Posted By Claire on June 8, 2010
Historian and author Elizabeth Norton’s biography of Catherine Parr was published by Amberley Publishing earlier this year and, like her other books, it is meticulously researched and a great read. I had recently read Linda Porter’s book on Catherine Parr but although Porter’s and Norton’s books obviously overlapped (how could they not?), each author had her own take on Catherine and brought something new to the table.
After Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr is my favourite wife. “Why?”, you may ask, “Why choose a woman whose life was so boring and who was nothing but a nurse to Henry at the end of his life?”. Well, that is the traditional picture of Catherine Parr, a picture that has been firmly blasted out of the waters with Elizabeth Norton’s book. As Norton says, on the very first page, “She was the most reluctant of all Henry VIII’s queens, but she was also one of the greatest”, and this biography does a great job of celebrating Catherine Parr’s life and telling her real story.
As many of you know, I don’t just review a book, I actually give a rundown of its content too so that you know what is covered. Here is a rundown on “Catherine Parr: Wife, widow, mother, survivor, the story of the last queen of Henry VIII” by Elizabeth Norton:-
Chapter 1 – The Parrs of Kendal: 1512 – 1523
This chapter tells the reader about Catherine Parr’s family background, a background that Norton feels is important because “the roots of her good sense and ability to survive lay in her childhood.” Here we learn about Catherine’s parents, Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and his wife Matilda (or Maud) Green, the family seat (a castle in Kendal, Cumbria), the family’s rise to prominence, Catherine’s birth and childhood, and Catherine’s education. It is fascinating to learn that Catherine was in fact named after Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, how ironic!
Chapter 2 – Mistress Burgh of Gainsborough Old Hall: 1523 – Spring 1533
Catherine’s mother, Maud, knew the importance of marrying well and this chapter covers Maud’s plans for Catherine to marry Lord Scrope, Catherine’s brother William’s marriage to Anne Bourchier and Catherine’s subsequent marriage to Edward Burgh (or Borough), eldest son of Sir Thomas Burgh of Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire.
Elizabeth Norton clears up the confusion over which Edward Burgh Catherine actually married, saying that it is impossible that it was the elderly Edward, Lord Burgh, who was insane at this time and under the guardianship of his son, Sir Thomas Burgh. Norton goes on to give details of the Burgh family and Thomas Burgh’s reformist religious beliefs, which probably affected Catherine’s own beliefs (she was raised as a Catholic) and caused her conversion, which Norton writes of as “an intensely powerful and personal experience”. The chapter ends with Edward Burgh’s death in Spring 1533 and Catherine being a widow for the first, but not last, time.
Chapter 3 – Lady Latimer of Snape Castle: Spring 1533 – September 1536
In this chapter, Norton covers Maud Parr’s death, the rise at court of Catherine’s brother and sister (William and Anne), the legend that Catherine spent her first widowhood at Sizergh Castle with Catherine Neville, and Catherine’s second marriage to John Neville, Lord Latimer, a kinsman of Catherine Neville and a friend of Cuthbert Tunstall, a man who was kinsman to Catherine Parr and who became Bishop of Durham in 1533. We learn about the Latimer family, how the marriage was a rise in status for Catherine and how Catherine got her first experience of running a household and being a mother to her two stepchildren.
Chapter 4 – A Pilgrimage of Grace: 1 October 1536 – June 1537
Chapter 3 ended with Elizabeth Norton writing that “in October 1536 her quiet life at Snape Castle was shattered forever with Latimer forced, under duress, to choose between his loyalty to his faith and to his king during the greatest rebellion of Henry VIII’s reign, the Pilgrimage of Grace” and this chapter tells the story of how Catherine found herself caught up in this rebellion and lives of her family in real danger. Not only were their lives in danger when Latimer was forced to swear the rebel’s oath, while his family were threatened, but they were also in danger when the rebels later took control of Snape Castle AND when the rebellion was put down and Henry sought vengeance on the rebels.
