The year was 1512. Michelangelo’s magnificent
Sistine Chapel frescos were unveiled. Twenty-nine year
old Martin Luther earned his Doctorate in Theology at Wittenberg U, but didn’t understand justification by
faith. And a precocious three year old named Jehan Cauvin was busy exploring
his world in northern France. God was
setting the stage for a Reformation that would soon rock the world.
Sir Thomas Parr and his wife Maud Greene, a prominent couple from Westmoreland, welcomed their baby daughter into the world that year. Katherine, named after King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, received a fine education learning several languages fluently. But by the age of twenty-one, she had lost both parents and her first husband.
The Parr family was acquainted with some of the early Reformers and Katherine zealously embraced this “New Religion”.
"[Catherine] lamented the fact, that she had once been an enthusiastic Papist. ‘I sought’, she confessed, ‘for such riffraff as the Bishop of Rome had planted in his tyranny and kingdom, trusting with great confidence by virtue and holiness of them to receive full remission of sins.’ … That she underwent conversion, as all the first generation of Reformers did is clear.”1Devoted wholly to Christ, Katherine’s life motto became “to be useful in all I do”, even if it meant sacrificing her own happiness.
After losing a second husband, Katherine’s piety caught the attention of King Henry. Denying her heart’s desire to marry Sir Thomas Seymore, Katherine accepted the King’s marriage proposal. On July 12, 1543 the attractive 31 year old widow became the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII. Without fanfare Katherine was proclaimed Queen at Hampton Court Palace. Her affection for Henry was sincere, although the prospect of marrying a man who had sent two of his wives to the scaffold must have been terrifying! Just months before the marriage, a plot to execute Reformers in Henry’s household had been underway at the behest of Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester.
“Anne understood her providential mission to be this: to bring the Reformation to England and to employ every single instance of patronage and influence to that end. … In fact it was through Anne that the New Religion entered England.”2Anne Boleyn, the most controversial of Henry’s wives, was beheaded on trumped up charges of adultery, incest, and treason, leaving behind her little daughter Elizabeth. The new Queen’s kindness and motherly affections endeared her to Henry and his children; Mary, Elizabeth, and young Edward.
But Katherine would not allow herself to be caught off guard by Henry’s affections as he was a fickle man, sending both Catholics and Protestants alike to the Tower for execution—Catholics for treason and Protestants for heresy.“besides the virtues of the mind, she was endowed with very rare gifts of nature, as singular beauty, favor and comely personage, being things wherein the king was greatly delighted.”3
While Henry turned a blind eye, his wife hosted Bible studies and prayer meetings at court. Katherine’s guests included influential preachers and numerous high ranking women including Anne Askew and the young Lady Jane Grey.
“A good hearing it is when women become such clerks [clergy]; and a thing much to my comfort to come in my old days to be taught by my wife!’” 4
Providentially, the papers sealing Katherine’s fate fell into the Queen’s hands, unbeknownst to Henry. The discovery caused Katherine to have a nervous breakdown. The King had confided in his physician the plan to execute his wife and when Henry learned that Katherine had become ill, he sent Dr. Wendy to check on her. The doctor was fond of the Queen and secretly advised her to play ignorant and try to dissuade her husband.
Katherine was as talented in literary endeavors as she was generous in spirit. Proving the pen can be mightier than the sword, Katherine’s books—Prayers or Meditations (1546) and The Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner (1547) became instant successes, making her the first English Queen to publish an original work under her own name. Additionally, Katherine financed the English translations of Erasmus’ Latin Paraphrases of the Gospels, which were important texts for Reformed scholars.
“ [Katherine] championed the language of the people, encouraged academia to put Christ before Plato, urged Henry to bring England closer to the Reformation, commissioned scholarly translations of Erasmus, and brought a royal English family together. In Katherine’s day, her books became examples of the bold Reformation spirit. Her brilliant mind captured the souls of her people and the respect of the Reformers themselves"7A BITTERSWEET END
“…some token with his eyes, or with hand, as he trusted in the Lord. Then the King holding him with his hand, did wring his hand in his, as hard as he could, and so shortly after departed,” 8On January 28, 1547 King Henry VIII was dead. Though leaving his wife generous provisions of wealth and honor, the King did not appoint her as Queen Regent.
Finally free to pursue her own happiness, Katherine hastily married Thomas Seymore. Tragically, her marital bliss ended abruptly when Thomas made advances towards Katherine’s teenage stepdaughter, Elizabeth. After three childless marriages Katherine bore a daughter before the last enemy struck again. On September 5, 1548, four days after giving birth, Katherine developed puerperal fever and died at the age of 36.
Like Priscilla (Rom. 16:3-4), Queen Katherine was a true servant and a scholar who was willing to take great risks for the furtherance of the Gospel. As a result, God used Katherine's determination “to be useful in all I do” to profoundly impact on the advancement of the English Reformation.
“The fact that the Reformation was preserved in England can be attributed to the amazing presence of mind, and maturity of Katherine Parr.” 9
Katherine Parr image: National Portrait Gallery - London