Katherine Parr and Her Role in the English Reformation

Katherine Parr and Her Role in the English Reformation          

            Katherine Parr (1512-1548) is often remembered as the last of Henry VIII's wives. But she was much more than that. She was an important writer and a major player in the English Reformation.

Early Life

            Katherine was raised in the royal palace where her parents, Thomas and Maud, were in service. Maud was one of Catherine of Aragon’s main ladies-in-waiting and one of her closest friends. Katherine and her two siblings were raised and educated with Princess Mary (who was just two years younger than Katherine).

            After Thomas’s death, Maud continued to foster her children’s education and prepare them for a comfortable life. For Katherine, she arranged a marriage with a young nobleman, Edward Borough. However pleasant Edward might have been, their marriage was marred by the presence of his overbearing father, who was known for violent outburst of anger. When Edward died in 1529 (after three years of marriage), Katherine was deprived of any inheritance because she was childless. By then, her mother had died so she stayed with a compassionate family.

            In 1533, she accepted the marriage proposal of John Neville, Lord Latimer, who was twenty years her senior. With him, she was able to lead a more secure life – at least most of the time. In 1536, a group of rebels against the king’s religious reforms (during a revolt called “Pilgrimage of Grace”) kept her and her stepchildren hostage in an attempt to force Latimer to join their side. Latimer pacified the rebels through some compromises that marred his reputation.

King Henry’s Last Wife

            Henry VIII proposed soon after Neville’s death in 1543. It was the first of Henry’s marriage proposals to be directly arranged by him. It came as a surprise to 31-year old Katherine. She was actually in love with the king’s brother-in-law, Thomas Seymour, a charming man only a few years her senior. Henry was in his fifties, overweight and plagued by various ailments. But saying no to a king was not a viable option.

            “As truly as God is God, my mind was fully bent… to marry you before any man I knew,” she later wrote Seymour. “Howbeit, God withstood my will therein most vehemently for a time and, through his grace and goodness, made that possible which seemeth to me most unpossible… to renounce utterly mine own will and to follow His will most willingly.”[1]

            Whatever her personal feelings (which, given the fate of her predecessors, must have included great caution), she accepted the proposal and embraced her new role with energy and wisdom, proving to be a godsent to Henry in many ways.

            She was a capable assistant, trustworthy enough to be formally named regent of England during Henry’s military campaign in France. Her diplomacy was also instrumental in reconciling the king with his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Around the end of Henry’s life, she became his faithful nurse, comforting him during the constant pain he suffered from festering sores on his legs.

A Dangerous Faith

            She apparently converted to Protestantism soon after her wedding, through the instructions of Thomas Cranmer. She became then largely responsible for the Protestant education of her step-children, Elizabeth and Edward, who continued to trust and respect her throughout their life.

            Today, she is mostly famous for her narrow escape of arrest and execution for her possession of heretical books in 1546. While her prosecutors could not find evidence (which was probably removed), she knew they would persist in their efforts unless she ensured the king’s protection. She did so by explaining to the king that her interest in theological matters was motivated by her desire to discuss those subjects with him – reaffirming her submission to him in all things.

            In spite of this grave danger, the same year, she began writing a personal chronicle of her departure from the Roman Catholic religion and her understanding of justification by faith alone. The book, The Lamentation of a Sinner, was published only nine months after Henry’s death in 1547. It was not the first of her works – she had already published a collection of poems and meditations on the Psalms – but it was the most outspoken about her beliefs.

A Tragic End

            Henry’s death freed Katherine to marry Thomas Seymour, but her dream marriage didn’t turn out as happy as she had hoped. From the start, the couple was criticized and maligned for their secret wedding. By law, marriage with a person who could potentially have an interest in the throne had to be approved by the king and the Privy Council. Katherine fell under that category, since theoretically she could still have been pregnant with Henry’s child.

            Much of this criticism came from Thomas’s family, especially his brother Edward, who had just been nominated Lord Protector of the young King Edward VI. The rivalry between the two brothers continued for years, forcing Katherine to become entangled as natural ally of her husband.

            The fact that Katherine had brought the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth into her new home caused another set of problems, as Thomas began rough-housing with the girl in ways that became concerning (visiting her in the early morning, wearing only his nightshirt, and tickling her in bed). This behavior caused another scandal, and Katherine was criticized for allowing it and even joining in at times. If Katherine had initially been blind to the seriousness of the situation, however, her eyes were opened when she found Thomas and Elizabeth embracing, and she sent the young princess away. Elizabeth wrote an immediate letter of apology to Katherine, who extended her forgiveness.

            These problems clouded what would have been a joyous season for Katherine, who became pregnant for the first time in her life. On 30 August 1548, she gave birth to a daughter, Mary. As was common in her day, she contracted an infection, and died six days later. The following year, Mary became orphan of both parents, as Thomas was accused of treason against the king and executed. According to some records, Mary died in infancy.

Katherine’s Legacy

            Katherine was highly esteemed in her day as a wise queen, writer, educator, and religious reformer. Her influence on major figures like Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and Jane Grey – the young lady that ruled for nine days after Edward – had lasting consequences, and her patronage of famous early Protestants such as Hugh Latimer, Miles Coverdale, Roger Ascham, and John Parkhurst did much to promote the English Reformation.

            She also fostered education in England and played a role in the foundation of Trinity College, Cambridge. As a writer, she is remembered as the first English woman to publish a book under her name. Her writings – pregnant with wisdom, humility, and devotion – have been among the first Reformed works in the English language and have inspired men and women alike.

[1] Katherine Parr, Complete Works and Correspondence, ed. Janel Mueller, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 131.


Simonetta Carr