Catherine Parr was born in 1512 as the daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and Maud Green. She was their second child but the eldest surviving one, as her elder brother did not long survive his birth. She was named for the Queen – Catherine of Aragon. The exact date of her birth is not recorded, nor is the place. A younger brother named William was born in 1513, followed by a younger sister named Anne in 1515.
Most of her childhood was spent at her parents’ home in Blackfriars. Her father became a fixture at King Henry VIII’s court while her mother would eventually become one of Queen Catherine’s ladies. Catherine was still only five years old when her father died, but her mother never remarried. Maud was rarely at home during Catherine’s childhood, but her children did grow up in a household maintained by her. Details of her education have not survived, but others considered sending their children to Maud’s household so it must have been pretty good. We know that Catherine spoke French fluently and also read and understood Latin. She also knew some Greek, Italian and Spanish.
Catherine was described as having “a lively and pleasing appearance” but Anne of Cleves – who has gone down in history as the “ugly” wife – would comment that she was much more beautiful than Catherine. Maud had ambitions for her eldest daughter and was already contemplating marriage for her when she was 11 years old. The intended husband was Henry Scrope – the heir of Lord Scrope of Bolton. The match eventually fell through, and Maud first focussed on William’s match with one of the most sought after heiresses in England – Anne Bourchier, the only child of the Earl of Essex. They were married in 1527.
This match came at a high cost for Catherine as it left for her little as a dowry. Her mother eventually settled on Edward Burgh, the eldest son and heir to Sir Thomas Burgh, 1st Baron Burgh and Catherine married him in 1529. Catherine had been raised a Catholic, but it is likely that she became a reformer during her first marriage. By the spring of 1533, Catherine’s husband was dead, and she was left with a small pension to support herself. By then, her ambitious mother had also passed away.
Her sister Anne managed to secure herself a place with the Queen – by then Anne Boleyn – and she went on to serve all of Henry’s subsequent wives. Perhaps Catherine also hoped to have a position at court, but her whereabouts during her first widowhood are unknown. Before the end of the year, Catherine had secured a second match – with John Neville, Lord Latimer. He had been married and widowed twice before, and he had two children. He was 19 years older than her. The relationship with her stepson John was complicated, but she became close to her stepdaughter Margaret. She supervised Margaret’s education personally and instilled in her the same reformist beliefs. Catherine was now running her own household – something that she had not been able to do while living with her first husband’s family.
Her husband was implicated in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, and he was taken to the Tower, accused of rebellion against the King. He continued to maintain that he had acted under duress and he was eventually able to secure his release. From 1537 on, Catherine and her husband spent a considerable amount of time in London. Her brother had made a name for himself and became a peer in his own right in 1539. Catherine probably met the King for the first time in 1540.
Catherine became a widow for the second time in 1543, though the exact date is not recorded. She was close by when he died, and she arranged his burial in St Paul’s Cathedral. She was left a rich widow – with the income of two manors and the guardianship of Margaret. Catherine kept her household in London with her stepdaughter, and she was hoping that she might be able to marry for love this time around. She was in love with Thomas Seymour, the brother of King Henry VIII’s third wife – Jane Seymour. Jane had died in 1537 after giving birth to the future King Edward VI. Catherine became attached to the future Queen Mary I’s household in 1543 when she came to court to act as his hostess because he found himself without a Queen.
Catherine fully intended to marry Thomas Seymour once her period of mourning was done, but suddenly there was another contender for her hand – the King himself. He may have been a King, but he was certainly no catch. By 1543, he was obese and, an invalid with an ulcer in his leg. After the disappointment that Catherine Howard had been, he had made it treason for a non-virgin to marry the King. However, he soon realised this narrowed the field somewhat, and he resolved to marry a widow who could not be expected to be a virgin. Catherine was also apparently infertile, having had no children with her first two husbands. Yet, Henry remained hopeful of further issue; he had accepted that it wasn’t likely to happen. Catherine was probably deeply disturbed by the King’s interest in her and tried to discourage him. Thomas Seymour was conveniently shipped out to act as an ambassador to the Netherlands.
Even when Henry finally proposed to her, Catherine defiantly told him that “it were better to be your mistress than your wife.” It only made Henry more convinced that she was the perfect bride. He then told her, “Lady Latimer, I wish you to be my wife.” Catherine now had no choice. She fell to her knees and answered, “Your Majesty is my master, I have but to obey you.”1