Sunday 5 September 2010

September 5th, 1548: The Death of Katharine Parr

"She was not a pretty woman, or a beauty, but rather comely with red-gold hair and hazel eyes ... Katherine's looks, however, were not her chief attraction. People were drawn more to her warm and amiable personality and her intellectual qualities; she exuded goodwill... Katherine was also to prove popular with most people, mainly because she had a pleasant manner with both nobility and servants alike. Her chaplain, John Parkhurst, who later became Bishop of Norwich, remembered in his latter years that she was 'a most gentle mistress'. Perhaps the most outstanding thing about her was her formidable intellect, which had been cultivated to an unusual extent by her mother and by the people with whom she associated herself in later life. She was perceptive, articulate, thirsty for knowledge, both general and religious, and industrious. Her virtue, a female quality always suspect in an age that believed that teaching women to write would encourage them to pen love-letters, was beyond question."
- The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir (1991)

On this day in 1548, Katharine Parr, Queen Dowager of England and Ireland, died an agonising death at the age of thirty-six. She had outlived her third, and most notorious, husband by just over eighteen months and had died as a result of trying to give her fourth husband, Lord Thomas Seymour, a son and heir. Instead, the former Queen had given birth to a sickly daughter and she herself was now "lying on my death-bed, sick of body but of good mind and perfect memory".

In fact, however, Katharine was of anything but "good mind and perfect memory" as the full agony of puerperal fever set in, just hours after the delivery. For a week after her daughter Mary's birth, Katharine Parr (or Katharine Seymour, as we should now properly call her), sank further and further into a sweat-soaked delirium in her beautiful bedchamber at Sudeley Castle, her husband's favourite home. (Below.)

She was now tortured by memories of her husband's faithlessness to her, recalling the torture of discovering his inappropriate advances to the teenage Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, and then a ward in Katharine's household. Elizabeth had been sent away to stay with family friends, in the hope of avoiding further scandal. That she was moved before she was essentially raped by him is one of the few mercies of the young Elizabeth Tudor's life. In her head, the Queen became to develop paranoiac fantasies about the incident, imagining that her husband was "laughing" at the idea of her impending death, so it would leave him free to marry the pubescent Elizabeth or her half-sister, the Princess Mary. There were even rumours that, if he could not get them, Seymour would attempt to wed another former queen, Anne of Cleves. Yet, it was Elizabeth who loomed largest in Katharine's mind and devastatingly for all concerned, she confided these fears to her lady-in-waiting, Lady Tyrwhitt, who was to remember them and subsequently report them to the Council, nurturing a cancerous resentment against Thomas Seymour for his cruel betrayal of his wife's trust. Less fairly, Lady Tyrwhitt was to develop similar feelings for Elizabeth, as well.

Wracked with guilt at his wife's accusations, Seymour lay down on the bed next to her, cradling her in his arms. After a few moments, the Queen Dowager became agitated and began shouting at him, demanding he let her go and remonstrating against him. She was, so Lady Tyrwhitt later claimed, "sore disquieted" to have Thomas lying so close to her.

Later in the day, Katharine's fever subsided slightly and she made her Will, having it witnessed by her physician, Dr. Huicke and her chaplain, Rev. Parkhurst, in which she left everything to "my married spouse and husband". She knew she was now in "the extremity of death" and, as a good Protestant, there is no record of Katharine asking for the Last Rites. She passed away in the small hours of the morning and she was laid to rest at Sudeley Castle, in a magnificent funeral organised by her husband, with the young Lady Jane Grey acting as chief mourner.

Katharine Parr, famous for being the wife of Henry's who "survived," had not had the happy ending we might have hoped for. She did not suffer the public martyrdoms to history of either Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard, nor the humiliations of Katherine of Aragon, which were to secure for her an almost immaculate historical reputation in the centuries to come. Instead, Katharine suffered the far more subtle tragedy of domestic unhappiness, when her fourth husband - the man she married for love after the terror of being Henry VIII's queen - betrayed both her happiness and her trust by molesting the teenage princess whom Katharine had brought into her care.  It was a cruel and tragic betrayal which few women can have deserved less than Katharine Parr.


  1. I think Katherine Parr has to be my second favourite of Henry VIII's wives after Anne Boleyn and I find it so tragic that just after getting what she wanted - the man she loved and a baby - she died. I really don't understand what Thomas Seymour was playing at with Elizabeth, as it appears that he truly loved Katherine, a very weird saga. He definitely broke Katherine's heart and it is evident that this was still troubling her at her death, even though the couple seemed to have got over the whole Elizabeth thing and moved on. Poor Katherine.

  2. Whow. Katherine was known as the Queen Dowager until her death; she was allowed to retain that title and was allowed to be treated as the first woman of the country until the new king re-married, which never happened. Also, Lady Mary was not born sickly. Where is that statement coming from? There is no concrete evidence that Thomas Seymour actually "molested" Elizabeth. Much of the accounts of what happened with Elizabeth was fueled by her lady Kat Ashley who seems to have fabricated quite a deal and herself had a crush on Seymour. It's interesting to read that when the Duchess of Somerset was told about Seymour's flirtations, she was more angry about the unchaperoned ride Elizabeth had on the Thames.

    Honestly, Alison Weir's take on Queen Katherine was not completely accurate. She is the only author to state that Katherine married the 2nd Baron Borough; something she has had the chance to correct several times now but has failed to do with her several re-published copies of the six wives. Many of us amateur historians are rather annoyed with her statements and lack of evidence and the way she has continued to write about historical figures.

    I think Katherine felt guilty at the end of her life for what happened with Elizabeth and that probably played in her mind as she lied there. It is a shame. She got what she wanted, only to die shortly after.

  3. With all due respect, to accuse this article of making pronouncements without evidence (Lady Mary being born sickly) and to then proceed to assert that Kat Ashley fuelled the attack on Seymour because she had a crush on him herself and then to imagine what Katherine Parr's innermost, death-bed conscience felt, is slightly hypocritical, I'm afraid.

    This article was written before Linda Porter's biography on Katherine, which did mount a defence of Seymour. It was well-written, but I did not agree with all of it.

    Thank you for your comment.


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