Catherine Parr – The One Who Got Away

Catherine Parr

On this day in history, on 5th September 1548, Dowager Queen Catherine (Catherine/Katherine Parr) died of puerperal fever just a few days after giving birth to her daughter Mary Seymour.

She will always be known as the queen who got away, the one who outlived the tyrannical King Henry VIII who had divorced two if his wives and beheaded another two.

But there is more to this often neglected Queen Consort’s story than that – here is a brief bio of Catherine Parr.

Catherine Parr’s Life

Catherine Parr was born in 1512 as the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Parr, a descendant of Edward III. Her mother, Maud Green, had been a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and so named her daughter after her beloved queen – how ironic!

Catherine’s father died when she was five years old and so her education was left to her mother, who educated Catherine to a high standard. Catherine was known for her love of learning and for her fluency in languages such as Latin, French and Italian.

Catherine is famous for being the most married English queen because she was married four times. Her first marriage to Edward Borough, 2nd Baron of Gainsborough, took place when she was 17 but was short-lived because Thomas died in 1532. Catherine married her second husband, John Neville 3rd Baron Latymer of Snape, North Yorkshire, in the summer of 1534. During this marriage, Catherine and her stepchildren by Neville were held hostage by the rebels involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace while the rebels forced her husband to join their side. Neville managed to get his wife and children freed and also managed to escape getting caught up with the rebellion and its repercussions. He died in March 1543.

In 1543, although Catherine had been widowed twice, she was only 31 and was an attractive lady. She soon caught the eye of Thomas Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour who had died in 1537. Catherine was very taken with Thomas but unfortunately Thomas could not compete with the King, who had also noticed Catherine at court. On July 12th 1543, Catherine Parr became the sixth and final wife of King Henry VIII in a small ceremony at Hampton Court Palace, after a mourning period for Catherine’s second husband.

Catherine Parr: Henry VIII's Last LoveCatherine Parr as Queen

Catherine was an attractive and intelligent woman, who combined the intelligence and wit of Anne Boleyn with the prudence and diplomacy of Catherine of Aragon. She was what Henry needed after the heartbreak of the Catherine Howard marriage.

Catherine is known for reuniting Henry’s children with their father and bringing them back to court. Mary was won over by the fact that Catherine’s mother had been a good friend to her own mother, Catherine of Aragon, Edward was young enough not to remember his own mother and to see Catherine as his mother, and even the precocious Elizabeth was won over by Catherine’s warmth and intelligence, and this relationship would be a deep one which lasted until Catherine’s death. This reunification of the family was not just good for the children, it also presented a united front against Henry’s opponents.

The belief that Catherine Parr was a glorified nursemaid to the ageing and ill King is a myth. Catherine was an intelligent woman who was an accomplished author (“Prayers Stirring the Mind unto Heavenly Meditations” published in 1545) and Henry even trusted her to act as Regent while he was in France in 1544. She was also a patron of the arts.

Her achievements as Queen included bringing the royal family back together and influencing Henry to pass an act giving his daughters the right of succession to the throne. Catherine’s influence over Henry was resented by some at court and there was a conspiracy to remove her from “power”. In 1546, the conservative faction, including Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Wriothesley, used Catherine’s reformist beliefs against her and managed to persuade the King, who had just had an argument with Catherine over religion, to order her arrest. An arrest warrant was drawn up and it was even said that Henry would replace her with Catherine Willoughby, the Duchess of Suffolk and Catherine’s best friend. However, the quick-thinking Catherine Parr managed to save her head by pleading with Henry and persuading him that she had only argued with him in an attempt to help him forget about the pain caused by his leg ulcer and to learn from him. Henry forgave her.

Another Marriage

In January 1547, King Henry VIII died and Catherine caused a scandal by marrying former love, Thomas Seymour, just months after the King’s death. Catherine became guardian to Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey was a ward of Thomas, so both girls lived with them. After a scandal involving an alleged sexual relationship between Thomas Seymour and Princess Elizabeth ( he would stroke her buttocks and tickle her!), Elizabeth was sent away from the family home.

