The woman who won over the king

parr-smA couple of weeks 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.

I have yet to read the book (I am enjoying a Shardlake mystery from C J Sansom and want to finish it first), so this post is not a critique of the new book, but more a musing on why we have recently ‘discovered’ Katherine Parr and why we find her so interesting.

I say ‘discovered’ because Katherine seems to be popping up in a fair few books right now. Not only is she the sponsor of legal detective Matthew Shardlake in my current book – Heartstone, but I have just finished Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle, which tells the story of her marriage to Henry. In fact, the premise of that book sounds remarkably similar to the new Philippa Gregory, so it will be interesting to compare how these two authors interpret her story.

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 publically by the king. Instead, Henry went to her, allowing her to play the submissive wife, massage his ego, and restore herself in his favour. It was a masterly tactic – and one that Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard would 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.

A truly remarkable woman, and I am looking forward to reading Philippa Gregory’s take on her final, turbulent years.

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