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?

12 thoughts on “Catherine Parr and Elizabeth

  1. It would appear that Catherine provided Elizabeth with a very brief taste of normal family life, at least while Henry was alive. Her intelligence and education would also be something that Elizabeth would have enjoyed and gained by – and example of how a woman could be clever and independent in her beliefs (even though Catherine took things a little too far, perhaps, with her reformed ideas for Henry’s tastes).
    Poor Thomas Seymour – he was obviously besotted with the young Elizabeth – or else fancied his chances with a very eligible princess.
    How complicit Catherine was in their capers is never going to be known, of course. But it seems like it was all rather good natured at first … and probably just something that got a bit out of hand towards the end.
    Elizabeth would have been a rather impetuous and spirited lass, I think. She might have had a bit of a teenage crush on Thomas and played him along. Who knows! My bet is that nothing untoward ever really happened. When it looked like it was going too far, Catherine had the wisdom and foresight to send her away. Quite right.

  2. I do think Catherine provided a sense of family for Elizabeth as well enhancing her education and stimulating her intellectual pursuits. The issue about Thomas Seymour was a touchy one, and I have seen some sources suggest that Elizabeth may even have been pregnant and delivered a child after leaving Catherine’s care. The gown ripping episode is very odd, they are not around to explain themselves, so it will remain a mystery how that came about. What I find difficult to understand is that Elizabeth apparently idolized her father. Yes, he was larger than life and probably brighter than the sun and all that, but he put her mother to death! How did she process that?

  3. Linda, How indeed!
    It never ceases to amaze me how the Tudors regarded life and death. Just think about Thomas Boleyn, for example: He sees his daughter go to the block at Henry’s command, and a year later is back at court attending the Christening of Henry’s son. How bizarre is that! Did he bring a present?
    I read (fiction) that the gown ripping incident was due to a kind of good natured jest about the excellence of Elizabeth’s apparel – like a kind of ‘in joke’ going on at the dinner table between the three. Interesting chemistry taking place in that triangle, for sure. Obviously that was just speculation in a story line, but it sounds plausible. But nothing would surprise me about those very peculiar Tudors.
    I sometimes wonder, though, if they might think us rather peculiar if they could see us today?

  4. With men like the Boleyns, Seymours, and others with similar political ambitions, no wonder Elizabeth did not want to get married! I wonder if politics turns guys into jerks – look at Bill Clinton! But then again, look at Hilary – she stayed married to him for political power (this is, of course only my opinion.

  5. Rochie, you make a lot of good points, so please don’t think I’m criticizing your thoughts or conclusions, because that’s the furthest thing from what I’m trying (poorly) to articulate. And I freely admit this subject “pushes my buttons”, so I’m bringing my own experiences and biases to the table. Having said that…

    Granted, we’re writing from much different times and mores than the events in question, but I think whatever happened between Elizabeth and her stepfather did go further than it should, and would have gone even further had Thomas Seymour had his druthers. And because I am considering it from the here and now, I’m uncomfortable with characterizing Elizabeth as “playing [Thomas Seymour] along”. I work in a children’s hospital and have seen far too much abuse, whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual. I am sick to death of such “non-accidental trauma”, so that expression (‘playing him along’), to me, smacks too much of blaming the victim, who is an emotionally vulnerable 13-15 year-old child. Yes, times were different, yes, she was intelligent, yes, she might even have been attracted to him in the beginning. It doesn’t matter. He was the adult and he certainly should have known better. Many pedophiles are initially charming toward their victims. They can even fool their wives into believing it’s all innocent fun; especially a wife who is desperate to believe it.

    If you look at it from Elizabeth’s possible POV, she has had horrible examples of “love” and marriage as modeled by her parents, and later (repeatedly), by her father. She’s been reconciled to Henry by this last wonderful stepmother, even though there’s a sickeningly familiar rush of fear as Katherine Parr is targeted by Bishop Gardiner. Then her father, the center of her world, flawed though he was, dies. She and her stepmother are devastated, but also strangely free. And Katherine has found true love at last, with a dashing, handsome man who truly seems to like Elizabeth, too. He’s charming and witty and seems pleased to share his home with her and consider her a part of his family.

