Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: Who was Catherine Parr?

TW: brief mention of sexual abuse 

Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, has often been characterised as a ‘motherly figure’ or ‘saintly nurse.’ Catherine is portrayed as the ‘lucky’ queen, the one to have survived. However, her story is no less interesting or, indeed, tragic than that of the five queens that came before her. In this article, I will outline the landmarks of Catherine’s life and question whether this is a fair assessment of her character. 

Catherine Parr was born in 1512, the oldest child to Sir Thomas Parr and Maude Green. Thomas Parr was a close friend to Henry VIII and was one of the men chosen to be knighted at his coronation. Maude was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Not only was Catherine named after the queen, but she was also her godmother.  

Thomas died when Catherine was young, and so it was increasingly important that Catherine secured a good marriage. By the time Catherine was ten everything had been decided. She was to marry Edward, Baron Borough of Gainsborough. He was a widower with children older than Catherine, but he was wealthy and would secure Catherine’s future. She was only sixteen when she married him in 1529. 

In 1532 Edward died leaving Catherine a twenty-year-old widower. Maude had passed away by this time, and Catherine had no other option but to marry again for her security. Therefore, in 1533 she married John Neville, Lord Latimer of Snape. He was forty years old, twice a widower and had two grown children, it was hardly the place for twenty year old Catherine. However, she successfully ran her husband’s great Yorkshire estate and was an accommodating stepmother.  

In October of 1536 Lord Latimer became deeply involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic, mostly northern, revolt of 35,000 citizens against Henry VIII and the Church of England. It was deemed the most successful uprising during Henry’s reign, though its force was resisted by the crown. Despite being a ringleader, Latimer escaped any formal proceedings, but his health did not. Latimer’s illness brought his family to London, where the best doctors were. Catherine used this time to discretely renew contacts at court and rebuild the family’s shattered reputation. Here, Catherine became close friends with Princess Mary and several members of the Seymour family. It was Seymour family’s evangelism that would greatly influence Catherine in later life.  

During her time in London, Catherine began to grow close to Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Jane Seymour. However, by 1543 Catherine was part of a rather complicated situation, she was also becoming of interest to Henry VIII. The king had taken about a year to recover from the events that led to Katherine Howard’s death, and, with his health failing, he was looking for a new wife. Lord Latimer’s death in March of 1543 brought Henry’s marriage proposal. It is speculated by Tudor historians that Parr would have certainly married Seymour if it wasn’t for the king, but it would have been dangerous to turn Henry’s proposal down. Although historians such as Gladys Malvern and David Loades present Parr as a reluctant wife of Henry VIII, Lucy Worsley paints a different picture. Worsley suggests that it was Parr’s religion that encouraged her to believe that it was her godly duty to marry the king, this role was her divine right.   

The wedding was a small affair at Hampton Court in July 1543, only twenty people were present. The intimacy of the event, especially in comparison to the spectacular weddings that had taken place before Catherine, suggests that the purpose of Catherine’s role was clear from the offset. She was not to be a spectacle or lover but more a companion to Henry, someone to care for him in his final years. David Loades notes that she was a ‘benign presence rather than a power.’ Catherine was intelligent and well-read, she was far from Katherine Howard who seemed childish in comparison.  

Despite being known for being a ‘saintly nurse’ Catherine delighted in clothes, music, and dancing, and the young Princess Elizabeth spent a lot of time watching and learning from her. Lucy Worsley describes Catherine as Elizabeth’s role model. This suggests that, although Catherine had passed away before Elizabeth took the throne, she had a great influence in shaping the mindset of a young queen. This made Catherine’s place as sixth and final wife incredibly significant. 

Despite being this ‘model queen’ the problem with Catherine was her religion. England was still settling into a new religious order as a result of the break from Rome, and Protestantism was growing in popularity. Catherine was an Evangelist and, therefore, Worsley argues that Catherine believed Henry had chosen her, through God, as his wife so that she could spread the word of the Gospel. Indeed, Catherine was the first woman in England to have a religious book published in her name. She wrote Prayers or Meditations wherein the Mind is Stirred Patiently to Suffer all Afflictions, which was published by the King’s printer in 1545. Its purpose was to develop the Church of England. However, her second book, The Lamentation of a Sinner, published after the death of Henry in November 1547, had clear unambiguous Lutheran doctrine. It was because of these religious views that Catherine came close to arrest and scandal.  

