By Diane Bucknell
On July 12, 1543 the attractive 31 year old Katherine Parr, who had been twice widowed and was childless, became the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII. Without fanfare Katherine was proclaimed Queen that day at Hampton Court Palace.
We don’t hear much about this remarkable woman in our Reformed Christian circles, yet I think it may be fair to say Katherine Parr could have been the single most influential woman of the Reformation in terms of it's advancement.
The year was 1512 and Michelangelo had just completed the Sistine Chapel. Twenty-nine year old Martin Luther earned his doctorate in theology at Wittenberg, Germany and had not yet come to an understanding of Justification by Faith. And John Calvin was but a wee 3 year old French lad. The Reformation had not yet officially begun.
Sir Thomas Parr and his wife Maud Greene, a well heeled couple from northern England welcomed their new daughter into the world that year. Katherine would be their eldest surviving child and would become highly educated and fluent in several languages. She was named after King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon because her mother had been a lady in waiting to the Queen. Queen Catherine being a devout Catholic, had in turn gifted Maud with a set of gold heirloom rosary beads.
By the time Katherine Parr was 21 both of her parents and her first husband had died. She had close family ties with many of the most radical Reformers and at some point, maybe in her 20’s, Katherine rejected her Catholic upbringing and embraced the New Religion of the Reformers.
British historian David Starkey writes:
“…Catherine herself later lamented the fact, that she had once been an enthusiastic Papist. ‘I sought’, she confessed, ‘for such riffraff as the Bishop of Rome had planted in his tyranny and kingdom, trusting with great confidence by virtue and holiness of them to receive full remission of sins.’
That she underwent conversion, as all the first generation of Reformers did is clear.”1
Katherine was now an eligible widow for the second time and between her family heritage, impeccable character, and her fierce loyalty to the king she was a perfect candidate to become Henry’s next wife. Denying her heart’s desire to marry her first love, Sir Thomas Seymore, the brother of the late Queen Jane Seymore, she chose to serve King and country for the furtherance of the Gospel.
Despite her sincere affection for Henry, the prospect of marrying a man who had sent two of his wives to the Scaffold surely must have been unnerving! Just months before their marriage a plot by Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester, to execute Reformers in Henry’s household had been underway.
Although Henry had broken from Rome to form the Church of England of which he was head, his motive was not to embrace the beliefs of the Reformers. Rather, his reasons for doing so were entirely self-serving. The Pope had refused to grant Henry an annulment from his first wife Catherine of Aragon in order to marry the captivating young Evangelical, Anne Boleyn. It was Anne Boylen who began what Katherine Parr would later finish.
“As queen, Anne understood her providential mission to be this: to bring the Reformation to England and to employ every single instance of patronage and influence to that end. …In fact it was through Anne that the New Religion entered England.”2
Anne Boylen, who was the most controversial of Henry’s wives, was beheaded on trumped up charges of adultery, incest, and treason after a mere 1,000 day reign.
God’s providence was working through Katherine’s kindness and shrewdness, causing Henry to find much pleasure with his wife.
“besides the virtues of the mind, she was endowed with very rare gifts of nature, as singular beauty, favor and comely personage, being things wherein the king was greatly delighted.”3
No doubt, Katherine's godly behavior and motherly affections enabled her to form close relationships with her three step children. Her strong evangelical beliefs made an impact on Henry’s young son Edward (from Jane Seymore) and on his daughter Elizabeth (from Anne Boleyn) who both became Protestant monarchs. Elizabeth, who was just 10 years old when they married, was without question the most profoundly influenced by Katherine’s religious teachings. How kind was our merciful God to remember His servant Anne Boleyn by providing her orphaned little daughter with such a step mother!
In spite of his Catholic views and the constant conniving of Katherine’s enemies Henry looked the other way and permitted his wife to entertain many notable Reformers at court.
Prayer meetings and studies hosted at Katherine’s court powerfully affected many notable women including young Lady Jane Grey and the brilliant outspoken "Gospeller", Anne Askew . But dark clouds of persecution were forming over these ladies and they would both eventually suffer a martyr’s death. In an attempt by Henry’s cronies to strike circuitously at Queen Katherine, Anne Askew would be taken to the Tower to become the only woman ever tortured on the Rack and then burned at the stake. And her crime? She refused to confess that Christ’s body and blood was literally contained in the communion bread. Nearly a decade later the Lady Jane Grey would succeed her cousin Edward to the throne for a mere 9 day reign before being beheaded by Mary, the King’s eldest daughter.
A CLOSE BRUSH WITH DEATH
Katherine Parr’s devotion to Henry was also displayed by the tender care in which she ministered to his physical afflictions. He had become morbidly obese, plagued by gout, and his legs were covered with ulcers. As he became more immobile she would visit him in his chambers and speak to him of spiritual matters.
Katherine’s increasing boldness turned to heated debates until one day it caused her a near miss with the guillotine.
