The woman who won over the king

A few years ago I was lucky enough to see Philippa Gregory give a talk on the subject of Katherine Parr – the 6th, and some might say, the most fortunate, of Henry VIII’s wives. The reason for the talk was the launch of Ms Gregory’s new book about Katherine, called The Taming of the Queen.

It is now a while since I read the book, so this post is not a critique of the work, but more a musing on why we have ‘discovered’ Katherine Parr in the last few years, and why we find her so interesting.

I say ‘discovered’ because even though she is possibly the least ‘colourful’ of the wives, Katherine seems to have popped up in a fair few books. Not only is she the sponsor of legal detective Matthew Shardlake in Heartstone, but is also in Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle, which tells the story of her marriage to Henry. I’m sure there are also others – and she is, of course, finding a new audience through the musical Six.

And what a remarkable story it was, too. Katherine was a trailblazer of a woman. She was the first English Queen to be published as an author in her own right with her Prayers or Meditations (1545). She was also a very learned scholar and theologian – holding philosophical and religious meetings with such luminaries as the radical theologian Anne Askew and the playwright Nicholas Udall.

But more than anything, she was a survivor. In 1546 Henry lined her up for removal (which almost certainly meant execution) and had prepared her arrest warrant. Learning of the warrant, she feigned sickness in order to avoid being shunned publicly by the king. Instead, Henry went to her, allowing her to play the submissive wife, massage his ego, and restore herself in his favour. He then dismissed Stephen Gardiner, who thought he had succeeded in getting rid the Queen. It was a masterly tactic – and one that Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard would each have done well to employ!

So Katherine Parr managed to outlive the erratic and almost certainly insane King Henry. This left her free to marry her true love, Thomas Seymour, and to become the only real mother that Henry’s children Elizabeth and Edward had ever known. The sad outcome of this marriage was her death following childbirth in 1548, aged only 36.

She was truly a remarkable woman. I did enjoy reading Philippa Gregory’s take on her final, turbulent years, and I am very sad that I wasn’t able to see Six in March 2020 due to the coronavirus lock-down.