Sunday, 12 July 2020

Third time lucky for Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr, Queen of England

On July 12th 1543, King Henry VIII married for the sixth time. He was 51 years old while his bride was almost twenty years younger. However, Katherine Parr was no stranger to marriage herself. As she said her wedding vows that day, at Hampton Court Palace, she turned Henry into her third husband. And this much married duo were more than a match for each other. Katherine even achieved the seemingly impossible when she outlived her third spouse, becoming the famous survivor. So why did Henry and Katherine Parr get married?
Katherine Parr

Sixteenth century kings, even those that had worked their way through a quintet of queens, had a somewhat preconceived idea of what a consort should bring to their royal marriage. Twice, Henry had wed foreign born princesses who brought useful political alliances as well as dowries with them. Anne Boleyn had a been a power player who achieved political success at Henry's side while also allying him with one of the most powerful families in England. Catherine Howard came from the same dynasty. Jane Seymour hadn't just been an antidote to the ambitious Anne, she was part of another court faction who Henry could conveniently raise to stamp his power once more on his kingdom. And all had been thought of as fertile. Katherine Parr had none of that. She was the daughter of a relatively lowly noble couple who had married relatively lowly nobles herself and ended up at Henry's court in the early months of 1543 following her second widowhood. She had had no children in either marriage and no pregnancies were even rumoured for her. Once at court, she had entered into a flirtation with Thomas Seymour, brother of Jane. But suddenly, within weeks, the king became interested in her. By July 1543, probably less than six months after the death of her second husband, Katherine Parr was Queen of England.

Henry VIII

It was a meteoric rise and one that remains almost inexplicable if the traditional image of Katherine is accepted. Katherine is the dowdy sixth wife, the nursemaid, the woman who was happy to mop the king's ulcers while he grew fatter and angrier as his power ebbed away. However, Henry didn't need to marry to get someone to wipe his legs down for him. And it's perhaps the lack of political connections and fabulous fortune on the day of her wedding that convinced some historians that the only reason Katherine ended up as Queen of England was because she was a good nurse.

Katherine Parr

Bizarrely, that image of her continues to this day and yet just scrape beneath the surface of this interpretation and it's easy to see why Henry chose her as his sixth queen. She was one of the best educated women in England, thanks to the endeavours of her forward thinking mother, and she was also well connected among those exploring the new religion of Protestantism that Henry had so famously dallied with throughout his long reign. She was also an experienced stepmother. Henry's sixth queen so impressed him that within a year, he had made her regent of England while he campaigned in France. Two years later, her enemies were so worried by her that they worked towards persuading the king to have her arrested. Katherine talked her way out of trouble and survived the marital wrecking ball that was Henry VIII. In his will, he decreed that she retain the title and honour of a Queen of England for the rest of her life. In short, the Tudor powerhouse was so impressed with his sixth wife that he made her royal in her own right.  That really is third time lucky.

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