Katherine Parr, religious reform, and the battle for the throne

By June Woolerton

Twitter: @mrsrjgiven

On a summer’s day in 1546, the Queen of England was walking with her husband when guards arrived to arrest her. King Henry VIII had already had two of his previous wives detained and later executed and for a moment there was every indication that his sixth consort was about to follow the same path. However, Henry stepped in and dismissed his wife’s enemies, who left, embarrassed and bewildered. Katherine Parr had survived. But if she said a prayer of thanks later, she kept it discreet. For it was religion that had placed her in peril of the block.

Katherine’s religious views had altered publicly and quickly during her time as queen. Before her marriage to Henry, her growing support for reformed religion was known in sympathetic circles but not advertised openly. A modern education, overseen by her mother Maud Green, had produced an ambitious and energetic thinker but Katherine, like most well born women of the time, was destined to marry young. She had married twice by the time the king began his pursuit of her and had been thrust into the heart of religious dissent when her second husband, John Neville, Baron Latimer, had supported the Pilgrimage of Grace, the rebellion that attempted to restore official Catholicism in the aftermath of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. But even by the time Katherine wed the king, at Hampton Court on July 12, 1543, she was regarded by reformers as sympathetic to their cause. Her actions as queen proved that within months.

Her closest advisers shared her increasingly ardent reformist beliefs. Her inner coterie was filled with minds such as Lady Joan Denny, who had given her backing to persecuted reformers in the southwest. Katherine appointed Sir Robert Tyrwhit, who had helped suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace, as her master of the horse while his wife, another committed reformer, took her place among the queen’s ladies. Katherine’s personal doctor, Robert Huick, had been hounded in his younger years for his adherence to the new faith. One of her closest companions, the Duchess of Suffolk, expressed such extreme support for reformed religion that some called her position at court into question. Katherine’s closest advisers became an open declaration of the way she saw the future of the church in England.

The queen herself promoted use of the vernacular for religious texts, taking the staunch reformist view that Scripture was the sole authority for the Christian faith. At first, she did this quietly, publishing an English translation of Prayers and Psalms anonymously in 1544. That same year, Henry made her his regent when he departed for France and her success in that role gave her confidence.  In 1545, she put her name to her Prayers or Meditations, an English language collection of devotional texts. Within it was a clear show of support for one of the most controversial ideas of the new reformed religion: justification through faith. It was a brave move but, by then, Katherine was secure in her role and increasingly determined to use it to further reform.

Part of the reason for her confidence lay in her well-established place at the heart of Henry VIII’s royal family. Within months of her marriage, she had brought the king closer to all his children and helped bring about the new Act of Succession which restored rights to the throne to the monarch’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Her husband also entrusted her with the education of his younger children. The queen used her position to support humanism. She appointed noted humanists as tutors to Edward and Elizabeth, with William Grindal taking charge of her stepdaughter’s learning while reformists Richard Cox and John Belmaine were among those brought into the young heir’s classrooms under the influence of Katherine Parr.

Her impact on Elizabeth was particularly evident. As early as 1544, Elizabeth had presented Katherine with her own translation of Marguerite of Navarre’s The Mirror of the Sinful Soul. Elizabeth would later work on translations of John Calvin’s writings for her stepmother. By 1545, Katherine’s faith was an integral part of her queenship. Her ability to weave religious reform into the traditions of the court would echo in later Tudor times when Elizabeth herself took the throne.

Katherine had been queen for three years when her enemies fixed her as their target. Her time as consort had been marked by a revival in the fortunes of religious reformists, of which she had become a notable member. John Foxe, in his Acts and Monuments written after Katherine’s death, described a queen who debated often with her husband about religion and who, as their marriage progressed, pressed him for further breaks with the traditions of the Church in Rome which for her, like all reformists, were filled with superstition.  However, leading conservatives including the Lord Chancellor, Henry Wriothesley, and the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, were increasingly alarmed by her religious views. Furthermore, with the king’s health failing, the conservative faction feared that soon Katherine might have even more opportunity to exercise her move towards the new faith; by 1546, Katherine looked as though she might soon be queen regent for a boy king. The battle for control of the future monarch was also a battle for the future of the English Church and religious traditionalists were now working towards ensuring they came out victorious.

Their attempt to unseat the sixth consort was centred on a passionate Protestant reformer, Anne Askew. She had been in trouble with authorities across southern England through her short life for her preaching and, in May 1546, she was arrested by Wriothesley and tortured. The conservative faction at court hoped to gain a confession from her that implicated Katherine in heresy. Askew held firm and was consequently burned at the stake. But Gardiner continued to harbour suspicions that Askew had been associated with the queen. Along with Wriothesley, he began to press the king for Katherine’s arrest. And by then, her devotion to reformed religion was so well known that it appeared to be an easy fight for them to win. The king gave his permission for their plans, only to change his mind when Katherine learned of the plot and promised him that her religious talk was a mere ploy to divert his attention from his health problems. Henry forgave his wife for her perceived presumption to lecture him but he was as aware as anyone of how deeply entrenched her belief in the new faith had become.

However, her support for reform had made Katherine vulnerable. Until Gardiner and Wriothesley moved against her, she had been increasingly energetic in promoting the new faith. Following her narrow escape from the Tower, she hid much of her passion for Protestantism. In the later part of 1546, she fell into a private fury of writing which would produce her most famous work, The Lamentation of a Sinner. However, this ground-breaking tome, written in the first person, would remain unpublished until after Henry’s death. If he had read it, he would have found a queen ready to admit that her unassailable public image of purity was besmirched by sin while her open disregard for the old ways of religious practice were also committed to print. The threat to her life had produced a landmark book in English Protestantism but she was wise enough to keep it to herself while her husband lived.

Whether the plot to bring about her downfall had played a part in the decision to exclude her from Edward VI’s regency remains open to debate. Prior to the summer of 1546, when Gardiner and Wriothesley took aim at the queen as the greatest threat to their faction, there was every expectation that Katherine Parr would help govern for her stepson. However, if her opponents had hoped that diminishing her would stop the reformists, they were wrong. Edward VI fell under the control of his mother’s family, who were ardent Protestants. But they, too, were wary of giving Katherine any more power, even when she married the young king’s maternal uncle, Thomas Seymour, within months of Henry’s death.

Katherine’s last year was spent watching a Protestant reformation begin to take shape without her direct guidance. She continued to debate and write about the new way of practising the Christian faith, even as she retreated to Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire to await the birth of her first child. However, she did not live to see the new faith she so ardently supported become fully established. She died of complications from childbirth in September 1548. Her funeral was the first such public Protestant service in English held in the country over which she had once been consort.

Katherine has since, at times, been relegated to a pale imitation of herself when the Tudor tale is told and was initially given little credit for the expansion of the new faith. However, evidence points to her as an important influence on the religious convictions of England. Her queenship gave her an opportunity to promote a revolution in faith and, discreet though she was, she had taken her chance so well she almost lost her life in the process.

The Victorian tomb of Katherine Parr at Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe
Credit: MikPeach, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Katherine Parr, Prayers or Meditations (1545).

Katherine Parr, The Lamentation of a Sinner (1547).

Katherine Parr, Complete Works and Correspondence, edited by Janel Mueller (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Anthony K. Martienssen, Queen Katherine Parr, Anthony K. Martienssen (Martin Secker and Warburg, 1973).

Linda Porter, Katherine The Queen. The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (Pan Macmillan, 2011).

Susan James, Catherine Parr. Henry VIII’s Last Love (The History Press, 2010).

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