Meet the Wives Handbook: Catherine Parr

Meet Catherine Parr, model wife. She was an attentive stepmother, a caring nurse, a faithful companion. But underneath her calm exterior deep passions flowed - for learning, religious reform and the man she had left to marry the king.

Background: Overview

Twice married, Catherine Parr was no flighty teenager. She was sensible, well-educated, of good birth and good cheer. When word came of the king's intentions, few - apart from Anne of Cleves -- could disapprove the choice. A zeal for religious reform was her sole vulnerability. As Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley would comment, Henry "had never a wife more agreeable to his heart."

Background: Looks & Personality

Catherine Parr was no beetle-browed bluestocking. Thought to stand about 5'10", Catherine would be the tallest of Henry VIII's six wives. She featured reddish-gold hair and hazel eyes and would be known for her love of impressive jewels, sumptuous French and Italian gowns, and shoes (in one year, she would order 47 different pairs). Thirty-one when Henry VIII first began to consider her, she did not boast particular beauty, but projected great dignity.

Catherine's reputation for amiability and good will had already been sorely tested. At the time of Henry's courtship, she was married to John Neville, Lord Latimer, a man nearly 20 years older than herself who she had dutifully nursed for some time. She had been held under house arrest by Northern rebels, lost her first husband at the age of 20, and seen her mother die a year later. For fortitude, few could compare with Catherine Parr.

Background: Education

Catherine Parr's mother was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon and there is some indication that Queen Catherine was educated with Princess Mary, four years her junior. Lady Parr refused all offers of marriage to concentrate on her children's education and upbringing. As a child, Catherine had learned French from her mother and was fluent in this language of diplomacy. As an adult, she learned Italian, could read and write in Latin and was competent in Greek. At a time when education for even well-born women was rudimentary at best, Catherine Parr's love of learning and erudition made her stand apart. Not since Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn would England have such a highly educated queen.

Background: Religion

Raised by her mother to see the hand of God in all matters, large or small, Catherine Parr was a reformist favored by the party of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. With Catherine at the king's side, the thinking went, there might yet be a chance to press Henry VIII to move more aggressively against Catholic holdovers. Catherine's favorite pastime was to debate religious questions and as Lady Latimer had presided over a virtual salon of religious thinkers. Her interests would acquire even greater influence on the general public - and pose a threat to her own life - upon her marriage to Henry VIII.

Background: Family Ties

Catherine Parr's family came from well-connected gentry stock, with deep roots in England's North. Her father, Sir Thomas Parr, was a companion to Henry VIII and claimed descent from Edward III. Her mother, Maud, Lady Parr, was a Northamptonshire heiress who had served as a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. (Some historians speculate that Catherine Parr was named in honor of Henry VIII's first wife.)

Catherine's brother, William, would be made a Knight of the Garter and created Marquess of Northampton and Earl of Essex. Her sister, Anne, would later join the queen's household and see her husband knighted and made a member of the Privy Council. Her uncle, Sir William Parr, was named Lord Chamberlain of her household and titled Lord Parr of Horton.

Background: Trouble Alert

The figure lurking in Catherine Parr's background would spell no trouble for the king, but much worry in future for his queen. He was Sir Thomas Seymour, younger brother of the late Queen Jane, uncle to the heir apparent Prince Edward, and dashing lady's man and schemer extraordinaire. After the death of her second husband, Lord Latimer, Catherine had entertained Seymour's overtures and the two had discussed marriage. But when the king expressed his interests, Catherine had put aside love for duty. Henry, never one to stomach a rival, had assisted Catherine's conscience by quickly dispatching this former brother-in-law on a diplomatic mission to Brussels. Catherine's choice had been made, but Thomas Seymour would not disappear.

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