Catherine Parr tomb Rob Farrow GeographOn this day in history, Wednesday 5th September 1548,”between two and three of the clock in the morning”, Catherine Parr, Queen Dowager, wife of Thomas Seymour, Baron Sudeley, and widow of Henry VIII, died at Sudeley Castle. She was only around thirty-six years of age and died of postpartum complications, probably puerperal fever, having given birth to a daughter, Mary, on 30th August.

In her book, Lives of the Queens of England, Agnes Strickland quotes from a manuscript in the College of Arms which announces Catherine’s death and gives details of her burial. Here is that record:

A breviate of the internment of the lady Katharine Parr, queen-dowager, late wife to king Henry VIII, and after wife to sir Thomas, lord Seymour of Sudley, and high admiral of England.

Item, on Wednesday, the 5th of September, between two and three of the clock in the morning, died the aforesaid lady, late queen-dowager, at the castle of Sudley, in Gloucestershire, 1548, and lieth buried in the chapel of the said castle.

Item, she was cered and chested in lead accordingly, and so remained in her privy chamber until things were in a readiness.

The chapel was hung with black cloth, garnished with scutcheons of marriages; – viz., king Henry VIII and her in pale under the crown, her own in lozenge under the crown; also the arms of the lord-admiral and hers in pale without the crown.

The rails were covered with black cloth for the mourners to sit within, with stools and cushions accordingly, and two lighted scutcheons stood upon the corpse during the service.

The order in proceeding to the chapel.

First, two conductors in black, with black staves; then gentlemen and esquires; then knights; then officers of the houshold, with their white staves; then the gentlemen ushers; then Somerset herald, in the tabard coat, then the corpse, borne by six gentlemen in black gowns, with their hoods on their heads; then eleven staff torches, borne on each side by yeomen round about the corpse, and at each corner a knight for assistance (four), with their hoods on their heads; then the lady Jane (daughter to the lord-marquess Dorset), chief mourner, her train borne up by a young lady; then six other lady mourners, two and two; then yeomen, three and three, in rank; then all other following.

The manner of the service in the church.

Item, when the corpse was set within the rails, and the mourners placed, the whole choir began, and sung certain psalms in English, and read three lessons, and after the third lesson, the mourners, according to their degrees and that which is accustomed, offered into the alms-box, and when they had done, all other, as gentlemen or gentlewomen, that would.

The offering done, doctor Coverdale, the queen’s almoner, began his sermon, which was very good and godly, and in one place thereof he took occasion to declare unto the people ‘how that they should none there think, say, or spread abroad that the offering which was there done was done any thing to benefit the dead, but for the poor only; and also the lights which were carried and stood about the corpse, were for the honour of the person, and for none other intent nor purpose’; and so went through with his sermon, and made a godly prayer, and the whole church answered and prayed the same with him in the end. The sermon done, the corpse was buried, during which time the choir sung Te Deum in English. And this done, the mourners dined, and the rest returned homeward again. All which aforesaid was done in a morning.”

Agnes Strickland notes that this record “presents the reader with the form of the first royal funeral solemnised according to Protestant rites”, and we can see from the record that Miles Coverdale, the famous reformist Bible translator, preached the sermon at the funeral. Lady Jane Grey acted as chief mourner.

Strickland goes on to give a translation, by “an anonymous author”, of the epitath written in Latin by John Parkhurst, Catherine’s chaplain and the future Bishop of Norwich:

“In this new tomb the royal Katharine lies;
Flower of her sex, renowned, great, and wise;
A wife, by every nuptial virtue known,
A faithful partner once of Henry’s throne.
To Seymour next her plighted hand she yields —
Seymour, who Neptune’s trident justly wields;
From him a beauteous daughter bless’d her arms,
An infant copy of her parent’s charms.
When now seven days this infant flower had bloom’d,
Heaven in its wrath the mother’s soul resumed.”

Strickland goes on to say that Catherine “was originally interred on the north side of the altar of the then splendid chapel of Sudley, and a mural tablet of sculptured alabaster was placed above her tomb”. Unfortunately, the chapel at Sudeley fell into ruin and Catherine’s tomb was lost. But, in May 1782, some ladies visited Sudeley Castle to investigate the chapel ruins. On finding a large block of alabaster on the north wall, they concluded that it might well be part of a monument that had once stood there. They dug up the ground in that area and not far from the surface they discovered a leaden envelope. They opened it in two places and found that it contained human remains, those of Queen Catherine Parr. In fright, they did nothing more apart from ordering it to be covered once again with earth. However, later that summer, John Lucas, who rented that piece of land, dug the coffin up and found that it was inscribed:

Here lyeth Queen Katheryne Wife to Kinge
Henry the VIII and
The wife of Thomas
Lord of Sudely high
Admy… of Englond
And ynkle to Kyng
Edward VI.”

When he opened the coffin, he found that Catherine’s remains had been completely preserved. Unfortunately, according to Agnest Strickland, two years later “the royal remains were taken out of the coffin, and irreverently thrown on a heap of rubbish and exposed to public view.” A witness told of how the body was dressed in “costly burial clothes”, including shoes, and described the Queen’s appearance: “all her proportions extremely delicate; and she particularly noticed, that traces of beauty were still perceptible in the countenance, of which the features were at that time perfect”. The remains were reinterred but then exhumed and examined in October 1786 by Rev. Tredway Nash. He found that the face was “totally decayed” but that the body was “perfect”. He noted that “the queen must have been of low stature, as the lead that enclosed her corpse was just five feet four inches long.” In 1792, John Lucas had Catherine’s remains reinterred in a grave dug by “a party of drunken men”.

In 1817, Rev. John Lates, rector of Sudeley, who was carrying out repair work on the chapel, decided to try and find Catherine’s remains. Her coffin was found in a walled grave, having been buried upside down by the drunk men in 1792, and when it was opened they found “nothing but the bare skeleton”, a few remnants of cere cloth and “a small quantity of hair. Ivy roots had penetrated the coffin and “filled the greater part of it”. The remains were temporarily kept in the vault of Lord Chandos while a tomb was erected for the dowager queen:

“The ancient chapel, which had been desecrated by the
Puritans, was thoroughly renovated under the direction of
Sir John Gilbert Scott, and a handsome decorated altartomb,
surmounted by a gothic canopy, was erected on the
north side of the Sacrarium to the memory of Queen
Katherine Parr, whose effigy was rendered as correctly as
it could be from the portraits which are extant […]”

This tomb can be seen today in the chapel.

Notes and Sources

Picture: Sudeley – Tomb of Katherine Parr © Copyright Rob Farrow and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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