We are pleased to host The King’s Pearl by Melita Thomas on Book Tour. Especially for History of Royal Women she has written an article examing Mary’s relationship with her stepmother Katherine Parr.
‘Your most humble daughter’: Mary and Katherine Parr
Henry VIII, as we all know, was a much-married man, which meant that his eldest daughter, Mary, had five step-mothers – quite an emotional upheaval for anyone to deal with. But Mary managed to have a good relationship with all of them, except, of course, Anne Boleyn, for whom her beloved mother, Katharine of Aragon, had been set aside. There was an initial sticky patch with Katheryn Howard, who, being somewhat younger than Mary found it hard to command her respect, but the two found a modus operandi, and Katheryn became fond enough of Mary to give her a gold pomander.
But it was with Katherine Parr that Mary had the most enduring relationship. Older books have speculated that they shared a schoolroom, but there is no evidence for this, and the age gap makes it unlikely – Katherine was some four years older than Mary. Nevertheless, they may have occasionally met during childhood. Katherine’s mother, Maud, Lady Parr, was a lady-in-waiting to Mary’s mother. Maud was among those ladies who accompanied the queen to France in 1520 to the Field of Cloth of Gold and remained in the reduced household that went with Katharine to The More when the queen was finally banished from Henry’s presence. Whilst courtiers did not generally bring their children to court; it may be that the young Katherine, who was probably Katharine of Aragon’s god-daughter, visited occasionally, particularly at the great feasts of Easter and Christmas when Mary joined her parents.
Mary spent the years 1525 to late 1527 largely in the Welsh Marches. By the time she returned permanently to court, Katherine had left her childhood home at Rye House in Hertfordshire for Lincolnshire where she lived during her first marriage. Once widowed, Katherine remained in the north, possibly at Sizergh Castle, and then as the third wife of Lord Latimer at Snape Castle in North Yorkshire. She was thus away from court during the years when the battle lines were drawn between Queen Katharine, and her successor, Anne Boleyn.
In 1536, when Mary returned to the court, after being reconciled with her father, she met Katherine’s younger sister, Anne Parr, who was amongst the attendants of Jane Seymour, and who, by now married, to William Herbert, was included in Anne of Cleves’ new household when it was formed in late 1539. Katherine remained in the North, throughout the Pilgrimage of Grace, during which her home was invaded by the insurgents, in an attempt to force Lord Latimer to support them. Latimer managed to avoid punishment, but he was not trusted by Henry, or Henry’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, who thought he had sympathised with the rebels.
This mistrust obliged Latimer and Katherine to leave their northern estates and settle further south, largely in Worcestershire and Northamptonshire. It was not until the autumn of 1542 when Lord Latimer was called to Parliament that Katherine was definitely in the south-east. Living in London, she naturally visited her sister, who, following the downfall of Queen Katheryn Howard, was in Mary’s retinue.
Mary and Katherine had many interests and tastes in common. Both were keen musicians, and Katherine although she had not had the benefit of Mary’s rigorous education, was nevertheless better educated than most women of her class. Over that winter, as Lord Latimer’s health began to fail, Katherine and Mary became friends.
Mary herself was high in her father’s favour. At Christmas, when she joined the court, at Hampton Court, he and his gentlemen had ridden out in procession to meet her and his gifts to her that New Year, were lavish. Katherine was widowed for a second time in March 1543. She began spending more time with Mary – probably in the splendid new apartments Henry had commissioned for his daughter at Whitehall – for friendship’s sake, to see more of her sister and also, perhaps, to see more of Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane. Katherine and Seymour became so attached that they talked of marriage. But before their plans took final form, Katherine had another suitor.
Henry was visiting his daughter frequently, and it was soon rumoured that it was not just fatherly affection drawing him to her – he was looking at Lady Latimer with great favour. By the early summer of 1543, Henry had declared himself. He wanted Katherine to marry him. Katherine was appalled at the prospect. Henry hardly had a good record as a husband, although she herself would only have seen the charming, courtly side of him. There was also her attachment to Seymour.
On the plus side, for her to marry the king would be to fulfil all the ambitions of her family, and it appears that her brother, William, Earl of Essex, was very much in favour of the match, and it is possible that Archbishop Cranmer encouraged her.
Mary, of course, must have had a view about her father marrying yet again, but there is no evidence as to what her inner feelings were – they were probably mixed. As matters stood, she was the highest-ranking woman in the country – the introduction of a queen would move her down the pecking order. On the other hand, with no queen, the court was a duller place, and since Mary was unmarried, there were limited opportunities for her to partake in court life. If Henry had to marry, Katherine was ideal from Mary’s perspective – her own friend, a woman of similar tastes and interests, unlikely to have children to complicate the succession issue. Although there might have been the beginnings of religious difference, in 1543, they would have been no more than shades of opinion.
