Monday, August 17, 2015

The Taming of Katherine Parr

by Danielle Marchant

This month sees the release of Philippa Gregory’s latest historical novel The Taming of the Queen, which is about Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. As with all historical novels and dramas, there’s always anticipation on how the character is going to be portrayed and how their story will be told. In some cases, the historical fiction version of the characters tends to be a lot more exciting and dangerous than the real life characters. The various portrayals of Anne Boleyn is a good example of this, where in fiction she is often portrayed as a home-wrecking, man-eating Sex Goddess with a sixth finger, whereas in reality it has been argued that she was probably far more sober and God- fearing. The fictional portrayals of Katherine Parr, however, tend to buck the trend.

Katherine, as the famous nursery rhyme told us, was the one that survived. She was the sober nursemaid, the much-needed mother figure for Edward, Elizabeth and Mary who liked nothing more than to change Henry’s bandages for his putrid leg wound. However, in an interesting reversal – and of course, with the exception of the “The Tudors” TV drama series - it was actually the real Katherine that lived a far more interesting, exciting and even dangerous life compared to her fictional portrayals. It’s almost like the image of the real Katherine has been straitened to nothing more than a boring nursemaid, skulking in the shadows of the far more famous of Henry VIII’s wives. The real Katherine has been tamed. However, the real Katherine, who is possibly the least famous of all of Henry VIII’s wives, not only narrowly escaped facing the same tragic fate as that of two of Henry’s other wives, but she also was a major influence on the future Queen Elizabeth I.

In March 1543, thirty-year-old Katherine was widowed for the second time after the death of her husband Lord Latimer, but financially she was comfortable. She found herself in a position of freedom and was able to think about what she wanted to do with her life. There were two things that were certain for Katherine. She knew that she definitely wanted to stay at court, and she wanted to remarry. She had also fallen in love. The man that had stolen her heart was Thomas Seymour, the King’s brother-in-law. Four years later, she had told Seymour: “As truly as God is God, my mind was fully bent the other time I was at liberty to marry you before any man I know.”

This is quite a passionate image of Katherine, an image we don’t often associate with the real Katherine. However, Katherine had to forget about Thomas. There was another man who wanted her hand in marriage – it was the King. Despite already going down the aisle five times before, it didn’t deter him from a sixth trip. This time he was looking for an attractive woman without a reputation (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard would have come to mind on the latter point). Lady Latimer ticked these boxes, so the King popped the question and, forgetting all about Thomas Seymour, she wisely accepted. They were married on the 12th July at Hampton Court Palace in the Queen’s Closet. This does show another quality that isn’t emphasised that much when referring to Katherine – bravery. She was brave in the sense that she was about to marry a man who had executed two of his previous wives.

In addition, she showed bravery in her religious beliefs. She wasn’t afraid to talk about her beliefs later on in the marriage. This was incredibly risky because it later nearly led to her being put in the Tower. Henry caused some confusion with his religious beliefs. When Katherine first married the King, we don’t really know what Katherine’s religious beliefs were at the time. However, even though the King had embraced the Reformation and the break with Rome, on the other hand, he was not a Lutheran and still very much believed in the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine at mass. Katherine, however, did seem to demonstrate reformist – even Calvinist – beliefs, which became more apparent as the years went by. Henry and Katherine would often have religious debates, but at this stage it didn’t cause any particular concern to Henry. She collected books such as a 1542 English translation of A Sermon of St Chrysostome by the Oxford Scholar John Lupset. Katherine also wrote books for her ladies and friends. They were books of prayers, beautifully bound in gilt and leather, sold at 16 shillings, or £250 a copy in today’s money. Katherine was particularly in awe of the Great Bible, printed in Paris, which then emerged in England in April 1540. The Great Bible showed the word of God in the English language – it spoke directly to the people, including Katherine, without any additional interpretations from Priests. This encouraged Katherine to become more involved in the great religious debates. Her enthusiasm reached a peak in 1545, when Katherine went on to write the “Lamentation of a Sinner”. Based on St. Paul’s teachings and the epistles, it was the first work of its kind written by a woman. So, not only was the real Katherine brave, passionate and religious, she was also creative. These are qualities that are not often associated with Katherine.

However, Katherine's involvement in religious discussions and the views she expressed in her writing began to cause suspicion to the King, and this provided ammunition to the conservative faction at court. Bishop Gardiner and his cronies looked at everything that could be used against her – the books she wrote, the books she read and even her ladies-in-waiting were held with suspicion. There were three ladies in particular that became a focus of this campaign – Lady Herbert (Katherine’s sister), Lady Lane (Katherine’s cousin) and Lady Tyrwhit. John Foxe recalled the events later in the Elizabethan period:
It was devised that these three should first of all have been accused and brought to answer to the six articles (the act passed in 1539) and upon their apprehension in court, their closets and coffers should have been searched, that somewhat might have been found by which the Queen might be charged; which being found, the Queen herself presently should have been taken, and likewise carried by night by barge to the Tower.

