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Katherine Parr was the sixth and final wife of King Henry VIII of England, and one of only two who survived his reign. With four marriages in her lifetime, Katherine Parr was the most married of any English Queen. A champion of female education and a wily politician, Katherine survived several attempts to remove her from power as Queen. She outlived her royal husband only to have a disastrous fourth marriage that is considered by some to have lead to her death.
Born in 1512, Katherine Parr was married at the age of 15 to the elderly Baron of Gainsborough. He died in 1533, and Katherine was quickly courted and married to another elderly nobleman, Lord Latimer. For nearly ten years, Katherine nursed her husband, until he died in 1543. At last free to pursue her own interests, Katherine focused heavily on her education, studying with Lady Mary, the elder daughter of Henry VIII. Although she had a brief affair with Thomas Seymour, brother to the late Queen Jane Seymour, Henry VIII soon expressed his interest in the intelligent, patient woman and Katherine Parr married the King in July of 1543.
At this point, Henry was growing old and suffered constantly from an infection to his leg. Katherine, unlike most of her predecessors, was a confidante and nursemaid instead of an object of lust. But intelligent Katherine, unable to stay out of politics, was arrested and nearly lost her head when she attempted to meddle in politics on behalf of the Protestant Church. Wisely, Katherine threw herself at Henry’s feet, begging his forgiveness. Henry relented, and Katherine’s place as queen remained secure.
One of Katherine Parr’s most storied achievements was persuading Henry to re-instate his two daughters in the line of succession. Henry had removed them as his heirs many years before, as punishment for the behavior of their mothers, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Under the rule of Katherine Parr, both Mary and Elizabeth were brought back to court and given their rightful titles of Princess. Katherine formed close relationships with both girls, even taking Elizabeth into her household after the death of the king.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, the Dowager Queen Katherine retired to her estates at Chelsea and secretly married Thomas Seymour. Records say that Katherine was deeply in love with Seymour, and felt at last she deserved a husband of her choosing. While pregnant with Seymour’s child, however, Katherine discovered her that the ambitious Seymour was wooing the 14-year old Princess Elizabeth in an attempt to gain power. Horrified, Katherine sent Elizabeth away, never to see her again.
Days after giving birth to a daughter, Katherine Parr died in September 1548. Delirious with fever, Katherine signed a will leaving all of her possessions and fortunes to her husband. Experts disagree, but a strong faction believes that Thomas Seymour forced Katherine to sign the document, refusing to send for medical help until she signed.
Katherine Parr is remembered for her devotion to learning and her championship of education for girls. Under her guidance, Princess Elizabeth was educated by the finest of tutors, preparing her for life on the throne of England. Katherine’s far-sighted insistence that Henry reinstate the princesses as heirs prevented a bloody and possibly catastrophic war of succession when Henry’s son, King Edward VI, died in adolescence. The life of this highly educated and wise woman was filled with personal disappointments, but she figured heavily into the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I, widely considered one of England’s greatest monarchs.