Six Tudor Queens: Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir
To the Victorians, she was a staid bluestocking, her religious views were a dangerous heresy to the Catholic Church, and her grave slab lauded her as ‘the flower of her sex, renowned, great and wise, a wife by every nuptial virtue known.’
So who was Katharine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, and perhaps best known as the only one of his six wives to survive England’s most famous, charismatic and irascible monarch?
The story of Katharine – her rise from a noble family through death and tragedy, four marriages, and a perilous passion for the emerging ‘new religion’ – is the enthralling last chapter of author and historian Alison Weir’s groundbreaking sequence of novels featuring Henry’s wives.
Weir’s insightful and ambitious project has plucked these 16th century royal women from the dusty, male-orientated pages of history books and given them a ‘real’ and extraordinarily authentic persona, allowing readers a more human perspective on the harsh realities of their precarious situations in the turbulent Tudor court.
Each book has been written using the author’s vast historical knowledge, in-depth research, and a tantalising slice of artistic licence, and this brilliantly seductive and deeply moving portrait of the intelligent, compassionate, and all too often underestimated, Katharine, sees Weir on her best form yet.
When her father Sir Thomas Parr, an influential man at the court of King Henry, dies from the sweating sickness, five-year-old Katharine’s life changed almost overnight. Now financially embarrassed, her mother, Maud, and her children are invited to live at Rye House in Hertfordshire with her father’s brother William Parr and his family.
The move is an ‘exciting adventure’ for Katharine and she counts herself lucky that her practical, clever mother is a believer in education for girls and Katharine quickly excels at Latin, Greek and French, and discovers religion’s ‘New Learning’ from the household chaplain.
But all too soon, Katharine has turned 16 and her mother makes plans to find her a suitable husband. She dreads being torn away from her ‘earthly paradise’ at Rye House and would like to choose her own husband, but dutiful Katharine knows she has no other choice and has learned very early that marriage is ‘a hard-headed business, with little account taken of young hearts.’
A match is finalised and she is wedded to Edward Burgh, heir to the wealthy Sir Thomas Burgh of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, a man whose views on religious reform she takes to her heart even though she knows it might see her ‘tipping’ into heresy.
Edward is a warm and friendly boy but the marriage remains barren and only lasts until her husband dies suddenly and prematurely, leaving Katharine a widow of means at only 21.
Unable to live comfortably without marrying again, Katharine becomes the third wife of John Snape, Lord Latimer of Snape Castle, a plain-spoken Yorkshireman twice her age, who pledges that theirs will be a good union… and so it proves to be.
But it is during the last days of her marriage to Snape that Katharine crosses paths with Sir Thomas Seymour, the charming and charismatic courtier who fills up the room with his ‘brilliance’ and with whom she shares ‘a powerful enchantment.’
And when Snape dies, Katharine is in love for the first time in her life and finally free to make her own choices… but then the ageing, lonely king’s eye falls upon her and she cannot refuse him or betray that what she really wants is another man.
‘But her belief in the new religion still burns brightly inside her… it’s a deeply held but dangerous faith that Henry fears and has brought her enemies at court’
And so Katharine becomes Henry’s sixth wife, a role that involves being both his queen and his friend. Henry loves and trusts her, and Katharine learns to admire his ‘reassuring authority, kindly courtesy and loving devotion.’
But her belief in the new religion still burns brightly inside her… it’s a deeply held but dangerous faith that Henry fears and has brought her enemies at court, and could yet see her follow in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard.
Weir could not have ended her remarkable series better than with this immaculately researched, richly detailed and sensitively imagined portrait of Henry’s last – and arguably most complex, courageous and heroic – wife.
This is Katharine’s world rewritten by a consummate historian whose Six Wives novels have been fashioned by blending her extensive knowledge of Tudor history with a remarkable ability to breathe new and palpably real life into the leading players of 16th century royal history.
One of the few women of her time to publish under her own name, Katharine was the queen who most competently negotiated her ageing and increasingly unpredictable royal husband, using her fierce intellect, female intuition and natural compassion to remain loyal to Henry whilst charting a careful course through his dangerous court.
But she was also a woman of great passions which could occasionally run to naivety, holding dangerous secrets to her heart… a love for the handsome, urbane Thomas Seymour which could see them both lose their heads, and a fervour for the reformed religion which could prove equally deadly.
With each character in Katharine’s orbit vividly portrayed, and her perilous role as Henry’s wife played out to perfection, this is a truly superb final flourish for what has been one of the very best Tudor series to grace our bookshelves.
(Six Tudor Queens: Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir, Headline Review, hardback, £20)