Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Katherine Parr: The Sixth and Last Wife (Thankfully)--But Much More

Katherine Parr, queen and regent of England (married 12 July 1543)


On this day in 1543, Henry VIII of England married his sixth wife, Katherine Parr.

Katherine Parr, the daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and Maud Green, is mostly known for being the queen who survived her much-married royal husband. Probably born in 1512, she died on 5 September 1548, just thirty-six years old.

Katherine Parr, c. 1545
Before marrying Henry VIII, Katherine Parr had been twice widowed. Her first husband was Sir Edward Borough, to whom she was married in 1529, when she was seventeen. After his death in 1533, she married John Neville, lord Latimer, the next year; Latimer died on 2 March 1543, and Katherine married the king just months later, on 12 July 1543.

But rather than spending more time on Katherine as Henry's last wife, I thought I'd post about two lesser known aspects of her life.

First, while married to Henry, Katherine served as regent of England. As a last hurrah to his life-long military fantasies, Henry VIII invaded France during his final years, and while he was out of the kingdom, from 14 July 1544 until 30 September 1544, he left it in Katherine's hands. 

In his magisterial account of the reign of Henry VIII, J. J. Scarisbrick refers to Katherine's role as "governor of the realm and protector." In her excellent biography of the queen, Susan E. James refers to Katherine as "regent-general of England." 

Second, Katherine wrote and published. In fact, as her recent editor Janel Mueller notes, Parr is the "first woman to publish in print a work of her own under her own name, in England and in England." In 1545, while she was involved with the translation of a work by the Dutch humanist scholar Erasmus into English, she published Prayers or Meditations . . . Collected out of Holy Works by the Most Virtuous and Gracious Princess, Katherine, Queen of England, France, and Ireland. Two years later, in 1547, she published, again in her own name, The Lamentation of a Sinner, a personal expression of Katherine's own religious views.

Mueller also credits Katherine Parr with one anonymously published work, Psalms and Prayers (1544) and with an unpublished collection of devotional works that Mueller identifies as Parr's "prayerbook."

After Henry VIII's death, Katherine Parr married once again. On 30 August 1548 she gave birth to a daughter, Mary Seymour, but Katherine died six days later, on 5 September of puerperal fever (the same bacterial infection that was the cause of Jane Seymour's death after the birth of Edward Tudor).

After the death of Katherine Parr's last husband, executed for treason on 20 March 1549, Katherine's daughter Mary was transferred to the custody of a woman we have met before, Katherine Willoughby Brandon, duchess of Suffolk. Unfortunately, from the surviving correspondence, the duchess was not all that happy about taking on the responsibility for the baby.

After 1550, Katherine Parr's daughter disappears from the historical record. The baby was "restored to the blood" on 22 January 1550, which meant that, after her father's treason, her inheritance rights were restored, but when a grant for her maintenance was due to be renewed on 17 September 1550, it was allowed to expire. James concludes that the little girl died, probably around her second birthday.

Although there have long been theories that the little girl lived, married, and had children, recent historical discoveries, as reported by Linda Porter, in History Today, have made it pretty clear that she did not.