Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Eternally Beautiful Anne Boleyn

If your knowledge of Tudor history was gained from the Showtime television series The Tudors (2007-10), the profoundly successful novel The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, or the 2008 Hollywood adaptation of that novel starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, your lasting impression would most likely be that Anne Boleyn was a stunningly beautiful young woman. A woman with dazzling dark eyes, long brown hair, creamy skin and rosebud lips; a woman who epitomised charm, elegance and dressed superbly. A woman who turned heads wherever she went, and who captured men's hearts with ease. 

Popular culture, as Susan Bordo notes in her study of Anne, tends to present Anne as a drop-dead-gorgeous creation who captivated Henry VIII the minute he laid eyes on her, solely because of her physical appearance. In The Tudors, for example, Natalie Dormer plays a stunningly attractive Anne who captures the king's heart when they meet at the Chateau Vert pageant in early 1522. From that moment on, all he can think about is Anne. Similarly, in the novel The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory introduces a beautiful Anne, who coldly and ruthlessly manipulates besotted male suitors to fulfil her every whim. But, popular culture aside, how accurate are these interpretations of Anne Boleyn's physical appearance? More pertinently, what do these claims and ideas suggest about prevailing ideas about female attractiveness and whether or not a person's appeal is rooted in their physical looks? 

Above: The Tudors. Natalie Dormer introduced a stunningly beautiful Anne.

Henry VIII's second wife was, contrary to popular belief, not a great beauty. To be sure, we lack contemporary portraits of her, because in the wake of her disgrace and death in 1536, Henry VIII ruthlessly and efficiently destroyed everything he could find to do with her, including portraits of his once beloved queen. We therefore have very little knowledge about what Anne Boleyn actually looked like. There are some things we do, however, know about her appearance, relying on contemporary reports without taking their obvious biases and polarising viewpoints at face value. 

The Venetian ambassador, who met Anne in the late 1520s, recorded that the king's new love was:
'Not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, a bosom not much raised and eyes which are black and beautiful'. 

To this ambassador, then, with the exception of her 'beautiful' dark eyes, Anne Boleyn was very average in her physical appearance. His description conveys someone not particularly impressed or swept off his feet. 
Others, however, were more praiseworthy about Anne's looks. Lancelot de Carles, a Frenchman who wrote a poem detailing her disgrace in 1536, remarked that she was 'beautiful', with 'an elegant figure'. John Barlow, a cleric of Anne, recorded that she was 'reasonably good looking' - again, not a dazzling beauty, but attractive enough. George Wyatt, the grandson of Thomas Wyatt (who some suspect was Anne's admirer), admitted that her colouring was 'not so whitely' as then admired, and she had several 'small moles... upon certain parts of her body'. He also stated that she had an extra nail on one hand.

The most notorious description of Anne's physical appearance, however, came from the man who did the most to blacken her name: Nicholas Sander, a Catholic recusant writing in the reign of her daughter Elizabeth I. Viewing Anne as a bewitching temptress and witch who had craftily ensnared Henry VIII into marriage, encouraging him to commit heresy by breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church and his long-suffering and devoted first wife Katherine of Aragon, Sander recorded:

'Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair and an oval face of sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip and, on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat. In this she was followed by the ladies of the court, who also wore high dresses, having before been in the habit of leaving their necks and the upper portion of their persons uncovered. She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth'. 

The last sentence, in view of Sander's shattering and devastating description of Anne, is entirely contradictory. Regarding Anne Boleyn as the Devil's accomplice and the incarnation of evil, he gave her a witchlike appearance. This was an age, as Retha Warnicke notes in her study of Anne, when a person's outer appearance was believed to reflect and embody their inner character. Believing Anne to be utterly evil, Sander presented her as ugly, deformed, monstrous: she had a projecting tooth, an extra finger, a large wen. His statement indicated his complete lack of knowledge about fashion tastes at Henry VIII's court. A glance at portraiture from this era confirms that ladies-in-waiting did not tend to wear high dresses, including Anne.

