We learn more about the life of the hugely influential last wife of Henry VIII, who spent her final months in Sudeley Castle.

Ostensibly she seems the least interesting of Henry VIII’s wives, the ‘comfortable matron’ of his closing years. After all, two of the others got divorced, one died shortly after childbirth and the other two got the chop. It was Katherine Parr’s fate, or good fortune, to quietly outlive the malevolent warthog, remarry, and end up in Gloucestershire.

Katherine (1512-48), or Catherine, is a bit more compelling than one might think though. She was the daughter of a knight, Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal, but was most likely born at the family’s Blackfriars home in London. Rather like her blobby hubby to be Katherine was no shrinking violet in the marriage stakes. She’d already wed Sir Edward Burgh (or Borough) in 1529, when she would have been around 17, following that with another coupling with John Neville, Lord Latimer, in 1534. Henry was therefore her third husband. Katherine, of course, was his sixth and last wife, his nursemaid as the old king’s health faltered. She was already mature and experienced having been wed and widowed twice. She was around 31 when her big day came around. The marriage transforming Katherine into a queen occurred on July 12, 1543 at Hampton Court with Stephen Gardiner officiating. There was another potential suitor, Thomas Seymour, the man who’d eventually become husband number four. Described as something of a ‘lech’ he’d have to wait his turn as the massive monarch pulled rank. Apparently, Katherine had already agreed to the betrothal only to execute a handbrake turn when Henry stuck his size-nines in. It was best not to deny the king.

Great British Life: Katherine Parr, stipple print from a fine miniature by H. Holbein the Younger, 1799. Photo: Wellcome CollectionKatherine Parr, stipple print from a fine miniature by H. Holbein the Younger, 1799. Photo: Wellcome Collection

Katherine was both impressive and likeable but one thing that marked the new queen out was education. She was notable for her learning, particularly on religious topics. The trouble was Henry had his own fixed ideas where religion was concerned and Katherine’s free and easy discourse on the subject all but brought her to the block. It just reinforces that old chestnut that it’s best to avoid chatting about religion and politics, and maybe Brexit. Katherine liked nothing better than opening her home to Protestant reformers, her mini court becoming a centre for humanism as well as Protestantism. The trouble was, although Henry had broken with Rome to get the divorce he required from wife #1, he remained at heart a monarch of conservative instinct, his honorary title ‘Defender of the Faith’ (bestowed by the Pope of the time) signifying defender of the old religion, i.e. the Catholic one. For Henry, Katherine was going too far in the other direction.

The crisis came in 1546 when Katherine persisted in encouraging Henry to further reform the church which prompted Henry to turn to Gardiner and lament that he was ‘to come in mine old days to be taught by my wife’. Gardiner and the religious ‘conservatives’ persuaded the king that it would be best to investigate whether there was ‘treasonous heresy’ about the queen; a trip to the Tower seemed in the offing. Henry got as far as signing a bill of articles against her but in a plot twist, Katherine was forewarned, perhaps the machinations of a well-wisher, and promptly threw herself on Henry’s mercy, and eating humble pie, conceded his superior knowledge in all things religious. This clearly massaged the king’s ego who responded with magnanimity: ‘Then perfect friends we are now again as ever at any time heretofore’. When Henry’s chancellor, the odious Thomas Wriothesley, arrived mob-handed to take Katherine and others, the king’s greeting no doubt sent a shiver down his spine: ‘Knave! Arrant knave! Beast! And fool!’ Wriothesley & Co. retreated; doing the king’s apparent bidding could be dodgy. Katherine was restored to Henry’s favour. Henry’s brinkmanship was perhaps intended to teach Katherine a lesson; if so, it worked. It also served a second purpose of keeping his courtiers guessing.

Great British Life: Aerial view of Sudeley Castle, the last home and final resting place of Queen Katherine Parr. Photo: Wdejager/Creative CommonsAerial view of Sudeley Castle, the last home and final resting place of Queen Katherine Parr. Photo: Wdejager/Creative Commons

