Catherine Parr, the daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and Maud Green, was born in 1512. Her father was a popular courtier of Henry VIII and her mother had been lady-in-waiting to the queen, Catherine of Aragon (Catherine was named after the queen).
Catherine's father died in London of the plague on 11th November 1517. In his will he left £800 to be divided between his two daughters as marriage portions. (1) Maud was only 25 years-old at the time and was a highly desirable bride, but she did not remarry and devoted herself to the upbringing of her children. (2)
Susan E. James has pointed out: "Maud Parr was an independent, capable, and unusually articulate woman, who in the years after her husband's death managed the family estates, oversaw her children's education... and set an example of female independence that was to have a lifelong effect on her elder daughter." (3)
Catherine's educational programme was organized along the lines devised by Sir Thomas More for his own children. She was taught French, Latin, and Italian and a wide range of social skills that included "a knowledge of etiquette and good manners, an easy conversational style, the ability to sing and play music and, above all, the polish that made a gentleman or gentlewoman". (4)
Maud Parr worked hard on finding Catherine a well-connected husband. In 1523, when Catherine was only eleven, she tried but failed to arrange a marriage with Lord Dacre's grandson. In 1529, when she was seventeen, Catherine married Sir Edward Borough, the son of Thomas Borough, chamberlain to Queen Anne Boleyn. (5) Her first husband was in poor health and died in 1533. The relationship was childless. (6)
Catherine's mother had died two years previously so at the age of twenty-one she was an orphan as well as being a widow. In 1534 she married John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer. Aged forty-one, Latimer had been married twice before and had two young children. Lord Latimer died on 2nd March 1543. Catherine, still childless, secured a position in the household of Princess Mary. (7) Mary's father, Henry VIII, had been married five times, and his latest wife, Catherine Howard, had been beheaded for infidelity the previous year.
After the death of her second husband, Catherine fell in love with Thomas Seymour, the brother of Queen Jane Seymour and Edward Seymour. It has been pointed out by David Starkey, the author of Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003): "Edward Seymour was dashing and rather dangerous. That Catherine found him so attractive suggests hidden emotional depths. Or rather, perhaps, very human shallows after a lifetime of doing what she ought, as a daughter and a wife, a little of what she fancied might have seemed irresistibly appealing." (8)
It would seem that Catherine was on the verge of marrying Seymour when she met Henry VIII. He was immediately attracted to Catherine. Susan E. James has argued: "Print and film alike have represented Catherine as an ageing, plain-faced, pious widow with few attractions, selected by the king for her talents as a nurse. This is a misleading image that does not hold up beneath the weight of contemporary evidence. She was of medium height, with red hair and grey eyes. She had a lively personality, was a witty conversationalist with a deep interest in the arts, and an erudite scholar who read Petrarch and Erasmus for enjoyment. She was a graceful dancer, who loved fine clothes and jewels, particularly diamonds, and favoured the colour crimson in her gowns and household livery. Catherine also conveyed a sense of her own value, independent of the marital relationship, which was rare for a woman of this period." (9)
Henry asked Catherine to become his sixth wife. She was in a difficult position. Although she was deeply in love with Thomas Seymour, it was made clear to her, that her reluctance to accept the king as her husband was to defy God's will. Catherine wrote to Seymour "my mind was fully bent the other time I was at liberty to marry you before any man I know". However she decided to marry Henry. Jane Dunn, the author of Elizabeth & Mary (2003) has pointed out: "In marrying the King rather than this love, Catherine Parr had sacrificed her heart for the sake of duty." (10) It has also been suggested that Catherine accepted his proposal for religious reasons: "She was marrying Henry at God's command and for His purpose. And that purpose was no less than to compete the conversion of England to Reform." (11)
Catherine Parr married Henry VIII on 12th July, 1543, at Hampton Court with eighteen people in attendance. A few days later, the King and Queen left on what turned out to be a protracted honeymoon that kept them away from London for the rest of the year. First they travelled into Surrey to visit some of Henry's favourite hunting parks at Oatlands, Woking, Guildford and Sunninghill. They spent several months at Ampthill Castle, the former home of Thomas Wolsey. The plague was particularly virulent in London that summer and autumn and they did not return to the capital until December.
Catherine inherited three step-children, Mary (27), Elizabeth (9) and Edward (6). Queen Catherine became an excellent step-mother. Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) points out: "It is greatly to her credit that she managed to establish excellent loving relations with all three of her step-children, despite their very different needs and ages (the Lady Mary was twenty-one years older than Prince Edward). Of course she did not literally install them under one roof: that is to misunderstand the nature of sixteenth-century life when separate households were more to do with status than inclination. At the same time, the royal children were now all together on certain occasions, under the auspices of their stepmother... But the real point was that Catherine was considered by the King - and the court - to be in charge of them, an emotional responsibility rather than a physical one." (12)
Elizabeth did not see very much of her father. On 31st July 1544, she wrote to Catherine asking if she could spend time with the royal couple at Hampton Court. "Inimical fortune, envious of all good and ever revolving human affairs, has deprived me for a whole year of your most illustrious presence, and, not thus content, has yet again robbed me of the same good; which thing would be intolerable to me, did I not hope to enjoy it very soon. And in this my exile I well know that the clemency of your Highness has had as much care and solicitude for my health as the King's Majesty himself. By which thing I am not only bound to serve you, but also to revere you with filial love, since I understand that your most illustrious Highness has not forgotten me every time you have written to the King's Majesty, which, indeed, it was my duty to have requested from you. For heretofore I have not dared to write to him. Wherefore I now humbly pray your most excellent Highness, that, when you write to his Majesty, you will condescend to recommend me to him, praying ever for his sweet benediction, and similarly entreating our Lord God to send him best success, and the obtaining of victory over his enemies, so that your Highness and I may, as soon as possible, rejoice together with him on his happy return. No less pray I God that he would preserve your most illustrious Highness; to whose grace, humbly kissing your hands, I offer and recommend myself." (13)
During the summer of 1544 Henry VIII led a military expedition to France. "During his absence Henry appointed his queen regent-general, together with a regency council dominated by the queen's fellow religionists.... This assumption of power, not merely by a woman but by a woman who only a year before had been a Yorkshire housewife, made the queen enemies, particularly among the religious conservatives who resented her evangelical beliefs." (14) While he was away Catherine wrote him several letters about events at home. According to Antonia Fraser they were "remarkably well-written." (15) Catherine took this opportunity to bring Princess Elizabeth back to court. From the middle of July until the middle of September she kept the royal children with her at Hampton Court.