Above: Another gorgeous Anne. Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).

Putting to one side Sander's outrageous claims, Anne Boleyn is almost always depicted in cultural works as a ravishing beauty, a stunning woman who dressed fashionably, spoke beautifully, and enchanted all who knew her. But, as we have just seen, even observers who were at least neutral, if not friendly, to Anne confirmed that she was not jaw-droppingly beautiful. They confirmed that she was attractive, or reasonably good-looking, but none of them were swept off their feet by her physical appearance.

Most scholars agree that it was not Anne's physical looks so much as her charm, her intelligence, her accomplishments, her wit, her fiery nature, her uniqueness, in short, that captivated Henry VIII and kept his attention for the best part of 10 years. Bordo thinks our fixation with Anne's physical appearance in popular culture may lie in twentieth- and twenty-first century limits of the concepts of attraction, 'fixated as they are on the surface of the body'. Henry VIII certainly wasn't fixated on the surface of Anne's body. By all accounts, he was completely taken with her in a way he never was with any of his subsequent wives or mistresses. There was, in short, something special about Anne that cannot be restricted to her body. 

Looking at Anne's portraits in an attempt to discern what she really looked like is a futile exercise. As mentioned earlier, none of them are contemporary to her, the earliest ones being produced something like fifty years after her death, and many of them later. Lacey Baldwin Smith, author of books on both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, wittily quipped: 'Tudor portraits bear about as much resemblance to their subjects as elephants to prunes'. 

Anne seems, in short, to have had style. Lancelot de Carles comments on the beauty of her dark eyes and her ability to captivate and entrance men merely by looking at them. One commentator reported than she was 'more a Frenchwoman' than she was English, and the French, of course, are renowned, then as now, for their style and elegance. Sixteenth-century England valued clear-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde women who were celebrated as the epitome of beauty, including Mary Tudor, younger sister of Henry VIII (below). Anne, with her 'small' breasts, dark complexion and dark hair, challenged these norms and brought in fashions and styles of her own to replace these ideals. 

Above: Mary Tudor, queen consort of France, was the epitome of Tudor ideals of beauty: clear-skinned, fair-haired and light-eyed. 

Bordo sums up what it was about Anne that enchanted the king:

Henry's attraction to Anne, in any case, seems to have been fueled not only by sexual attraction but by common enjoyments, compatible interests, intellectual stimulation, and shared political purpose.

Too often, as in the 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne is characterised as a shallow, bosomy schemer who thrusts herself brazenly before the king. She is reduced, in short, to a sex symbol. But as Bordo's statement makes clear, Anne Boleyn was so much more than that. She was a devout evangelical; a keen intellectual; a woman interested in politics; possessed of a sharp mind; charitable and pious; loyal to her family and friends; musically gifted; and talented in languages. This was no floozy who wormed her way into the king's bed with seductive promises of bedtime pleasures. This was a woman who shone in the court of England as she had in the Flemish and French courts during her teenage years. 

Why is it, then, that popular culture tends often to reduce her to a sex symbol or an icon of perfect beauty? What does it suggest about our own narrow, constricting, possibly harmful views of attractiveness, particularly in relation to women? Does it indicate that a woman can only be truly attractive if she is physically stunning, regardless of her intellectual and personal accomplishments? Contemporary evidence makes it devastatingly clear that Anne Boleyn was not a woman who stole hearts merely on the basis of her appearance. Popular culture would stay truer to the real woman and her incredible legacy if it focused, instead, on her remarkable personality, her contradictions, her flaws, her religious outlook, her political activities, her charities, her charm, her culture, her fashion sense, her wit, her humour, her arrogance, her insecurities, her family loyalties and devotion to her friends - everything, in short, that made Anne Boleyn a bundle of contradictions. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

21 September 1327: The Death of Edward II?

Above: Edward II's tomb effigy at Gloucester Cathedral.

