As Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, it’s tempting to cast Catherine Parr as just a closing chapter on his story. After all, Catherine is continually defined in terms of others: her dead husbands before Henry, the stepchildren she reunited, and the king she helped “heal” to his end, etc. In reality, Catherine Parr’s life—before and after Henry—was a romantic saga in its own right. Like it or not, though, Catherine Parr will forever go down in history as the “survivor” of Henry VIII.
In addition to being “queen,” Catherine was a bestselling author, a polyglot, a scholar, a religious radical, and a serial widow with marital scandals that rivaled those of her own royal husband. Under the image of Catherine as a pious bluestocking there lay a real woman whose passions ran both spiritual and carnal. Separate the myth from the legend with these 43 resilient facts about Catherine Parr.
With four husbands under her bejeweled belt, Catherine Parr is England’s most-married queen. In that sense, Henry VIII found his match.
42. Queen of the Bibliography
Catherine may be the “last” of Henry’s wives, but she has won “firsts” in English women’s literary history. For one, her Prayers or Meditations (1545) is the first book ever to be authored by English woman under her own name. Impressively, it is first book to be openly published by a woman in the English language itself. Earlier, Catherine had published an English translation of Latin psalms called Psalms or Prayers, but she had to do so anonymously.
41. In Every End is a Creepy Beginning
Catherine Parr was actually likely named after Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Parr’s mother served as lady-in-waiting to the first Queen Catherine. In turn, the older queen served as godmother to baby Catherine. Thus, Henry VIII’s long marital career comes to a full and creepy circle.
40. I Learned It from You
Catherine was raised as the eldest child of her formidable single mother, Maud Green. Her accomplishments certainly set an example for Catherine. A woman of apparently great intellect, Maud was entrusted by the queen to manage the court school. But when Maud was only 25 years old, Sir Thomas Parr died and left Maud as a widowed mother to their three children, including the 5-year-old future Queen Catherine Parr. Despite her youth, Maud never remarried for fear of endangering her kids’ inheritance. Instead, Maud devoted the rest of her life to her children’s education and to snagging them advantageous marriages. It’s not a reach to speculate that Maud taught the “surviving” Queen of Henry VIII a lot about how to, well, survive.
39. Master of Tongues
Unsurprisingly, when you consider her mother ran the court school, Catherine was a lifelong learner. She had a passion for languages and was fluent in French, Latin, and Italian. Upon becoming Queen, Catherine took time to learn Spanish as well.
38. Who Needs Homework When You’re Gonna Be Queen?
One biographer popularized a story where Catherine foresaw her own queenly destiny. The tale goes that, as a girl, Catherine hated the tedium of needlework; she would tell her mother, “My hands are ordained to touch crowns and sceptres, not spindles and needles.” Sounds too good to be true—and a bit hubristic—which is probably why most historians think this is more “legend” than fact.
37. Not to Be Confused with His Grandpa
At the age of 17, Catherine made the first of her four marriages. This time, it was to Sir Edward Burgh, a knight in his 20s. For years, biographers mistook Catherine’s first husband to be his grandfather, the elderly Edward Burgh, 2nd Baron Burgh. They have the same name, so it’s understandable, but maybe the idea of Catherine marrying three old rich dudes in a row was too tempting a resist repeating? In either case, it’s pretty moot; the younger Burgh bounced out of life in 1533, just four years after their marriage. Not for the last time, the 21-year-old Catherine was a young and childless widow.
36. Second Time’s the Charm
Just one year after becoming a first-time widow, Catherine married John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer, in 1534. Unlike her first husband, this one was independently wealthy and twice her age—which better aligns with the young serial widow image that’s come to be stuck with Catherine.
35. Trouble in Paradise
During the 1536 Northern Uprisings, Catherine and her stepchildren by her second husband were taken as hostages. The rebels informed Lord Latimer that he had to come back home, or they would kill Catherine and his children—at least, that was the alleged case. Latimer somehow managed to persuade the rebels to let them go, which raised the question: was Catherine’s husband was really a victim, or a co-conspirator with the Northerners? If this was the case, the family’s lands would be forfeited, and they’d be left penniless.