Henry VIII formed an alliance with Charles V. In 1545 a treaty between the two kings included the proposal that Prince Edward marry Charles V's daughter, Maria and that Mary would marry Charles V himself. Elizabeth's future was also discussed and it was suggested that she should marry Charles V's son and heir, Philip of Spain, although that failed to go beyond the initial stages of negotiation. It is claimed that during discussions "Charles was polite, but not encouraging." (16)
Henry, who was in poor health (although it was treason to say so), had agreed a new Act of Succession that stated that in the case of his death the throne would pass to his son Edward and his heirs, but, if Edward died without children, Princess Mary would succeed to the throne. If she, too, died without heirs, the throne would pass to Princess Elizabeth. He excluded his elder sister, Margaret Tudor (she had died in 1541) and her heirs, who were the royal family of Scotland. This included her granddaughter, Mary Stuart.
Catherine Parr wrote several small books on religious matters. It has been pointed out that Catherine was one of only eight women who had books published in the sixty-odd years of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. These books showed that she was an advocate of Protestantism. In the book, The Lamentation of a Sinner Catherine describes Henry as being "godly and learned" and being "our Moses" who "hath delivered us out of the captivity and bondage of Pharaoh (Rome)"; while the "Bishop of Rome" is denounced for "his tyranny".
As David Loades, the author of has pointed out, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007): "The Queen meanwhile continued to discuss theology, piety and the right use the bible, both with her friends and also with her husband. This was a practice, which she had established in the early days of their marriage, and Henry had always allowed her a great deal of latitude, tolerating from her, it was said, opinions which no one else dared to utter. In taking advantage of this indulgence to urge further measures of reform, she presented her enemies with an opening." (17)
Catherine also criticised legislation that had been passed in May 1543 that had declared that the "lower sort" did not benefit from studying the Bible in English. The Act for the Advancement of the True Religion 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 ignored this "by holding study among her ladies for the scriptures and listening to sermons of an evangelical nature". (18)
In July 1544 Catherine Parr arranged for John Cheke to become tutor to Prince Edward. (19) John Guy has argued the "reformed cause" was revived at Court after Henry VIII married his sixth wife: "Catherine used her influence to mitigate the Act of Six Articles in several cases. Her immediate circle was centred on the royal nursery, where John Cheke, Richard Cox, Anthony Cooke, and other 'reforming' humanists were appointed tutors to Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth." (20) It has been suggested that Cheke was an humanist scholar in the tradition of Desiderius Erasmus but it was possible that he was a supporter of Martin Luther and this could explain Edward's support for religious reform. (21) Cheke also arranged for Princess Elizabeth to be taught by William Grindal and Roger Ascham. (22)
In February 1546 conservatives, led by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, began plotting to destroy Catherine. Gardiner had established a reputation for himself at home and abroad as a defender of orthodoxy against the Reformation. (23) On 24th May, Gardiner ordered the arrest of Anne Askew and Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, was ordered to torture Askew in an attempt to force her to name Catherine and other leading Protestants.
The Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and his assistant, Richard Rich took over operating the rack, after Kingston complained about having to torture a woman. Despite suffering a long period on the rack, Askew refused to name those who shared her religious views. According to Askew: "Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion... the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted... and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor... With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion... I said that I would rather die than break my faith." (24) On 16th July, 1546, Askew "still horribly crippled by her tortures but without recantation, was burnt for heresy". (25)
Bishop Stephen Gardiner had a meeting with Henry VIII and raised concerns about Catherine's religious beliefs. Henry, who was in great pain with his ulcerated leg and at first he was not interested in Gardiner's complaints. However, eventually Gardiner got Henry's agreement to arrest Catherine and her three leading ladies-in-waiting, "Herbert, Lane and Tyrwhit" who had been involved in reading and discussing the Bible. (26)
David Loades has explained that "the greatest secrecy was observed, and the unsuspecting Queen continued with her evangelical sessions". However, the whole plot was leaked in mysterious circumstances. "A copy of the articles, with the King's signature on it, was accidentally dropped by a member of the council, where it was found and brought to Catherine, who promptly collapsed. The King sent one of his physicians, a Dr Wendy, to attend upon her, and Wendy, who seems to have been in the secret, advised her to throw herself upon Henry's mercy." (27)
Catherine told Henry that "in this, and all other cases, to your Majesty's wisdom, as my only anchor, Supreme Head and Governor here in earth, next under God". He reminded her that in the past she had discussed these matters. "Catherine had an answer for that too. She had disputed with Henry in religion, she said, principally to divert his mind from the pain of his leg but also to profit from her husband's own excellent learning as displayed in his replies." (28) Henry replied: "Is it even so, sweetheart? And tended your arguments to no worse end? Then perfect friends we are now again, as ever at any time heretofore." (29) Gilbert Burnett has argued that Henry put up with Catherine's radical views on religion because of the good care she took of him as his nurse. (30)
The next day Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley arrived with a detachment of soldiers to arrest Catherine. Henry told him he had changed his mind and sent the men away. Glyn Redworth, the author of In Defence of the Church Catholic: The Life of Stephen Gardiner (1990) has disputed this story because it relies too much on the evidence of John Foxe, a leading Protestant at the time. (31). However, David Starkey, the author of Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) has argued that some historians "have been impressed by the wealth of accurate circumstantial detail, including, in particular, the names of Catherine's women." (32)
