In this article:
- Henry VIII is one of the most famous adulterers, having had six wives.
- Three died. Two marriages ended in divorce. The only one to survive the adulterous king? Catherine Parr.
- As the most married Queen of England, perhaps she was the only fit for the job of surviving the most married King.
- Though she’s most remembered for surviving Henry VIII, she was also an opinionated intellectual with a love life fit for reality TV.
Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. So goes a common rhyme taught to children in schools all over the United Kingdom. The rhyme refers to the six wives of the famously adulterous Tudor king, Henry VIII. It follows the order of Henry’s six wives and how each of their married lives with Henry ended.
Catherine of Aragon, mother of the infamous “Bloody Mary,” is known to many as just “divorced” despite her once riding a horse in full armor, while heavily pregnant, to deliver a speech to English troops.
The others are less fortunate than Catherine of Aragon.
Anne Boleyn ends up beheaded. Jane Seymour dies due to postpartum complications. Anne of Cleaves’ marriage is annulled. Catherine Howard also gets beheaded and Catherine Parr proves to be one of the two luckier Catherines as she survives Henry VIII after his death in 1509.
Though Catherine Parr is often forgotten in the shadow of Henry and the likes of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, the most married queen of England was an opinionated intellectual who convinced Henry VIII to confirm that Elizabeth I would remain part of the line of succession.
The Early Life of Catherine Parr
Catherine Parr, sometimes spelled as Katherine Parr or Katharine Parre if we go by the spelling in her portrait above, was born in 1512 to Sir Thomas Parr of Kendall, an official employed in the royal household.
Though her family had connections to the Yorks, who had fought against the Lancasters, the faction the Tudors supported, the Parrs had become trusted members of the Tudor court. Sir Thomas was an ambassador to Henry VII and Lady Parr was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife.
Awkward, I know.
But these connections put Catherine Parr in close proximity to the Tudor court and she would later gain the attention of Henry VIII. Their high position also meant that Lady Maud Parr had the money and influence to ensure that her three children were educated to an extent.
After the death of her husband, Lady Parr took on the job of educating a young Catherine Parr, a move that would influence her later contributions as a scholar of Protestantism. The young Lady Parr learned French and possibly even Latin and Spanish as she would later study these languages in depth as she grew older.
Naturally, Catherine also learned the womanly arts of embroidery and sewing as well as how to manage a household. We can only imagine that Parr’s mother would have taught her how to navigate political life if she had only known what kind of trouble waited for her daughter.
Fortunately, Catherine was older and more experienced in life by the time she married Henry VIII.
Her first husband was Sir Edward Borough whom she married at just 17 years old. She could be on a reality TV show about underage wives today, but those were different times.
Catherine’s life with Sir Edward Borough would be short-lived. He died in 1533, leaving Catherine widowed for the first time. Remember when I said she was the most married queen of England? Well, start keeping count because that’s dead husband #1.
Catherine Parr didn’t spend a lot of time mourning.
She moved on from Borough and was married again in the summer of 1534 to John Neville, Third Baron Latimer. Don’t let his name fool you: Latimer was no third-rate baron. He had managed to amass a lot of political influence to the point that many suspected he was conspiring against England.
Like Borough though, he wouldn’t last long. Latimer had to take it easy with the political scheming in the winter of 1542 because of his declining health.
Ever the dutiful wife, Catherine stuck by his side and cared for him. But Latimer ultimately died in 1543, leaving Catherine Parr widowed for the second time in her life.
That makes dead husband #2.
But Catherine Parr takes this dead husband business like a champ. Imagine this 14th-century #girlboss putting on her best embroidered red gown and hitting up balls to find her husband #3.
She’s still young. She’s childfree. She’s got plenty of money to party with after her husbands kicked the bucket. Catherine strikes up a friendship with none other than Lady Mary, her godmother’s daughter.
Does the name “Mary” ring a bell? That’s right: Catherine Parr’s godmother was none other than Catherine of Aragon herself. Some believe that Catherine Parr’s name isn’t just due to the popularity of the name at the time, but also because Henry VIII’s last wife was named after his first wife.
As if this whole mess couldn’t get more complicated, Catherine Parr gets into a romantic relationship with Sir Thomas Seymour, the brother of Jane Seymour who died giving birth to Edward VI.
If you thought Keeping Up with the Kardashians had too much family drama, it is nothing compared to the Tudors.
King Henry VIII, knowing he’s king and can do whatever he wants, steps in and decides he’s going to coerce Catherine Parr into marrying him.
Admittedly, no open coercion ever happened but the ardor and sincerity of the love letters between Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour make it clear that neither of them would have willingly chosen to be parted.
In one of his letters, Thomas Seymour writes before signing his name, “From the body of him whose heart you have.” Meanwhile, Catherine Parr would proclaim herself to him as, “Your humble, true, and loving wife in her heart.”