34. Two Down, Two to Go
It looks like Lord Latimer’s health—like his reputation—never recovered from the family’s close encounter with treason. While no charges were ever filed against her husband, Catherine became a widow (due to natural causes) for a second time in 1543.
33. Will I?
Upon her second husband’s death, Catherine inherited guardianship of her stepdaughter, choice properties, and a handsome income. At 31 years old, Catherine was finally rich enough to marry on her own terms. But alas…
32. My Dad Thinks You’re Cute
Catherine appeared to have been a youthful friend of King Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary Tudor. With her second husband’s death, Catherine renewed their friendship and found a place in her entourage her at court. In this position, Parr probably attracted the attention of Henry VIII. Just a reminder that while Catherine was 31 and mature, she was also four years older than her new suitor’s daughter…and Henry had known Catherine since she was a child.
31. Head and Shoulders Above Them All
In terms of notable features, Catherine possessed bright hazel eyes and a great height; in some sources, she stood as tall as 5’10”. Being very tall himself, perhaps Henry liked the idea of finally seeing eye-to-eye with a subject.
30. Royal Book Club
Some spend the spoils of their rich widowhood at designer boutiques; others host salons of controversial religious debate. As Lady Latimer, Catherine took a huge interest in the Protestant beliefs and philosophies of the Reformation. Catherine’s spiritual and intellectual pursuits would be a huge influence on her writing and her younger stepchildren, but they would also later end up threatening her marriage.
29. Move Over, Bozo
Right before Henry took an interest, Catherine was being courted by Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. After the death of Lord Latimer, Catherine and Seymour seriously discussed marriage; Seymour was, by all accounts, handsome, charming, and about Catherine’s age. Henry didn’t exactly have all that by 1543, but his other qualities were hard to pass up. A letter in which Catherine ultimately rejects Seymour indicates where her preferences laid, as she wrote, “[M]y mind was fully bent to marry you before any man I knew. Howbeit, God… made that possible which seemed to me most impossible.”
28. Ya Snooze, Ya Lose
Just two weeks before Catherine’s second husband died, Henry sent her gifts of pleats and sleeves, in addition to stylish Italian gowns. Henry himself was old, but perhaps no less limber in securing what he wanted.
27. 7th Wife? More Like Six Degrees of Separation
In the last months of Catherine’s reign, there was a failed plot to replace her with a new queen—the king’s own widowed daughter-in-law, Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond. To reinforce just how small the noble dating pool was, Mary disclosed under interrogation that her brother had intended that she marry Thomas Seymour—Catherine’s ex—and, from there, slide into the position of King Henry’s mistress. It must have made sense back then.
26. Two for the Price of One
Upon her marriage to Henry on July 12, 1542—just four months after her second husband died—Catherine became the first Queen of England to also be titled Queen of Ireland. Henry had just adopted the title of Ireland’s King.
25. Bitter Much?
Catherine was never the only surviving wife of Henry VIII; Anne of Cleves, wife #4, was alive, well-favored, and still living in England…but she did not like Catherine. While Anne had gotten along with wife #5 (Catherine Howard, who actually supplanted Anne), she weirdly didn’t think highly of #6. Apparently, Anne didn’t think Parr was pretty enough to replace her and was said to have sniffed, “A fine burden Madame Catherine has taken upon herself!”
24. Wed to Give a Damn
Catherine was an adept nursemaid for Henry’s body and spirits. Not only did she soothe and attend to his leg ulcers herself, she also convinced him to finally ditch his vanity and embrace his reading glasses.
23. Seal of Obedience
Catherine’s official badge featured a long-haired maiden rising from a large Tudor rose. Her official queen’s motto was “To Be Useful in All I Do.”
22. Sowing the Seeds
As Queen, Catherine’s Protestant sympathies were readily apparent. Not only did she secure the release of several Protestant prisoners, the queen also placed leading Protestant scholars in the household of her stepson, Prince Edward, thereby ensuring the future remained for the Reformers.
21. Learning From the Best
The future Elizabeth I of England was the stepchild to whom Catherine was closest and with whom she shared a love of learning and language. At 11 years old, Elizabeth gifted her father and stepmother with a translation of Catherine’s Prayers or Meditation in French, Italian, and Latin. Catherine would also take charge of Elizabeth’s welfare after Henry’s death.