Henry's health continued to cause concern. Dr. George Owen, the royal physician, who was paid £100 a year to treat the king, told the Privy Council in December, 1546, that he was dying. The Privy Council, now under the control of religious radicals such as John Dudley, Edward Seymour and Thomas Seymour decided to keep the news secret. On 24th December, Catherine took Mary and Elizabeth to stay at Greenwich Palace for the holidays. On their return they were told that Henry was too ill to see them. (33)
Henry VIII died on 28th January, 1547. The following day Edward and his thirteen year-old sister, Elizabeth, were informed that their father had died. According to one source, "Edward and his sister clung to each other, sobbing". Edward VI's coronation took place on Sunday 20th February. "Walking beneath a canopy of crimson silk and cloth of gold topped by silver bells, the boy-king wore a crimson satin robe trimmed with gold silk lace costing £118 16s. 8d. and a pair of ‘Sabatons’ of cloth of gold." (34)
Edward was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist him in governing his new realm. His uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. He was now arguably the most influential person in the land. (35)
His brother, Thomas Seymour, although he was in his late thirties, proposed to the Council that he should marry the 13-year-old, Elizabeth, but he was told this was unacceptable. He now set his sights on Catherine Parr. At the time he was described as "being gifted with charm and intelligence... and a handsome appearance". (36) Just a few weeks after Henry's death Catherine wrote to Seymour: "I would not have you think that this mine honest good will toward you to proceed from any sudden motion of passion; for, as truly as God is God, my mind was fully bent, the other time I was at liberty, to marry you before any man I know. Howbeit, God withstood my will therein most vehemently for a time, and... made that possible which seemed to me most impossible." (37)
The historian, Elizabeth Jenkins, believes that the "Queen Dowager, released from the sufferings of her marriage to Henry VIII, behaved like an enamoured girl." (38) Seymour wanted to marry Parr but realised the Council would reject his proposal, as it would be pointed out that if she became pregnant, there would have been uncertainty about whether the child was Seymour's or Henry's. (39) Seymour married Parr in secret in about May 1547.
Seymour visited Parr in her home in Chelsea before the news of their marriage was announced. This created extra problems as Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey were also living with Parr at this time. (40) It has been pointed out that "Elizabeth was still only thirteen when her stepmother, of whom she was most fond, married for love. The young Princess remained in her care, living principally with her at her dower houses at Chelsea and Hanworth. Ever curious and watchful, Elizabeth could not fail to have noted the effects of the sudden transformation in Catherine Parr's life. From patient, pious consort of an ailing elderly king she had been transmuted into a lover, desired and desiring." (41) Parr also appointed Miles Coverdale as her almoner. (42)
Catherine Parr, who was now thirty-five, became pregnant. Although she had been married three times before, it was her first pregnancy. It came as a great shock as Catherine was assumed to be "barren". (43) Thomas Seymour now began paying more attention to Elizabeth. Katherine Ashley, Elizabeth's governess, later recorded: "Seymour... would come many mornings into the Lady Elizabeth's chamber, before she were ready, and sometimes before she did rise. And if she were up, he would bid her good morrow, and ask how she did, and strike her upon the back or on the buttocks familiarly, and so go forth through his lodgings; and sometime go through to the maidens and play with them, and so go forth... If Lady Elizabeth was in bed, he would... make as though he would come at her. And he would go further into the bed, so that he could not come at her." On one occasion Ashley saw Seymour try to kiss her while she was in bed and the governess told him to "go away for shame". Seymour became more bold and would come up every morning in his nightgown, "barelegged in his slippers". (44)
According to Elizabeth Jenkins, the author of Elizabeth the Great (1958): "Queen Dowager took to coming with her husband on his morning visits and one morning they both tickled the Princess as she lay in her bed. In the garden one day there was some startling horse-play, in which Seymour indulged in a practice often heard of in police courts; the Queen Dowager held Elizabeth so that she could not run away, while Seymour cut her black cloth gown into a hundred pieces. The cowering under bedclothes, the struggling and running away culminated in a scene of classical nightmare, that of helplessness in the power of a smiling ogre... The Queen Dowager, who was undergoing an uncomfortable pregnancy, could not bring herself to make her husband angry by protesting about his conduct, but she began to realize that he and Elizabeth were very often together." (45)
Jane Dunn has controversially argued that Elizabeth was a willing victim in these events: "Although not legally her step-father, Thomas Seymour assumed his role as head of the household and with his manly demeanour and exuberant animal spirits he became for the young Princess a charismatic figure of attraction and respect. Some twenty-five years her senior, Seymour in fact was old enough to be her father and the glamour of his varied heroic exploits in war and diplomatic dealings brought a welcome worldly masculinity into Elizabeth's cloistered female-dominated life.... Elizabeth was also attractive in her own right, tall with fair reddish-gold hair, fine pale skin and the incongruously dark eyes of her mother, alive with unmistakable intelligence and spirit. She was young, emotionally inexperienced and understandably hungry for recognition and love. She easily became a willing if uneasy partner in the verbal and then physical high jinks in the newly sexualised Parr-Seymour household." (46)
Anna Whitelock, the author Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court (2013) dismisses this idea but admits that it is not easy understanding Catherine Parr's motivation in these events. "On two mornings, at Hanworth in Middlesex, another of Catherine's residences, the queen dowager herself joined Seymour in his visit to Elizabeth's Bedchamber and on this occasion they both tickled the young princess in her bed. Later that day, in the garden, Seymour cut Elizabeth's dress into a hundred pieces while Catherine held her down. The involvement of Catherine here is even more puzzling than that of the others. She had fallen pregnant soon after the marriage, so perhaps this made her jealousy more intense and her behaviour more reckless; maybe she was seeking to maintain Seymour's affection and interest in her by joining in his 'horseplay'. Perhaps she feared that Elizabeth was developing something of a teenage infatuation with her stepfather." (47)
