The Unquiet Afterlife of Katherine Parr

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The card beneath the blonde lock inside this circular frame reads, “Hair of Queen Catherine Parr, last consort of Henry, taken the night she dyed September 5th 1548, was buried in the Chapel of Sudeley Castle, Near Winchcombe.” The Queen’s relic was sold by Bonhams, London, in January 2008 for £2,160 to Charles Hudson of Wyke Manor, Worcestershire. His estate once belonged to Katherine. Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.

In the aftermath of Katherine Parr’s passing, Lady Elizabeth Tyrwhitt, one of her closest friends, recalled, “Two days afore the death of the Queen, at my coming to her in the morning, she asked me where I had been so long, and said unto me, she did fear such things in herself, that she was sure she could not live. Whereunto I answered, as I thought, that I saw no likelihood of death in her. She then having my Lord Admiral by the hand, and divers others standing by, spake these words, partly, as I took it, [in delirium], ‘My Lady Tyrwhitt, I am not well handled, for those that be about me careth not for me, but standeth laughing at my grief, and the more good I will to them, the less good they will to me.’”

(c) National Trust, Anglesey Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Katherine Parr, Queen of England and wife of King Henry VIII. He was her fourth husband.

A few days earlier, on 30 August, 1548, at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, 36-year-old Katherine had given birth to her first child. She and her most recent husband, Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour, named the healthy baby girl after Katherine’s adult stepdaughter, Princess Mary Tudor. Despite the polar opposition of their religions—Mary was a devout Catholic and Katherine an evangelical Protestant—the two were close.

Not present as Katherine’s condition degenerated was her second royal stepdaughter, Princess Elizabeth, who had lived at Sudeley with the Queen. The reason why was tied to what Lady Tyrwhitt heard the feverish Katherine say to the Lord Admiral. Seymour had sexually harassed, if not actually molested, Elizabeth on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, Katherine sided with the man she desperately loved and with whose child she was heavily pregnant. Elizabeth was sent away from Sudeley in disgrace, as if Seymour’s faults were her own. A rapprochement between stepmother and stepdaughter had just begun at the time of baby Mary’s birth.

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Queen Katherine Parr was far from a nursemaid to Henry VIII. In her early thirties when they married, she was pretty, intelligent, and Henry adored her.

Katherine Parr’s storied life began in Blackfriars, London, sometime in August 1512. The daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and Lady Maud Green had known King Henry peripherally for many years before he married her in 1543. Both she and her mother were ladies in waiting to his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Katherine appears to have served in the household of Princess Mary.

When Katherine wed the King, she had been married twice before—first, as a teenager to Sir Edward Borough, the grandson of 2nd Baron Borough of Gainsborough Hall. A year after the young man’s death in 1533, she married middle-aged John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer of Snape Castle, North Yorkshire. In 1536, during the Pilgrimage of Grace, Snape Castle was captured by rebels and Katherine and her Neville stepchildren were held hostage and threatened with death if Baron Latimer did not acquiesce to their demands. The beleaguered Latimer saved his family, but died in 1543, leaving Katherine as a 30-year-old widow.

Slender, vital, and attractive, Katherine wanted to marry for love before her youth was lost. The man she wanted was Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third queen, Jane, who died in 1537 after the birth of Prince Edward. Instead, the widowed Lady Latimer’s hand was solicited by King Henry. He married her in July 1543 at Hampton Court.

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Henry VIII toward the end of his reign.

In 1544, Queen Katherine, who loved color and finery, was described by de Gante, the secretary to the Duke of Najera, thusly: “She is of a lively and pleasing appearance and is praised as a virtuous woman. She was dressed in a robe of cloth of gold and a petticoat of brocade with sleeves lined with crimson satin and trimmed with three-piled crimson velvet. Her train was more than two yards long. Suspended from her neck were two crosses, and a jewel of very rich diamonds and in her head-dress were many and beautiful ones. Her girdle was of gold with large pendants.”

Katherine, who was the last in the divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” series of Henry’s queens, was also his second-longest legal spouse, married to him for three years and five months. The King’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon officially lasted 24 years; he was married to Anne Boleyn just short of three (although, arguably, they had been a couple for far longer); Jane Seymour died after a little more than a year; Anne of Cleves lasted six months; and Katheryn Howard was queen for a year and a half.

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The Victoria and Albert Museum believes that this sketch by Hans Holbein can be identified as Katherine’s fourth husband, Thomas Seymour.

Although there is every indication that Henry and Katherine had a genuinely loving marriage, as the King’s health failed and the daily discomfort he felt ratcheted toward agony, he was convinced by the pro-Catholic faction of the court that his Queen was a dangerous heretic who plotted against him. Fortunately, a copy of the arrest warrant was leaked to Katherine by a well-wisher, and she used her quick wits to convince the King that in matters of faith, she looked only to him for answers and direction. Henry was mollified, and when the officials arrived to arrest the Queen, he berated them as “knaves and fools.” The King and his wife were perfect friends again and would remain so until he died, 28 January, 1547.

Not wasting time, the dowager queen sped into a marriage with Thomas Seymour after a widowhood of just six months. But what began in joy ended, as it so often did for women, in a slow, febrile death. Mary Seymour was a week old when the dowager queen succumbed to puerperal sepsis. Mary would die in early childhood, probably in the household of Katherine’s close friend, Catherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk.

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A 1782 drawing of Katherine Parr’s partially opened lead coffin.

