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.

Ω

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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.

A Treasure Without Meaning to Its Clan

All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was not valued by her descendants, who found her mourning brooch too disgusting to keep.

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Memorial brooch for Mary Palmer showing her russet hair with snippets of what might be gold thread that once formed a small design, but which have since become unglued and tarnished. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

In about 1996, while trawling for hair-work brooches on eBay with a tax return smoldering in my pocket, I found a listing with a ridiculously blurry photo of what looked like—just maybe—a Regency era mourning brooch. The accompanying item description encapsulated the prevailing 20th century attitude toward mourning jewelry. As I recall, it read something very close to “We found this pin that belonged to grandma. It has hair in it! Eww! Get it out of our house!” I obliged for about $40; no other bidders were willing to take the chance with that kind of sales photo. One- by three-quarters-inch in size, this type of small brooch was known as a “lace pin” and used to secure veils, ribbons, pelerines, and other accessories. They were also worn by men as lapel pins.

The 210-hundred-year-old gem that I received was made of 10-karat or higher plain and rose gold with completely intact niello and inset faceted jet cabochons. (Niello is a black metallic alloy of sulfur, copper, silver, and usually lead, used as an inlay on engraved metal.) The brooch was in pristine condition, bearing the inscription “Mary Palmer. Ob. 3 July 1806, aet. 38.” The abbreviation “Ob.” is from the Latin obitus—“a departure,” which has long been a euphemism for death. “Aet.” is from the Latin aetatis—“of age.”

My Mary was probably born in 1768—the year when the Massachusetts Assembly was dissolved for not collecting taxes and Boston citizens balked at quartering British troops. Additionally, John Hancock had refused to give royal customs agents access to his vessel—one of the first acts of physical resistance to British authority; a month later, that same authority would seize Hancock’s ship. In Scotland, the first encyclopedia was published; in London, radical MP and journalist John Wilkes was imprisoned for penning an article that criticized King George III. His arrest kicked off riots that led to the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

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The reverse inscription of the Mary Palmer brooch.

In 1838, British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth would name his youngest son John Wilkes Booth in the jailed MP’s honor. By the birth of this future presidential assassin, Mary Palmer had been dead for 32 years. The world on which she closed her eyes had recently seen Napoleonic War hero General Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, repose in state at St. Paul’s, the the surrender of Dutch Cape Colony to the British, explorers Lewis and Clark begin their journey back from the Pacific, the distribution of Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, and the start of Thomas Jefferson’s second term as U.S. president.

All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was lost on and to her descendants, who found her memorial brooch too disgusting to keep.

One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of a cremains and hair as diamonds.

It can be postulated that the major televised tragedies and wars of the early 21st century have made displays of public and personal grief more acceptable. Or perhaps rising generations are rebelling against the old ways, as they are wont—their elders did not speak of death, therefore they will. In either case, for whatever collective reasons, many years after I purchased the Mary Palmer memorial brooch, I stumbled across the website Memorials.net and read, “Memorial jewelry is, perhaps, the newest, most novel idea in the memorial industry [emphasis mine] and it is becoming more popular every year…. Memorial jewelry is…used to store locks of hair of family members whose bodies have been buried, and memorial jewelry often simply encloses a special picture of a loved-ones. Many pieces of memorial jewelry are also engraved with special memorial quotations.”

Clearly, someone needs a history lesson. However, the acknowledgement of momentum is spot on. For example, the growing preference for cremation has led to jewelry that contains, or is made from, a portion of the deceased’s ashes. Much like the Victorian jeweler Dewdney, today companies and artisans who specialize in memorial jewelry offer it in various styles of precious and semiprecious metals with personalized engraving.

Touching the deaths of children, independent artisans have begun to craft pieces meant for those who have lost infants or experienced stillbirths and miscarriages. One such enterprise, La Belle Dame, explains on its website, “We created our miscarriage and infant loss jewelry to help mothers feel connected to their little ones, to have a tangible something to touch and give them strength when they need it most.”

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Twenty-first century mourning jewelry exemplified by this platinum ring with a blue cremation diamond. This example is by LifeGem®.

One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of cremains and hair as diamonds. These are formed by carbon extraction while the ashes and hair are subjected to extreme heat and pressure, replicating the process that occurs naturally in the earth. According to one company, writting in almost the same heavily sentimental language of the Victorians, “The diamonds are available in brilliant and beautiful yellows and blues like a sunset captured in time or a wave upon the ocean.” The gems can be set into rings, pendants, or brooches that memorialize the dead.

Today’s mourners who commission these pieces can be assured they shall be cherished—if not by their own descendants, then by future collectors. And perhaps, in that long-off century, someone will feel a tickle that grows into a powerful urge to discover who the dead once were.

As for Mary Palmer, I cannot tell her story yet. I have identified a number of British and American women with this name born at the right time, but none of these offer a corresponding 3 July, 1806 death date—and at any rate, if Palmer was a married name then none of the Marys born in 1768 are correct. I hope that one day I will locate Mary in extant records and piece together a life that will stand as meaningful to me, if not to those who shared her blood. Ω

Salt Life and Death

“In terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand.”