Sir Thomas Parry, the head of Elizabeth's household, later testified that Thomas Seymour loved Elizabeth and had done so for a long time and that Catherine Parr was jealous of the fact. In May 1548 Catherine "came suddenly upon them, where they were all alone, he having her (Elizabeth) in his arms, wherefore the Queen fell out, both with the Lord Admiral and with her Grace also... and as I remember, this was the cause why she was sent from the Queen." (48) Later that month Elizabeth was sent away to stay with Sir Anthony Denny and his wife, at Cheshunt. It has been suggested that this was done not as punishment but as a means of protecting the young girl. Philippa Jones, the author of Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) has suggested that Elizabeth was pregnant with Seymour's child. (49)
Elizabeth wrote to Catherine soon after she left her home: "Although I could not be plentiful in giving thanks for the manifold kindness received at your highness' hand at my departure, yet I am something to be borne withal, for truly I was replete with sorrow to depart from your highness, especially leaving you undoubtful of health. And albeit I answered little, I weighed it more deeper when you said you would warn me of all evils that you should hear of me; for if your grace had not a good opinion of me, you would not have offered friendship to me that way that all men judge the contrary. But what may I more say than thank God for providing such friends to me, desiring God to enrich me with their long life, and me grace to be in heart no less thankful to receive it than I now am glad in writing to show it. And although I have plenty of matter, here I will stay for I know you are not quiet to read." (50)
Catherine Parr gave birth to a daughter named Mary on 30th August 1548. After the birth, Catherine developed puerperal fever. Her delirium took a painful form of paranoid ravings about her husband and others around her. Catherine accused the people around her of standing "laughing at my grief". She told the women attending her that her husband did not love her. Thomas Seymour held her hand and replied "sweetheart, I would do you no hurt". Seymour is reported to have lain down beside her, but Catherine asked him to leave because she wanted to have a proper talk with the physician who attended her delivery, but dared not for fear of displeasing him. (51)
The fever eventually went and she was able to dictate her will calmly, revealing that Thomas Seymour was the "great love of her life". Queen Catherine, "sick of body but of good mind", left everything to Seymour, only wishing her possessions "to be a thousand times more in value" than they were. Catherine, thirty-six years old, died on 5th September 1548, six days after the birth of her daughter. (52)
Thomas's desire to resume his relationship with Catherine was due, in part, to his previous affection for her, but it was also driven by ambition. His brother, Edward, was now arguably the most influential person in the land, and sadly for Thomas, his brother possessed all the qualities of leadership that he himself lacked. Henry VIII had recognized this and made Edward one of his close advisers, sending him abroad on key diplomatic missions. Edward VI's Council similarly recognized Edward's powers as a reliable, intelligent, capable soldier and administrator.
When the Council awarded titles to its various Councillors, Edward became the 1st Duke of Somerset. Thomas also received the tide of 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley and was appointed Lord High Admiral, but he was far from satisfied. Edward was still more important, and Thomas was furious that his brother had risen so far so fast. Thomas was not only ambitious: he genuinely believed that he was equal, if not superior, to his brother.
Thomas's subsequent behaviour both involving Catherine, and later, Elizabeth sought to level the playing field. Marriage to the Dowager Queen was just one step further towards reaching a particular goal. Until Edward VI married, which was some years off yet, Catherine was the First Lady in England and the beloved stepmother of the King. She 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.
While he was wooing Catherine, Thomas was also in communication with some of the Councillors to see if they might match him with either of Edward VI's half-sisters, Mary or Elizabeth. He received a strong negative response, as sometime in April or May of 1547 he secretly married Catherine.
Edward VI noted Edward Seymour's reaction to the marriage in his journal: "The Lord Seymour of Sudeley married the Queen, whose name was Catherine, with which marriage the Lord Protector was much offended." While Catherine had approached her stepson and asked for his approval for the union, which he gladly gave, neither Thomas nor Catherine had approached the Council, perhaps suspecting that the Lord Protector might prevent the marriage, not just on the grounds of timing, but also because it would give too much influence to Thomas. When Edward VI took the throne, Thomas had tried to persuade the young King to sign a Bill to allow him to share the role of Protector, which Edward had refused.
By June, the marriage was common knowledge at Court and Thomas was living openly at Chelsea with Catherine and her household, which now included Elizabeth, but soon grew to encompass 11-year-old Lady Jane Grey. As part of Thomas's plans to increase his power, he plotted to arrange a marriage between Edward VI and Jane, the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's sister, and Edward's own cousin. Evidence for what happened next at Chelsea, and at Catherine and Thomas's houses at Hanworth and Seymour Place in London, came from statements given by witnesses in the 1548-49 enquiry into the treasonable actions of Thomas Seymour. The most prominent and damaging statements came from Kat Ashley and Sir Thomas Parry, Elizabeth's Cofferer (treasurer).
Thomas Seymour was made Lord Seymour of Sudeley and Lord High Admiral. Somerset, though arrogant, grasping and unscrupulous, had some enlightened ideas of government. Seymour, on the other hand, had the total selfishness and irresponsibility of a criminal. He bitterly resented the fact that the office of Protector was not shared equally between Somerset and himself; from the time of their nephew's accession, they behaved like a pair of brothers in some classical tragedy of fratricide.
Vain, reckless and unreasonable as Seymour was, he had the charm of a handsome man who is genial and high-spirited. "Fierce in courage," runs the famous description, "courtly in fashion, in person stately, in voice magnificent, but somewhat empty in matter." The latter drawback, as far as women were concerned, did not injure the rest of his qualities. On the King's death, Seymour proposed to the Council that he should marry Elizabeth, and Mrs. Ashley who thought the King himself had favoured the idea was disappointed that the matter came to nothing. But Seymour received an unequivocal rebuff from the Council, and immediately renewed his old suit. The Queen Dowager, released from the sufferings of her marriage to Henry VIII, behaved like an enamoured girl. She married Seymour secretly, and received his clandestine visits at her house in Chelsea, where her porteress let him in at five in the morning. The situation was full of submerged danger, for by the Council's permission Elizabeth was now living with her stepmother.