Edward II, king of England from 1307, allegedly died at Berkeley Castle twenty years later, on 21 September 1327. As biographer Harold F. Hutchinson explains in his 1971 study of the king: 'The true story of the manner of Edward's death can never be known for certain'. The former king had been deposed in January 1327 and succeeded by his fourteen-year old son Edward, known as Edward III. His father's reign had, in the words of Natalie Fryde, been 'disastrous'. Edward's wife, Isabella of France, had invaded the country in September 1326 having initially departed to be involved in peace negotiations with the French king. Outraged by the power wielded by her husband's favourites, the Despensers, who had sequestrated her estates and virtually imprisoned herself and her servants, Isabella returned to England alongside her ally - and possibly lover - Roger Mortimer, later earl of March, and a host of supporters. City after city in England supported her, including London, which became her most imposing stronghold. Edward II was taken to Kenilworth Castle, where the bishop of Hereford demanded that he abdicate, charging the king with, amongst other things, being personally incapable of governing; of allowing himself to be led and governed by others; of devoting himself to unsuitable occupations while neglecting the government of his kingdom; of forfeiting the king of France's friendship, and losing the kingdom of Scotland and lands and lordships in Ireland and Gascony; and of exhibiting pride, cruelty, and covetousness.

Edward remained virtually imprisoned at Kenilworth until 2 April 1327, when he was transferred to the custody of Thomas Berkeley and John Maltravers, following a plot led by the Dominican John Stoke to free him. In July, a further conspiracy to release him occurred, and on 14 September, Sir Rhys ap Gruffudd's plot to liberate him was uncovered. A week later, at the parliament at Lincoln, it was announced that the former king had died 'a natural death' at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. His corpse was moved to Gloucester for public display a month later, and on 20 December he was buried in St Peter's Abbey, Gloucester, in the presence of his son and his widow. A splendid tomb was erected by Edward III in his father's memory.

Above: Berkeley Castle, where Edward II allegedly died in 1327.

Historians traditionally accepted that Edward II died at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327. Hutchinson, for instance, noted that although a mystery surrounded his end, 'the only fact which seems well established is that Edward of Caernarvon was murdered, if not to the instructions of, at least with the connivance of Mortimer, and probably also of Isabella [Edward's wife]'. But as Natalie Fryde correctly noted in her 1979 study of the last years of his reign, 'if we separate contemporary evidence about his [Edward's] fate from the legend which has accrued around it, we are certainly left with more mystery than certainty'. It is essential to bear in mind this point - legend has replaced concrete historical fact regarding Edward II's end. An obvious example of this is the lingering popularity of the notion that Edward died by having a red hot poker thrust into his anus, allegedly a gruesome parody of his enjoyment of homosexual sex. The chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker (died c. 1360), reported this, as did the Brut chronicle, composed in the 1340s. But both Ian Mortimer and Kathryn Warner have disputed the 'anal rape' narrative of the king's death, arguing instead that it reflected beliefs that he was the passive partner in male-male sexual relations. There is, in short, no compelling evidence for the red hot poker story. As Hutchinson incredulously noted, Baker 'asks his readers to believe that Edward's murderers were so inept, and the castle walls so thin, that townsfolk outside the castle were able to hear the king's dying shrieks'. He dismisses Baker's claims as being 'lurid fiction'.

Above: Gloucester Cathedral, where Edward II may - or may not - be buried.

