History remembers the name of Catherine Parr as the sixth wife of Henry VIII’s six wives, the one who survived. In truth, however, she should be remembered for much more than that. Her accomplishments were many and widespread.
Catherine Parr was the first female to have a book published in English with her name as the author. That 1545 book was titled Prayers or Meditations and was mostly a translation of a book published earlier in Latin by a pro-Catholic bishop. It was not the first book that Catherine Parr had written. That book, Psalms or Prayers, was published in 1544.
Catherine Parr was born in 1512, and she grew up as an intellectually curious and active girl. She never stopped learning. She was fluent in her native English as well as Latin, Italian, and she also learned French as an adult.
Her mother was a friend and a member of the household of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. Catherine Parr spell most of her life n the upper reaches of the English court system that had developed under Henry.
As a young adult Catherine took an active interest in public and religious issues of the day. Henry’s reign, of course, provoked and continued many of these issues. Catherine was a witness to the break between Henry and the Catholic Church, and as the Church of England was formed and as her reading about religion grew wider, she developed great Protestant sympathies.
In 1529 Catherine married Sir Edward Burgh. The marriage lasted for four years until 1533 when Berg died. The marriage did not produce any children.
The next year, 1534, Catherine married John Neville, the third Baron of Latimer, a man twice Catherine’s age. It was during this marriage that King Henry sought to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The nation became polarized between those who retained their sympathies for the queen and her Catholic faith and those who followed Henry’s march toward a break with the church and the formation of the Church of England.
During that time Catherine Parr lived with her husband in a castle in Yorkshire, and it was unclear to those in the London court where her husband’s sympathies stood. In reality, he was a supporter of the king, but poor communication prevented the king and his courtiers from knowing that for sure. That placed him, his wife, and family (he still had children from a previous marriage) in some danger. The local pro-Catholic people of Yorkshire knew of his sympathies, and at one point they besieged his house, took him away, and put Catherine and the children in fear for their lives.
Eventually that crisis passed, Lord Latimer died, and Catherine – now I rich widow — was able to return to London and its environs. Using her mother’s relationship with Catherine of Aragon, Catherine Parr renewed her friendship with Princess Mary, the queen’s daughter. She also became friends with the king’s other daughter, Elizabeth. Those friendships brought her into contact with King Henry himself.
Despite the fact that she was developing a relationship with another man, Henry ask Catherine Parr to marry him in 1543. She could hardly refuse. As queen, she was partially responsible for helping Henry reconcile with his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.
In 1544 she published her first book, Psalms or Prayers Taken Out of Holy Scriptures. The book appeared just as Henry was preparing for war with France, and because of its religious context, it became an important piece of propaganda for the king. One of the psalms included in the book was titled “A Prayer for the King,” and that prayer eventually was included by Queen Elizabeth I in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. It remains there today.
As queen, Catherine put herself in the crosshairs of factions within the court who were anticipating the death of the old king and the reign of a new monarch. Catherine would engage in lively theological debates with her husband, something he often welcomed and enjoyed. She became the target of a group with Catholic sympathies, and those men managed to convince Henry of Catherine’s disloyalty because of some of the things she had said to him. The king authorized a warrant for her arrest. Fortunately, Catherine heard about this conspiracy, and she immediately went to the king and apologized for any disagreements they might have had over theology. The king was convinced of her sincerity, and when men came to arrest Catherine, the king sent them away.
Katherine’s marriage to Henry lasted for 3 1/2 years until his death in 1547.
During that time, Catherine’s influence on the king had far-reaching effects for the history of Great Britain. She managed to convince him to restore his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to the line of succession. The king’s son, Edward, would inherit the throne on his death. But it was unclear what would happen if Edward, who was not in the best of health, did not survive long is king .
After Henry’s death, Catherine became the queen dowager, and she maintained good relationships with all of the Henry’s children. Elizabeth felt particular affection to her and considered her something of a mother figure as she grew up. In November 1547, Catherine published a third book, The Lamentation of a Sinner, a book that promoted the Protestant belief in justification by faith alone, something that the Catholic Church deemed as heresy. All of Katherine’s books or wildly popular and became best sellers during their time.
A few months after Henry’s death, Catherine married Thomas Seymour, the man with whom she was a developing a relationship before marrying the king. It was in that marriage that Catherine became pregnant for the first time. She was 35 years old, and eventually she gave birth to a daughter. The birth was a difficult one, however, and Catherine Parr died in 1548.
Catherine Parr’s life was one of the action as well as intellectual reflection. She took an active part in the great events of her time, and her influence is still being felt.
Catherine Parr’s life has been the subject of several biographies, one of which was written by Susan James, Catherine Parr: Henry VIII’s Last Love. You can listen to an interview with her on the Not Just the Tudors podcast.
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