Catherine Parr and Elizabeth

Today I commemorate the life of Catherine Parr and the influence that Catherine had over a young Elizabeth, because on this day in history, 5th September 1548, Catherine Parr died just 6 days after giving birth to a daughter (some historians have her date of death as 7th September).

Catherine Parr was the sixth and final wife of King Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, and was Elizabeth’s stepmother, the only motherly influence, apart from her governess Kat Ashley, that Elizabeth had.

Catherine Parr was the woman that reunited Henry VIII with his children. She did much to help the King build relationships with children that he had previously ignored. Even Mary, who held widely different religious views than Catherine, was wooed by this warm and intelligent woman, and the precocious Elizabeth, who had suffered the loss of a mother at a young age and also the upsetting recent execution of stepmother (Catherine Howard), warmed to the new Queen.

Although David Starkey thinks that Catherine’s role in reuniting the happy Tudor family (Henry and his childen) is exaggerated, he still devotes a whole chapter in his book “Elizabeth” to Catherine Parr because she played such an important part in Elizabeth’s “apprenticeship”, having been left as Queen Regent in Henry’s absence and having a close relationship to her stepchildren. He writes of how she and Elizabeth exchanged presents and letters, although he states that Catherine was “never more than a moon to Henry’s sun” – Elizabeth completely idolised her father.

We know that Elizabeth corresponded with her stepmother because we have letters, such as the one Elizabeth wrote in “courtly” Italian in July 1544, at the age of 10.We also know that Elizabeth took the time and care to translate Margaret of Angouleme’s French religious poem, “Le Miroir de l’Ame Pecheresse” into English for Catherine – no mean feat for an 11 year old! Elizabeth also did a triple translation of her stepmother’s published work, “Prayers and Meditations”, which she presented to her father the King.

Life after Henry

As I have said, Elizabeth idolised her father so his death when she was just 13 years old must have hit her hard. Henry did look after his daughters in his will, giving each of them a considerable income and naming them as successors after their brother Edward.  He also looked after Catherine, allowing her to live the life she wanted and also allowing her to take in her beloved stepdaughter Elizabeth. Starkey points out how sensible this was as they both shared common interests – religion and learning – and Elizabeth was in need of a parent but it did lead to problems.

The problem was Thomas Seymour, uncle of Edward VI and brother of the late Jane Seymour. He had been attracted to Catherine Parr previously in 1543 but had had to give her up when the King became interested in her. Now was his chance to marry the Dowager Queen and be close to a likely successor to the throne, Elizabeth. He married Catherine just months after Henry VIII’s death and then set about abusing the teenage Princess Elizabeth.

We know that Seymour had a key to Elizabeth’s bedroom and that he would let himself in early in the morning , somtimes clad only in his nightshirt. He would kiss her, tickle her and stroke her buttocks, and, on one occasion in the garden, he even had Catherine hold Elizabeth while he slashed her gown to pieces. Why Catherine allowed this behaviour, which she knew about from Kat Ashley and which she even took part in (getting into bed with Elizabeth and Thomas), we cannot even begin to understand. Did she fear losing her husband? Was it because she was pregnant and just wanted her husband kept happy? It’s hard to know. What we do know is that in the end, in May 1548, Catherine sent Elizabeth away to stay at Sir Anthony Denny’s home. This may have been both an attempt to save her marriage and to protect the young princess’ reputation.

Even though Catherine and Elizabeth had parted under such a cloud of scandal, it is obvious from their correspondence that they missed each other. Unfortunately, Catherine died just three months after sending Elizabeth away. It seems that she died of puerperal fever (childbed fever) just a few days after giving birth to Mary, her first child, on 30th August.

Although Catherine Parr was only Elizabeth’s stepmother for around 5 years, I think that she had a major influence on the young princess. Catherine was a strong, intelligent and independent woman who had published her own work and who had her own thoughts and opinions. On the whole, she was a good role model for a princess, although her behaviour over Thomas Seymour’s sexual abuse of Elizabeth leaves a lot to be desired. Kat Ashley was more of a mother figure to Elizabeth than Catherine ever was, but Catherine was definitely an intellectual infuence.

What do you think? Did Catherine Parr have a major influence over Elizabeth or was their relationship too short? Did she help shape Elizabeth into the woman and monarch she became?