Catherine Parr and Women's Rights

In 1529, when she was seventeen, Catherine Parr married Sir Edward Borough, the son of Thomas Borough, chamberlain to Queen Anne Boleyn. Her first husband was in poor health and died in 1533. The relationship was childless.

Catherine's mother and father were also dead when she married John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer in 1534. Aged forty-one, Latimer had been married twice before and had two young children. Lord Latimer died on 2nd March 1543. Catherine, still childless, secured a position in the household of Princess Mary. Mary's father, Henry VIII, had been married five times, and his latest wife, Catherine Howard, had been beheaded for infidelity the previous year.

After the death of her second husband, Catherine fell in love with Thomas Seymour, the brother of Queen Jane Seymour and Edward Seymour. It has been pointed out by David Starkey, the author of Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003): "Edward Seymour was dashing and rather dangerous. That Catherine found him so attractive suggests hidden emotional depths. Or rather, perhaps, very human shallows after a lifetime of doing what she ought, as a daughter and a wife, a little of what she fancied might have seemed irresistibly appealing."

It would seem that Catherine was on the verge of marrying Seymour when Henry VIII asked Catherine to become his sixth wife.

Primary Sources
Catherine Parr
(Source 1) Catherine Parr by William Scrots (c. 1547)

(Source 2) Susan E. James, Catherine Parr : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Print and film alike have represented Catherine as an ageing, plain-faced, pious widow with few attractions, selected by the king for her talents as a nurse. This is a misleading image that does not hold up beneath the weight of contemporary evidence. She was of medium height, with red hair and grey eyes. She had a lively personality, was a witty conversationalist with a deep interest in the arts, and an erudite scholar who read Petrarch and Erasmus for enjoyment. She was a graceful dancer, who loved fine clothes and jewels, particularly diamonds, and favoured the colour crimson in her gowns and household livery. Catherine also conveyed a sense of her own value, independent of the marital relationship, which was rare for a woman of this period.

(Source 3) Jane Dunn, Elizabeth & Mary (2003)

Thomas Seymour of Sudeley, at nearly forty years old, still cut a dashing soldierly figure having distinguished himself in diplomatic, naval and military campaigns under Henry... In marrying the King rather than this love, Catherine Parr had sacrificed her heart for the sake of duty.

(Source 4) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003)

Sometime in the late spring of 1543 Henry VIII offered Catherine Parr his hand... It is clear that Henry's offer was unwelcome to Catherine. She was already in love with Thomas Seymour. And she was not, unlike Henry's previous wives, in the least infatuated with the idea of being Queen... for a subject, a royal request to marry was the equivalent of a command. It was almost unthinkable to say no...

In this dilemma, Catherine, like a true believer, turned to God for guidance... Her submission, which was as ecstatic as her resistance had been fierce, had the effect of a revelation. Henceforward Catherine was a woman with a mission. She was marrying Henry at God's command and for His purpose. And that purpose was no less than to compete the conversion of England to Reform.

(Source 5) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

The Queen meanwhile continued to discuss theology, piety and the right use the bible, both with her friends and also with her husband. This was a practice, which she had established in the early days of their marriage, and Henry had always allowed her a great deal of latitude, tolerating from her, it was said, opinions which no one else dared to utter. In taking advantage of this indulgence to urge further measures of reform, she presented her enemies with an opening.

Irritated by her performance on one occasion, the King complained to Gardiner about the unseemliness of being lectured by his wife. This was a heaven-sent opportunity, and undeterred by his previous failures, the bishop hastened to agree, adding that, if the King would give him permission he would produce such evidence that "his majesty would easily perceive how perilous a matter it is to cherish a serpent within his own bosom". Henry gave his consent... articles were produced and a plan was drawn up for Catherine's arrest, the search of her chambers, and the laying of charges against at least three of her privy chamber.

(Source 6) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992)

Queen Catherine Parr inveighed against those who criticized reading the Bible on the grounds that it would lead to heresy... To allege the Scriptures to be perilous learning; because certain readers thereof fall into heresies?' Did people deny themselves food, just because some people over ate? Or avoid using fire just because they watched a neighbour's house burn down?

In May 1543 the Council had decided that the "lower sort" did not benefit from studying the Bible in English. The Act for the Advancement of the True Religion stated that "no women nor artificers, journeymen, serving men of the degree of yeomen or under husbandmen nor labourers" could in future read the Bible "privately or openly". In a sermon in the City of London the next year, it was suggested that the study of the scriptures was making the apprentices unruly.