However, fate intervened. The King revealed to one of his physicians, Dr. Wendy, what he was going to do, but the bill of articles against Katherine, signed by the King himself, had been accidently dropped by an anonymous councillor. It was then found and brought to the Queen. As you could imagine, Katherine flew into panic mode – she “fell immediately into a great agony, bewailing and talking on in such sort”. Dr. Wendy was summoned to the Queen and advised her that she should “shew her humble submission to the King”.

Katherine took on board this advice, and one night she went to the King’s Bedchamber. The King decided to launch a debate on religion, a topic they were always guaranteed to have a debate on. However, instead of speaking her mind on religious matters, she instead said to him: “God has appointed such a natural difference between man and woman, and your majesty being so excellent in gifts and ornaments of wisdom, and I a silly poor woman, so much inferior in all aspects of nature to you”.

Katherine was now playing the part of a submissive wife. She said that she only debated with him on religion to distract him from the pain caused by his ill health. She said it was ridiculous, the thought of a woman trying to teach her husband. Both made peace with each other, and all was well. When Chancellor Thomas Wriothesely arrived with his armed guards of forty men to arrest the Queen, Henry sent him away, shouting “Knave, arrant knave, beast and fool”. Katherine had lived to see another day. This does show a very clever and witty side to Katherine as well – she certainly knew how to turn a negative situation into a positive one.

Wriothesely’s involvement is interesting as it refers to another unknown side to the real Katherine. Katherine was not one to give in to self-pity. Wriothesely’s wife, Jane, who was also Katherine’s lady-in-waiting, had lost her baby son. Katherine wrote a letter to her in March 1545, and even though this was written in an age when child mortality was common, its tone still seems very cold and harsh:
It have pleased God of late to disinherit your son of this world, of intent he should become partner and chosen heir of the everlasting inheritance, which calling and happy vocation ye may rejoice. If you lament your son’s death, you do him great wrong and show yourself to sorrow for the happiest thing there ever came to him.

Even though this was written in an age of religious fervour, Katherine’s tone in this letter still comes across as very cruel to a grieving mother who has just lost her child. With the exception of being a step-mother, Katherine at the time of writing this was not a mother herself, so would not have related to the pain that Jane was experiencing. Katherine, based on her own personal experiences, was a woman who kept a lid on her emotions and didn’t dwell on the past, and probably felt that in her own way, she was trying to help Jane. However, this would have provided little comfort to Jane and her husband. Their reaction to the letter is not known, however, it’s very possible that this may have caused so much upset that it fuelled Wriothesley’s anger towards Katherine later on.

As part of the campaign to put Katherine in the Tower, Wriothesley tried to link Katherine to Anne Askew, a heretic who became a martyr for her reformist beliefs and was burnt at the stake in July 1546. The torture Anne endured while being interrogated was particularly shocking as they resorted to putting her on the rack in a desperate attempt to get her to blurt out the names of members of Katherine’s privy chamber. Even Wriothesley himself turned the rack. Was this his revenge for the hurt Katherine had caused him and his wife before with her letter about their son? Anne Askew described her torture:
Then they put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion; and there they kept me a long time, and because I lay still and did not cry, my lord chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands till I was nigh dead.

The incident was also particularly shocking to her contemporaries as Anne was born into the gentry, and the gentry were never tortured. Even more disturbing, it is possible that the King himself gave them permission to torture her.

The fate of Anne, along with the attempt to put Katherine in the Tower, was evidence of a move against reformist belief in the last two years’ of the King’s reign. The campaign had begun in April 1546 – coincidently, soon after the conservative Bishop Gardiner’s return from Europe. In a sense, it was probably a blessing that Katherine did have this side to her where she could keep her emotions in check – it may have caused anger to the Wriothesleys, but at the same time, it ultimately helped her to face the King when she was interrogated herself over religion and come out of the situation calmly and unscathed.

Another fascinating but little-known fact about the real Katherine was how well she got on with her step-daughter, Mary Tudor. We’ve always been given the impression in fiction that the two simply did not get along due to their religious differences - Protestant Katherine vs Catholic Mary. This image, however, was created later on. We do know that when Mary became Queen, she did ban Katherine’s book The Lamentation of a Sinner. However, Mary did accept the changes her father had made, and the Mass was just as important to her as it was to her father and Katherine. Mary even helped Katherine to translate Erasmus’s Paraphrases of the New Testament, where she translated St. John’s Gospel. Due to illness, Mary was unable to finish her part of the project, but Katherine’s chaplain, Francis Mallet, intervened to finish Mary’s work. It has been suggested that the illness was an excuse to not finish the work, but this is unlikely as later on, Mary became uncomfortable with the idea of gaining credit for work that was not entirely her work. Katherine, however, reassured her:
All the world knows that you have toiled and laboured much in this business, I do not see why you should repudiate that praise which all men justly confer on you. However, I leave this whole matter to your discretion, and whatever resolution you may adopt, that will meet my fullest approbation.