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Nautical-themed memorial brooch to M. Thayer. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This unusual mourning brooch, which dates to between 1830 and 1840, is a late example of the sepia painting technique popular up to a century earlier. Sepia miniatures in the neoclassical style, such as the one below right, were painted with dissolved human hair on ivory tablets and typically feature weeping women and willows, funeral urns, graves, and other scenes and symbols of loss.

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This gold brooch in a navette shape, circa 1790, features a sepia painting of a grieving widow with the bust of her husband. Courtesy C.J. Antiques.

This brooch is dedicated by reverse inscription to “M. Thayer,” but little more can be known about the deceased, as the inscription includes no dates of birth or death. Thayer was likely occupationally connected to the sea, although the image may be wholly allegorical. A ship sailing toward a distant safe haven, accompanied or guided by birds, may be read as the soul journeying toward the afterlife in the company of angelic beings.

“Being lost at sea strikes an image of loss and departure that evokes the very essence of sadness. In the very literal sense, there is the loss of the body that prevents the kind of closure that physical remains offer. Yet, in terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand. It is not surprising that symbolism featuring the sea has been appropriated by mourning jewellery. The physical and symbolic departure of the soul away from the mourner as a result of a death at sea, during both peace and war times, are depicted in 18th and 19th century jewellery,” writes Lord Hayden Peters at the magnificent site, The Art of Mourning. His article on this topic deserves to be read in full, rather than summarized by me.

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A mourning piece connected to a sailor or ship’s officer would have been worn by someone like the young woman above, were she widowed. In this detail of a circa-1850 daguerreotype, the couple were portrayed likely on their wedding day. The groom wears gold hoop earrings, marking him as a career sailor who may have transversed the world several times.

“Men’s earrings are nothing new, old salts will tell you. Even before the days of pirates, mariners who had sailed the China seas or had done any Asiatic duty took to wearing earrings as a mark of their service in the Orient. It was the campaign ribbon of its day. The modern gob, after he has sailed in Asiatic waters, gets his ears pierced and a ring inserted, then goes to a tattoo parlor and has various Chinese legends etched on the shank of his left leg. But not all men who wear earrings are veterans of Asiatic sea service. The custom has been adopted by many who have sailed in the Central, South, or Southwest Pacific without entering the waters of the China Sea,” wrote Hal J. Kanter in the Saturday Evening Post, December 8, 1945.

Sailors of old believed that piercing their earlobes increased their eyesight and hearing or would prevent sea sickness. They were also quite concerned about dying at sea and not receiving a land burial. Sailor victims of shipwrecks hoped the value of their gold earrings would be put toward a proper Christian burial by those who found their bodies washed up on shore. Ω

In Memory of Ernest

It provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.

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Pinchbeck and black enamel mourning brooch. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I purchased this mourning brooch from an eBay seller in 2008—I was the only interested party. Granted, it is not a particularly attractive brooch and has seen rough handling. However, it provides a glimpse of both history and sentiment that is both breathtaking and soul-shattering.

The key to its power is the reverse inscription, which reads: “In memory of Ernest. Died 4.30 AM, 11 January 1862. Latitude 31° degrees 30′ South, Longitude 14° degrees 40′ East. Aged 2 Years and 11 Months.” Whilst holding the brooch in my hand, I plugged the coordinates into Google Earth, which took me not to a point on land, but the inky dark sea. This confluence of coordinates placed the baby Ernest off the African coast, about 500 miles west of modern Bitterfontein, South Africa. Ernest had died aboard a ship.

Did the boy die soon after leaving or just miss the end of a long voyage? This brooch was located in England until I purchased it, so was more likely that the ship sailed toward Europe, rather than Australia or Cape Town, then a part of the rapidly expanding British Cape Colony.

I’m burningly curious why this baby has no inscribed last name, yet someone loved him so much that they noted the exact time and longitude and latitude of his death. Why not just inscribe “died at sea”? I want to know whether Ernest’s mother was there with him. Did he pass away in her arms? Was she a passenger or a convict? (The last transport to Australia wasn’t until 1868.) Was she a ship’s cook or perhaps a missionary’s wife?

To slip into death at half-past four a.m. surely indicates it was disease that took Ernest, as it often does, deep in the darkness. I can imagine the dim light of a lantern, a weeping but resigned mother pressing a cool cloth to the child’s forehead, the gentle creak of the ship’s timbers, and the waves rocking him to sleep.

Ernest was likely buried at sea; if so, his small bones are long dissolved on the ocean floor. All that is left of his little life is a lock of fair hair curled into a plume that was fixed by gum arabic to a piece of milk glass, decorated with a few sprigs of gold wire, and encased in black enamel over pinchbeck.

If Ernest’s family had recorded his last name on the brooch, I might be able to find him in public records to flesh out the story of his short existence. As it is, the only hope of knowing more about Ernest is to find a record of the ship he died on by narrowing down vessels in the area at the time—a mammoth task, albeit one that might be possible online someday. Challenges like this are more conquerable now than it ever before, and with each passing year, newly digitized historic data comes online to the joy of historians and genealogists everywhere. Ω