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A Hymn for Queen Catherine

Ask Anglicans or Episcopalians how they, their church, and their tradition came to be, and the near-universal, reflexive answer will inevitably come back, “Because King Henry wanted a divorce.” While manifestly true, Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, which severed the church from Catholic Christendom in 1534, arguably created as many problems as it solved. For all its glamor, the King’s Great Matter went the way of Brangelina and Kim and Ye.

Archbishop Cranmer hid his wife abroad while he watched Queen Anne and his friend Thomas Cromwell go to the block, one after the other. In the latter years of his reign, the increasingly ailing and unstable Henry seemed to turn against the very reforms he had begun, going so far as to reinstate Catholic transubstantiation as the official theological position on the Eucharist. Henry’s near-totalitarian political tactics demanded total obedience even to his arbitrary and alarming changes of mind, but they did not conceal the truth that, for many years at least, the Act of Supremacy did not immediately (or ever) create something like an Anglican identity, except by destabilizing the former religious landscape so entirely that something new would have to grow in its place.

This something new, as the recent and wonderful book by Lucy Moffat Kaufman argues, was the “people’s Reformation” undertaken in and by Elizabethan parishes in the second half of the 16th century. This ground-up reconstruction was paradoxically made possible, not least, by the fragile and sometimes autocratic stability imposed by Elizabeth over the course of her long reign, which benefitted even her many detractors and settled gorges after the violence experienced in the successive reigns of evangelical Edward and Catholic Mary. Before the Elizabethan Settlement, some of the individual components of what would become Anglican identity certainly existed and would be repurposed by the queen and her archbishops: Cranmer’s two Books of Common Prayer, Tyndale’s vernacular Bible and its royal variations, Coverdale’s psalter, the Ten, the Six, and the Forty-Two Articles. The sheer extent of scorched earth between 1534 and 1558, when Elizabeth came to the throne, suggested any of these might still become anathema at any time. Nevertheless, they had survived the wreckage, and so had Elizabeth.

That this was the case can, and should, be attributed to the short life of an extraordinary and still under-appreciated woman in our church’s history: Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, who, we recall, “survived.” Beyond the rhyme, we do not usually recall what surviving meant, or why it was important, or what Catherine did with her life before, during, or after Henry, and certainly not why it might be important to our church. As the musical Six pungently puts it, “In history I’m fixed as one of Six, and without him [Henry] I disappear.” But in considering the conundrum of Anglican identity, I believe we can set Catherine, as much as poor Anne Boleyn, as a necessary and constructive foil to Henry’s destructive presence. In what follows I am indebted to the biographies, short and long, of Susan James, the editorial work of Janel Mueller, who collected all of Catherine’s writings into one volume, and the spirit of Martin Simpson’s “A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon”; all mistakes are mine.

Throughout her 36 years of life, Catherine Parr constantly built connections and “affinity”: married four times — the only husband of her choice arguably her most disastrous step — the women of the court were for her a much more reliable network. Her extraordinary mother, Maud Parr, was lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon and named her daughter for the queen. Maud’s husband died when Catherine was 5, and the widow took upon herself estate management, as well as all of her children’s schooling, which she modeled on the famously erudite household of Thomas More.

Maud died in 1531. Having endured ill treatment from her first husband’s family, Catherine was widowed two years later, after only four years of marriage; her second, much older husband, John Neville, Baron Latimer, had two young children from a former marriage and estates in Yorkshire. When the Catholic uprising, the Pilgrimage of Grace, erupted in 1536 in response to Henry’s change of religion, Latimer and Catherine were initially courted by the rebels. With steady leadership, the Pilgrimage could have been the downfall of Henry VIII, but in the event, Catherine bore the brunt of some of its most chaotic moments, held captive with her husband’s children by the rebels hoping to force Latimer’s hand in their favor. When royal vengeance came to Yorkshire it would be crushing, and Catherine left for the South, thoroughly disgusted, we may assume, by the Catholic North.

When Latimer died in 1543, Catherine would have been only 31. She found her way into Mary Tudor’s household, just as her mother had been lady in waiting to Catherine. An intense flirtation at court with the thoroughly roguish Thomas Seymour followed — and a connection to his sister, the young Lady Jane Grey. Catherine might have married Seymour had the king not suddenly interposed himself into her life. She may have tried to deflect his courtship with Bible verses, some of which survive, and which proved an unsuccessful tactic. They were married by the end of the year. By this stage, Henry was so decrepit that, if the marriage was consummated, Catherine certainly never became pregnant by him.

