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10 Facts About Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's Wife Who ’Survived’

Samantha Arrowsmith
Katherine Parr lived a fascinating life, both before and after marrying Henry VIII.
Katherine Parr lived a fascinating life, both before and after marrying Henry VIII. / duncan1890/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images
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Katherine Parr is remembered as Henry VIII’s lucky queen, the one who got away, or, as the old rhyme says, the one who “survived.” She is also thought of as the dowdy, plain, and reliable one. But Parr led a full and at times dangerous life. She was married four times, wrote three books, and had a huge influence on her three royal step-children—all of whom went on to reign. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Katherine Parr.  

1. She was named after Katherine of Aragon.

When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, he replaced many of his father’s old advisors with energetic, athletic, and ambitious young men and filled his court with those who enjoyed similar pursuits as him. He was, after all, only 17. 

Among these new men was Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal, a descendant of Edward III. He was just the kind of man Henry liked, and Thomas’s career was on the rise. As a sign of that favor, his wife, Maud, was appointed a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine of Aragon, a position usually reserved for those of higher rank.

Maud served Katherine as a faithful and loyal friend. When the Parrs’ daughter was born in 1512, they named her in honor of the queen, who acted as her godmother. Little could they have realized that she would one day be queen herself.

2. Katherine Parr married her first husband when she was 17.

Thomas Parr died when Katherine was just 5 years old, leaving her and her two younger siblings, William and Anne, in the care of their astute and resourceful mother. She ensured that they received a humanist education that included languages and mathematics, and the example she set left a deep impression on Parr. For the rest of her life, she strove to be an independent, articulate, and self-reliant woman in a man’s world.

But this independence did not exclude marriage. Like most women of her time, Parr’s destiny was to be a wife. Her mother took charge of the arrangements and negotiated a good match for her with Sir Edward Burgh, who was about four years her senior and eldest son to Anne Boleyn’s Chamberlain, Baron Burgh of Gainsborough. Parr married Burgh sometime around May 1529 and moved to live with his family in Lincolnshire. Unfortunately, his tyrannical father made life unbearable for the young couple. Maud once again stepped in, and by October 1530, Parr and her husband had moved to another part of the county.

Their marriage, however, was not a long or happy one. Edward Burgh died in the spring of 1533, leaving Parr a widow at just 21 years old.

3. Parr was taken hostage and threatened with death.

With her husband dead, the Burghs paid Parr her dowry and then cut her loose. She contracted her own marriage with a distant relation, John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer, in the summer of 1534.

Latimer was much older than Parr. He had been married twice before, with two children to show for it. But the marriage was a shrewd move for the young widow. She was now a member of the peerage with a respectable husband who held an important position in the north. There were also some downsides: Her husband’s numerous brothers were constantly in trouble with the government, her new stepson was erratic with a violent streak, and the family had huge debts. The family home of Snape Castle was also a very long way from her family and from the energetic life she had known as a girl in London.

The fallout of Henry VIII’s split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 soon reached the Latimers. In October 1536, rebels involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion with a mishmash of demands that included the re-establishment of the Catholic Church, kidnapped Lord Latimer and insisted that he join them. Though he was Catholic with sympathy for the rebels’ cause, he had never shown any interest in joining their ranks. But at some point Latimer became a spokesman for the rebel leaders and his signature began to appear on their demands. It may have been that he was still under duress, but the king was unlikely to be sympathetic. 

Worse was still to come. Rebels converged on Snape Castle when Latimer took advantage of a pause in the fighting to go to London and plead his innocence. They ransacked it and took Parr and her two stepchildren hostage, threatening to kill them unless Lord Latimer returned. He didn’t exactly race back, but his return did placate the rebels, and he somehow managed to persuade them to leave.

When the rebellion ended a few weeks later, it was only the intervention of Parr’s brother William that prevented Latimer from being arrested and executed. Although he survived, he lost the king’s trust, his reputation was destroyed, and his influence in the north became a dangerous commodity. On Parr’s advice, the family moved south, away from his powerbase—and away from the chance of Latimer being embroiled in another plot. 

4. Parr gave up her true love to marry the king.

The move to London in 1538 meant that Parr was now back in the orbit of Henry VIII’s court where, among others, she met Sir Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry VIII’s late wife, Queen Jane. He was young, charismatic, and handsome. Parr was smitten.

During the winter of 1542–43, Latimer’s health began to fail. Parr, wanting to secure a position in London, asked Princess Mary for a place in her household. The two women had known each other as children, and Mary readily agreed. Parr settled into a life at court while continuing to nurse her husband, but by January 1543 her name was being romantically linked with Seymour—despite the fact that her husband was still clinging to life.

