“To be useful in all I do.”
Queen Katherine Parr
The year was 1512. Michelangelo’s magnificent Sistine Chapel frescos were unveiled. Twenty-nine year old Martin Luther earned his Doctorate in Theology at Wittenberg U, but didn’t understand justification by faith. And a precocious three year old named Jehan Cauvin was busy exploring his world in northern France. God was setting the stage for a Reformation that would soon rock the world.
Sir Thomas Parr and his wife Maud Greene, a prominent couple from Westmoreland, welcomed their baby daughter into the world that year. Katherine, named after King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, received a fine education learning several languages fluently. But by the age of twenty-one, she had lost both parents and her first husband.
The Parr family was acquainted with some of the early Reformers and Katherine zealously embraced this “New Religion”.
“[Catherine] lamented the fact, that she had once been an enthusiastic Papist. ‘I sought’, she confessed, ‘for such riffraff as the Bishop of Rome had planted in his tyranny and kingdom, trusting with great confidence by virtue and holiness of them to receive full remission of sins.’ … That she underwent conversion, as all the first generation of Reformers did is clear.”1
Devoted wholly to Christ, Katherine’s life motto became “to be useful in all I do”, even if it meant sacrificing her own happiness.
After losing a second husband, Katherine’s piety caught the attention of King Henry. Denying her heart’s desire to marry Sir Thomas Seymore, Katherine accepted the King’s marriage proposal. On July 12, 1543 the attractive 31 year old widow became the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII. Without fanfare Katherine was proclaimed Queen at Hampton Court Palace. Her affection for Henry was sincere, although the prospect of marrying a man who had sent two of his wives to the scaffold must have been terrifying! Just months before the marriage, a plot to execute Reformers in Henry’s household had been underway at the behest of Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester.
Henry remained Catholic after breaking from Rome to form the Church of England when the Pope refused to grant him an annulment from his first wife. Desiring a wife who could produce a male heir to the throne the King set his sights on the captivating young Evangelical, Anne Boleyn.
“Anne understood her providential mission to be this: to bring the Reformation to England and to employ every single instance of patronage and influence to that end. … In fact it was through Anne that the New Religion entered England.”2
Anne Boleyn, the most controversial of Henry’s wives, was beheaded on trumped up charges of adultery, incest, and treason, leaving behind her little daughter Elizabeth. The new Queen’s kindness and motherly affections endeared her to Henry and his children; Mary, Elizabeth, and young Edward.
“besides the virtues of the mind, she was endowed with very rare gifts of nature, as singular beauty, favor and comely personage, being things wherein the king was greatly delighted.”3
But Katherine would not allow herself to be caught off guard by Henry’s affections as he was a fickle man, sending both Catholics and Protestants alike to the Tower for execution—Catholics for treason and Protestants for heresy.
While Henry turned a blind eye, his wife hosted Bible studies and prayer meetings at court. Katherine’s guests included influential preachers and numerous high ranking women including Anne Askew and the young Lady Jane Grey.
A CLOSE CALL
In an attempt to destroy the Queen, Katherine’s Catholic enemies had Anne Askew arrested and tortured. Their attempts to get her to implicate the Queen for heresy failed and Anne was burned at the stake for denying the literal presence of Christ’s body in the Mass.
Stephen Gardiner’s evil intentions were not about to thwarted. As Henry’s health declined his legs became severely ulcerated and Katherine would minister to him in his chambers. She used these opportunities to bring up spiritual matters and on one occasion when Gardiner was present Henry became angry.
“A good hearing it is when women become such clerks [clergy]; and a thing much to my comfort to come in my old days to be taught by my wife!’” 4
Gardiner seized the opportunity to fan the fires of suspicion by suggesting those who would dare to argue with the King verbally might also overthrow him by their actions. Henry’s heart was turned against the Queen and orders were drawn up to send Katherine and three of her ladies to the Tower for execution.
Providentially, the papers sealing Katherine’s fate fell into the Queen’s hands, unbeknownst to Henry. The discovery caused Katherine to have a nervous breakdown. The King had confided in his physician the plan to execute his wife and when Henry learned that Katherine had become ill, he sent Dr. Wendy to check on her. The doctor was fond of the Queen and secretly advised her to play ignorant and try to dissuade her husband.
