when she came upon her husband and her royal ward embracing, the good humour abruptly stopped and she had Elizabeth sent away.
On 30 August 1548 Kateryn gave birth to a daughter, Mary, but immediately succumbed to puerperal fever, much the same as Jane Seymour, and eight days later she died. Seven months later, Thomas would be beheaded for treason and young Mary would be taken to live with the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk where the last known record of her is on her second birthday.
For me, Kateryn’s good sense, compassion and strong sense of loyalty has earned her my eternal respect and sympathy.
Vikings to Virgin:
The Hazards of Being King
In Vikings to Virgin - The Hazards of Being King Trisha Hughes provides the reader with a pacey introduction to the many pitfalls faced by the ambitious as they climbed the dangerous ladders of royalty. It is easy to think that monarchs are all powerful, but throughout the Dark and Middle Ages it was surprisingly easy to unseat one and assume the crown yourself. But if it was easy to gain ... it was just as easy to lose.From the dawn of the Vikings through to Elizabeth I, Trisha Hughes follows the violent struggles for power and the many brutal methods employed to wrest it and keep hold of it. Murder, deceit, treachery, lust and betrayal were just a few of the methods used to try and win the crown. Vikings to Virgin - The Hazards of Being King spans fifteen hundred years and is a highly accessible and enjoyable ride through the dark side of early British monarchy.
Virgin to Victoria
Virgin to Victoria is a powerful retelling of the history of the British monarchy, beginning with Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth I, as she comes to the throne. Charting Elizabeth's incredible journey, Virgin to Victoria travels in time through the confusion of the Stuart dynasty, the devastation of a Civil War led by Oliver Cromwell, horrific battles for the throne and the turbulent Hanover dynasty with its intricate family squabbles. Despite her amazing legacy, Elizabeth failed England in one vital area. She never married, nor did she leave an heir to the Tudor family. In making this one fateful decision, the Virgin Queen left the path open for a take-over and life would never be the same. Victoria did not ask to be Queen. It was thrust upon her by a series of events that removed all others who stood in line for the throne. She assumed it reluctantly and, at first, incompetently. Parliament was sure that the 18-year-old could be relied upon to leave the job of running the country to the professionals. Couldn't she?
I was born in a little outback town called Blackall in Central Queensland, Australia. From there my parents moved to the Brisbane suburb of Fortitude Valley where I grew up to be a tiny, self-reliant little girl.
My first book, ‘Daughters of Nazareth’ is my story, written eighteen years ago, fuelled on by the discovery of a family I never knew I had. It’s full of family secrets, tremendous heartache but proves the human spirit’s amazing ability to triumph over adversity. Nineteen years ago, after just one phone call, my life changed abruptly. With that change came a passion for writing and I have been writing ever since.
I love writing crime novels but my passion is with the history of the British Monarchy. The first in my‘V2V’ trilogy is ‘Vikings to Virgin – The Hazards of being King’ published in 2017. The second in the series is due for release on 28th April this year and is called ‘Virgin to Victoria – The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen.’ The final book, ‘Victoria to Vikings – The Circle of Blood’ will be released early 2019.
I really enjoyed this article about Catherine Parr, Trisha. I've always thought life dealt her an unfair hand, dying so soon after managing to survive marriage with Henry VIII.ReplyDelete
I found this post very interesting, Trisha. I always felt sorry for Catherine Parr, she must have been terrified having to marry Henry, knowing what had happened to his other wives.ReplyDelete
I didn't know that about Thomas Seymour, I was always under the impression that he and Kathryn lived happily ever after. How awful. And then to die because of childbirth complications. The poor, poor woman.ReplyDelete