When Latimer died at the end of February 1543, Parr became a wealthy widow. She could have remained unmarried as her mother had done, but, as she told Seymour years later, “my mind was fully bent the other time I was at liberty [1543] to marry you before any man I know.” It looked as if she would finally get to marry a man she loved.

But there was a man who had other ideas. And unfortunately for Parr, he was the most powerful man in the country.

5. She resisted becoming queen consort.

image of Henry VIII and Katherine Parr
Henry VIII and Katherine Parr. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Henry VIII first began to take notice of Parr after she joined Mary Tudor’s household. By the time Latimer died, he had made up his mind to marry her. She was now 30 and had shown due diligence in nursing her ailing husband; this appealed to the king, who was now constantly in pain.

Parr resisted for as long as possible, but she eventually submitted. She had to contend with what her family and friends wanted. Her becoming queen would lift her family to new heights, and as a religious reformer herself, she would be able to advance the cause. Even Thomas Seymour’s friends wanted her to accept the king’s proposal.

She put on a brave face and persuaded herself that she was doing God’s will. But it was done reluctantly, and she later recalled that “God withstood my will most vehemently for a time, and through His grace and goodness made that possible which seemeth to me most impossible; that was, made me renounce utterly mine own will.”

Parr married Henry in a small and modest ceremony at Hampton Court on July 12, 1543. Wisely, Seymour left court.

6. Henry VIII’s children were very fond of their stepmother.

Parr almost immediately made it her mission to form a friendship with each of Henry’s children. Her relationship with Mary had now changed from that of mistress and servant to daughter and stepmother—though the two women were both adults, and only four years apart in age—and Mary showed no sign of animosity. Quite the contrary: Parr made Mary her closest companion, and the two would spend long periods of time together discussing clothes and jewels. It was a refreshing connection for Mary, who had spent so many years of her youth banished from court.

While Parr was akin to a sister-like figure to Mary, she became a mother to Henry VIII’s two younger children, 9-year-old Elizabeth and 5-year-old Edward. “I know that I have your love,” wrote Elizabeth, “and that you have not forgotten me, for if your grace had not a good opinion of me you would not have offered friendship to me that way …” 

Parr’s championing of the children also had implications for the succession. The Spanish ambassador reported in February 1544 that the “Queen favors the Princess [Mary] all she can; and … has constantly urged the Princess’ cause, insomuch as in this sitting of Parliament she has been declared capable of succeeding in default of the Prince.” It would not have happened if Henry VIII had not wanted it to, but Parr certainly played a part in restoring Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession.

7. Katherine Parr was the first woman in England to publish a book in English in her own name.

Parr’s unconventional Humanist educational upbringing came to the fore now that she was free from the responsibilities of running a household. She surrounded herself with the brightest minds and could afford to buy the best books, particularly on theology and religion.

By the time she married the king, Parr was on the road from Catholic to evangelical Protestant reformer. From the beginning she began to put her thoughts into writing; there is speculation that she wrote the anonymous English translation of Psalms or Prayers taken out of Holy Scriptures in 1544. If she did, then her reach can still be felt today—it included A Prayer for the King, which is still recited for the current monarch.

As she wrote in 1546, “Neither hold I myself contented, but always have a great desire to learn and study more therein.” That desire to learn led to her to pen, Prayers or Meditations, which was published on November 6, 1545, under her own name. It was the first book in the country published in English that openly carried the name of a woman author. It was also an instant best-seller.

Parr published one more book, arguably her most famous and most influential, The Lamentation of a Sinner, in which she linked herself with sin—something unheard of for a queen. It challenged both the old Catholic religion and Henry VIII’s version, and was radical and evangelical in its promotion of the reformed church. The book was published after Henry VIII’s death; the new king, Edward VI, was highly influenced by it, and his reign saw the Protestant religion fully established in England.

8. Parr nearly became the third of Henry’s wives to be executed.

black and white drawing of Henry Viii with the chancellor who came to seize Katherine Parr
Parr was close to getting into deep trouble. / Print Collector/GettyImages

When Henry was on campaign in France between July and September 1544, he elected to leave his kingdom in the hands of Parr as Regent-General. She and her Council essentially ruled England for these three months. By 1546, however, Henry was considering her execution.

