When the King’s Sixth Wife Took Her Fourth Husband


In addition to being the only wife to survive Henry VIII, Katherine Parr was also the only one to come anywhere near the King in number of spouses. All told, she would marry four times, her marriage to Henry being her third. Yesterday, we took a look at the relationship between Thomas Seymour, her fourth husband, and Elizabeth Tudor, her stepdaughter, but how – and when – she came to marry Thomas is well-worth examining.

On March 2, 1543, Katherine’s husband, John Neville, Lord Latimer died. Katherine was about 31 years old, childless and had been widowed once before when her first husband died nine years before. With the exception of a brief several-month period of freedom between 1533 and 1534, Katherine had been married since she was 17 years of age, both times to a candidate that economically or strategically made sense for her and her family. In the case of Latimer, he had been about 20 years older and Katherine spent a considerable portion of their marriage running his household and playing stepmother to his two children.

Much has been made over the years about Katherine spending her first two marriages playing nursemaid, but that’s a bit of a leap. Frankly, it speaks more to how Victorian historians presented women and their own domestic ideals than it does of the reality of a 16th century woman of Katherine’s stations. She was not personally tending to the aches and pains of her husbands – and indeed, her first husband was incorrectly identified for years as Sir Edward Burgh, 2nd Baron Burgh of Gainsborough, when in fact she had married his grandson. Thus, whatever it was that made Katherine attractive to Henry, it wasn’t her long history of wifely nursing.

Finally independent, still of childbearing years and attractive, Katherine theoretically had much to which to look forward to once a suitable mourning period had passed. She had formed an attachment to Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane (Henry’s third wife), in the last months of her marriage and there’s little doubt that she hoped to marry him. Years later, she wrote to him, “My mind was fully bent […] to marry you before any man I know.”

Henry VIII in 1542, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

But the King had other plans and at some point in the weeks that followed Latimer’s death, he asked for Katherine’s hand as his sixth wife. And an “ask” from Henry wasn’t really a question; Katherine had little choice without severely undermining not only her own position but that of her brother and sister, who were both career courtiers.

Even so, Katherine took time to consider the proposal before accepting. What seems to have pushed her were her own religious beliefs – Katherine was deeply committed to the reformed faith and after continuous prayer came to the conclusion that it was her duty to marry Henry, become queen and help fully bring the Church of England into the light.

But this isn’t a post about Henry and Katherine, so what of Thomas? Well, a longstanding belief was that Thomas was sent by Henry on a diplomatic mission abroad to get him out of the way. It’s an interesting narrative, but unfortunately it’s not really true. A delay to the trip ended up keeping Thomas in England for a significant portion of the spring and as Katherine would later write about this time, it didn’t seem that he played too large a part in her considerations. That she loved him shouldn’t be doubted, but she took seriously what she considered her calling.

Katherine and Henry married on July 12, 1543 at Hampton Court Palace in a small ceremony witnessed by their close friends and family, including Henry’s nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Thomas, needless to say, wasn’t present.

In the three and a half years that followed Thomas didn’t lose his prominence as Prince Edward’s uncle, nor his place at court when he attended. Indeed, as we discussed yesterday, rumors abounded that there was a possibility he would marry one of Henry’s daughters, Elizabeth or the more suitably-aged Mary.

Katherine Parr

Katherine had her own issues to worry about, marriage to Henry VIII not being the most relaxing of endeavors, particularly in the 1540s. By the time 1546 was drawing to a close Katherine came horrifyingly close to being arrested and potentially meeting the same fate as Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, albeit for less titillating reasons. But Katherine was savvier than Henry’s fifth wife and possessed less hubris than his second; she managed to talk her way back into his favor and by the holidays they had made up.

Even so, when Henry died on January 28, 1547 Katherine wasn’t at his side. Nor did she participate in his funeral, but rather watched it from her personal closet. Denied a place on her stepson’s council, her political life was effectively over, but her influence wasn’t. Indeed, during her marriage to Henry she had been the most effective of any of his wives in bringing his three children together in something approaching a traditional family. Thus, for the first time in her 35 years of life, Katherine was both free and a valuable pawn for an ambitious family.

