Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.
In the past, children have used this little ditty to remember the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII. The wife who was fortunate to survive was Katherine Parr, although she nearly lost her head too. Katherine Parr (1512-1548) was a published author in days when this wasn’t something that women did. Her work, Lamentation of a Sinner, is a personal confession of her faith. Her other published works included several prayers. Katherine’s spirituality, passion and dedication to the cause and cross of Christ comes across clearly in her works, so it is worth a closer look at her life.
Born into a respectable family, with connections to the Royal Court through her grandmother, Katherine became a teenage widow in 1528 when her husband, Lord Edward Borough, died. In 1534, she married again to the third Baron Latimer, John Neville, and as Lady Latimer, she was introduced to life at the Royal Court. In March 1543, Lord Latimer died and Katherine Howard, the wife of Henry VIII, was executed. King Henry set his sights on Katherine Parr to be his new wife. She was engaged to Thomas Seymour at the time, but the King sent him to Europe. With Seymour out of the way, the King married Katherine in a private service on 12 July 1543. Katherine won the affection of Henry’s children; Mary, Elizabeth and Edward and was very motherly towards them. She chose Protestant tutors for the young Prince Edward and steered his education into godly paths.
It seems that the changes that took place in Katherine’s faith came after she became Queen. Like Anne Boleyn, she seems to have come under the godly influence of the Queen of Navarre. She appointed John Pankhurst as her chaplain, a man sympathetic to the Reformation, and he served her throughout her lifetime. In 1544, Henry appointed Queen Katherine as Regent while he was away at war and this brought Katherine into close contact with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who had been appointed to serve as one of her advisors. It was around this time that Katherine published Prayers or Meditations. This was a devotional work. She wrote, ‘Most benign Lord Jesus, grant me thy grace, that it may always work in me, and persevere with me to the end. Grant me that I may ever desire and will that which is most pleasant and most acceptable to thee.’ These words show us something of her heart, and even today they would serve well as a prayer with which to begin each day.
Her influence on Henry VIII
By 1546, Katherine and Henry enjoyed such a close relationship that religion was a daily topic for discussion. Katherine was bold in encouraging the King to move away from Rome and in pressing for more of Cranmer’s reforms. Katherine also championed the cause of using the English language in worship.
Henry was not always delighted with Katherine’s boldness, and some of his courtiers tried to find ways of preventing her from moving the King towards the Reformation. At one point, King Henry was persuaded to begin investigating Katherine, but upon discovering this, she was able to humble herself before the King, assuring him that she only intended to have meaningful conversation with him, she was not telling him what to do. The Queen was saved.
Despite the risks, Katherine was unflinching in promoting the unpopular and politically incorrect doctrines of the Reformation. We would do well to think about the importance of standing up for the unpopular and counter-cultural doctrines in our day. Katherine was courageous in pushing for the Reformation with a capricious leader, the King. Are we too easily put off calling for necessary changes in our church practices?
After Henry’s death in 1547, Katherine reconnected with Thomas Seymour and married him. Katherine brought Princess Elizabeth into their home in Chelsea, where the Princess attended daily worship and prayer times. Katherine’s relationships with Elizabeth and Edward were stronger than with Mary, and it is thought she played a major part in introducing them to the Protestant faith. Katherine gave birth to a daughter on 30 August 1548 and died six days later. In 1549, Thomas Seymour lost his head due to charges of treason and it is likely that their daughter Mary died while still young.
Katherine’s spirituality is best encountered in her book, Lamentation of a Sinner. In this spiritual autobiography, she rejects her Catholic practices and turns to the death of Christ as her only hope, and the only way to have peace with God. She not only confesses her sin, but she rejoices that she has been freed from sin and that she is trusting wholly in her Saviour. She writes of abhorring sin, being saved and receiving grace. Her writings refer to Bible passages and quote many Scripture verses. She certainly had a good knowledge of the Bible, which was almost a banned book at the time. We should be challenged to consider how we disciple people today in sound doctrine, the knowledge of Scripture and healthy spiritual disciplines. There hardly seems time or priority in our busy church programmes for such things.
In her writings, Katherine exhorts, but she does not rail against her readers. The descriptions of her spiritual journey are deep and full of sound theology. It is sobering to think of how much she learnt and experienced in so short a time and how eloquent she was in expressing her faith in a warm, winsome and evangelistic way.
Katherine was not the only bold woman of faith in her day. Anne Askew was one among others. These women encouraged one another in a difficult context of intrigue and spying at court. How do Christian women encourage one another in the faith today? Katherine sought to be a role model and power for good in the lives of the next generation. Surely today that is as ripe a mission field as ever. Katherine, like Esther of old, used her royal position for strong influence at a time of crisis. While we won’t be elevated to royalty, what positions of influence are we in that we can use for the good of the gospel?
Let the last words be those of Katherine: ‘O thou God of the heavens, the Maker of the waters, and Lord of all creatures, hear me, a poor sinner, calling upon thee, and putting my whole trust in thy mercy. Have mercy upon me, O Lord God, have mercy upon me. For thy manifold mercies’ sake, forgive all mine offences. Amen.’
(This article draws heavily on a new understanding of Katherine Parr, explored in the book Katherine Parr – a Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen by Brandon G. Withrow, P&R Publishing, 2009 which is the source of the quotes from Katherine Parr’s writings.)