Henry VIII was never a Protestant. Rather, he adapted his Catholic faith to suit his own needs, first by divorcing his wife and making himself Head of the Church in England, but also by dissolving the monasteries for fiscal gain. Parr, however, was on a spiritual journey, as historian Susan James relates, “from orthodox Catholic dogma through Henrician Anglicanism to evangelical Lutheranism and the radical fringes of Calvinism.” This ultimately put her in danger.

As Parr wrestled with her evolving faith, she discussed her radical ideas with Henry VIII, despite knowing that Protestantism was still a form of heresy punishable by death. Parr interpreted his engagement in these conversations as lively debate, but by January 1546, the king had become tired of what he perceived as her lecturing him and, more importantly, her being unafraid to contradict him. The old tyrant stirred and the conservatives at court, led by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, smelled the opportunity to rid themselves of the dangerously revolutionary Queen Katherine.

For the whole of Henry VIII’s life, he had been surrounded by factions who sought to control him. They stoked his paranoia. As with all his wives before, so long as Parr had the king’s trust and support, she was protected from her enemies. But the moment it was lost, the wolves began to circle. 

The court conservatives began by spreading rumors, which the queen first brushed off. But by April she was beginning to worry as members of her inner circle of friends were brought before the Council and questioned. In June, the outspoken heretic Anne Askew was arrested and, although already sentenced to burn at the stake, continually tortured in the hope that she would implicate the queen. She did not, but by October, Gardiner presented some unknown evidence of Parr’s heresy and persuaded Henry VIII to issue a warrant for her arrest.

How Parr came to see the warrant before it was served is still unclear, but the realization of just how badly she had misread the situation and of how much danger she was in caused her to collapse. The king visited her first, and then the next day allowed her to plead her innocence. She completely capitulated to him, begging his forgiveness and explaining that her conversations with him on religion had simply been to distract him from his pain.

Henry VIII chose to believe her. When the soldiers arrived the next day to arrest Parr, the king sent them away.

9. Parr finally married her true love—only to be betrayed.

For most of Parr’s time as queen, Thomas Seymour stayed clear of court. It was a safe option given Henry VIII’s previous paranoia over his wives’ fidelity. He returned in August 1546, and within weeks of the king’s death on January 28, 1547, Parr had become his lover. The exact date of when they married is unknown, but by June 1547 the scandal broke.

Parr now lived in Chelsea Manor with her new husband and Elizabeth Tudor. But what should have been a happy time for her soon turned sour. Seymour was a handsome man of action, but he was also rash and very, very ambitious. He was uncle of the new king, Edward VI, who, as a minor, was being governed by a regency Council under the leadership of Seymour’ elder brother, Edward, the Lord Protector of England. But despite being promoted to Lord High Admiral there was no place for Seymour on the Council. Marrying Parr gave him access to a royal marriage that advanced his ambition, but marriage to Elizabeth could give him access to the throne.

Almost as soon as he had arrived at Chelsea, Seymour began to toy with the 14-year-old Elizabeth’s affections (in Tudor England, a girl over the age of 12 was eligible for marriage). But, even for the era, his actions gradually began to cross the boundaries of decorum. 

What Parr thought at first is debatable. In May 1548, she decided that she could no longer ignore what was going on. Her solution was to send Elizabeth away, and she would never see her again.

10. Katherine Parr died in childbirth.

Parr became pregnant in December 1547 when she was 35. At the same time that Elizabeth was sent away, Parr moved to Sudeley Castle to avoid the heat of the London summer, where she was joined by Lady Jane Grey. She suffered from morning sickness but walked every day and ensured the nursery was refurbished in crimson, her favorite color. Princess Mary wrote to her (ending their falling-out after Parr’s secret marriage), and she remained in contact with Elizabeth, telling her that she hoped the princess would soon join her at Sudeley.

Parr gave birth to a healthy girl on August 30, 1548, whom she named Mary. But all congratulations were premature. Poor hygiene during the delivery caused a puerperal fever, and six days after Mary’s birth, Parr died. Among Parr’s possessions was a treasured copy of the New Testament that had belonged to her second husband, Lord Latimer.

Seymour’s grief seems to have been genuine, but without her steadying hand his feud with his brother over-spilled into attempted rebellion. He was executed six months later, with one of the charges brought against him being that he was plotting to marry Elizabeth and seize the throne in her name. Baby Mary was transferred first to the Lord Protector’s care and then to the Duchess of Suffolk, who seems to have done little but complain about the cost of keeping her and her household. What happened to her after January 1550 is unknown, but it is likely that she died of the sweating sickness when she was only 2 years old.

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