What Saved Katherine Parr?

Katherine Parr, British Library, Public Domain



Three of Henry VIII's wives were the subject of (at the time) secret investigations concerning their private lives. Their husband signed the warrant for each of their arrests, which led to the executions of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and Catherine Howard in 1542. 

So how was Katherine Parr able to defeat her enemies and watch the halberdiers that had come to arrest her march away awkwardly into the distance? What actions did she take that the others didn't, and what went in her favour?

I think there are two main reasons Katherine was successful in avoiding arrest - and potentially a terrible burning at the stake. The first was that not only did Katherine receive prior notice of her seizure (a copy of the arrest warrant was secretively left near her apartments a few days before) (1) but she also managed to get to Henry in person to give her side of the story. A kind of one on one, informal trial, between the two of them. Both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were quickly arrested and by the time of their arrests Henry had already left the scene, leaving them solely in the hands of their enemies.

Katherine was accused of heresy. She had her own views on religion, and debated the subject with the king. Robert Hutchinson argues that, as her enemies could not bring her down for reasons of impropriety (she was extremely loyal to Henry and avoided scandal) they pounced on her religious views instead.

It's said that when Katherine learned of her impending arrest, she visited Henry late one summer's night in his bedchamber, telling him she was 'a poor, silly woman, accompanied by all the imperfections natural to the weakness of her sex.' She told him, softly, that she thought it 'preposterous for a women to instruct her lord,' and said that she only debated religion with him in the hope she might learn more from her 'majesty's learned discourse.' (2)

This cleverly-managed soothing of Henry's ego did the trick. Katherine was by no means a 'poor, silly woman' - she was well educated, would go on to write at least three works of her own and spoke Latin, French, Italian and was learning Spanish. By appealing to Henry's good nature - and easily bruised ego - she softened him, and he replied: 'then perfect friends we are now, as ever any time heretofore.' (2)

There's also a lot of evidence suggesting that Henry just wasn't the same man he was in 1536 or 1542. By 1546 he was weary, tired and felt old. He had seen numerous advisers and courtiers brought down by their enemies and it's naive to suggest that Henry wasn't aware of it. In fact, from comments he made around this time, we know that he was.

In his address to parliament on Christmas Eve 1545, Henry denounced this kind of divisive behaviour. In a long and carefully worded speech he spoke out that 'charity and concord is not among you, but discord and dissension bears rule in every place' and urged those present to 'be in charity with one another, like brother and brother... and then I doubt not the love and league... shall never be dissolved or broken between us.' (3)

Henry also had words for Cranmer and his enemies in 1543. After Cranmer's arrest, Henry told the men present: 'I perceive now well enough how the world goes among you. There remains malice among you, one to another. Let it be avoided out of hand, I would advise you.' (4) And to Cranmer: 'Lord God! What fond simplicity you have! Do you not consider... how many great enemies you have? Do you not think that once they have you in prison, three or four false knaves will be procured to [stand] witness against you and to condemn you?' (5) Henry knew how snake-like his court could be and his comments suggest that he was sick of it. 

All this gives us a better insight then, into Henry's behaviour as he sat with his wife and her ladies in the lush gardens that summer at Greenwich Palace. They slowly raised their eyes as Wriothesley, Henry's Lord Chancellor - along with a group of soldiers brandishing halberds - appeared in the distance marching towards them. Henry hadn't called off the arrest after his late-night talks with Katherine and so they arrived at the designated time to take her. Henry rebuked it at the last minute, calling Wriothesley an 'arrant knave' and a 'beast and fool'. The Lord Chancellor and his men turned, presumably confused and red-faced, and left. (6)

And with the dull thud of the halberdiers' boots in the distance, Katherine was saved. 

So how? Well, firstly she was able to put her view across, appeal to whatever was left of Henry's good nature and cleverly play the 'silly', dutiful wife. Secondly, Henry was clearly fed up with the infighting at court. Over his 37-year rule at this point, he had seen two of his queens manipulated against and supplanted by successors. Catherine of Aragon by the Boleyns and Anne Boleyn by the Seymours and Thomas Cromwell. Henry couldn't live at the centre of his court and not understand what was going on. In fact, it's obvious, from his own words, that he did. 

ETA: A brilliant follower on Instagram has reminded me that Anne and Catherine were arrested for adultery - which was far more treasonous in putting the line of succession into jeopardy, whereas Katherine Parr's arrest for heresy was less severe. I do agree that this had a bearing, and that charges of adultery hurt Henry's pride more than those of religion so it became a personal insult, rather than a constitutional one. It also explains why he left court before either of their arrests, but stayed for Parr's. I still stand by the idea that the points above helped save her from the same fate as the other heretics burned under Henry VIII. Would Anne Boleyn have settled her dubious charges of adultery if she were able to talk to him herself? Even if he didn't believe her, could she have convinced him to at least reduce the punishment to life in a nunnery, or seclusion? The plots swirling around the Tudor court were definitely deadly, and it seems that you were in special danger if you were Henry's queen. Controlling the queen gives influence and power, and it's no wonder so many tried to bring them down.  

What do you think? Were there any other factors in Katherine Parr's escape from arrest? 
Let me know in the comments below... 


Notes
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1. Robert Hutchinson, The Decline and Fall of a Tyrant, 2019. p271
2. Ibid., p272
3. Ibid., p263
4. Ibid., 260
5. Ibid., p258
6. Ibid., 273

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