20. Come Together Over Me
Catherine famously brought Henry’s much-fraught royal family back together. Henry’s only surviving son, Prince Edward, took a shine to his latest stepmother. When he was only nine years old, he encouraged his stepmother’s efforts to improve her own Latin and also asked her to keep his Catholic sister Mary away from “evil” influences. It’s generally believed that Catherine was a big influence in both Edward and Elizabeth Tudor’s Protestant learnings and leanings.
19. Queen Academy
After Henry’s death, Catherine took custody of his youngest daughter, the 13-year-old Elizabeth Tudor. She also took another studious royal girl as her ward: the future “Nine Days Queen” Lady Jane Grey. Unknowingly, Catherine mentored two queens of England.
In 1546, Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and the Catholic faction at court plotted to oust Catherine as a heretic. This involved implicating her with Anne Askew, an Evangelist who was herself under arrest for heresy and to whom Catherine was rumored to be sympathetic.
17. Say Her Name
Did a female Evangelist die tortuously to protect Catherine Par? While being “questioned” for heresy, Anne Askew became the first woman on record to be ever tortured in the Tower of London. Many suspect that this was done so Askew would give up Catherine and/or her close ladies-in-waiting as Protestant themselves. In either case, it didn’t work, as Anne Askew was burned without ever implicating the Queen. But that didn’t spell the end of danger for Catherine…
16. Agree to Disagree
Spousal disagreements shouldn’t end in arrest, but here we are. By 1546, Henry’s suspicions about Catherine’s radical beliefs were inflamed by some religious argument between them. Apparently convinced of her heresy, Henry signed a warrant for the arrest of his sixth wife.
15. Old Habits Die Hard?
As Catherine’s arrest warrant was drawn in 1546, rumors swirled that Henry’s wandering eye had resurfaced. Most scandalously, the alleged “other woman” was Catherine Brandon née Willoughby—the widow of his late best friend who was also Catherine’s own good friend and lady-in-waiting. Nevertheless, the whispers came to naught; it’s generally agreed that, by this point, Henry’s sexual appetite might have bee too battered by life to cheat.
14. The Ultimate Hall Pass
So why didn’t Henry VIII go down as the king who executed half his wives? Catherine was lucky; somehow, the warrant for her arrest managed to fall conveniently outside her door, perhaps planted by an ally. Thus, this queen got a life-saving heads-up that her condemned predecessors—such as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard—did not.
13. Little Old Me?
Armed with news of her impending arrest, Catherine was able to defend herself from Henry’s rage with the ultimate weapons: complete self-deprecation and capitulation to his ego. The next time Henry talked religion with her, Catherine claimed she only argued with Henry in order to distract him from his festering leg wounds…but she also yearned for his wisdom. After all, she was in her own words “but a woman, with all the imperfections natural to the weakness of my sex.” Despite her vigorous education and writing career, Catherine would never assume to know better about religion than her husband. He bought it. After all, entering the dating scene again—especially at his current stage of health—might have literally killed him.
12. I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something…
Despite his forgiveness of Catherine, Henry didn’t have enough time (or will) to call off her arrest. The Lord Chancellor and guards came to follow through with the warrant against Catherine while she was in front of the king himself. Henry angrily ordered them away with shouts of “Fool!”, “Knave!”, and other sick 16th century burns.
11. On Her Own
From July to September 1546, Henry waged one final war against France. At this point, he still held Catherine in high regard, as evident by her appointment to Regent in his stead. Not only that, she was entrusted to keep acting as Prince Edward’s Regent in the potential event of Henry’s death. By all accounts, Catherine carried her office with skill and dignity. It’s believed her stepdaughter Elizabeth, future Elizabeth I of England, was alongside her at this period and took notes on Catherine’s influence.
10. The Best Thanks Has £ Signs
On his deathbed, Henry thanked God for finally delivering him “so faithful a spouse.” Most importantly, Henry showed his thanks by bequeathing Catherine a £7,000/year pension (millions of dollars a year in today’s money), plus the right to keep all of the queen’s jewels and clothes. We should all express gratitude like Henry.
