It used to be thought that, when England’s uxorious Henry VIII made his sixth attempt at matrimonial bliss in 1543 and took on the twice-widowed (but childless) Katherine Parr, he had at last got things right and that, bloated and diseased, he was able to spend his last years consoled by a homely companion.
Recently, however, we have come to see Katherine as a much more colorful and interesting person: highly educated and aware, a competent mistress of the royal household and even regent while her husband heaved himself into vainglorious campaigning in France (that is, nearby Boulogne); dutiful stepmother who strove to bring together the offspring of Henry’s first three wives—Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward; a patron of learning who fought to save enough from the wreckage of Henry’s assault on the monasteries to found Cambridge’s largest establishment, Trinity College.
And now the learned Janel Mueller has reminded us of something more: Katherine was the first English woman to have a printed book of her own devising published in her own name—not the first English woman to write a book, of course, but the first to publish one in print under her own name. This was her Prayers or Meditations (its short title), a compilation of extracts mainly from an abridgement by the devout Bridgettine monk Richard Whitford of Syon Monastery of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. That book was published in 1545. In the previous year, Katherine had produced anonymously a work entitled Psalms or Prayers taken out of holy scripture, a free translation of a Latin work of 1525 by St. John Fisher. Then in late 1547 came a third pious work, Lamentation of a Sinner, a meditation on the sinfulness of humankind.
These three works, together with the few surviving letters to and from Katherine and other related documents, are meticulously edited in this admirable volume. But perhaps the most interesting item is an unpublished primer (that is, a personal prayer book), previously attributed to Lady Jane Grey, the hapless girl who was used in a plot to stop the Roman Catholic Mary from becoming queen, which Mueller has identified as Katherine’s by its handwriting—thanks especially to its similarity to the handwritten fragment of Prayers and Meditations which Mueller chased down to the “mayor’s parlour” in Kendal in northwest England. Though once again a collection of favorite readings, it provides another window into the queen’s inner life.
To help the reader, the original versions of all four works are followed by modernized ones, Latin fragments are scrupulously reproduced with their corrections and crossings-out, and for good measure, an appendix lists the queen’s personal effects at her death (mainly jewels and books). So we must congratulate the editor herself and the University of Chicago Press on this fine, scholarly production. At the same time, may we complain about the prose? No doubt we have to take on the chin—like a man—such feminist jargon as “degenders the masculine locutions.” But surely the University of Chicago Press (or someone) ought to have expunged such horrors as a “historically specific, pathbreaking trajectory,” let alone “The expanded phrasing . . . emits its own incantatory energy, evoking the serialism of a vernacular liturgy.”
Such eggheadspeak does bad things to blood pressure. Worse, it obscures Mueller’s central thesis, which is that, within a short time of marrying Henry, Katherine had became a zealous promoter of Lutheran Protestantism. This is all the more remarkable since, as Mueller shows, she had had many connections with England’s Catholic past and had not only translated that Latin work by Bishop Fisher but even included prayers by him and Thomas More in her Psalms or Prayers. But by 1545-46 she was clearly undergoing a profound religious conversion.
We must be careful, of course. Catholics, too, believe in original sin and human depravity. (Did not More describe himself as a “vile, abject, abominable, sinful wretch”?) They, too, affirm that Christ alone is the redeemer who reopened the gates of Heaven to those who believe in Him—and pace Mueller, they emphatically do not believe that the Mass is a reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. Moreover, it was not so much what Luther affirmed as what he denied that separated him from the old Church.
Though a great deal of Katherine’s writings seemingly belong to traditional, pessimistic (Augustinian) spirituality, Mueller is surely right about her growing Lutheranism. But it is what is missing—what she does not say about sanctification, the Sacraments, etc.—that is most revealing. Luther flaunted his denials; Katherine makes hers so quietly that a reader might not notice their absence.
And what had caused Katherine to shift to the religious left? Mueller suggests convincingly that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who was himself already moving towards a more radical Protestantism than Luther’s, was the major influence on her and that she and he were partners in concerted, surreptitious promotion of the new religious program. They were promoting what was then heresy. It is important to remember this. Mueller gets into a bit of a muddle about Henrician theology: The fact is that, after apparently flirting with Lutheran ideas immediately after he repudiated Rome, Henry had reaffirmed his commitment to “Catholicism without the pope” and persecuted dissenters of all kinds. No wonder, then, that Katherine did not publish her most Lutheran book, Lamentation of a Sinner, until after Henry’s death. And no wonder that the conservative old guard, led by the formidable Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, having perceived what a dangerous woman she had become, should have tried to get rid of her.
Mueller rightly accepts the story told by the Protestant martyrologist John Foxe of how Gardiner and the then-lord chancellor reported her to the king in the hope that he would destroy her. And Mueller explains how cleverly Katherine escaped her husband’s wrath by pretending to be an utterly submissive innocent who knew little about anything. Her dissembling disarmed him—but nonetheless left him snarling that it was a funny world in which women took it upon themselves to be divines.
Would Henry ever have repudiated her, even had her burnt for heresy? Quite possibly. Those were fraught times, and Henry was a capricious tyrant. In the event, it was Henry who died—in January 1547—leaving a nine-year-old Edward to succeed him. With near-treasonous haste, Katherine then married the man who had always been her true love, Thomas Seymour, younger uncle of the new king and an ambitious rogue who, among other things, had molested the young Princess Elizabeth and probably left her emotionally scarred for life. Katherine was soon pregnant for the first time. On August 30, 1548, she was delivered of a daughter, and a few days later she was dead—the victim of puerperal fever.
Not long afterwards, Thomas Seymour was destroyed by his brother Edward, who was effectively ruling the realm and was scarcely less of a rogue. By October 1549 Edward had, in turn, been deposed and was a prisoner in the Tower of London. That Katherine should have married into the Seymour family may not cast doubt on her religious integrity, but it says little for her good sense.
J. J. Scarisbrick, professor emeritus of history at the University of Warwick, is the author of Henry VIII.