The Seymours were one such family and Thomas and Katherine already had a history. When exactly their relationship picked up again is unclear, but certainly Thomas was pressing for marriage almost immediately, despite the tradition of queen dowagers remaining in mourning for at least two years. One of Katherine’s biographers, Susan E. James, even posits that she and Thomas began sleeping together within a week of Henry’s death, which may very well be true, but if it was, then it’s worth considering how wildly out of character such a move would have been.

At the very least there was an emotional relationship going on and letters were ferried between the two as they negotiated their next step. At one point a letter from Thomas to her reads, “I remembered your commandment to me, wherewith I threw it into the fire, be minding to keep your requests and desires.” Though, given the number of letters from each that still survive from this period, they apparently weren’t overly careful.

Thomas Seymour

In the beginning they had the full-fledged support of Thomas’s elder brother, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who had been named Lord Protector while Edward VI remained a minor. Certainly he had every reason to want the Dowager Queen as a sister-in-law, not only was she the highest-ranking woman in England, but the King held her in high esteem. But that warmth started to chip away as Somerset began to fear Thomas would use his marriage as a way to control the King at the expense of his brother, a paranoia that may very well have been based in fact.

In any case, Thomas finally convinced Katherine to marry him in secret at some point in late May, roughly four months after Henry’s death. The act, without the consent of the King or his council, was nothing short of treason. So what made Katherine do it? After a life of dedicated service as a wife, sister and daughter? Probably exactly that. She had married out of duty three times already. She wanted a husband of her own choice and children while she still had the chance. She apparently decided to bet on her stepson’s affection to mitigate her rashness, which was certainly risky given his youth.

When the marriage became public that summer all hell broke loose and of Henry’s children it was only Elizabeth who didn’t express anger. Mary, who had known Katherine since childhood (Katherine was only four years older), was by far the most offended and she entreated Edward to condemn their stepmother’s actions. But a considerable amount of Mary’s horror stemmed from the forwardness of Thomas’s actions, for after he was formally censured by Council he reached out to the Princess and asked for her help. Put off that he would dare ask such a thing of her she reacted coldly, even bidding Elizabeth to break off all contact.

Elizabeth didn’t, of course. She and Lady Jane Grey both took up residence in Katherine’s household for a lengthy period of time.

Unfortunately it’s hard to say if the marriage was happy. We don’t know exactly what Katherine made of Thomas’s interactions with Elizabeth – whether she grew to suspect ulterior motives on either’s part, or whether she simply reacted to the gossip that was beginning to swirl at court and feared for the girl’s reputation. Perhaps, loving them both, she chose to believe the best and assumed whatever it was would fade, particularly once she gave birth.

On August 30, 1548, Katherine gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter christened Mary. Within five days she was dead, though rumors swirled that Thomas had poisoned her so he could be free to marry Elizabeth. (Highly unlikely).

Thomas would be executed for treason six months later and their daughter, an orphan, would be placed in the care of Katherine’s friend, Katherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk (widow of Charles Brandon, whom he had married after Mary Tudor, Queen of France died). There is record of the Duchess requesting more money for the girl’s upkeep the following year, but there is no evidence of her existence past the year 1550. Likely she died in infancy, however there is speculation that she lived into adulthood, married and had children of her own. The latter is certainly a possibility, but the more likely scenario is that she died before 1551.

Was the marriage worth it? Well, obviously we have no idea what Katherine would have decided if she had had a crystal ball. Maybe even a taste of domestic bliss was enough for her – certainly the idea of it is what propelled her action in the first place. But it’s hard not to wish Katherine, with her steadying influence on the Tudors, had been around to temper the reigns of Edward VI and, later, Mary I. It’s difficult not to imagine what role she would have had had she lived 10 years longer and seen Elizabeth ascend the throne. But then there would still have been Thomas, who she loved and, at the end of the day, chose ahead of everything else.

Katherine’s tomb

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