Seymour, for all his geniality, was a man of ruthless ambition. He was twenty years older than Elizabeth, but as he was in his prime this meant only that he had the maturity a very young girl admires, and his attractions were of the kind to which she was susceptible all her life. He had been put into her head already as a possible husband, and now he was coming and going in romantic secrecy, in the first light of the May mornings, as the husband of her still-youthful stepmother.
Had Seymour left Elizabeth alone, no harm would have come of it; but one of his reasons for marrying the Queen Dowager was that Elizabeth had been consigned to her care. His brother had control of the King: he himself would have control of the King's enigmatic young sister. It was true that if she were drawn into any entanglement it might be regarded as high treason, and that the penalty for this was, for a woman, beheading or burning alive. Seymour knew these facts, but he preferred to disregard them.
The Queen Dowager's household was a charming one. Beyond it, indeed, matters were stormy. Seymour was perpetually at variance with his brother, refusing to accept his authority or to carry out his own duties as Lord Admiral, while the situation between the brothers was the more embittered by the hostility of their wives. The Duchess of Somerset, eminently strong-minded and disagreeable, had once been obliged to treat Catherine Parr with ceremonious respect; she now took pains to show her that the Queen Dowager was merely the wife of the Protector's younger brother. This occasioned anger abroad, but at home all was pleasure, ease and a delightful freedom from past restraints.
The Princess's household formed a unit within the Queen Dowager's; it included Mrs. Ashley, the tutor, young Mr. Grindal, and several ladies-in-waiting. There was also attached to it a man who would seem to have had more sense than all the rest put together; this was the Princess's distant cousin John Ashley. In the months after the King's death he gave his wife a warning "to take heed for he did fear that the Lady Elizabeth did bear some affection to my Lord Admiral". He had noticed that she looked pleased and sometimes blushed when Seymour was spoken of. His wife was coarser-fibred; either she saw no danger, or in the congenial atmosphere of ease and pleasure with the exciting undercurrent that Seymour's presence brought, she would not recognize it.
Seymour went openly to work. He began romping with the Princess, and his wife did what many women do in such a case: to prove to herself and everybody else that there was no harm in the romp, she joined it herself. There was no doubt as to Elizabeth's state of mind - Ashley had recognized it at once; but with the passion there was considerable fear. Seymour's boisterous approaches were liable to be alarming to a girl of fourteen, and one with, who knows what buried dread of men? Seymour would come into her bedchamber in the mornings. If she were up "he would strike her familiarly on the back and buttocks". If she were in bed he would open the bed curtain "and make as though he would come at her", while she "would go further into the bed". One morning he tried to kiss her in her bed, at which Mrs. Ashley, who slept in the Princess's room "bade him go away for shame". Elizabeth's bedroom, at Chelsea and at Seymour's town house, Seymour Place, was above the Queen Dowager's, and Seymour used to come up "in his nightgown, bare-legged in his slippers". Mrs. Ashley told him "it was a shame to see a man come so, bare-legged, to a maiden's chamber", but her protests were not taken seriously. The Queen Dowager, however, took to coming with her husband on his morning visits and one morning they both tickled the Princess as she lay in her bed. In the garden one day there was some startling horse-play, in which Seymour indulged in a practice often heard of in police courts; the Queen Dowager held Elizabeth so that she could not run away, while Seymour cut her black cloth gown into a hundred pieces. The cowering under bedclothes, the struggling and running away culminated in a scene of classical nightmare, that of helplessness in the power of a smiling ogre. Seymour had possessed himself of a masterkey, and early one morning at Chelsea, Elizabeth heard the privy lock undo, and, "knowing he would come in" - Seymour, smiling in his long red beard - " she ran out of her bed to her maidens and then went behind the curtains of the bed, the maidens being there; and my Lord tarried a long time in hopes she would come out". Afterwards, "she was commonly up and at her book", by the time Seymour came, and then he would merely look in at the door and say good morning. But he had overcome her initial resistance; the Queen Dowager, who was undergoing an uncomfortable pregnancy, could not bring herself to make her husband angry by protesting about his conduct, but she began to realize that he and Elizabeth were very often together; then one day in May, she went into a room unexpectedly and found Elizabeth in his arms.
There was no quarrel and no public appearance of her being sent away in disgrace, but it was decided she should remove with her establishment to the house of Sir Anthony Denny at Cheshunt. She and her train arrived there just after Whitsun, and Elizabeth wrote to her stepmother to say that at their parting she had been too much moved to thank her properly for her kindness, so sad was she to go away, leaving her "in doubtful health", and, she said, "albeit I answered little, I weighed it the more, when you said you would warn me of all evils you should hear of me, for if your Grace had not a good opinion of me, you would not have offered friendship to me that way".
The abrupt parting from Seymour, the disgrace and the contrition, and the warring of sexual excitement with deep-buried dread, all this coming upon her at the critical age of fourteen-and-a-half, coincided with, if it did not bring on, an illness. In Mrs. Ashley's words: "She was first sick about mid-summer." At times she was "sick in her bed", and so unwell for the rest of the year that Mrs. Ashley said she herself had never been more than a mile from the house."
For the next few years, the Princess suffered from intermittent ill health; she developed migraine attacks and pains in the eyes, and by the time she was twenty, it was a matter of common rumour, of particular interest to ambassadors, that her monthly periods were very few or none, a condition often accounted for by shock and emotional strain. In Elizabeth's history, the events of her mother's death, and that of her mother's cousin, and the engaging of her own affections by Seymour's outrageous siege, seem to have done her nervous system and her sexual development an injury from which they never recovered. But her loyalty in her affections remained unshaken. She wrote anxiously of her stepmother's condition, "so big with child and so sickly", and to Seymour she wrote a letter, brief and touching. She waived away an apology he made for not being able to fulfil some small promise:"I shall desire you to think that a greater matter than this could not make me impute any unkindness to you, for I am a friend not won with trifles, nor lost with the like."
