Thursday, October 30, 2014

Katherine Parr: Reformation Queen of England and Ireland

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.

Even though Henry  had dissolved the monasteries  his religious beliefs were still  Catholic.   He often played both sides of the political debate between the  Reformers and Catholics depending on his own agenda.  Individuals from either party might just as easily be executed for treason.  
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.   
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 

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

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 2014
 Footnotes and Sources

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reformation Day Book Give-Away

On Friday I’ll be giving away two  F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C books on the Reformation.
The first is Michael Reeve’s, “The Unquenchable Flame – Discovering the Heart of the Reformation”  which,  in my humble opinion, is  one of those books I think every Christian should have in their library.   It’s a pleasant read  for those of us who have been Christians for a long time,  and  a great introduction to church history for new believers.    I posted a quote from it yesterday.  This  book packs a  wealth of  information about the Reformation into 198 pages.   And I just love how Michael Reeves writes!    His style is  very easy to follow  for simple folks like me! 

“With the skill of a scholar and the art of a storyteller,  Michael Reeves has written what is quite simply, the best brief introduction to the Reformation I have read." - Mark Dever

The second  book  is Roland H. Bainton’s  Women of the Reformation in France and England.
Bainton has written a number of  books on the Reformation and this one  covers more than 18  notable  women of the Reformation in France and England.

If you’d like  to enter please leave a comment letting me know.
The winners will be announced on Reformation Day which is  Friday   (October 31st). Note: I'll be posting it at 4:00 PM PST.
In the meantime,   please come back on Thursday because  I'll be posting a new  article on a very influential,  though often overlooked  Queen  who lived during the Reformation. 
 Can you guess  who she might be? 
She was the first woman to  be published under her own name in English in England.
See you Thursday!


Monday, October 27, 2014

The Regressive Reformers

“The Reformation was not, principally, a negative movement, about moving away from Rome; it was a positive movement, about moving towards the gospel.  Pure negative reaction was a hallmark of certain radicals,  but not the mainstream Reformation. Unfortunately for us moderns, obsessed with innovation, that means we cannot simple enroll the Reformation into the cause of ‘progress’.  For, if anything the Reformers were not after progress but regress: they were never mesmerized by novelty as we are, nor impatient of what was old, just because it was old; instead, their intent was to unearth original, old Christianity, a Christianity that had been buried under centuries of human tradition."


  Michael Reeves – The Unquenchable Flame pg. 190