Catherine Parr and Women's Rights (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Catherine Parr and Women's Rights

Q1: Read the introduction and study sources 2, 3 and 4. Why did Catherine Parr hesitate before accepting Henry VIII's offer of marriage.

A1: Henry VIII asked Catherine Parr to marry him in 1543. However, she was in love with Thomas Seymour, the brother of Queen Jane Seymour and Edward Seymour. The author of source 4 points out "for a subject, a royal request to marry was the equivalent of a command. It was almost unthinkable to say no." David Starkey goes on to argue that Catherine had another motive for saying yes. Catherine was a secret Protestant, and that marriage to Henry would help "to compete the conversion of England to Reform".

Q2: Why did Catherine Parr object to the passing by Parliament of the Act for the Advancement of the True Religion? You will need to read source 6 before answering this question.

A2: In May 1543 Parliament passed the Act for the Advancement of the True Religion. This act declared that the "lower sort" did not benefit from studying the Bible in English. It stated that "no women nor artificers, journeymen, serving men of the degree of yeomen or under husbandmen nor labourers" could in future read the Bible "privately or openly". Later, a clause was added that did allow any noble or gentlewoman to read the Bible, this activity must take place "to themselves alone and not to others". Catherine Parr ignored this legislation "by holding study among her ladies for the scriptures and listening to sermons of an evangelical nature".

Q3: Sources 7, 8 and 9 deal with Catherine Parr's possible relationship with Anne Askew. (a) Why was Anne Askew tortured? (b) Why did Henry VIII become angry with Catherine when they discussed the case. (c) Why were Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley so hostile to Catherine?

A3: (a) Anne Askew was tortured because Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Wriothesley wanted to discover if Catherine Parr and other members of the nobility were supporters of religious reform (source 7). As Anne Askew pointed out "they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion" (source 8).

(b) The author of source 9 points out that Henry VIII and Catherine Parr had arguments about the Anne Askew case. This made Henry very angry: "A good hearing it is when women become such clerks, and a thing much to my comfort to come to me in mine old days, to be taught by my wife."

(c) Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Wriothesley were hostile to Catherine Parr because they believed that she was a secret Protestant. This worried them because they feared that she might influence the religious beliefs of Henry VIII.

Q4: Read source 10 and describe the strategy used by Catherine Parr to escape being arrested.

A4: Catherine's physician, Dr Wendy, discovered that the Queen was about to be arrested. Her first move was to tell her ladies-in-waiting to get rid of the banned Protestant books. She then went to Henry and rejected the idea "that they should have their usual theological discussion". To please Henry she told him that she knew "what great imperfection and weakness by our first creation is allotted unto us women, to be ordained and appointed as inferiors and subject unto men as our head.... Since therefore God hath appointed such a natural difference between men and women, and Your Majesty being so excellent in gifts and ornaments of wisdom, and I a silly poor woman, so much inferior in all respects of your nature unto you, how then cometh it now to pass that Your Majesty, in such diffuse causes of religion, will seem to require my judgment?" She then went on to claim that she had only argued with Henry in the past, in order to have the opportunity of listening to his learned arguments. As a result of this conversation Henry decided not to have Catherine arrested.

Q5: Use the information in sources 11-15 to explain why in May 1548 Princess Elizabeth was sent away to live with Sir Anthony Denny and his wife Joan at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire.

A5: After the death of Henry VIII in 1547, Thomas Seymour wanted to marry Princess Elizabeth. This suggestion was rejected and Seymour married Catherine Parr, her stepmother, instead (source 11). Although historians believe that Seymour loved Catherine he was "also driven by ambition" and Catherine was "arguably the most important woman in the country and could be expected to use her influence to support her husband in gaining the King's favour, if he so required" (source 12).

Princess Elizabeth went to live with Catherine and Seymour (source 14). According to the testimony of Katherine Ashley, Seymour often visited Elizabeth's bedchamber and behaved in an inappropriate manner "strike her upon the back or on the buttocks familiarly" (source 13).

Elizabeth Jenkins argues in source 15 that at first Catherine Parr allowed this behaviour to continue. However, as T pointed out: "Catherine soon decided that enough was enough and in May 1548, Elizabeth was sent to live with Sir Anthony Denny and his wife" (source 14).