In August the Queen Dowager's daughter was born, and in the delirium of fever, Catherine complained that those she had meant well to, and tried to be good to, stood around her bed, laughing at her pain. She died within a week, and was buried in the small chapel of Sudeley Castle. The chief mourner in the scene of sable draperies and attendants hooded in black was Lady Jane Grey, in deepest mourning, with a long mourning train upheld by another young lady.
Her parents now wished Lady Jane to return to them, but the child's body contained an infusion of the precious royal blood and Seymour did not intend to let her go. He held out a dazzling prospect: "If I can get the King at liberty, I dare warrant you he shall marry none other than Jane."
There was a second powerful and ambitious Seymour brother, who was to teach the teenage Elizabeth some malign lessons on the delusions of sexual desire and the snares of ruthless men who would be king. Thomas Lord Seymour of Sudeley, at nearly forty years old, still cut a dashing soldierly figure having distinguished himself in diplomatic, naval and military campaigns under Henry. He became Lord Admiral early in the reign of Edward VI under the protectorship of his own elder brother, Somerset. Thomas Seymour had not only been admired by Henry, he had been loved by his queen. In marrying the King rather than this love, Catherine Parr had sacrificed her heart for the sake of duty. However, on Henry's death her sense of obligation was fulfilled and after only four month, of widowhood, Catherine married Seymour. This was considered in indecorous haste, especially for a queen - and for a couple well into Tudor middle-age. But even more surprisingly the thirty-five year-old queen, who had remained childless throughout her first three marriages, now belatedly conceived. This could only enhance the self-confidence and reputation of an already proudly virile man. It seemed inevitable that such a man would have sired a son.
Elizabeth was still only thirteen when her stepmother, of whom she was most fond, married for love. The young Princess remained in her care, living principally with her at her dower houses at Chelsea and Hanworth. Ever curious and watchful, Elizabeth could not fail to have noted the effects of the sudden transformation in Catherine Parr's life. From patient, pious consort of an ailing elderly king she had been transmuted into a lover, desired and desiring.
Although not legally her step-father, Thomas Seymour assumed his role as head of the household and with his manly demeanour and exuberant animal spirits he became for the young Princess a charismatic figure of attraction and respect. Some twenty-five years her senior, Seymour in fact was old enough to be her father and the glamour of his varied heroic exploits in war and diplomatic dealings brought a welcome worldly masculinity into Elizabeth's cloistered female-dominated life.
Up until now, Elizabeth had never lived in daily proximity with a man other than her tutors and servants. Her father had been a distant, revered, almost superhuman figure to her, someone she strived to impress with something of her own talents and individuality, but it is unlikely that Henry offered her more than the scantiest recognition. From the start, there was evidence that Seymour paid Elizabeth most gratifying attention.
From a purely political point of view, Elizabeth was worthy of this attention for Seymour always had an eye for the main chance and this receptive young woman was a royal Princess, third in the line of succession. But Elizabeth was also attractive in her own right, tall with fair reddish-gold hair, fine pale skin and the incongruously dark eyes of her mother, alive with unmistakable intelligence and spirit. She was young, emotionally inexperienced and understandably hungry for recognition and love. She easily became a willing if uneasy partner in the verbal and then physical high jinks in the newly sexualised Parr-Seymour household.
Although I could not be plentiful in giving thanks for the manifold kindness received at your highness' hand at my
departure, yet I am something to be borne withal, for truly I was replete with sorrow to depart from your highness, especially leaving you undoubtful of health. And albeit I answered little, I weighed it more deeper when you said you would warn me of all evils that you should hear of me; for if your grace had not a good opinion of me, you would not have offered friendship to me that way that all men judge the contrary. But what may I more say than thank God for providing such friends to me, desiring God to enrich me with their long life, and me grace to be in heart no less thankful to receive it than I now am glad in writing to show it. And although I have plenty of matter, here I will stay for I know you are not quiet to read.
Since her marriage the Queen had undoubtedly moved steadily further towards Protestantism, and in the summer of 1546 her enemies at last saw an opportunity to pounce. In her little book of prayers and meditations, The Lamentation of a Sinner, which had recently been circulating in manuscript form, Katherine reminded her own sex that: `if they be women married, they learn of St Paul to be obedient to their husbands, and to keep silence in the congregation, and to learn of their husbands at home'. Unfortunately, there was to be an occasion towards the end of June 1546 when the Queen failed to follow this excellent advice - at least according to the story later told by John Foxe in his best-selling Book of Martyrs. Henry's dancing days were over now, and it was his wife's habit to sit with him in the evenings and endeavour to entertain him and take his mind off the pain of his ulcerated legs by inaugurating a
discussion on some serious topic, which inevitably meant some religious topic. On this particular occasion, Katherine seems to have allowed her enthusiasm to run away with her, and the King was provoked into grumbling to Stephen Gardiner: "A good hearing it is, when women become such clerks, and a thing much to my comfort to come in mine old days to be taught by my wife."
This, of course, was Gardiner's cue to warn his sovereign lord that he had reason to believe the Queen was deliberately undermining the stability of the state by fomenting heresy of the most odious kind and encouraging the lieges to question the wisdom of their prince's government. So much so, that the Council was "bold to affirm that the greatest subject in this land, speaking those words that she did speak and defending likewise those arguments that she did defend, had with impartial justice by law deserved death". Henry was all attention. Anything which touched the assurance of his own estate was not to be treated lightly, and he authorized an immediate enquiry into the orthodoxy of the Queen's household, agreeing that if any evidence of subversion were forthcoming, charges could be brought against Catherine herself.