Katherine did the king some good service, though, tactfully persuading him that he should restore his daughters to the succession. These were the princesses Mary, daughter of divorced Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, daughter of executed Anne Boleyn. They’d both get their turn on the throne after the premature death of Henry’s only surviving son, Edward VI, whom Katherine also cared for. She certainly wasn’t an evil stepmother although she was certainly canny, anticipating favour from the king’s progeny after he’d snuffed it. It was in December 1543 that the three royal children were united for the first time in the King’s household; Katherine surely the facilitator. She certainly reshaped the royal ‘nursery’ which educated not only the royal children but also those of noble birth. She beefed up the tutors with Anthony Cooke, grandfather of Sir Francis Bacon, Cambridge humanist John Cheke, and William Grindal, quite possibly related to the future Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal. With Katherine prompting and cajoling, both princesses translated Erasmus whilst Princess Elizabeth did likewise with Marguerite of Navarre. Katherine Parr meanwhile got herself published, her ‘The Prayers stirring the Mind unto Heavenly Meditation’ came out in 1545, preceding ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’, which rather aptly was published just after the King’s death. Katherine was a survivor and had sufficient canniness to anticipate the king’s demise and play her part in ensuring her survival along with her Protestant friends (the Seymours and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer) whilst the conservatives on t’other side would either be ruined or have to wait their turn. One thing she wasn’t was docile.

Katherine dressed Henry’s festering ulcer every day before being widowed for a third time on January 28, 1547 when the king finally went to meet his maker. She wasted no time in arranging her marriage to Thomas Seymour in the April or May, which brought her to Sudeley Castle which Henry’s heir, the young Edward VI, had bestowed upon his uncle whom he also made Lord Sudeley and later Lord High Admiral of England. Among Katherine’s entourage was the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, the nine days queen in waiting, who’d be chief mourner at Katherine’s funeral. Sadly, Katherine’s marriage to Seymour and her sojourn in Gloucestershire didn’t last very long either, less than 18 months, for she died shortly after childbirth on September 5, 1548, aged only in her mid-30s. She’d given birth to a daughter, Mary, on August 30. The greatest compliment we can pay her is she was perhaps the best choice Henry VIII made so far as his wives were concerned; the pious, sober one who accompanied him for the final 3½ years of his life. Of all Henry’s queens he was perhaps best served by the first one, although she was cast aside for failing to provide a living son, and the last one, who proved herself purposeful, upstanding and compassionate and alleviated much of the angst of his endgame.

Great British Life: A glam Joely Richardson brings Katherine Parr to life in the final series of ‘The Tudors’, 2010. Photo: Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.comA glam Joely Richardson brings Katherine Parr to life in the final series of ‘The Tudors’, 2010. Photo: Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

She was a sensible, intelligent Protestant, discrete (except when bending Henry’s ear), scientifically and theologically minded, domestically able, but relatively plain. Hook-nosed, short-necked (an advantage given the fate of two of Henry’s earlier wives) and portly, she was no oil painting, but then paintings can deceive as Henry found with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. She made history as the only queen buried within the grounds of a private castle in England. Although a Saxon manor existed at Sudeleagh we really owe the modern castle to Ralph Boteler who built Sudeley on its present site in 1442 including St Mary’s Chapel which would eventually house Katherine’s tomb. Henry VIII knew of Sudeley, staying there with Anne Boleyn in July 1535. It would be Katherine’s home briefly whilst her beau, Seymour, was also only in residence fleetingly; he was executed on March 20, 1549 on multiple counts of treason, including making a play for the young Princess Elizabeth. Gardiner meanwhile made a comeback under ‘Bloody Mary’, becoming a staunch persecutor of Protestants.

Great British Life: St Mary's Chapel, Sudeley Castle, the burial place of Katherine Parr. Photo: Nilfanion/Creative CommonsSt Mary's Chapel, Sudeley Castle, the burial place of Katherine Parr. Photo: Nilfanion/Creative Commons

Great British Life: Katherine Parr Antechamber, Sudeley Castle. Photo: Gary Bembridge/Creative CommonsKatherine Parr Antechamber, Sudeley Castle. Photo: Gary Bembridge/Creative Commons

Great British Life: Katherine Parr's tomb, St Mary's Chapel, Sudeley Castle. Photo: Nilfanion/Creative CommonsKatherine Parr's tomb, St Mary's Chapel, Sudeley Castle. Photo: Nilfanion/Creative Commons


1512 – Katherine Parr born, most likely in Blackfriars, London (date unknown).

1529 – First marriage of Katherine Parr to Sir Edward Burgh (until 1533).

1534 – Katherine marries John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer (until 1543).

1543 – Becomes Queen of England by marriage with Henry VIII (July 12).

1546 – Domestic religious crisis almost sees Katherine whisked off to the Tower.

1547 – Death of Henry VIII (January 28) and marriage to Thomas Seymour.

1548 – Death of Katherine Parr shortly after childbirth at Sudeley Castle (September 5).

1549 – Execution of Thomas Seymour on multiple counts of treason.


Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1974)

Henry VIII (J.J. Scarisbrick, 1968)

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (P. Rival, 1937)

Sudeley Castle (sudeleycastle.co.uk)

Britannica (britannica.com)