Other contemporary chronicles were more vague. This perhaps arises from the fact that the actual cause of the former king's death was never stated. Adam Murimuth, writing in the reign of Edward III, vaguely noted that Edward II was 'commonly said' to have been murdered as a precaution on the orders of Maltravers and Gurney. Edward's death has always invited suspicion. As Mark Ormrod notes, it was 'suspiciously timely', leading some historians to argue that the former king was murdered on the orders of the new regime. Kathryn Warner also noted in a blog post that Edward's 'death might have appeared suspiciously convenient for Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella'. Professor Phillips, who wrote a magisterial account of the king's life, stated that murder was the likeliest fate of Edward II. He noted, however, that the king could have died of natural causes. Phillips dismissed reports of the former king's survival as being 'circumstantial', but noted the mystery about his supposed end.

Most historians have agreed that Edward II died at Berkeley Castle on the night of 21 September, perhaps of natural causes, perhaps through murder. Phillips stated that he may have been suffocated; Roy Haines speculated that the former king had been murdered and stated 'there is little reason to doubt that Edward of Caernarfon's corpse has remained there [at Gloucester Cathedral] undisturbed since December 1327 or thereabouts'; Michael Prestwich opined that Edward II 'almost certainly died at Berkeley'; Mira Rubin concluded that the former king was likely murdered; Joe Burden charged Mortimer with ordering Edward's death; and Chris Given-Wilson explained that Edward II was 'almost certainly' murdered on the night of 21 September, and died in any case.

Above: Edward III, who succeeded in 1327 on the abdication of his father.

Yet, as Warner recognises, it was only after the downfall of Mortimer and Isabella in 1330 that Edward II was reported to have been murdered, at the parliament at Westminster. Edward III accused Mortimer of 14 heinous offences, including ordering the murder of his father. Thomas Lord Berkeley, son-in-law of Mortimer and former custodian of Edward II, reported at this parliament that 'he wishes to acquit himself of the death of the same king, and says that he was never an accomplice, a helper or a procurer in his death, nor did he ever know of his death until this present parliament', a sentence that has confused and puzzled historians ever since.

Other points of mystery exist. Maltravers was never accused or punished for his role in the former king's death. Berkeley himself was acquitted, as was Shalford. The former king's half-brother, the earl of Kent, conspired in 1330 to free Edward from captivity, writing a letter outlining his intent to release his half-brother with 'the assent of almost all the great lords of England'. William Melton, the archbishop of York, wrote a letter to Simon Swanland, a London merchant, in 1329/30 asking him to co-operate with William Clif in aiding the 'old king' upon his release, specifically describing the delivery of clothes and money to Edward.

Moreover, in the nineteenth century the so-called "Fieschi Letter" came to light. Written by Manuele Fieschi, a papal notary, Canon of York and Nottingham, and Bishop of Vercelli from 1342, the letter reports that Edward II escaped from Berkeley Castle in autumn 1327, making his way to Corfe Castle in Dorset, before departing for Ireland and later to Avignon clothed as a pilgrim. He spent two weeks with the pope, before making his way to Brabant, Cologne and later Italy. Recently, historians have generally tended to validate the letter's contents. Fryde stated: 'it is very difficult to think why Fieschi himself... should have manufactured such a letter'. Ian Mortimer believed it was genuine, and devoted considerable time in his studies of Roger Mortimer and Edward III to explaining his theory that Edward II was not, in fact, murdered at Berkeley Castle, and escaped to Europe. Ian Doherty and Alison Weir also accepted that the letter was genuine, and concluded that Edward did escape to Europe, living out his life as a pilgrim.

'William the Welshman' met Edward III at Koblenz in September 1338, claiming to be the king's father. Edward III spent some time with him. As Warner relates: 'other royal pretenders of the era definitely did not spend several weeks socialising with the royal personage they were pretending to be, or claiming kinship with'. She later concluded that 'Edward II or not, the whole episode is an oddity'.

Above: another unlucky king. Edward II's great-grandson, Richard II, was also deposed in 1399, and probably murdered early the following year.