On August 30th 1548, Catherine Parr gave birth to her first child, a daughter Mary, at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. She finally had a child of her own but just a few days later, like Jane Seymour, she died of puerperal fever (childbed fever). Catherine was buried at Sudeley Castle, where she still rests today. Her husband, Thomas Seymour, was executed for treason a year later and her daughter was taken by Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. Mary Seymour is believed to have died in early childhood as there are no records about her after the age of 2.

If you’re interested in learning more about Catherine Parr, Susan James has written a book devoted to her alone. Click on the book cover above to find out more about the US version or click here to see details of the UK version.

P.S. Some sources have Catherine Parr’s death as the 5th September and some as 7th September!

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13 thoughts on “Catherine Parr – The One Who Got Away”
  1. Stephen Gardiner seems to have been a particularly unpleasant man. He wanted Catherine to be put to death for so little a misdemeanour. And then, later, he never stopped trying to have Elizabeth dispatched during the reign of Mary.
    Catherine was a ahead of her time with her reformist ideals – and her home at Chelsea, after Henry’s demise, became a centre for theological debate. Poor Catherine – to have waited so long for a child, and then to have died with so much of her life still ahead of her! Just at the time when Elizabeth needed her steadying influence the most, too.

    1. Catherine was a woman who knew her own mind, and she was also a strong woman who thought very much about the care of her step children as well as the king. She was devoted to her husband and she was a well educated woman, more than some ladies of the time. It does seem to us today that her having religious books or writing her own books is a light thing, but then it was not a mere misdemeanor, it was very serious. The king for one thing was the head of the church in England and had religious and moral authority over all of his subjects, even his family. To have books that contradicted that was a serious offence. I am sure that Gardiner did not merely want Catherine put to death, but he did want her out of the way. Remember, Gardiner was a devoted supporter of the Catholic faction and wanted a Catholic Queen. He was imprisoned under Edward, so it is really the same thing. People saw people with other religious beliefs as theirs as a real threat; silly as it may seem, but it was among the most powerful people that it made a real difference. Katherine had reformist ladies at her home, her own ladies were influenced and Katherine was influenced by another reformist lady, Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk who was a firebrand in more ways than one. I am not sure that Stephen Gardiner was an unpleasant person, that is just the way he seems to come across, but he was something of a determined person when it comes to hunting heretics and Katherine was just one of his victims. Luckily for Katherine she has the common sense to submit to Henry and say that he is right, even if she still thought that he was wrong.

  2. It’s a shame that Catherine is often overlooked, she sounds like such an amazing woman and she obviously had a real effect on Elizabeth, and even Mary, with her very different religious views, seemed to really love her stepmother. Henry’s wives are so interesting!!

  3. I have been reading your blog for some time now and just had to post today, since today is my birthday.

    I’ve been finding it so much fun finding out all the Tudor history that happened around my birthday.

    Anne becoming Marquis of Pembroke on the 1st
    Catherine Parr death on my birthday 422 years before I was born of course…lol
    Elizabeth I born on the 7th- the day I was suppose to be born.

  4. She was a major influence on Elizabeth. She stayed with her while Catherine was regent for Henry. She saw that a woman could efficiently rule. That she didn’t always have to stay in the background embroidering cushions or bearing children.

    I think she was a good influence before Thomas Seymour came into the picture. She was an intelligent woman, and it’s sad that a man she fell so hard in love with decided that her stepdaughter was something he wanted more. It’s sad really. She was a great woman who deserved a lot better than she was given.

  5. Thanks for all the comments!

    I think that like all of Henry’s wives she has been treated unfairly by history and painted as the boring older woman who played nursemaid to the obese and ill Henry. However, if we dig deeper she is actually nothing like that. She was only 31 when she married him, a year younger than Anne Boleyn was when she married Henry, and she was vibrant, attractive and intelligent. The more I learn, the more I want to find out about her – might have to buy another book!!

    Catherine managed to talk Henry out of arresting her which makes me wonder what would have happened if Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had been able to defend themselves to the King. Anne never saw Henry again after the May Day joust and Catherine Howard tried to get to the King in the chapel to plead her case but was stopped by guards. I wonder…

  6. Elizabeth was clever to arrange with her half-sister Mary always to hear her out if ever there was a crisis, a misunderstanding. Perhaps this is where she got the idea from … since, as you rightly say, it probably did save Catherine’s life – being able to speak with Henry – and something that the others wives, AB and KH did not have the luxury of.

  7. I love The Tudors



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