King Henry’s last wife

We all know that Henry VIII had many wives – 6 in total – but we rarely remember that 3 of them were named Catherine.  Catherine of Aragon came first [marriage annulled] and was followed by Anne [annulled & beheaded].  Jane was his third wife who died 12 days after giving birth to the future King Edward VI.  Number 4 was another Anne who he didn’t like and annulled the marriage.  Wife 5 was the second Catherine and he had her beheaded.

It was on Thursday 12th July 1543 that King Henry 8th married his third and final Catherine – Catherine Parr.  There was a plague beginning to take hold in London so two dozen or so guests crammed into a small chapel at Hampton Court to see Henry VIII marry for the sixth time. The wedding, a low-key affair, took the diplomatic community in London by surprise and it was noted that “the king espoused the queen privately and without ceremony”. The bridegroom was, however, enthusiastic as he took his vows “with a joyful countenance”.

Henry was 52 years old and ailing. His new wife, Catherine Parr, was not quite 31, twice-widowed and an experienced stepmother. This was probably a marriage born of common sense, where passion would play little part. The Victorians would depict it as the union of an irascible tyrant with a worthy matron. The truth, however, appears to be very different.

Henry was looking for a wife, not a nurse or homemaker. He wanted a companion for his bed that might provide further heirs and could carry the role of queen consort impressively. Catherine, who had given up another man to marry the king, was well aware that her duties would definitely run to more than polite conversation and soothing the royal brow.

Henry and Catherine shared many interests, from hunting and archery to music, masques and books. She was a graceful dancer and they both loved the Venetian Bassano brothers, musicians patronized by Catherine. Henry, a cultured man, was delighted to have a queen who commanded respect from ambassadors and with whom he could discourse. Both husband and wife were committed to the 16th-century belief in lifelong learning. Catherine brushed up her Latin and also began to edit and write religious books, as her commitment to advancing the cause of further reform grew. In 1545 she became the first queen of England to be published when copies of her Prayers or Meditations were produced by the king’s printers. Her influence over Henry seemed unshakeable.

But in 1546, the last full year of the king’s life, Catherine’s position came under threat. Henry’s health declined alarmingly and the negative attributes of his personality, his capriciousness, cunning and imperiousness, were amplified by the reluctant acknowledgement of his own mortality. A power struggle for the future of England was fought out over his diseased frame and his loyal wife.  She had felt secure in his affection and returned it with devotion, but now found herself at the centre of the struggle.  We’ll come back to this in the not-to-distant future.  We’ll also consider if Catherine should be Katherine!

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