Plainly, there is a wealth of evidence to call into question the traditional notion that Edward II died (probably murdered) on 21 September 1327 at Berkeley Castle. While agreeing with Ian Mortimer that it cannot now be stated with any certainty that the former king's life came to an end in the autumn of that year, less than nine months after his forced abdication, I raised some issues with the survival story. There are nagging questions in my mind that Ian Mortimer, and other revisionist historians, have not sufficiently answered (if they have even considered them in the first place). Firstly: why did Edward III wish to get back in touch with his father, as Mortimer suggests? What did it achieve? Did he want to see if 'William the Welshman' was merely an imposter, or had he enjoyed a close and intimate relationship with the former king pre-1327 that he wished to continue?

Was Edward II content to live as a pilgrim in Europe? Evidence seems to me to compellingly indicate that Edward II firmly believed in the institution of monarchy and was convinced of his right to rule. He was anoited by God, chosen by Him to represent God on earth. Why, then, would he have been content to allow his son to rule? To remove a king unlawfully, which had been the case in 1327 (Edward II only abdicated under duress and coercion), constituted usurpation and a damnable offence in the eyes of God. Ian Mortimer suggested that father and son, reunited in Europe, met and talked with one another. Was there an agreement between them that Edward III would keep his father's identity secret, as long as his father did not make a bid for the English throne? Questions like these are never comprehensively answered.

Berkeley, at the parliament of November 1330, could have been lying in an attempt to save his own skin when he declared that he had never previously heard of Edward II's death. In the medieval context, deposition was usually followed by death. Edward II was the first king to be deposed, but consider later instances: Richard II is believed by historians to have been put to death, or forcibly starved, in 1400 when Henry IV took the throne from him; Henry VI was murdered in 1471, almost certainly on the orders of Edward IV who deposed him; the twelve-year old Edward V was deposed in 1483 and probably murdered, although mystery surrounds his fate and that of his brother; and the deposed Lady Jane Grey, the 'nine-days queen', was executed by her cousin Mary I in 1554. Mortimer and Isabella's regime was notably precarious and unstable, as historians like Fryde recognise. Would they really have been content to allow Edward to live out his days in context of repeated rebellions to release him? Even if they had nothing to do with his death, his jailers may have considered that putting him to death was the only viable way forward. Or, simply, he may very well have died of natural causes.

This article does not seek to refute revisionists' claims that Edward II survived. It is extremely possible that he did, for there is no conclusive evidence that he died, or was murdered, at Berkeley Castle in 1327. But equally, it cannot be stated with certainty that he escaped abroad and lived out the rest of his days in Europe. Whether Edward II, an ill-fated and complex king, met his end at Berkeley in autumn 1327 or not, is a profound and lingering historical mystery that may never be comprehensively solved.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Wars of the Roses: A Tudor Construction?

Historian Dan Jones has published an interesting article in the October 2014 edition of BBC History Magazine claiming that the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic conflict between the royal houses of Lancaster and York in the mid-to-late fifteenth century, might have been a Tudor construction invented by that dynasty to consolidate and legitimise their rule. Some historians have supported this approach. K. B. McFarlane argued years before that there was no such thing as the 'Wars of the Roses'. This period of history has become ever more popular with the success of Philippa Gregory's "Cousins' War" novels (and the BBC television adaptation of one novel, The White Queen). But is Jones right to claim that the Wars of the Roses was, effectively, invented by the Tudors to explain their success in attaining the throne? Is the traditional interpretation of the conflict, so vividly described in Shakespeare's plays, 'misleading, distorted, oversimplified and - in parts - deliberately false'?

To start with, the term 'Wars of the Roses' certainly does not date from the time of the conflict. Sir Walter Scott seems to have coined it in his novel Anne of Geierstein, published in 1829. Scott in turn came up with the name having read Shakespeare's play Henry VI Part 1, specifically a scene in which a number of noblemen and a lawyer in the gardens of the Temple Church select red or white roses to demonstrate their loyalty to the Lancaster or York house, respectively. Jones is probably correct in suggesting that the Lancastrians never actually used the red rose as a badge during the period of conflict. As Adrian Ailes comments, Henry VII's decision to combine the red and white roses as a symbol of the end of conflict between Lancaster and York 'was a brilliant piece of simple heraldic propaganda'. 