Gardiner and his ally on the Council, the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley, planned to attack the Queen through her ladies and believed they possessed a valuable weapon in the person of Anne Kyme, better known by her maiden name of Anne Askew, a notorious heretic already convicted and condemned. Anne, a truculent and argumentative young woman who came from a well-known Lincolnshire family, had left her husband and come to London to seek a divorce. Quoting fluently from the Scriptures, she claimed that her marriage was to longer valid in the sight of God, for had not St Paul written: "If a faithful woman have an unbelieving husband, which will not tarry with her she may leave him"? (Thomas Kyme was an old-fashioned Catholic who objected strongly to his wife's Bible-punching propensities.)
Anne failed to get her divorce, but her zeal, her sharp tongue and her lively wit soon made her a well; known figure in Protestant circles. Inevitably she soon came up against the law, and In March 1546 she was arrested on suspicion of heresy, specifically on a charge of denying the Real Presence in the sacrament of the altar. Pressed by Bishop Bonner on this vital point, Anne hesitated and was finally persuaded to sign a confession which amounted to an only slightly qualified statement of orthodox belief. A few days later she was released from gaol and went home to Lincolnshire - not to her husband but to her brother Sir Francis Askew.
Throughout that spring the conservative counter-attack gathered momentum, and by early summer a vigorous anti-heresy drive was in progress. At the end of May Thomas Kyme and his wife were summoned to appear before the Council. Although not proved, it's probable that the initiative for this move came from Kyme himself. Anne had refused to obey the order of the Court of Chancery to return to him, nor is it likely that he wanted her back. At the same time, he was in an invidious position, deserted-and defied by his wife and unable to marry again. It cannot have failed to occur to him that only Anne's death would finally solve his problems. Armed with a royal warrant and backed up by the Bishop of Lincoln (who had a long score to settle with Anne), Thomas Kyme forcibly removed her from her brother's protection and carried her off to London.
The Council's summons was ostensibly about the matrimonial issue, and Kyme was soon dismissed, but Anne, `for that she was very obstinate and heady in reasoning of matters of religion, wherein she avowed herself to be of a naughty opinion', was committed to Newgate prison to face renewed heresy charges. All through the following week determined efforts were made to wring from her a second and more complete recantation. The bishops were not anxious to make martyrs - retractions, especially from the better-known Protestants, would obviously be more valuable for propaganda purposes - but Anne was not to be caught a second time. When Stephen Gardiner tried his charm on her, begging her to believe he was her friend, concerned only with her soul's health, she retorted that that was just the attitude adopted by Judas "when he unfriendly betrayed Christ". Any lingering doubts and fears had passed. She knew now, with serene certainty, what Christ wanted from her, and she was ready to give it. At her trial on 28 June she flatly rejected the existence of any priestly miracle in the eucharist. "As for that ye call your God, it is a piece of bread. For a more proof thereof... let it but lie in the box three months and it will be mouldy." After that, there could be no question of the verdict, and sentence of death by burning was duly passed on this self-confessed and obstinate heretic.
Anne Askew is an interesting example often educated, highly intelligent, passionate woman destined to become the victim of the society in which she lived - a woman who could not accept her circumstances but fought an angry, hopeless battle against them. She was unquestionably sincere in her religious convictions - to what extent she also used them unconsciously to sublimate tensions and frustrations which might otherwise have been unbearable, we can only speculate. To Thomas Wriothesley the interesting thing about her was the fact that she was known to have close connections with the Court. Two of her brothers were in the royal service, and she was friendly with John Lassells - the same who had betrayed Katherine Howard five years before. It's highly probable that Anne had attended some of the Biblical study sessions in the Queen's apartments, and she was certainly acquainted with some of the Queen's ladies. If it could now be shown that any of these ladies - perhaps even the Queen herself- had been in touch with her since her recent arrest; if it could be proved that they had been encouraging her to stand firm in her heresy, then the Lord Chancellor would have ample excuse for an attack on Catherine Parr.
Anne was therefore transferred to the Tower, where she received a visit from Wriothesley and his henchman Sir Richard Rich, the Solicitor General, but the interview proved a disappointment. She denied having received any visits while she had been in prison, and no one had willed her to stick to her opinions. Her maid had been given ten shillings by a man in a blue coat who said that Lady Hertford had sent it, and eight shillings by another man in a violet coat who said it came from Lady Denny, but whether this was true or not she didn't know, it was only what her maid had told her.
Convinced that Anne could have given them a long list of highly-placed secret sympathizers, and infuriated perhaps by her air of stubborn righteousness, Wriothesley ordered her to be stretched on the rack. This was not only illegal without a proper authorization from the Privy Council, it was unheard of to apply torture to a woman, let alone a gentlewoman like Anne Askew with friends in the outside world, and the Lieutenant ant of the Tower hastily dissociated himself from the whole proceeding. As a result, there followed a quite unprecedented scene, with the Lord Chancellor of England stripping off his gown and personally turning the handle of the rack. It was a foolish thing to do. Anne told him nothing more, if indeed there was anything to tell, and, since the story of her constancy soon got about, he'd only succeeded in turning her into a popular heroine.
The plot against the Queen fizzled out, largely due to the King's intervention. He took care that Katherine should receive advance warning of what was being planned for her and gave her the opportunity to explain that of course she had never for one moment intended to lay down the law to him, her lord and master, her only anchor, supreme head and governor here on earth. It was preposterous - against the ordinance of nature - for any woman to presume to teach her husband; it was she who must be taught by him. As for herself, if she had ever seemed bold enough to argue, it had not been to maintain her own opinions but to encourage discussion so that he might `pass away the weariness of his present infirmity' and she might profit by hearing his learned discourse! Satisfied, the King embraced his wife, and an affecting reconciliation took place.