In March 1543, the conservative faction of the court, led by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, began a campaign against heresy. First, they perused Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, then they came for Catherine. It is widely believed that Catherine became a target after she was seen to be rather too comfortable discussing theology at court. Henry had always allowed Catherine a great deal of latitude, tolerating opinions from her that no one else dared voicing. However, it is most likely that Henry, with his increasing age and sickness, became annoyed when Catherine disagreed with him. Under the influence of Gardiner, Henry signed an arrest warrant for his sixth wife. It is debated how Catherine came to possess the arrest warrant, however she is said to have collapsed after reading the document. Catherine, having been visited by a worried Henry, pleaded for her life. She claimed that she had never pretended to instruct but only learn, and had only spoken of Godly things to ease and cheer his mind. The pair reconciled, and Worsley recalls that when Sir Thomas Wriothesley and his armed guards arrived the following day to arrest the Queen, they found their suspect walking through the gardens with the King. This incident is incredibly interesting as Catherine displayed a great amount of power in her role. She knew how to manipulate the situation to suit herself, and was able to talk her way out of a situation that none of her predecessors could.  

 In July 1544 Henry fought his final military campaign in France and left Catherine as governor in his absence, a gesture of his great confidence in the queen. It was a position that Henry had trusted Catherine of Aragon with in the past, and Parr showed herself to be perfectly competent in her new role. However, on Henry’s return in September 1544, he fell ill. The last few months of Henry’s life Catherine spent tending to his physical health and calming his temper. Catherine was not with Henry when he died in January 1547. Perhaps this was a sign of her relationship with the King at this point, although they could enjoy each other’s company the pair did not have the close relationship that is suggested in the characterisation of Parr as ‘mother’ or ‘nurse.’  

At the point of Henry’s death Catherine was merely thirty-five, far from the vision of an aging queen that is so often associated with Parr. She was also an incredibly wealthy widower, being provided with £7000 a year. After three unfulfilling marriages Catherine was finally free to find a close and meaningful relationship. She did this with Thomas Seymour, and the couple secretly married in June 1547. Catherine’s life was far from plain sailing after her fourth marriage. She was still close to the crown, her step-son was king and her husband was brother to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England. As such, Catherine was still in the midst of court life. Nothing displays this better than her rivalry with Anne Seymour, wife of Edward Seymour. Catherine argued her prominence at court as Queen Dowager, though Anne claimed it was wife of the first subject. In addition, her marital issues did not end with Henry. Thomas Seymour is recorded to have sexually abused the fourteen-year-old princess Elizabeth when she stayed at their residence, and Catherine was forced to send Elizabeth away. It is through incidents like these that one cannot help but feel for the former Queen. Catherine constantly drew the short straw. Though clever, head-strong and kind, Catherine was continuously failed by the men around her, who took advantage of her vulnerability and used her for their own means.   

Despite the behaviour of her husband, Catherine finally had a child of her own. At the age of thirty-six Catherine gave birth to a girl who she named Mary. Six days after Mary’s birth in August 1548, Catherine contracted puerperal fever and passed away. It seems painfully unfair that Catherine spent only six days with her own child, after a lifetime of looking after the children of others.  

As the last of Henry VIII’s wives Catherine is certainly overlooked. She may have been the queen to have survived, but Catherine’s story is no less interesting or indeed tragic than that of the five queens that came before her. Catherine was independent for a woman of the time and certainly had a mind of her own. At the age of thirty-five Catherine had experienced life like no other, she had been involved in a rebellion and then married the very man her deceased husband had revolted again; she avoided execution for heresy, and published two books in her own name. Tragic but compelling, I feel that Catherine Parr is a historical figure that deserves much more attention.  

Written by Eva Campbell 


Loades, David. The 6 Wives of Henry VIII. Amberley, 2014. 

Loades, David. Tudor Queens of England. London; New York: Continuum; 2009. 

Malvern, Gladys. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Vanguard Press; 1972. 

Unsobered: Badass Women in History and Literature, Catherine Parr | Wives of King Henry VIII. Podcast audio. March, 2020, https://open.spotify.com/episode/0Bas27Aa7uTKpwITHGWdAZ?si=pjAVhs7sQ3aJSrPVQOvIew 

Vulgar History. Catherine Parr. Podcast audio. September, 2020, https://open.spotify.com/episode/5UcLA6q1YHHGHLYjcso27w?si=_kFGTFJLQaSBkAfpZdOSlA 

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