Chapter 5 – Not Much Favour: June 1537 – March 1543
This chapter covers the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace – Latimer’s arrest and imprisonment, and his later release which may have been secured by bribing Thomas Cromwell. Also covered in this chapter are the marital problems of Catherine’s brother, William Parr, the legend of Catherine’s intervention in the imprisonment of Sir George Throckmorton, Catherine’s first meeting with Henry VIII, Cromwell’s fall and the death of Lord Latimer. Elizabeth Norton ends the chapter on a bit of a cliffhanger: “by February 1543, she [Catherine] had two suitors waiting for her husband’s death to release her for a third marriage.”
Chapter 6 – Better Your Mistress Than Your Wife: March 1543 – 12th July 1543
Here we are introduced to the real love of Catherine’s life, Thomas Seymour, the man who Catherine hoped to marry after Latimer’s death. Unlike some authors and historians who see Seymour as just after Catherine’s money, Norton points out that Catherine was “not conspicuously wealthy” and that Seymour probably had genuine feelings for her. Of course, their relationship was not to be, at this time, and we are introduced to Catherine’s second suitor, the King, and their subsequent marriage on the 12th July 1543.
Chapter 7 – Catherine the Queen: July 1543 – Spring 1544
Norton points out that although Catherine had been initially reluctant to marry Henry VIII, “she was determined to make the most of the opportunity presented to her” and “was determined to ensure that her position was one of importance.” In this chapter, we learn about her household, the way she sought to promote religious reform, her image and her love of fine clothes, her pastimes, her prominent role in foreign diplomacy and her close relationship with Mary, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon.
Chapter 8 – Beloved Mother: Spring 1544 – Summer 1544
In this chapter, Elizabeth Norton writes about the close relationships Catherine formed with her new stepchildren: Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. Catherine was a great friend to Mary, the mother that Edward had never known and a huge influence on the young Elizabeth. Norton writes that the fact that Mary and Elizabeth were reinstated to the succession in 1544 was “a triumph for Catherine’s work in bringing her stepchildren back into the royal family.
Chapter 9 – Regent General of England: July 1544 – Autumn 1545
Elizabeth Norton ended the previous chapter by writing that “in the summer of 1544 she [Catherine] received a great compliment from the king which demonstrated just how influential she was” and this chapter explains what that compliment was – Catherine being left to rule over England in the King’s absence as Henry went to France – and how she did Henry proud.
Chapter 10 – The Lamentation of a Sinner: Autumn 1545 – Spring 1546
Here, Elizabeth Norton examines Catherine’s religious beliefs, the beliefs held by her husband, Henry VIII, and points out that Catherine Parr can actually be called England’s first Protestant queen because although Anne Boleyn sought to advance reform she was not a fully fledged Protestant and died a Catholic; Catherine, however, was Protestant to the core.
Norton also points out that Catherine was also “the first queen of England to be a published author in her own right” and Norton goes on to examine Catherine’s works: “Prayers or Meditations” and “Lamentation of a Sinner, and how her work and her beliefs came to put her in “grave danger” and at risk of following “the path of her two executed predecessors, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.”
Chapter 11 – Danger for the Gospel: Spring 1546 – July 1546
This is my favourite chapter as it examines the danger that Catherine faced in 1546 when she realised “just what a dangerous and unpredictable husband her royal spouse could be.” In this chapter, Elizabeth Norton examines the conservative plot against Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Catherine’s ally, the arrest and interrogation of Anne Askew, and Gardiner’s move against Catherine. Norton has an interesting theory about why and how Catherine escaped this plot, she sees it as a kind of test set by Henry. A fascinating theory and one which makes sense when you read the details of what happened in this chapter. The chapter ends with the execution of Anne Askew, an event that must have haunted Catherine when she realised how close she had come to it herself.
Chapter 12 – Yielded His Spirit To Almighty God: Summer 1546 – 28 January 1547
Here we have the declining health of Henry VIII, rumours regarding the royal marriage and how Henry was considering another wife, the execution of the Earl of Surrey, the drafting of the King’s new will (which did not leave Catherine as Regent), and the subsequent death of the King.
Chapter 13 – Weeks Be Shorter at Chelsea: January – May 1547
This chapter covers the days and months after Henry’s death – how Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, took possession of the new boy King, Edward VI, to establish himself as “the new power in England”, the shock that Catherine must have felt when she found out that she was not Regent, the rumours regarding Thomas Seymour and his ambitions, the King’s funeral, Catherine’s appointment as Elizabeth’s guardian, her move to Chelsea and her relationship and marriage to Thomas Seymour.
