Childhood & Early Years
Catherine Parr was born in 1512, possibly in the month of August, into a prominent northern family descending from John of Gaunt, the third son of King Edward III. While the exact date of her birth is not known, there is a controversy about the place of her birth.
Earlier it was thought that she was born at her father’s castle in Westmorland. However, modern historians refute this claim on the ground that both her parents were courtiers at the royal court in London, and it is unlikely that they would travel all the way to Westmorland for the delivery.
Her father, Sir Thomas Parr, was the lord of the manor of Kendal in Westmorland. However, he lived in London, having his residence on the Strand. A close companion of King Henry VIII, he was knighted in 1509, later holding various important positions, including that of Master of the Household.
Her mother, Maud, was the lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. Intelligent and educated, Maud soon became the queen’s favorite. The queen was also Catherine’s godmother, and it is believed that she was named in her honor.
Born eldest of her parents’ three children, Catherine had two siblings; William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton and Anne Parr, Countess of Pembroke. While William was younger to her by one year, Ann was three years her junior.
On 11 November 1517, when Catherine was five years old, her father died of sweating sickness, leaving 25 years old Maud in charge of their three children and estate. Although too young not to remarry, Maud now devoted herself to her children, also taking care of the estate.
According to some sources, Catherine was raised in the household of her uncle, William Parr. It is also believed that she began her primary education under the guidance of her mother, and later studied Latin, French and Italian as well as scriptures under a tutor, developing a lifelong passion for learning.
Apart from her formal education, Catherine was also taught how to run a noble household, needlework, music and dance. According to hearsay, Catherine disliked sewing and is believed to have told her mother that her hands were “ordained to touch crowns and scepters, not spindles and needles".
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Marriage to Edward Burgh
In 1529, as Catherine Parr turned 17, she was married off to 21 years old Edward Burgh, the eldest son and heir to Sir Thomas Burgh, 1st Baron Burgh. Although of poor health, Edward served as a feoffee for Thomas Kiddell and as a justice of the peace.
Initially, they lived in the household of Edward’s father, Sir Thomas Burgh, in Gainsborough Old Hall in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. It was not a happy time for Catherine. Brought up in a liberal and enlightened atmosphere, she found her father-in-law, who ruled the household with an iron hand, rather overbearing.
Catherine’s only duty was to bear sons, but that did not happen. At least, there is no record of her ever being pregnant by Edward, who was not only sick, but also homosexual, according to some sources.
In October 1530, at the urging of Catherine’s mother Maud, Edward moved out of his father’s household to become a steward to the manor of the Soke of Kirton-in-Lindsey, located ten miles away from Gainsborough. Edward’s father Thomas had secured a joint patent in survivorship with him.
In 1532, Edward managed to get various commissions of peace to his name, and held sessions in Kirton-in Lindsey. But the happy time did not last long. Catherine’s mother passed away sometime in 1532, leaving her a sizable fortune. Soon after that, Catherine also lost her husband in early 1533.
After Edward’s death, her father-in-law turned over the income from three of his manors as her dowry. He did not show any interest in taking her back and therefore, Catherine left Lincolnshire and moved in with Dowager Lady Strickland, Catherine Neville, widow of Sir Walter Strickland.
Marriage to John Neville
In 1534, at the age of Catherine Parr tied the knot for the second time and married 41 years old John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer. Belonging to one of the most powerful families of the north, Neville was a member of the Council of the North and held many other important positions.
Catherine was Neville’s third wife. From his first marriage, he had two children; John and Margaret. With her second marriage, Catherine not only became Lady Latimer, but also had an influential husband, two stepchildren and most importantly, a home of her own.
The couple mostly lived in the Snape Castle in Yorkshire although they had a home in Wyke, Worcestershire. Soon after becoming Lady Latimer, Catherine took over her household duties, looking after her husband’s sprawling estate and taking care of her stepchildren who were 14 and nine respectively.
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In October 1536, during the Lincolnshire Rising, Catholic rebels surrounded their home, demanding that Latimer join their cause. They dragged him away, insisting that they work together for reinstating England’s link with Vatican.
Different reports about the incident reached the king and he summoned Latimer to clarify his position. In January 1537, while he was away, Catherine and her stepchildren were held hostages in their own home in Snape Castle.
The rebels ransacked the house and threatened to kill the family unless Latimer returned immediately. However, he was already on the way and was able to have his family released. But the incident had a negative impact on his reputation, which in turn had a deteriorating effect on his health.