Wise as a serpent and harmless as dove, Katherine refused the temptation to engage in religious discussion when Henry brought up the subject. Instead, she stated that her opinions as a woman were inferior and unimportant, and declared Henry to be her “only anchor, Supreme Head and Governor here on earth, next under God.”5 Convincing her husband that she had merely argued religion with him in order to divert his attention away from his physical suffering, Henry forgave her and their disagreement ended with a kiss.
When Henry’s henchmen came to arrest Katherine they were raked over the coals, while Katherine responded graciously in their defense. This wise and humble woman showed “no limit of self-denigration, and self-disparagement.”6
Katherine was as talented in literary endeavors as she was generous in spirit. Proving the pen can be mightier than the sword, Katherine’s books—Prayers or Meditations (1546) and The Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner (1547) became instant successes, making her the first English Queen to publish an original work under her own name. Additionally, Katherine financed the English translations of Erasmus’ Latin Paraphrases of the Gospels, which were important texts for Reformed scholars.
“ [Katherine] championed the language of the people, encouraged academia to put Christ before Plato, urged Henry to bring England closer to the Reformation, commissioned scholarly translations of Erasmus, and brought a royal English family together. In Katherine’s day, her books became examples of the bold Reformation spirit. Her brilliant mind captured the souls of her people and the respect of the Reformers themselves”7
A BITTERSWEET END
During Christmas of 1546 the King became terminally ill and isolated himself at Whitehall to make final preparations. The historian John Foxe (1516-1587) records that Henry made peace with God in the end. Henry ignored Stephen Gardiner in his Will, sent the Duke of Norfolk and his son to the Tower for treason, and then called for the Reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Unable to speak, Dr. Cranmer exhorted Henry to put his faith in Christ alone by showing—
“…some token with his eyes, or with hand, as he trusted in the Lord. Then the King holding him with his hand, did wring his hand in his, as hard as he could, and so shortly after departed,” 8
On January 28, 1547 King Henry VIII was dead. Though leaving his wife generous provisions of wealth and honor, the King did not appoint her as Queen Regent.
Finally free to pursue her own happiness, Katherine hastily married Thomas Seymore. Tragically, her marital bliss ended abruptly when Thomas made advances towards Katherine’s teenage stepdaughter, Elizabeth. After three childless marriages Katherine bore a daughter before the last enemy struck again. On September 5, 1548, four days after giving birth, Katherine developed puerperal fever and died at the age of 36.
Like Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-4), Queen Katherine was a true servant and a scholar who was willing to take great risks for the furtherance of the Gospel. As a result, God used Katherine’s determination “to be useful in all I do” to profoundly impact on the advancement of the English Reformation.
“The fact that the Reformation was preserved in England can be attributed to the amazing presence of mind, and maturity of Katherine Parr.” 9
1. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey; HarperCollins Publishers; 2003; pg. 701.
2. Five Women of the English Reformation by Paul F.M. Zahl; William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI. 2001; pg. 26
3. John Foxe-The Acts of the Monuments
6. Five Women of the English Reformation by Paul. F. M Zahl; Eerdman’s Publishing; 2001; pg.45
7. Katherine Parr: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought by Brandon G. Withrow – Stephen J Nichols editor P&;R Publish
8. John Foxe -The Acts of the Monuments
9. Five Women-Paul F.M. Zahl; pg.40
The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century by Roland H. Bainton; Beacon Press; 1963
Lady Jane Grey: 9 Day Queen of England by Faith Cook; Evangelical Press 2004
Women of the Reformation in France and England by Roland H. Bainton; Fortress Press; 2007;
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey; HarperCollins Publishers; 2003;
Five Women of the English Reformation by Paul. F. M Zahl; Eerdman’s Publishing; 2001;
A Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner (1547) by Queen Katherine Parr
Katherine the Queen; by Linda Porter; St Martins Griffen; NY
The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, by Michael Reeves B & H Academic, 2010
Katherine Parr image: National Portrait Gallery – London