Kathryn Parr: Professional Widow

the tudors kathryn parr joely richardson
Joely Richardson as Kathryn Parr on The Tudors (2007)

This is the part seven in my series examining the lives of the women in Henry VIII’s life. Click here for previous essays from the series.

Note: As we’re now veering into the repeating names of Henry’s wives, I’ll be referring to Kathryn Parr with a “K” and a “y” to differentiate her from her predecessors Katherine of Aragon and Catherine Howard. When you’re the third Kathryn, you get the creative spelling.

If you’re going to marry six times, Kathryn Parr is pretty much the person you’d want to wind up at the end of your life. And if you’re a pus-encrusted tyrant who just recently had your adulterous teenage child-bride put to death following a highly public end-of-life crisis, she’s pretty much ideal. By which I mean: Kathryn Parr was a calm, soothing presence that’s the sort of thing one might crave following an intense period of drama (see also: marrying Jane Seymour right after Anne Boleyn). She was a proper adult woman, not a girl, and had been married TWICE before so the whole “is she a virgin or not” controversy can be tidily side-stepped, thus avoiding another beheading situation. She had also seen what worked and what didn’t when married to Henry, combining Anne of Cleves‘s canny survival skills with Jane Seymour’s pacifying presence with the keen intellect of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.

So she was both an appropriate and acceptable wife to the King; too bad she didn’t want to marry him. Like, at all.

Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Kathryn Parr was born in 1512, the oldest child of an wealthy aristocratic family. Her father, Thomas, was a good friend of Henry VIII (who was already the King; he was about 20 when she was born). Her mother, Maud, was a lady in waiting to the Queen, Katherine of Aragon. In fact, just to make the generational divide all the creepier, Kathryn Parr was named in honour of Katherine of Aragon… who was her godmother. Who could have known when little baby Kathryn was being baptised that she’d wind up saddled with the same dirtbag husband her godmother had to put up with? How could Katherine ever fathom that this little baby would be the fifth of five women to marry her husband?

joely richardson kathryn parr the tudors
Richardson as Parr in The Tudors (2007)

Kathryn Parr was lucky enough to grow up at a time when the education of young women was seen as a priority for all noble families (the influence of Katherine of Aragon, remember). She was a keen student, learning to speak three languages other than her native English (French, Latin, and Italian), and by all reports continuing throughout her life to eagerly learn new languages and information.

When she was 17 years old — just when Henry was in the midst of trying to extricate himself from his first marraige — Kathryn was married to Sir Edward Burgh. Burgh was slightly older than her, likely in his mid-20s, and their marriage was of the usual arranged variety that would have been mutually beneficial for both families. He was known to be in poor health at the time of the marriage, and he died four years later. The couple had no children. One year later, when Kathryn was 22 (and Henry was now married to Anne Boleyn), she was wed again in another arranged marriage. Her second husband, John Neville, was at least twice her age at that time. He was also a Baron, elevating her in rank as she became mistress of his estate… and stepmother to his two children, John and Margaret.

Now, as this was during Henry’s Anne Boleyn years, it was post-Reformation and when being Protestant was the thing to be. Both Kathryn and Neville were Catholics, which put them in a dangerous position. He was accused of being involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace (which was this sort of rebellion led by Catholics against the King… Jane Seymour had some dealings with this, if you re-read that article; this was all happening at around the same time Henry was married to Jane). Anyway, Neville was arrested in October 1536 for this, and three months later Kathryn and his children were taken hostage in their house. With the help of Kathryn’s brother, William, Neville was freed without charge and returned home, where he convinced the rebels to free his family. I mean, think about this. Kathryn was by this point 24 years old and left alone to manage an estate and support her staff and stepchildren through this horrific situation. You can see already that she’s enormously strong and capable.

joely richardson kathryn parr
Richardson as Parr in The Tudors (2007)

Although her husband was found innocent of his charges, his association with the rebels tainted him for the rest of his life — and his family, including Kathryn, were as well. Neville was apparently blackmailed for several years by Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Oliver Cromwell. Only when the whole Anne of Cleves situation wrapped up with Cromwell’s death was the family able to return to as close to normal as they could get. This normalcy was short-lived, though, as Neville fell ill in 1542 (the same year Catherine Howard was executed). Kathryn helped care for him for the year of his illness, and when he died in 1543, she was left a very wealthy widow, and still only 30 years old. Theirs seems to have been a good marriage and she clearly loved him, as she kept his personal Bible with her for the rest of her life to remember him by.