She was the most “common” of all of Henry’s wives, neither the scion of a prominent family nor conventionally trained for her position. As well as her mother’s education, however, which included a command of four languages, and an intense evangelical faith, Catherine did, in addition, know something about being a stepmother. Under her aegis, not only Mary but also Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, was brought back into the royal household, and Catherine made arrangements for the young Prince Edward’s tutors, something which would have a huge effect not only on Edward VI but also on the formation and education of Elizabeth. It seems likely that, in her new role, Catherine looked to model herself on the evangelical Queen Marguerite of Navarre, sister to Henri I of France and mother to the future King Henri IV. Marguerite of Navarre was likewise formidably educated, publishing some of the first printed books to be written by a woman in French, including The Mirror of a Sinful Soul, the first book a young Princess Elizabeth would translate for her stepmother.

In these years, Catherine Parr would serve as royal regent for her husband, an unprecedented sign of favor, and she would begin a striking publishing campaign. She seems to have participated in and advanced the Tudors’ favorite form of PR: portrait painting, not least of (all) the royal children. In 1545, with Cranmer she published The King’s Primer, which bound together Cranmer’s Great Litany with her translation of Bishop Fisher’s psalter; it was, in short, a proto-BCP. She commissioned vernacular paraphrases of a New Testament translation by Erasmus, of which, Susan James argues, she may well have been responsible for both Matthew and Acts. But her Prayers or Meditations would be Queen Catherine’s most popular work, bridging the divide between the world of late medieval devotional literature and the new evangelical sensibility for translation work. A blend of Thomas à Kempis with her original prayers, the Prayers emphasized personal relationship with God and helped to restore some degree of religious credibility to Henry’s household. Two years later, Catherine’s Lamentation of a Sinner likewise combines the familiar patterns of medieval devotional texts with a new evangelical intensity.

No good deed goes unpunished, and Catherine’s ever-more radical influence brought inevitable backlash: in this case, by the Catholic chancellor Stephen Gardiner. Hoping to prove the queen a dangerous Lutheran, Gardiner ordered the torture and eventual burning of the evangelical preacher Anne Askew, hoping to find personal connections to the queen. Quickly purging her library, Catherine took to her bed in surely genuine terror, pleading with Henry that, if she had read too much, it was only to amuse him and so that she might better learn from his superior wisdom. It was, thankfully, exactly the right thing to say, and Catherine escaped what Mueller calls her “Tudor near-death experience.” When Henry died in 1547, Catherine overstepped the formal period of mourning to finally marry her old lover, Thomas Seymour. Bearing her first child, a daughter, in four marriages at the then-geriatric age of 36, Catherine died of puerperal fever, Jane Grey the chief mourner at her grave.

Most portraits of Catherine Parr, it must be said, do not necessarily do justice to the liveliness and single-minded intensity of her mind and her spirit. Her reign as queen itself brief, and to say she “survived” is perhaps a tragic technicality. Invoking both her mother’s independent outlook and that of Queen Marguerite, Catherine Parr transmitted to both Mary and Elizabeth Tudor some semblance of family life, and to Elizabeth, at least, the bare bones of the education that would form one of the queen’s chief pleasures later in life. I imagine Catherine in Elizabeth’s mind: a vivid, learned, talkative redhead, so much like herself, someone who showed that it was possible to reign, alone, as queen, however briefly the chance was given her. After Mary’s death, no one particularly thought Elizabeth would return to the Catholic faith: her mother’s evangelical convictions, and her much deeper relationship with Catherine, ensured it. At least one of Catherine’s prayers has survived into today’s text of the Book of Common Prayer, and she was arguably even more important in suggesting, before Cranmer could do so, the kind of religion the English people could respond to: the language of the psalter, personal devotional prayers, the authenticity of conversion. In five brief years, she established a model her daughter-in-law would practice for 45 years, a relative commoner paving the way for “a people’s reformation.”


  1. Great information. The only issue is that Henry never sought a divorce from Catherine of Argone, but an annulment, as he was convinced that his marriage was invalid, because church canons of the time forbid marriage to a brother’s wife. The Pope had granted a dispensation to allow the marriage, but Henry was convinced that the failure to have a male child that survived was punishment for the invalid marriage and that the Pope erred in granting the dispensation.


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