Chapter 14 – Much Offended by the Marriage: June to December 1547
Here, Norton writes of the aftermath of the rather sudden marriage of Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour, the reactions and anger it provoked, and the damage it did to Catherine’s relationship with Mary. Norton also looks at Catherine’s fall from power and how her sister-in-law, Anne Stanhope, snubbed her. She also considers the row over Catherine’s jewels and how this, and the hostility directed at Catherine from the Protector and his wife, caused Thomas Seymour to plot against his own brother.
Chapter 15 – Lady Seymour of Sudeley: Winter 1547
This chapter covers Catherine’s life at Chelsea – her guardianship of Elizabeth, her husband’s wardship of Lady Jane Grey, Catherine’s involvement in the education of the girls, Seymour’s growing hatred of his brother, and Catherine’s patronage of the leading reformers. Finally, Catherine seems to be happy – she’s retreated from the hostility at court to her own happy household and has married the love of her life, nothing can go wrong can it?
Chapter 16 – The Queen Was Jealous: Winter 1547 – May 1548
In this chapter we learn of how Catherine’s heart is broken by the love of her life, Thomas Seymour, and her beloved stepdaughter, Elizabeth. Here, Norton examines the growing “relationship” between Elizabeth and Seymour, Catherine’s bizarre behaviour, the rumours surrounding the relationship, Catherine’s surprise pregnancy and the breaking point of May 1548 which caused Catherine to send Elizabeth away from Chelsea.
Chapter 17 – Not Well Handled: May 1548 – March 1549
This chapter covers Catherine’s pregnancy and the happiness the couple felt as they waited for the birth of their first child, Thomas’s continued attempts to undermine his brother, Catherine’s rapprochement with Mary, her move to Sudeley, the birth of Catherine’s daughter, Mary, Catherine’s subsequent illness and death, her funeral, Thomas’s plot and his subsequent arrest and execution. I find it so sad that Catherine’s life ended the way it did – she finally had the marriage that she’d always wanted, a real love match, and then she gets her heartbroken and dies just days after the birth of her first child. Not only that, her husband then loses all control and is executed just months later!
Chapter 18 – How Many Husbands Will She Have?
Here, Elizabeth Norton considers Catherine’s legacy – her daughter, Mary Seymour, her family and her stepdaughter, Elizabeth. Her greatest legacy was Elizabeth, the girl she had brought up as her own daughter and friend, and a girl who was to become one of the greatest monarchs that England has ever known.
I will leave you with Elizabeth Norton’s final paragraph which is a great summation of Catherine Parr:-
“Catherine Parr is remembered as one of the greatest of Henry VIII’s queens. She was the last wife that he married and is often credited with providing him, at last, with the stable home life that he had long desired. Catherine was a reluctant queen and, while she accepted the fate that Henry decided for her, her final marriage for love is a testament that her heart always belonged to Thomas Seymour. Catherine Parr survived a dangerous husband through her clever management of him and her intelligence. Throughout her adult life she sought happiness for herself but rarely found it. Finally, in marrying for love she hoped to choose her own destiny and enjoy, at last, the freedom that she had always longed for. She was destined to be deeply disappointed and, after three husbands chosen for her, Catherine proved to be a poor judge of her fourth. Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s reluctant queen, was one of the best that he had, but her time as queen was fraught and filled with danger and she was never able to find the peace and contentment that she desired.”
Detailed notes on the sources used for each chapter.
A useful bibliography divided into Primary Sources and Secondary Sources.
Full details on the 52 illustrations in the book, which include portraits, photos of places such as Kendal Castle, Gainsborough Old Hall and the tomb of Catherine Parr at Sudeley Castle, an extract from Henry VIII’s will and beautiful stained glass windows.
I would heartily recommend this biography to anyone who wants to know the truth about Henry VIII’s sixth wife and who wants to know her full story, from birth to death. When I spoke to Elizabeth Norton about her books on our recent Anne Boleyn Experience Tour, she said that there are enough heavy, academic books out there about Henry VIII’s wives and that her aim is to bring these women’s stories to everyone, to make their stories readable and interesting – she has definitely accomplished her aim with this one, it is an excellent book.