If any real evidence of treasonable heresy had been uncovered in the Queen's household - if Henry had seriously suspected that Catherine was connected with any group which planned to challenge his own mandate from Heaven-then this story might have ended differently. As it was, he'd apparently been sufficiently irritated to feel that it would do her no harm to be taught a lesson, to be given a fright and a sharp warning not to meddle in matters which were no concern of outsiders, however privileged. Katherine, with her usual good sense, took the warning to heart, and there's no mention of any further theological disputations, even amicable ones, between husband and wife.
The Queen was unable to save Anne Askew, but her martyrdom on 16 July 1546 marked the end of the conservative resurgence, and by the time of the old King's death in the following January the progressive party was once more taking the lead.
Throughout his reign Henry had periodically displayed a compulsive need to demonstrate that he was in charge, and his brinkmanship over Cranmer's arrest may have been another example of that unlovable trait. If so, then the conservative position may have been less damaged by the debacle than appeared. In 1545 a Yorkshire gentlewoman named Anne Askew was arrested on suspicion of being a sacramentary. Her views were extreme, and pugnaciously expressed, so she would probably have ended at the stake in any case but her status gave her a particular value to the orthodox. This was greatly enhanced in the following year by the arrest of Dr Edward Crome, who, under interrogation, implicated a number of other people, both at court and in the City of London. Anne had been part of the same network, and she was now tortured for the purpose of establishing her links with the circle about the Queen, particularly Lady Denny and the Countess of Hertford. She died without revealing much of consequence, beyond the fact that she was personally known to a number of Catherine's companions, who had expressed sympathy for her plight. The Queen meanwhile continued to discuss theology, piety and the right use the bible, both with her friends and also with her husband. This was a practice, which she had established in the early days of their marriage, and Henry had always allowed her a great deal of latitude, tolerating from her, it was said, opinions which no one else dared to utter. In taking advantage of this indulgence to urge further measures of reform, she presented her enemies with an opening. Irritated by her performance on one occasion, the King complained to Gardiner about the unseemliness of being lectured by his wife. This was a heaven-sent opportunity, and undeterred by his previous failures, the bishop hastened to agree, adding that, if the King would give him permission he would produce such evidence that, "his majesty would easily perceive how perilous a matter it is to cherish a serpent within his own bosom". Henry gave his consent, as he had done to the arrest of Cranmer, articles were produced and a plan was drawn up for Catherine's arrest, the search of her chambers, and the laying of charges against at least three of her privy chamber.
The greatest secrecy was observed, and the unsuspecting Queen continued with her evangelical sessions. Henry even signed the articles against her. Then, however, the whole plot was leaked in mysterious circumstances. A copy of the articles, with the King's signature on it, was accidentally dropped by a member of the council, where it was found and brought to Catherine, who promptly collapsed. The King sent one of his physicians, a Dr Wendy, to attend upon her, and Wendy, who seems to have been in the secret, advised her to throw herself upon Henry's mercy. No doubt Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard would have been grateful for a similar opportunity, but this was a different story. Seeking out her husband, the Queen humbly submitted herself, "... to your majesty's wisdom,, as my only anchor". She had never pretended to instruct, but only to learn, and had spoken to him of Godly things in order to ease and cheer his mind.
Henry, so that story goes, was completely disarmed, and a perfect reconciliation was affected, so that when Sir Thomas Wriothesley arrived at Whitehall the following day with an armed guard, he found all his suspects walking with the King in the garden, and was sent on his way with a fearsome ear-bending. Had the conservatives walked into another well-baited trap? As related by Foxe, the whole story has an air of melodramatic unreality about it, but it bears a striking resemblance to the two stories of Cranmer, which come from a different source. Whether Henry was playing games with his councillors in order to humiliate them, or with his wife in order to reassure himself of her submissiveness, or whether he was genuinely wavering between two courses of action, we shall probably never know. In outline the story is probably correct, and we may never be able to disentangle Foxe's embellishments. The consequences, in any case, were real enough. Gardiner finally lost the King's favour, and did not recover it, so that he was deliberately omitted from the regency council which Henry shortly after set up for his son's anticipated minority.
Catherine was reported to have been in love with Seymour for years, even before she married Henry VIII, and so responded enthusiastically to his advances. They married, in secret, in mid-April 1547 and Seymour now became Elizabeth's stepfather, moving in with the princess and Catherine at Chelsea.
It was here that on many mornings during the next year, Thomas Seymour would go to Elizabeth's Bedchamber, unlock the door and silently enter... One morning when he tried to kiss Elizabeth in her bed, her long-serving governess, Kat Ashley, "bade him go away for shame". Yet the encounters continued. On one occasion when the household was staying at his London residence, Seymour made an early morning visit to Elizabeth in her Bedchamber, "bare legged", wearing only his nightshirt and gown. Kat Ashley reprimanded him for such "an unseemly sight in a maiden's chamber!" and he stormed out in a rage.
On two mornings, at Hanworth in Middlesex, another of Catherine's residences, the queen dowager herself joined Seymour in his visit to Elizabeth's Bedchamber and on this occasion they both tickled the young princess in her bed. Later that day, in the garden, Seymour cut Elizabeth's dress into a hundred pieces while Catherine held her down."
The involvement of Catherine here is even more puzzling than that of the others. She had fallen pregnant soon after the marriage, so perhaps this made her jealousy more intense and her behaviour more reckless; maybe she was seeking to maintain Seymour's affection and interest in her by joining in his "horseplay". Perhaps she feared that Elizabeth was developing something of a teenage infatuation with her stepfather. In any case Katherine soon decided that enough was enough and in May 1548, Elizabeth was sent to live with Sir Anthony Denny and his wife Joan at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. Denny was a leading member of the Edwardian government and Joan was Kat Ashley's sister. Before Elizabeth left her stepmother's house, Catherine, then six months pregnant, had pointedly warned her stepdaughter of the damage malicious rumours might do to her reputation.