Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Katherine Parr: Reformation Queen of England and Ireland

 "To be useful in all I do.”
Queen Katherine Parr
Sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII

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 had not yet to come an understanding of 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.


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 be 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.”


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 
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
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid
  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 
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;   
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   
The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century by Roland H. Bainton; Beacon Press; 1963 
Katherine Parr image:  National Portrait Gallery - London
©Diane Bucknell 2015- originally posted at  Out of the Ordinary - Oct. 28, 2015

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