This shows how very supportive and encouraging Katherine was as a step-mother to Mary and had helped her to become a published author.

Katherine also had a pleasure-loving side. She fully embraced the role of Queen. Her household ate, drank, were merry, sung, danced and took part in sports. Katherine kept hounds and hawks for hunting, parrots for entertainment, and she loved dogs. Katherine’s spaniel, Rig, owned an impressive collar of crimson velvet embroidered with damask gold and it had rings made of silver gilt to attach its lead.

Katherine loved clothes and her wardrobe was full of beautiful and expensive items. Crimson was her favourite colour and she even dressed her footman and pages in Crimson. Even her own lavatory had a crimson velvet canopy, cushions covered in cloth of gold and a seat of crimson velvet. A removable commode was covered in red silk and ribbons, attached with gilt nails. She chose luxurious, expensive fabrics, such as cloth of gold and silver (silver being her favourite), damasks, taffetas, silks, satins and velvets. In the three years that she spent being Henry’s sixth wife, she had bought 315 yards of black velvet, 95 yards of black satin and 35 yards of orange damask. Katherine also had a thing for shoes – she owned no less than an impressive 117 pairs of shoes, although this number did eventually drop to 47 pairs.

What is possibly the most important but little-known fact of the whole Tudor period was that Katherine was a huge influence on the future Queen Elizabeth I. The many little ways that Katherine had helped to mould the young Elizabeth would emerge later on and help to make her the kind of Queen that she became.

Katherine was meticulous in her choice of clothes and jewels for portraits. She wanted to show the world that she was Queen, that she was a regal figure in her own right. Even more interesting, these portraits were not ordered by the King; the Queen had requested these herself. There were more portraits of Katherine than there were of any other Queen of England in this period – but, with the exception of Elizabeth I.

Queen Elizabeth has been seen in many portraits, bedecked with jewellery and fine fabrics, giving a clear message to those looking at her portrait that she was Queen and was so in her right - in very much the same way as Katherine had done once before. Therefore, the young Elizabeth had definitely watched her step-mother and took notes. The image that Katherine gave to the public would have no doubt made a lasting impression on Elizabeth, teaching her the art of being a Queen.

The young Elizabeth and Katherine also shared a love of studying, and Elizabeth became aware of Katherine’s religious interests. As a New Year’s gift in 1544, Elizabeth endeavoured to impress Katherine with a translation of Margaret of Navarre’s Le miroir de l'âme pécheresse. Elizabeth called it The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. While accomplishing this, Elizabeth learned that the writer “can do nothing that good is or prevaileth for her salvation, unless it be through the grace of God”. This was the earliest statement of Elizabeth’s religious views and was evidence of how possibly Katherine’s reformist beliefs were influencing Elizabeth’s. When Elizabeth grew up and became Queen, unlike her siblings Edward and Mary, she did not favour just Catholicism or Protestantism alone; she worked towards a middle way between the two, leading to the creation of the Church of England. So, having been exposed to her step-mother’s beliefs and then, seeing the two extremes of religion in the reigns of both of her siblings – Protestant Edward and then Catholic Mary – this all must have had an impact of how she wanted to run the country and mediate its spiritual and ecclesiastical issues.

Possibly the most important tutorial in being a Queen that Elizabeth observed came in the summer of 1544. In that summer, the King had sailed to France and Elizabeth observed Katherine as a Queen Regent. This would help to prove to the young Elizabeth that in an age when women were seen as inferior to men, a Queen could rule England just as well as any King. Only Katherine of Aragon had been made Queen Regent before Katherine Parr. Katherine Parr excelled in and took great delight in her new responsibility, handling with ease the mass of papers, taking part in discussions with advisers and make important decisions. This definitely had a great influence on the young Elizabeth who later on as Queen faced and defeated the Spanish Armada. Everything that Elizabeth had learned about being Queen was epitomised in what was to be her most famous speech, given to her army at Tilbury in 1588:
I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down my life for my God and for my kingdom and for my people, my honour, and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.

Therefore, the real Katherine Parr was brave, passionate, religious, creative, witty and clever, liked glamour, escaped with her life from the Tower and helped to mould and influence one of English history’s greatest Queens. She even got on well with a Catholic. However, many of us don’t know this because the real Katherine has been tamed.

- Katherine Parr – artist unknown, painted in 1545.
- Katherine Parr – artist unknown.
- The young Elizabeth.
- Elizabeth I “The Rainbow Portrait”

Sources and suggested further reading:
Katherine the Queen – Linda Porter, Macmillan, 2010.


By Danielle Marchant
I am an Independent Author from London, UK. I am the author of “The Lady Rochford Saga”, based on the life of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. Both parts 1 and 2 are out now, and I am currently working on part 3, due for release Spring/Summer 2016:


Visit my Facebook page and website.

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