    And then the worm turns, and it all slowly starts to get icky. But Katherine is there to reassure her it’s all part of being an affectionate family, and Elizabeth wavers back and forth from thinking she’s reading too much into it to being sure this isn’t right. She wants to believe and Lord knows, she doesn’t exactly have a frame of reference for how “normal” families interact. Her beloved nurse, Kat Ashley, protests to Katherine, but is told it’s none of her concern. I don’t think Katherine sent Elizabeth away because she was pregnant. I hope the abuse didn’t go that far, and also think it would have been nearly impossible to conceal something like that in someone so close to the throne.

    Coming back to the original question, yes, I think Katherine Parr did have an enormous influence on Elizabeth, for both good and bad. Her relationship with Elizabeth happened during a time of great change and upheavals in Elizabeth’s life. It was the beginning of Elizabeth learning to survive. It was a lesson she learned well. Not only did she live to inherit the crown, but she learned to duck, weave and prevaricate to become the master diplomat she would later be. Discretion, wisdom, not reacting immediately or emotionally to words or events, would help her keep her country from war. Her country could heal from the centuries of turmoil, and no wars meant more time and money for the arts. England (and Europe) underwent the great Renaissance that literally changed the world forever.

  6. Thank you ‘Impish’ for your comments, which I found very interesting and clearly presented from a perspective of experience in these matters. I believe you have made a very valid point.
    Elizabeth would have been in the almost constant company of several ladies at the time, including but not limited to Kat Ashley. It is this that leads most commentators to assume that nothing untoward took place. However, those hell-bent on such dreadful things (as you deal with in your work) are often very devious and clever, as you rightly say.

  7. Hi Rochie and Impish,

    It is very hard to make a judgement on whether or not it was abuse when we don’t have all the facts but we do know that Kat Ashley was worried about Seymour’s behaviour enough to speak to Catherine about it and that Catherine was eventually worried enough about it to send Elizabeth away, whether it was to protect Elizabeth or to protect Catherine’s marriage.

  8. I know that Queen Elizabeth had “feelings” about her mother’s execution…and wore the ring with Anne’s image within, but, did she ever try to have her reburied with some dignity, did she have access to information about where her mother’s body was “buried”? Did she ever try, even quietly to have her mother’s remains interred or buried in holy or consecrated ground? Thanks- love your site!!

  9. Thank you for posting this. It was a wonderful read. I do, however, have a question.
    What is your take on the Bisley Boy theory? I know it goes against what you wrote above but I’m just curious.

    1. I think it’s just a legend. There is no way that a princess and queen who was bathed by her ladies, dressed by her ladies, and who was examined by physicians at various points during her life, could hide the fact that she was really male.

  10. Thomas Seymore was a scoundrel who was executed after my ancestor death. My thought is Kate Parr made every effort to be useful. Elizabeth was a magnet to Seymore as much as the power link went. Both Thomas and Edward Seymore had an eye on the throne. Women only acted as the ladder to power from this false man.Poor Kateyrn Parr was lost in this arrangement and thought high spirits only play as to think ill of nay was not her way.When the shock came she acted like the Queen she once was and told Elizabeth to leave her house. Yet the bond between them remained . i think that at age 36 in that time was too old to be pregnant. Was this Seymores last act to rid himself on his once loved to love another more powerful.By her owns words Lady Parr thought so as she lay in her bed whilst he Seymore was blamed for killing her with poison. She later retracted the statement but enough for her to think it.No smoke without fire. Both Seymores died as traitors on the block.

    1. Thomas Seymour was indeed very ambitious but he and Catherine had been in love prior to her third marriage and she only married Henry VIII because she felt it was God’s will. I think it was natural for her to return to the man she loved following Henry’s death.

      Thomas may have been many things, but there is no evidence to point towards him having got Catherine pregnant to get rid of her. Both of them were thrilled by the news of her pregnancy and Thomas was overjoyed when she gave birth to a healthy daughter. In her delirium, Catherine was said to have said that she was “not well handled”, but she did not accuse her husband of poisoning her and he was never charged with it even with all the charges levelled against him in 1549.

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