Leanda de Lisle, however, recently suggested that the term 'Wars of the Roses' actually originated long before the publication of Scott's novel in 1829. She mentions that historian David Hume referred to 'the wars between the two roses' in his work of 1762, while more than a hundred years earlier the conflict was described as 'the quarrel of the two roses'. Lisle interestingly notes that Edward IV made extensive use of the white rose as a badge representing the House of York, for it was believed to have been the badge of Edward's ancestor Roger Mortimer, the supposed 'true' heir of Richard II before his right was 'usurped' by Henry IV. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Lisle dismisses claims that the conflict should instead be known as 'the Cousins' War'.

Above: did the Wars of the Roses really involve the red rose of Lancaster competing for the throne against the white rose of York?

Jones' argument that the Wars of the Roses was an invention of the victorious Tudors hinges on the suggestion that it is a myth that the wars erupted because 'there were too many men of royal blood clustering around the crown, vying for power and influence over a weak-willed king'. Yet, in histories of the conflict that I have read, it is argued that conflict broke out firstly because of Henry VI's incompetence as a king, and secondly because of military disasters in France. England lost all the territories it had conquered and was left only with Calais (later won back by the French in 1558). Jones argues, fairly, that the 1420s saw no serious unrest and speculates that Henry VI's weak kingship did not ultimately result in dynastic conflict until he experienced insanity in 1453. This is correct. In stating this point, why does Jones seem to imply that historians have traditionally viewed the roots of the conflict as occurring as early as the 1420s/30s? To me, it was Henry VI's madness in 1453 that instigated the conflict. His illness allowed Richard duke of York to seize the reins of government, leading to conflict and rivalry with Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou. Jones speculates that Henry VI's forced decision to disinherit his own son Prince Edward in 1460 in favour of the Yorkists was the point at which 'the wars became dynastic'. Surely this is stating the obvious: beforehand, conflict between York and Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, occurred because both men were fighting for control of the king and the greater power and influence at court. But at some point, York seems to have concluded that he would make a stronger and more efficient king than the incapacitated Henry VI.

Above: Henry VI, house of Lancaster (left).
Edward IV, house of York (right).

In dividing the conflict into four phases, Jones' conclusions do not suggest that the Wars of the Roses was necessarily a Tudor invention. Rather, it indicates that the term 'Wars of the Roses', itself, is not perhaps the most helpful or effective way of characterising this period of dynastic conflict, especially given the fact that neither house probably employed their rose as the most prominent badge to represent their claim. The Tudors' decision to incorporate the red and white roses into what became the Tudor rose - achieved by Henry VII's marriage to Elizabeth of York in 1486 after his victory at Bosworth - was undoubtedly propaganda at its most effective, indicating that they had brought unity, harmony and sound rule to England after thirty years or so of political, governmental and dynastic unrest. But I remain unconvinced by Jones' claim that the Wars of the Roses should be considered a construction of the victorious Tudors. If anything, I came away from his article more convinced than before that it was a period of dynastic conflict, in which rival families sought to obtain the throne. Maybe they were not neatly separated into Lancaster and York, that is fair enough. But after 1460, there was certainly concerted rivalry between those loyal to Henry VI and the Lancastrians, and those who favoured Edward IV and the Yorkists, that blossomed due to increasing determination to obtain the throne and achieve peaceful governance after years of serious unrest.

Friday, 5 September 2014

5 September 1548: The Death of Queen Katherine Parr

On this day in history, 5 September 1548, the former queen of England Katherine Parr died aged thirty-six at her home, Sudeley Castle, in Gloucestershire. It was a sad and tragic end to an extraordinary life and, in particular, provided a closing chapter to one woman's remarkable journey from minor gentry to queenship to comfortable nobility. Katherine's fate mirrored that of countless medieval and Tudor women: she died of puerperal fever shortly after giving birth to her first and only daughter, Mary. Tragically, her young daughter probably lived to be no more than two years old, although her exact fate is unknown. 