Women (in the sense of women of the people), yeomen and apprentices - all these led lives far removed from the court where Queen Catherine was apparently in the habit of holding study groups among her ladies for the scriptures and listening to sermons of an evangelical nature. Although a later clause in the 1543 act did allow any noble or gentlewoman to read the Bible (in contrast to "the lower sort"), this activity must take place "to themselves alone and not to others".

(Source 7) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002)

Gardiner and his ally on the Council, the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley, planned to attack the Queen (Catherine Parr) through her ladies and believed they possessed a valuable weapon in the person of Anne Kyme, better known by her maiden name of Anne Askew, a notorious heretic already convicted and condemned...

Anne Askew is an interesting example often educated, highly intelligent, passionate woman destined to become the victim of the society in which she lived - a woman who could not accept her circumstances but fought an angry, hopeless battle against them.... It's highly probable that Anne had attended some of the Biblical study sessions in the Queen's apartments, and she was certainly acquainted with some of the Queen's ladies. If it could now be shown that any of these ladies - perhaps even the Queen herself had been in touch with her since her recent arrest; if it could be proved that they had been encouraging her to stand firm in her heresy, then the Lord Chancellor would have ample excuse for an attack on Catherine Parr.

Anne was therefore transferred to the Tower, where she received a visit from Wriothesley and his henchman Sir Richard Rich, the Solicitor General... Wriothesley ordered her to be stretched on the rack. This was not only illegal without a proper authorization from the Privy Council, it was unheard of to apply torture to a woman, let alone a gentlewoman like Anne Askew with friends in the outside world, and the Lieutenant ant of the Tower hastily dissociated himself from the whole proceeding.

(Source 8) Anne Askew, produced an account of her torture in the Tower of London and it was then smuggled out to her friends. (29th June, 1546)

Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion... the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted... and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor... With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion... I said that I would rather die than break my faith.

(Source 9) John Edward Bowle, Henry VIII (1964)

The trial of Anne Askew and other heretics had raised some nice theological points, and the queen, excited, dared to contradict her husband. The king was suddenly furious: "A good hearing it is," he said, "when women become such clerks, and a thing much to my comfort to come to me in mine old days, to be taught by my wife." Gardiner and Wriothesley pounced; they listed, precisely, the heretical views she had expressed, and they brought the document to the king who authorized the queen's arrest.

(Source 10) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984)

Foxe wrote that Catherine Parr was a model wife, who nursed Henry during his increasing trouble with his leg; but she was also a Protestant and an eager reader of the Bible, and often engaged in theological arguments with him.... Wriothesley urged Henry to send her to the Tower. Henry pretended to agree, and signed an order for her arrest on a charge of heresy. His physician, Dr Wendy, discovered about the order, and showed it to Katherine. She told her ladies to get rid of their banned Protestant books, and went to Henry; but when he suggested that they should have their usual theological discussion she refused. She told him that she knew "what great imperfection and weakness by our first creation is allotted unto us women, to be ordained and appointed as inferiors and subject unto men as our head.... Since therefore God hath appointed such a natural difference between men and women, and Your Majesty being so excellent in gifts and ornaments of wisdom, and I a silly poor woman, so much inferior in all respects of your nature unto you, how then cometh it now to pass that Your Majesty, in such diffuse causes of religion, will seem to require my judgment?" She explained that she had only argued with Henry in the past, in order to have the opportunity of listening to his learned arguments. "And is it even so, sweetheart?" said Henry, who was very pleased with her attitude.

Next day, when Henry and Catherine and her ladies were in the garden at Hampton Court, Wriothesley arrived with an escort of forty of the King's guard to arrest the Queen and take her to the Tower; but Henry had a whispered conversation with him. Most of what they said could not be overheard by Foxe's informants; but they heard Henry call Wriothesley "arrant knave, beast and fool". Wriothesley and the guard departed in haste, and Catherine was saved.

(Source 11) Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958)

On the King's death, Thomas Seymour proposed to the Council that he should marry Elizabeth... But Seymour received an unequivocal rebuff from the Council, and immediately renewed his old suit. The Queen Dowager, released from the sufferings of her marriage to Henry VIII, behaved like an enamoured girl. She married Seymour secretly, and received his clandestine visits at her house in Chelsea, where her porteress let him in at five in the morning. The situation was full of submerged danger, for by the Council's permission Elizabeth was now living with her stepmother.

Seymour, for all his geniality, was a man of ruthless ambition. He was twenty years older than Elizabeth, but as he was in his prime this meant only that he had the maturity a very young girl admires, and his attractions were of the kind to which she was susceptible all her life. He had been put into her head already as a, possible husband, and now he was coming and going in romantic; secrecy, in the first light of the May mornings, as the husband of her still-youthful stepmother.