The wedding took place on 12th July 1543 in the Queen’s Closet at Hampton Court. Mary was in attendance, along with her half-sister, Elizabeth; her cousin, Lady Margaret Douglas; Katherine’s sister Anne, and two ladies who were certainly friends of Mary’s and probably becoming friends of Katherine – Anne Stanhope, Countess of Hertford (sister-in-law of Jane Seymour) and Jane, Lady Dudley.
Mary and Katherine became constant companions. In a letter of 13 August 1543, the Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, wrote that Henry was keeping Mary with the new queen, who showed her ‘all affection’. Although Mary suffered a bout of serious illness that autumn, by New Year, she was back to her normal health, and took part in the usual extravagant gift-giving to mark New Year. Her gift to Katherine was a jewel of some sort and embroidered cushion.
In February of 1544, Katherine played hostess to the Duke of Najera, a Spanish nobleman who was visiting England on an embassy from the Emperor Charles V. He waited on the king, who gave him a half-hour audience before going to the queen’s chamber, where Katherine, Mary, Lady Margaret Douglas and other ladies were waiting. The company danced for several hours, the queen first, with her brother, the Earl of Essex, and then Mary and Lady Margaret with various other gentlemen. Presents were given to the duke from the queen, after which he kissed her hand, and then attempted to kiss Mary’s. Mary offered her lips instead – this was a great honour, as although the duke was a grandee of Spain, he had only the most distant blood relationship with her.
Over the next years, almost all references to diplomatic visits mention that Mary and Katherine were together. It seems safe to presume that this closeness was based on mutual affection. If they had not liked each other, it would have been a simple matter for Mary to visit her half-siblings, or friends, away from court for extended periods. Mary’s affection for her step-mother is clear from the words she wrote in Katherine’s prayer book:
‘Madam, I shall desire Your Grace to accept this rude hand and unworthy, whose heart and service unfeignedly you shall be sure of, during my life continually. Your most humble daughter and servant, Mary.’
In 1545, Katherine agreed to sponsor a translation of Erasmus’ Paraphrases on the New Testament into English. Katherine was learning Latin (or re-learning it – it is unknown whether it had formed part of her early education) but she was not proficient in it. Mary, however, was, and Katherine persuaded her to undertake the translation of the Paraphrase on the Gospel of St John. Mary fell ill and was unable to complete the work, which was finished by her chaplain, Francis Malet.
As 1546 drew to a close, it was obvious that Henry had not much longer to live. He fell into a depression and shut himself away from all his family. Mary and Katherine kept Christmas together at Greenwich, but there is no record of either of them being allowed to see the king before his death on 28th January 1547. Nor do we know if they were together when they heard the news – although it seems likely.
Within a few weeks of Henry’s death, Katherine had retired to one of her dower properties, Chelsea Manor, whilst Mary was to take possession of a great landed estate, concentrated in East Anglia. Mary’s exact whereabouts in those weeks is unknown, but she was not with Katherine, and there was soon to be a rupture in their friendship. By May, Katherine had secretly married her old love, Thomas Seymour. Seymour had written to Mary, asking her to press his suit with the Dowager Queen, but Mary wrote back rather sharply that she would not involve herself in the matter. If Katherine wanted to marry him, nothing she could say would prevent the match, and if Katherine did not want to marry Seymour, Mary would not wish to persuade her step-mother to forget the memory of Henry, which was still ‘so ripe’ in Mary’s own mind.
In late 1547, Katherine was busying herself with the publication of the translation of the Paraphrases of Erasmus mentioned above. Although Mary had not completed her portion, Katherine was keen for Mary to have due credit for her work, and urged her to allow her contribution to be published with her name included.
I pray you signify … whether you wish it to go out most happily into the light under your name. To which work really in my opinion you will be seen to do an injury if you refuse the book to be transmitted to posterity
on the authority of your name: for the most accurate translation of which you have undertaken so many labours for the highest good of the commonwealth…. Since none does not know the amount of sweat that you have laboriously put into this work, I do not see why you should reject the praise that all confer on you
In the first paragraph of the letter, Katherine asked after Mary’s health and told her that she was sending a musician to cheer Mary, who she knows shares her love of music. She also thanked Mary for a gift of money, which, together with the dating of the letter from Hanworth on 20th September, indicates that it was written after Henry’s death. The affectionate tone of the letter suggests that Mary had got over her hurt at Katherine’s hasty remarriage but there is no record of the two ladies meeting again. Mary lived on her own estates, whilst Katherine, in the following year, moved to Seymour’s estate at Sudeley, to await the birth of her child. Mary wrote to her, wishing her an easy confinement, and it seems likely that Katherine’s daughter was named Mary for the princess.
Sadly, Katherine died within a week of her daughter’s birth. Again, Mary’s reactions are not recorded, but when she became queen herself, she took possession of some of Katherine’s books, including the queen’s English and French bibles. Perhaps when she picked them up, she thought of the dear friend and step-mother she had loved and with whom she had spent so many happy hours.