In spring 1782, Katherine's coffin was discovered by some ladies visiting the castle. They discovered the inscription which read:
"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".

Katherine was unique in many ways: she was the first Protestant queen of England, she was the first English queen to publish books, she was the most married English queen (with four husbands in all), and perhaps most fortunately, she was the only one of Henry VIII's wives to 'survive' him (although the rejected Anne of Cleves actually survived all his wives, dying in 1557, nine years after Katherine Parr). Indeed, it is this which most people tend to remember about Katherine: she 'survived' her husband. Others believe she was an old nursemaid who dutifully and compassionately attending to the ailing and irascible Henry VIII in his old age. This is very far from the truth. Katherine was an educated, principled, pious and charitable woman who also loved fine clothing and jewellery, adored dancing, had a strong romantic streak, and was kind and loving to her family and friends. She was admired during her own lifetime and has legions of admirers to the present day, including Camilla, duchess of Cornwall. In many respects, Katherine was an excellent candidate for the position of queen of England.

Biographer Linda Porter believes that Katherine's influence was particularly important with her three royal stepchildren: Mary Tudor (who was only four years younger than her), Elizabeth, and Edward. She brought them to court and established loving and close relationships with all three. Although some of Henry's other queens, namely Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, had also attempted to bring the royal family together, it was Katherine Parr who provided a mother figure for Elizabeth and Edward, who had been cruelly deprived of their mothers at a very early age (Elizabeth's mother was beheaded when she was not yet three, while Edward's mother had died from puerperal fever only twelve days after his birth). To Mary, who had also suffered the loss of her mother in a humiliating and dragged-out annulment battle, Katherine was a warm and supportive companion, although the two experienced a more strained relationship after Henry VIII's death and Katherine's remarriage to Thomas Seymour. 

Katherine's life was truly extraordinary. Born in 1512 (historian Susan James, who published an academic study of the queen, thought that she was probably born in about July or August of that year), Katherine's family was respected northern gentry, and she appears to have been named after Katherine of Aragon who was, of course, the first wife of Katherine Parr's future husband, Henry VIII (Maud Parr, her mother, was a close favourite of Katherine of Aragon at court). She was later married for the first time in 1529 to Edward Borough in Lincolnshire, but her husband died only four years later, leaving Katherine widowed - not for the first time - aged twenty-one.

A year later her second husband was Lord Latimer, a man twenty years older than her with two children of his own. Katherine became, as with the Tudor children, a warm stepmother. She resided at Snape Castle in Yorkshire. Lord Latimer was a conventional Catholic, and historians such as David Starkey, aware that Katherine Parr later as queen developed strong reformist tendencies that we would now associate with Protestantism, have questioned whether she, too, was a traditional Catholic in these years, or whether she had already began to develop reformist ideas and beliefs that set her up in conflict to her conservative husband. The north of England was conservative as a whole, and in 1536 the most threatening rebellion of Henry VIII's reign, the Pilgrimage of Grace, occurred. Terrifyingly, Katherine herself and her stepchildren were seized as hostages in their own home. Cromwell later blackmailed Lord Latimer due to his involvement, even if unwilling, in the rebellion. Later, the couple departed for London, where they were living when Lord Latimer died in spring 1543.

Above: a family painting of Henry VIII sitting with his son, Edward, flanked by his two daughters: Mary to the left, and Elizabeth to the right. The queen who sits with Henry is his third wife Jane Seymour, although, painted as it was in 1544, his wife at that time was Katherine Parr.