Had Seymour left Elizabeth alone, no harm would have come of it; but one of his reasons for marrying the Queen Dowager was that Elizabeth had been consigned to her care.

(Source 12) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010)

Thomas Seymour's desire to resume his relationship with Catherine was due, in part, to his previous affection for her, but it was also driven by ambition... Marriage to the Dowager Queen was just one step further towards reaching a particular goal. Until Edward VI married, which was some years off yet, Catherine was the First Lady in England and the beloved stepmother of the King. She was arguably the most important woman in the country and could be expected to use her influence to support her husband in gaining the King's favour, if he so required.

(Source 13) Katherine Ashley, The Robert Tyrwhitt Commission of Enquiry (February, 1549)

Seymour... would come many mornings into the Lady Elizabeth's chamber, before she were ready, and sometimes before she did rise. And if she were up, he would bid her good morrow, and ask how she did, and strike her upon the back or on the buttocks familiarly, and so go forth through his lodgings; and sometime go through to the maidens and play with them, and so go forth... If Lady Elizabeth was in bed, he would... make as though he would come at her. And he would go further into the bed, so that he could not come at her.

(Source 14) Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court (2013)

Catherine was reported to have been in love with Seymour for years, even before she married Henry VIII, and so responded enthusiastically to his advances. They married, in secret, in mid-April 1547 and Seymour now became Elizabeth's stepfather, moving in with the princess and Catherine at Chelsea.

It was here that on many mornings during the next year, Thomas Seymour would go to Elizabeth's Bedchamber, unlock the door and silently enter... One morning when he tried to kiss Elizabeth in her bed, her long-serving governess, Kat Ashley, "bade him go away for shame". Yet the encounters continued. On one occasion when the household was staying at his London residence, Seymour made an early morning visit to Elizabeth in her Bedchamber, "bare legged", wearing only his nightshirt and gown. Kat Ashley reprimanded him for such "an unseemly sight in a maiden's chamber!" and he stormed out in a rage.

On two mornings, at Hanworth in Middlesex, another of Catherine's residences, the queen dowager herself joined Seymour in his visit to Elizabeth's Bedchamber and on this occasion they both tickled the young princess in her bed. Later that day, in the garden, Seymour cut Elizabeth's dress into a hundred pieces while Catherine held her down."

The involvement of Catherine here is even more puzzling than that of the others. She had fallen pregnant soon after the marriage, so perhaps this made her jealousy more intense and her behaviour more reckless; maybe she was seeking to maintain Seymour's affection and interest in her by joining in his "horseplay". Perhaps she feared that Elizabeth was developing something of a teenage infatuation with her stepfather. In any case Catherine soon decided that enough was enough and in May 1548, Elizabeth was sent to live with Sir Anthony Denny and his wife Joan at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. Denny was a leading member of the Edwardian government and Joan was Kat Ashley's sister. Before Elizabeth left her stepmother's house, Catherine, then six months pregnant, had pointedly warned her stepdaughter of the damage malicious rumours might do to her reputation.

(Source 15) Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958)

Queen Dowager took to coming with her husband on his morning visits and one morning they both tickled the Princess as she lay in her bed. In the garden one day there was some startling horse-play, in which Seymour indulged in a practice often heard of in police courts; the Queen Dowager held Elizabeth so that she could not run away, while Seymour cut her black cloth gown into a hundred pieces. The cowering under bedclothes, the struggling and running away culminated in a scene of classical nightmare, that of helplessness in the power of a smiling ogre... The Queen Dowager, who was undergoing an uncomfortable pregnancy, could not bring herself to make her husband angry by protesting about his conduct, but she began to realize that he and Elizabeth were very often together.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Read the introduction and study sources 2, 3 and 4. Why did Catherine Parr hesitate before accepting Henry VIII's offer of marriage.

Question 2: Why did Catherine Parr object to the passing by Parliament of the Act for the Advancement of the True Religion? You will need to read source 6 before answering this question.

Question 3: Sources 7, 8 and 9 deal with Catherine Parr's possible relationship with Anne Askew. (a) Why was Anne Askew tortured? (b) Why did Henry VIII become angry with Catherine when they discussed the case. (c) Why were Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley so hostile to Catherine?

Question 4: Read source 10 and describe the strategy used by Catherine Parr to escape being arrested.

Question 5: Use the information in sources 11-15 to explain why in May 1548 Princess Elizabeth was sent away to live with Sir Anthony Denny and his wife Joan at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here