So, what do you do when you’re 30 years old, super smart, ridiculously wealthy and suddenly widowed? Well, if you’re Kathryn Parr, you call up your old friend, Mary Tudor. Mary, the daughter of Henry and Katherine of Aragon, was four years younger than Kathryn and they had been friends in childhood. One month after Neville’s death, Mary had taken Kathryn on as a lady-in-waiting. While there, the young widow caught the attention of a young courtier named Thomas Seymour (yes, Seymour as in the brother of the now-deceased Jane Seymour). The two apparently fell deeply in love, but someone else found Kathryn attractive, and that person was the pus-encrusted King himself. And this is how and why Thomas found himself sent to live in the Netherlands, and Kathryn found herself suddenly engaged to marry the King. Surprise!

She had no choice, of course. One does not simply turn down the King when he wants to marry you. Their wedding was held on July 12, 1543, and it feels like the people of England were just over it at this point to have to celebrate another marriage. We don’t know what Kathryn was thinking, though she’d lived through the lives and deaths of five previous wives and clearly knew that this could easily become a temporary situation.She chose as her motto the phrase, “To Be Useful In All That I Do,” which is like the most diplomatic and vague statement she could have possibly chosen. It was also true; she used her new power and role to reward her family and friends, including giving positions at court to her stepchildren, Margaret and John Neville.

joely richardson kathryn parr mary elizabeth
Richardson as Parr, with Sarah Bolder as Lady Mary and Laoise Murray as Lady Elizabeth on The Tudors (2007)

She nurtured good relationships with her three new step-children, Mary (aged 26), Elizabeth (aged 10), and Edward (aged 6). Her past relationship with Mary, and the fact that Henry liked her for the time being, allowed her to help mend fences between the King and his two oldest daughters. Similar to the way that Jane Seymour had reconciled the King and Mary, Kathryn’s clearly impressive emotional intelligence brought the royal family back together. No small feat.

About a year after their marriage, Henry hauled his “get me out of bed” machine and decomposing limbs to France to launch a military campaign. The status of his relationship with Kathryn, and his respect for her was such that he left instructions for her to rule the country in his absence. He’d done this once before, allowing Katherine of Aragon to rule while he was away, but none of his other wives had been given the role. Kathryn Parr didn’t just sit pretty and sign scrolls, she ran the court and the country like she had Neville’s estate. During her short time as regent, she oversaw the finances and equipment for Henry’s military campaign, signed five royal proclamations, and maintained a constant line of contact with military forces in Scotland at the same time. It is commonly understood that her display of strength of character in this role likely influenced her stepdaughter Elizabeth, who went on to become one of the country’s greatest leaders.

But of course this wouldn’t be a story of one of Henry’s wives if there wasn’t a bit where someone schemed to have her killed for fake charges or something or other. So, remember how Kathryn is a Catholic? She still was at the time of her marriage to Henry, but was known to be sympathetic to the Protestants — like, she wrote three books about her religious beliefs so it wasn’t a huge secret (more on her books later). The faction of anti-Protestants at court, because there were like a thousand different sub-factions at all times, always gunning for one another, were determined to turn the King against her. To their credit, history shows it was not hard to turn Henry against one of his wives. He was not a particularly loyal husband. Her enemies planted rumours that, who knows may have been true, that the King was now attracted to her good friend Catherine Brandon and wanted to rid himself of his wife.

AND THEN THINGS GET AMAZING. Prepare yourselves.

the tudors joely richardson kathryn parr
Richardson as Parr in The Tudors (2007)

So, some of Henry’s advisors/Kathryn’s enemies had been warning him against her for quite awhile. Remember how Kathryn was a life-long learner who loved to learn new things? She also loved discussing what she learned and engaging those around her in spirited debate, especially on matters of religion. She made a bad decision one day to debate the King about religion when he was having a particularly bad day with his ulcerous leg and terrible headaches. Whatever she said was controversial enough that the King — already in a bad mood — found it heretical. Now, the King was either confused or making a strange power play or legitimately was tired of her, because he told his doctor that Kathryn was going to be arrested. Shortly after this, an anonymous person left a copy of her arrest warrant at Kathryn’s door. Knowing what had happened to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, Kathryn obviously began to freak out. And then she came up with a brilliant plan.

She went to the King’s room, which luckily enough had not been locked to her as it had been when previous wives were under arrest. Henry set up a clumsy and obvious trap, striking up a religious conversation with her where he clearly contradicted what Kathryn had said before. She played this off perfectly, agreeing with everything he said and going further, claiming that women are subservient to men and men were smarter than women, and he was so much smarter than anyone else, and she was so lucky to be married to him, etc.  Henry saw through her obvious lies, insisting that he didn’t believe her. AND THEN THE BEST PART: Kathryn was like, “Oh, I only said all that heretical stuff to distract you from your ulcerous leg pain, I didn’t mean any of it.” And Henry was like, and this is a direct quote, “Then Kate, we are friends again.”

Read that back again.