After her death, Katherine lay in repose at Sudeley for a short time, then her body was wrapped in cere—a cloth treated with wax—and placed in a form-fitting lead coffin. Into the soft lead was impressed, “KP. Here lyeth Queen Katheryne Wife to Kinge Henry the VIII and The wife of Thomas Lord of Sudely high Admy… of Englond And ynkle to Kyng Edward VI.” Miles Coverdale preached a sermon and Lady Jane Grey was the chief mourner at the funeral, which is believed to be the first protestant service of its kind in England.  Afterward, the Queen was buried within the chapel.

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Unopened lead coffins of adults and infants at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, Somerset. Photo by Graham Hobster.

Katherine rested beneath Sudeley Chapel for well over two centuries. But as the estate and church went to ruin above her, she remained largely unchanged, as was pronounced in an account by a Mr. Brookes of Reading of the opening of the Queen’s grave in the late 18th Century. This was provided to the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archeological Society, Vol. XIII (1895) by Brookes’ niece.

In the summer of the year 1782, “Mr. John Lucas (who occupied the land of Lord Rivers, whereon the ruins of the chapel stand) had the curiosity to rip up the top of  the coffin, expecting to discover within it only the bones of the [Queen], but to his great surprise found the whole body wrapped in 6 or 7 seer cloths of linen, entire and uncorrupted, although it had lain there upwards of 230 years. His unwarrantable curiosity led him also to make an incision through the seer cloths which covered one of the arms of the corps, the flesh of which at that time was white and moist. I was very much displeased at the forwardness of Lucas, who of his own hand opened the coffin. It would have been quite sufficient to have found it; and then to have made a report of it to Lord Rivers or myself.”

It was probably at this time that hair clippings and a swatch of fabric from the sleeve of Katherine’s burial dress were taken.

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A piece of fabric cut from Katherine Parr’s gown. Collection of Sudeley Castle.

The account continued, “In the summer of the year following 1783, his Lordship’s business made it necessary for me and my son to be at Sudeley Castle, and on being told what had been done the year before by Lucas, I directed the earth to be once more removed to satisfy my own curiosity; and I found Lucas’s account of the coffin and corps to be just as he had represented them; with this difference, that the body was then grown quite fetid, and the flesh where the incision had been made was brown, and in a state of putrefaction; in consequence of the air having been let in upon it. The stench of the corps made my son quite sick, whilst he copied the inscription which is on the lead of the coffin; he went thro’ it, however, with great exactness. I afterwards decided that a stone slab should be placed over the grave to prevent any future and improper inspection, &c.”

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Mourning pieces made with Katherine Parr’s hair and tooth removed from her skull. Provenance and location of these relics unknown.

This was not the last time that the corpse was disturbed. In 1792, her coffin was dug up by drunken revelers and reburied upside down. Twenty-five years later, Lord Chandos, who then owned Sudeley, wanted to move Katherine to a safer tomb. The exhumation was done by Rev. John Lates, who had undertaken the repair of the chapel, and Edmund T. Browne, a Winchcombe antiquary, whom, Transactions notes, wrote of this discovery on 18 July, 1817.

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An 18th Century, navette-shaped pendant containing Katherine Parr’s hair. Ad vivum portraits of the Queen uniformly show her with auburn hair, but some of her existing locks are quite blond. This one, however, is indeed auburn. Whether this represents her actual hair color, or the triumph of pheomelanin over eumelanin, is uncertain.

Browne reported that “after considerable search…the coffin was found bottom upwards in a walled grave, where it had been deposited…. It was then removed to the Chandos vault, and…we proceeded to examine the body; but the coffin having been so frequently opened, we found nothing but the bare skeleton, except a few pieces of sere cloth, which were still under the skull, and a dark-coloured mass, which proved to contain, when washed, a small quantity of hair which exactly corresponded with some I already had. The roots of the ivy, which you may remember grew in such profusion on the walls of the chapel, had penetrated into the coffin, and completely filled the greater part of it….

“We then had the different pieces of lead, which from time to time had been cut from the coffin, firmly nailed together, so as to present the original form of the coffin, and it was placed on two large flat stones by the side of that of [the former] Lord Chandos. Dr. Nash said, ‘The Queen must have been low of stature, as the lead which enclosed her corpse was but five feet four inches in length.’” Browne stated that he then measured the coffin and found it to be 5 ft. 10 in., but a height of about 5 ft. 4 in. was considered tall for a woman of the 1500s. A height of 5 ft. 10 in. would have bordered on freakishly tall and would have been commented upon by her contemporaries. (Mary, Queen of Scots, for instance, was about 6 ft. and this was noted repeatedly.)

Browne concluded, “The ancient chapel, which had been desecrated by the Puritans, was thoroughly renovated under the direction of Sir John Gilbert Scott, and a handsome decorated altar-tomb, surmounted by a gothic canopy, was erected on the north side of the Sacrarium to the memory of Queen Katherine Parr, whose effigy was rendered as correctly as it could be from the portraits which are extant.”

Safe under the alabaster image that returned stone flesh to her bared bones, Queen Katherine Parr’s restful eternity had at last begun.

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A waxwork of Queen Katherine Parr lying in repose at Sudeley Chapel, where her remains rest today. This display was part of a special exhibition on the 500th anniversary of Katherine’s birth that I attended in October 2012.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

5 thoughts on “The Unquiet Afterlife of Katherine Parr”

  1. What a hopping life she lived. I didn’t remember that she was so young when she died. I’m sure you’d told me before but my brain stuck on the word ‘widow’ and I imagined her as an older person. It’s a bit surprising, too, that her first child came from her fourth marriage. I can discount Henry VIII, and her elderly second husband as well, but her first husband was young. Just curious, that’s all.

    Liked by 1 person

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