Catherine would also write, “My mind was fully bent the other time I was at liberty to marry you before any man I know.”
But Catherine likely understood the risk of saying no to Henry VIII.
We’re talking about a guy who had two of his wives murdered to get them out of his way and founded a whole new church just to get rid of his first. Henry VIII was, to put it in modern terms, the kind of guy who would stalk you and kill you if you ghosted him after the first date.
To keep the peace and possibly for her and Thomas Seymour’s safety, Catherine Parr agrees to marry Henry VIII.
Catherine Parr Marries Henry VIII
Catherine Parr was 30 years old by the time she and Henry VIII were married. While that’s a non-issue to us, that’s practically ancient in the Tudor era. But Catherine Parr proved to be the best possible choice of a wife that Henry VIII could have made for his country at that time.
The two were married at Hampton Court Palace on July 12, 1543.
Unlike almost all of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine Parr didn’t appear to have a powerful family pushing her and Henry VIII together. If anything, it seemed as if Henry VIII had chosen her simply because he wanted her as she was.
This was a massive departure in taste compared to wife #5, Catherine Howard. Howard was nothing like Parr.
While Parr was 30 years old with a wealth of experience and scholarly knowledge under her belt, Catherine Howard was a fun-loving and scandalous teenager who grew up largely unsupervised and was possibly sexually abused.
What Catherine Parr lacked in youth and excitement, she more than made up for with intelligence and skill, both in navigating politics and making, ahem, bedtime fun for the king.
The few documents that remain about it point to Catherine Parr having plied Henry VIII into better moods with milk baths, food, wine, and the art of conversation. Her hard work of putting up with the now ailing and obese Henry VIII’s sharp tempers eventually paid off.
Henry VIII doted on her, lavishing Catherine Parr with jewelry and clothing. He even trusted her enough to make her regent while he left England to fight against France in 1544.
Their marriage wasn’t completely unpleasant for Catherine Parr. The two shared a love of the arts, literature, and hunting.
Historian David Starkey describes Catherine Parr as a “woman with a mission” and it shows in Catherine’s measured actions to bring Henry VIII into her line of thinking.
Catherine Parr was a devout Christian who used every means to support her vision of Christianity. As a Protestant, she was a prolific writer who would become the first of the English queens to ever be published, and one of the few women at the time to publish under her own name.
Her first book, Psalms or Prayers, was published in 1544 by Henry VIII’s own printers. It could have been partly due to Catherine’s influence and partly because Henry VIII understood that Catherine was essentially publishing war propaganda.
England was at war with the French and the Scottish at the time and most of the prayers in the book referenced it. Catherine Parr’s collection of prayers frequently referenced war and asked God for help to vanquish their enemies.
She also had a hand in a book used today in the Book of Common Prayer, the official prayer book of the Anglican church.
Though most scholars attribute the BCP to Thomas Cranmer and other clergymen of the Anglican church, there is evidence that suggests that Catherine Parr translated a prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor to create a prayer for Henry VIII.
Catherine Parr After Henry VIII: A Look at Her Legacy
King Henry VIII died in July, 1543 but by then, Catherine Parr had already, and perhaps in her mind, literally, done God’s work by bringing Henry VIII and his children closer together.
She fostered a strong, loving relationship between herself and her stepchildren, going as far as to send court musicians to Mary and helping Edward and Elizabeth with their Latin lessons. She also encouraged them to visit their father.
These arrangements made it possible for her to influence Henry VIII and his parliament to pass the Third Succession Act which allowed for Mary and Elizabeth to become legitimate heirs to the throne again.
Elizabeth would later become Elizabeth I, one of the great queens of English history and among the few women to rule in her own right as an heir.
Though Parr was now free to marry Thomas Seymour, their story didn’t have a happy ending. Seymour proved to be just as unfaithful a husband as Henry VIII and even sexually harassed the young Elizabeth.
Catherine Parr died a few days after giving birth to her own Mary in August 30, 1548.
Her name made a comeback in the past few years with the release of the Broadway musical Six which tells the story of Henry VIII’s wives through their own eyes.
Six plays out as a “woe is me” competition between the wives of Henry VIII as each of them tries to prove who the late king screwed over the most.
The contest leads them to the realization that instead of having an on-stage catfight, a reference to how history has painted Catherine Parr and her fellow queens, they should probably be madder at the abuse they’ve suffered through other people’s machinations.
Six‘s Catherine Parr wraps up the musical with the lines, “I’m fixed as one of six and without him, I disappear. We all disappear.”
Catherine Parr was more than just the wife who survived. She was a scholar, a prolific writer, and, by whatever means available to a woman of her time, a clever politician.