Roland H. Bainton
“Catherine came often to beguile his leisure and contrived to bring the conversation around to the zealous furthering of the reformation of the church. On one such occasion Gardiner was present and Henry was nettled by Catherine’s “forwardness.” When she went out of the room he remarked,“A good hearing it is when women become such clerks; [ie:clergy] and a thing much to my comfort to come in my old days to be taught by my wife!”” 4
Stephen Gardiner, seized the opportunity to fan the fires of suspicion by insinuating that Katherine’s theological prowess could be used to overthrow the King. Gardiner and his cohort succeeded in convincing Henry to turn on the Queen and draw up orders to send her and three of her ladies to the Tower for execution.
By God’s providence the paper containing the Articles sealing Katherine’s fate just happened to fall out of the pocket of a courier and ended up in the Queen’s hands. Katherine became so distressed by the news that she had a total nervous collapse. Meanwhile, Henry had confided to his doctor what he was about to do to the Queen. Dr. Wendy, being fond of the Queen, came to attend Katherine in her distress and divulged to her the plan. He advised her to play ignorant and humbly kiss-up to the King in any way she could to try and reverse his decision.
Wise as a serpent and harmless as dove, Katherine refused to take the bait when Henry began to talk religion. Although she had to sell herself short, she announced that her opinions didn’t matter, and that Henry was her “only anchor, Supreme Head and Governor here on earth, next under God.”5
When he pressed Katherine she convinced Henry that the only reason she had argued religion with him was to humor him in order to divert his attention away from his physical suffering. Whew! It worked! God’s mercifully spared her and their disagreement ended with a kiss.
When Henry’s henchmen showed up to take Katherine away, he gave them all a good tongue lashing while Katherine responded with complete grace towards them. Such was the humble character of a woman whose cause for Christ had “no limit of self-denigration, and self-disparagement.”6
A BEST SELLING AUTHOR
Katherine’s love for literature and for the Scriptures inspired her to write two books making her the first Englishwoman to publish an original work under her own name. They were instant successes. The first book published in 1546 was Prayers or Meditations and the second, The Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner was published the following year.
"Was it not the most high and abundant charity of God to send Christ to shed his blood, to lose honour, life, and all for his enemies? Even in the time when we had done him the most injury he first showed his charity to us with such flames of love, that greater could not be showed. God in Christ hath opened to us, although we are weak and blind in ourselves, that we may behold in this miserable estate the great wisdom, goodness, and truth, with all the other godly perfections that are in Christ. Therefore, inwardly, to behold Christ crucified upon the cross is the best and goodliest meditation that can be.”7 Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner
Katherine was also responsible for commissioning and financing the English translations of Erasmus’ Latin Paraphrases of the Gospels, which were important texts for Reformed scholars.
“ [Katherine] championed the language of the people, encouraged academia to put Christ before Plato, urged Henry to bring England closer to the Reformation, commissioned scholarly translations of Erasmus, and brought a royal English family together. In Katherine’s day, her books became examples of the bold Reformation spirit. Her brilliant mind captured the souls of her people and the respect of the Reformers themselves"8
KATHERINE’S BITTERSWEET DEPARTURE
While away in London, Henry became terminally ill and drew up charges of treason against Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk and his son. Howard was a leading opponent of two influential Reformers: Thomas Cromwell - the king's chief adviser, and Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury. This bold action, which was so important to Katherine’s cause of the Gospel, would now insure the future of the Reformation.
On January 28, 1547 Henry died leaving Katherine provisions of wealth and honor. (Starkey) But her authority would not extend to serving as Queen Regent as she had when Henry was away fighting in France the first year of their marriage. Rather, she would retire as Queen Dowager and would be moved to the Palace at Whitehall.
Free at last to pursue her own dreams Katherine quickly and scandalously married Sir Thomas Seymore in secret. But her dream soon became a nightmare when Thomas put the make on Katherine’s teenage step-daughter Elizabeth who had come to live with them. After 4 marriages Katherine had finally conceived and bore a daughter. But tragedy struck a second time in her new marriage and just as Henry’s third wife Jane Seymore had died, Katherine also caught puerperal fever (an infection) after giving birth and died 4 days later at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire.
On September 5, 1548 at the age of 36 Katherine Parr went to her eternal reward. By today’s standards, 36 years old is quite young.
Katherine Parr stands out as a true Queen in every sense of the word. Not only did she perform her political duties as Queen well, but she was exemplary as a kind and patient wife who was married to an extremely difficult man. She was a loving and devoted step mother. And she blazed a trail proving that women are just as capable of being scholars as were the men her day. And I truly believe that reason she was able to do all this is because she had, by God’s grace, discovered the secret of what it means to be a true Christian.
I seriously doubt that Katherine Parr ever fathomed the breadth and depth that God would use such a humble servant whose simple motto in life was,
“To be useful in all I do”
© Diane Bucknell 2014Footnotes and Sources