Kathryn was going to be arrested by Henry VIII and managed to talk her way out of it. She talked. Her way. Out of it. 

kathryn parr joely richardson
Richardson as Parr in The Tudors (2007)

Amazing. BUT THEN IT GETS BETTER. Because Henry had forgotten to tell his council that she was no longer under arrest, so the next day forty guards showed up to arrest her while she was out strolling with Henry. Henry more or less beat them up, calling them names and humiliating them. Kathryn was not just spared arrest and possible execution, but Henry declared his love for her in a violent and public manner that made it clear what his true feelings were. For all her trouble, he bestowed gifts of jewels upon his wife, basically daring anyone to try and turn him against her ever again.

So things were as good as they could be, until they weren’t. A year after all this drama, the King’s already precarious health took a turn for the worse. He passed away on January 28th, 1547, leaving her the dowager Queen and his pre-teen son Edward the new King. Simiar to when Neville had died, Kathryn was left single, and an odd mixture of wildly powerful and entirely powerless. In his final will, the King had left instructions that Kathryn should always be treated as a Queen of England, as though he were still alive, and left her a generous annual allowance. She had no power to rule in his absence, though, and the boy king Edward was supported by an entirely male council of advisors. Kathryn was, crucially, left guardian of her stepdaughter Elizabeth, then 14 years old.

Remember Thomas Seymour? Because Kathryn did, reuniting with him almost immediately upon the King’s death. To be fair, Thomas — now back from the Netherlands — was one one King Edward’s advisors so it wasn’t hard to find him. Four months after Henry’s death, Kathryn took him as her fourth husband. Knowing that marrying so quickly after the King’s death wouldn’t look good or meet the approval of basically anyone, they kept this a secret for as long as they could, in this case, several months. Sure enough, it caused a scandal when people found out about their marriage as both King Edward and Mary Tudor wildly disapproved of what seemed like a show of disrespect for their late father. But Kathryn was still Elizabeth’s legal guardian, and in 1548 invited both Elizabeth, and her cousin Lady Jane Grey, to live with her and Thomas.

kathryn parr joely richardson the tudors
Richardson as Parr in The Tudors (2007)

Kathryn’s home became known as an important place for young women to learn and discuss and debate, perhaps further suggesting her as a role model for both Elizabeth and Jane Grey. However, the home was not a safe haven, as it was here that Thomas’s interest in Elizabeth took a troubling turn. He had apparently already wanted to marry her (before he’d gotten back together with Kathryn), because of the power that a union with the late King’s daughter could bring him. At around this same time, Kathryn became pregnant for the first time and also caught her husband in “an embrace” with her teenage stepdaughter. This bit is really weird and quite distressing. According to the testimony of others who lived with them, Kathryn perhaps not only was OK with this “horseplay,” but also may have egged them on. We’ll look at all this in more detail later on when I look at Elizabeth’s life.

Whatever happened between these three, Elizabeth was sent away four months after she’d arrived, and never saw Kathryn again (though they exchanged letters). On August 30, 1548, Kathryn gave birth to a daughter she named Mary, in honour of her step-daughter and former friend. Six days later, she passed away from complications of childbirth. And just because I couldn’t not let you know, the following year, Thomas Seymour was beheaded for treason so it turns out Henry VIII was not the worst of Kathryn’s husbands, at least in terms of how they treated her. Little is known of their daughter Mary Seymour, who likely died as a child.

Kathryn Parr is best remembered for her brief marriage to the ailing Henry VIII, but also for her writing. Her first book, Psalms or Prayers — was published anonymously in 1543, the year of her marriage to the King. Two years later, she made history as the author of the first book published in England by a woman in English language using her own name, when she released Prayers or Meditations. Her stepdaughter Elizabeth, so clearly influenced in many ways by Kathryn, personally translated this work into French, Italian, and Latin as a gift for Henry VIII. Kathryn’s third book, The Lamentations of a Sinner, was published in 1547. She is regarded now as an important voice in Renaissance women’s writing.

Her final resting place is in the chapel at Sudeley Castle, the location of her death. She  She is remembered best for her brief marriage to Henry VIII but other notable accomplishments

More Reading

Kathryn’s story is often squished into works discussing Henry’s other two final wives, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. There are two historical works just about Kathryn that I can recommend, and they are Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, the Last Wife of Henry VIII by Linda Porter, and Catherine Parr: Wife, Widow, Mother, Survivor, The Story of the Last Queen of Henry VIII by Elizabeth Norton.

In terms of historical fiction, the most notable work is Philippa Gregory’s novel The Taming of the Queen.

There aren’t any films that I’m aware of purely sharing the story of Kathryn (it’s a great story! Someone should do a movie!) but Joely Richardson’s portrayal of her in the fourth season of The Tudors seems quite true to what her personality and affect may have been.

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