9. Can’t Hardly Wait
On January 28, 1547, Henry VIII officially passed away and left Catherine as Queen Dowager. She had no role in the reign of her beloved stepson, Edward VI, partly because she scandalously married her “true” love, Thomas Seymour, less than four months after Henry’s death. Hey, Catherine’s third husband was barely one to wait between his marriages. Why should she?
8. Free to Write Her Heart out
After Henry’s death, Catherine felt safe enough to come out as a full-blown Protestant. This is evident in her final 1547 book, Lamentations of a Sinner, in which she makes an argument for then-radical doctrine of salvation based on faith alone. Such beliefs ran completely counter to the doctrine of the Catholic Church and (most fatally) Catherine’s late husband, Henry VIII. Waiting until Henry’s death to vocalize her full beliefs is understandable, if you considered what happened the last time…
7. Little Miracles
At the age of 35 (and one year after Henry’s death), Catherine became pregnant for the first known time. She hadn’t been able to get pregnant in any of her first three of her marriages, so this must have come as a welcome surprise for the career stepmother.
6. The Family Jewels
Widowhood wasn’t all bliss and bling. King Henry’s will left Catherine with the crown jewels. However, Catherine’s new brother-in-law, Lord Protector Edward Seymour, refused to hand them over because they were traditionally worn by the ruler of England’s wife. As England’s de facto ruler as Lord Protector, of course Edward Seymour gave them to his own wife, Anne Stanhope. This soured the friendship between Catherine and Stanhope, but it also furthered her husband Thomas’s bitterness towards his older brother—Thomas perceived Catherine’s deprivation as a personal attack by his brother against him, of course.
5. Denial Ahead…
Ironically, Catherine’s “love” match with Thomas Seymour was the one that left her most vulnerable to true heartache. Upon moving in with Catherine, Seymour became inappropriate with her young stepdaughter, Elizabeth Tudor. Seymour would surprise the girl in bed at odd hours for horseplay and even tried to kiss her. Initially, Catherine brushed off his attention as innocent. As if to demonstrate his lack of harm, Catherine sometimes joined in the “romps” and helped hold Elizabeth down as Seymour tickled her. But at one point, this ended with Seymour “playfully” cutting the girl’s dress to bits…
4. Not Suitable for Children
As Catherine advanced in her pregnancy, her husband’s attention to Elizabeth became increasingly inappropriate. In May 1548, the tension climaxed with Catherine finding Thomas Seymour and Elizabeth in an embrace. What exactly happened is ambiguous, but it certainly ended with 14-year-old Elizabeth being sent away from her favorite stepmother’s home. Perhaps it was to protect Elizabeth from Seymour, or to remove her as a third wheel in Catherine’s longed-for domestic bliss, or to preserve everyone’s reputation, or some combination of the three. In any case: while they would have some kind contact via letter, Catherine and Elizabeth would never see each other again.
3. Outlived, But Not by Much
Despite being known as “the one who survived,” Catherine outlived Henry VIII by just less than two years. On September 8, 1548, Catherine Parr died— aged 36—of postnatal complications, eight days after giving birth to her only child, Mary Seymour.
2. So Much for Honoring Her Memory
Nobody stays single for long in this saga. After Catherine Parr’s death, her fourth husband Thomas Seymour renewed his intent to marry her stepdaughter, Elizabeth. Apparently, Elizabeth was always his first choice, but the council denied his request before he “settled” for her rich stepmother, Catherine—what a classy dude. In a confusing chain of events that belong on another list, Seymour’s plan to circumvent the council got botched so horribly that he ended up executed for treason on March 20, 1549—just six months after Catherine’s death.
1. A Lost Legacy
For centuries, the fate of Catherine’s only daughter, Mary Seymour, has been a minor debate. After her father’s execution, the six-month-old baby was taken in by her mother’s close friend—and rumored would-be replacement—Catherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk. The duchess chafed at the high expense of raising a queen’s daughter (and her noble household) and requested more funds from Seymour’s estate. While Seymour’s lands were fully restored to Mary, she never had a chance to enjoy it. The last mention of the baby relates to her second birthday; after that, she disappears from historical record. While some hopeful people think Mary grew up to wed and settle into a private life, most are in doubt. After all, could the daughter of Henry VIII’s last queen—even if by another man—descend that deeply into obscurity? Catherine Parr’s only child most likely died in infancy.
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