In 1542, Latimer was able to recoup some of his dignity and the family moved to London. Here Catherine renewed her connection with the court through her brother, William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton and sister, Anne Parr, Countess of Pembroke.
In London, Catherine took the opportunity to update herself on many matters, such as fashion and jewelry. But by the winter of 1542, Lord Latimer’s health worsened, leading to his death in March 1543. Catherine was 31 at that time.
Queen of England & Ireland
The death of Lord Latimer left Catherine Parr with substantial means. She now renewed her friendship with Lady Mary, daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and soon became a part of her household. It was here that she caught the attention of King Henry VIII.
By then, she had begun a romantic liaison with Sir Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. But when Henry VIII proposed to her, she thought it prudent to accept the offer.
On 12 July 1543, barely three months after Lord Latimer’s death, Catherine married 52 years old King Henry VIII and became the Queen of England and Ireland. If she had any misgivings about this match, she quickly put them behind and worked to make her marriage a success.
She turned out to be a good nurse and an excellent companion for the king, sharing his love for conversation, music and finery. Very soon, she earned Henry’s trust and installed her former stepdaughter Margaret as her lady-in-waiting. She also gave a position to the wife of her former stepson in the royal household.
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Catherine developed good relationships with her stepchildren, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary (later Queen Mary I), Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) and Jane Seymour’s son, Edward (later King Edward VI). She not only oversaw their education, but also helped them to reconcile with their father.
As Henry’s marriages with his first wife Catherine of Aragon and second wife Anne Boleyn were annulled, Mary and Elizabeth had been removed from the line of succession. Catherine was partly responsible for the enactment of the Act of Succession 1544, which reinstalled them in the line to the throne.
When Henry went on the campaign to France in July 1544, he left Catherine as his regent, a role she fulfilled very successfully, taking control of the Council of the Regent. In this capacity, she provided effective support to Henry’s campaign, also keeping a constant watch on turbulent Scotland.
As a queen, she retained her popularity in the court as well as her love for learning, mastering Italian, Latin and Greek during this period. She published her first book, ‘Prayers and Meditations’, in 1545. However, her religious beliefs turned some members of the court against her.
Although Catherine was raised a Catholic, she showed a lively interest in the Protestant faith, often engaging the king and his courtiers in lively debates on the subject. It gave rise to the suspicion that she was a Protestant.
In 1546, the Bishop of Winchester and Lord Wriothesley tried to turn the king against her, eventually having a warrant of arrest issued. However, before it could be executed, she reconciled with the king, vowing that she initiated such debates only to take his mind off his physical pain.
With a waist measuring 54-inches, Henry suffered from obesity, which led to different ailments. His health began to deteriorate in 1546 and although Catherine nursed him attentively, he died on 28 January 1547, leaving Catherine a widow for the third time. She was then 35 years old.
Fourth Marriage & Death
With Henry’s death, his throne passed to Edward, and Catherine Parr became the Queen Dowager. After Edward’s coronation on 31 January 1547, she retired from the court, moving to Chelsea, where she set up her home.
By then, her onetime beau, Sir Thomas Seymour, had returned to England after a long service overseas. Since the Regency Council did not agree to their marriage so soon after the king’s death, the two got married secretly in May 1547 and settled down in Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire.
Scandal broke out when the secret about their marriage became public. Princess Mary and King Edward VI were very displeased, forbidding Princess Elizabeth from keeping any contact with her. She was also forced to give up her ornaments.
In November 1547, Catherine published her second book, ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’ which became widely acclaimed. Very soon, her residence became known as a house of learning for young women. Princess Elizabeth also came to live with her, but was sent away after being caught with Thomas.
In November 1547, at the age of 35, Catherine became pregnant for the first time, giving birth to a daughter named, Mary Seymour, on 30 August 1548. But a condition known as childbed fever affected Catherine and she died on 7 September 1548, possibly from postpartum infections. She was buried in the Castle of Sudeley.
After Catherine Parr’s death, her fortune passed on to her fourth husband, Sir Thomas Seymour. Forever ambitious, he was caught and beheaded on 20 March 1549 for conspiring against King Edward VI. His possessions were also confiscated. Catherine’s jewels and clothes were sent to the Tower of London.
It is not known what happened to Catherine’s daughter Mary because there is no mention of her after her second birthday. It is only known that after her father’s arrest, Mary lived with Catherine’s close friend, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, and her property was restored on 17 March 1550.