Henry VIII's previous wife Katherine Howard had been executed in February 1542, and by spring 1543 the ageing king had still not remarried. At some point, he became attracted to the widowed Katherine Parr, and proposed marriage to her. Katherine felt doubt and discomfort. She appears to have been in love with Thomas Seymour, brother of the late queen Jane, at this point. But after much soul-searching, as she later admitted, she felt it was God's will that she marry the king. She perhaps also felt it would provide an excellent opportunity for her to bring about further reform within the church. On 12 July 1543, she became the sixth wife of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace.

While the king may not have passionately adored Katherine Parr, as he did Anne Boleyn, he does appear to have respected her deeply and to have felt genuine affection for her. Katherine, on her part, worked hard to be an effective and successful queen consort. Evidence of Henry's admiration and affection for his wife can be found in the fact that, in 1544, when he departed for France for war, he appointed her Regent. None of his other wives, with the exception of Katherine of Aragon in 1513, enjoyed this prestigious honour. Katherine was clearly ambitious. The following year, she began publishing religious works which outlined her reformist views that were bordering on the radical. Indeed, Katherine soon found herself in a position of danger when in 1546, if the martyrologist John Foxe is to be believed, the conservatives at court instigated a plot to accuse the queen of heresy. Anne Askew, who was associated with the queen, was burned at the stake in July 1546. Katherine supposedly discovered news of the plot and, falling into panic and distress, pleaded for forgiveness from the king and convinced him of her innocence. Luckily for her, she was successful. 

In January 1547, the king died aged fifty-five. We cannot know what Katherine felt, but only three months later she married for the fourth time to Thomas Seymour. This may have been a love match, but perhaps the dowager queen also felt she required a helpmate and strong man to support her. Since Seymour was uncle of the new king, Edward VI, it can be argued, as Linda Porter credibly did, that she regarded marriage to him as strengthening her hand and ensuring her continuing political relevance in the kingdom. Although her stepdaughter Elizabeth and the future queen Lady Jane Grey came to reside in her household, Katherine had to battle the Lord Protector Edward Seymour, elder brother of her husband and thus her brother-in-law, for control of her dower estates. 

What happened next has been shrouded in controversy, but it appears Thomas Seymour began a flirtation - some would call it abuse - with the thirteen-year old Elizabeth. Unbeknownst to Katherine, he had actually, before marrying Katherine, petitioned both Mary Tudor and Elizabeth for marriage, and later even considered marrying the nine-year old Jane Grey. Clearly, Seymour was an ambitious, perhaps even unscrupulous man, who desired greater political influence and power. What he was doing with Elizabeth cannot now be known for sure. Undoubtedly, it brought scandal to Katherine's name, and she banished Elizabeth from her household in spring 1548. Rumours circulated that Elizabeth was delivered of a child in secrecy, the offspring of Thomas Seymour.

At this time, Katherine was pregnant. At a time when most Tudor noblewomen married about twenty and, in some cases, in their teens (Katherine herself had been only in her seventeenth year when she married for the first time), Katherine, at thirty-five, was rather old to be expecting her first child. This is evident in numerous letters written by her friends and relatives, who anxiously warned her of the risks of childbirth and offered soothing and comforting messages and advice. After a difficult pregnancy, Katherine gave birth not to the much-desired son but to a daughter, who was named Mary, on 30 August 1548. Only six days later, between two and three in the morning, she herself died, only thirty-six. Supposedly, she had reprimanded her husband beforehand for his ill-treatment of her, probably referring to the scandal with Elizabeth, but this story cannot be corroborated.

Katherine Parr's end was tragic. But her life was extraordinary and deserves to be remembered, admired, even celebrated. She was a successful and diligent queen consort who brought family stability and a measure of much-needed dignity and calmness to court, following the king's previous marital scandals. For perhaps the first time, Henry VIII and his three children enjoyed, under Katherine's influence, a degree of harmony and closeness with one another. Katherine Parr was far more than merely the 'survivor' of a much-married monarch.