Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr by Linda Porter

While Susan James continues to be the definitive biographer of Katherine Parr who studied her for 20 plus years, Porter is a good second choice for someone looking for insight into Henry VIII's last queen and the one who gets glossed over the most.

Porter includes extensive chapters on Katherine's writings and delves fairly deeply into her second marriage to John Neville, Lord Latimer. She is less extensive about the Edward Borough marriage but that is because there is less material available beyond the few legal documents of the time. She does follow the recent scholarship that her first husband was the grandson not the grandfather and makes a claim that the grandfather died in 1528 (most sources list 1529 the year of Katherine's marriage).

In her discussions of Katherine's years as queen she makes some interesting discoveries. One, Porter believes that there is no evidence that Katherine Parr held a position in Lady Mary's household. The evidence a bill for payment for clothing for Katherine and her stepdaughter that was not paid until Katherine became queen is convincing posited as being a reference to Katherine's other less famous stepdaughter, Margaret Neville. Porter gives evidence that Katherine was regularly tardy in paying her bills giving several instances of the queen's expenses being paid late.

And she gives a fair discussion of the threat to Katherine and her senior ladies in waiting during the Anne Askew episode. The main evidence is in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments and while there is no contemporary evidence of Katherine comingthisclose to being arrested for heresy there is evidence in the final year of Henry VIII's life of Katherine stopping her religious writings and translation projects and focusing on her duties when meeting diplomats and other ornamental duties.

An interesting discussion is on the influence she had on her two royal stepdaughters convincing Mary to translate the Erasmus paraphrase of the Gospel of St. John, which due to illness she was unable to complete. And Porter quotes from one of Katherine's letters to Mary telling Mary that she should not feel ashamed to take partial credit for the translation as it was her work.

And it is fairly well known the influence she had on Elizabeth. Most are aware of Elizabeth's gifts to Katherine of a translation of The Mirror of the Sinful Soul in 1544 and to her father of a triple translation of Katherine's Prayers and Meditations in 1546. However, few probably are aware that the same New Year of 1546 Elizabeth made another gift to her stepmother of a translation of the first chapter of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Another revelation is that Katherine Parr consulted with lawyers about her not being named regent for King Edward VI.

Then there is the Queen's fourth marriage to Thomas Seymour. Thomas Seymour has been vilified over the centuries. Some recent biographers including Susan James have tried to rehabilitate some of his reputation. A lot of the bad press such as his trying to marry Mary, Elizabeth and Anne of Cleves before settling on Katherine Parr dates to the time of his arrest for treason. How many are aware that there are extant love letters between Katherine and Thomas that date from the spring of 1547? James alludes to the letters but Porter quotes them extensively. From the letters it is clear that Katherine and Thomas became lovers probably by March of 1547 (there are references in one letter telling Thomas that he has to leave by 7 a.m.)

Yes it is true that his behavior with Elizabeth was unwise to say the least. But, many forget that in the testimony Katherine took part in some of the inappropriate behavior. And despite the problems it is interesting that the Duchess of Somerset who hated Katherine Parr was not bothered by the reports of the early morning romping, but by the fact that Katherine Ashley let Elizabeth go unchaperoned on a boat ride on the Thames and that the Marquess and Marchioness of Dorset, Lady Jane Grey's parents never reported hints of scandal while their daughter was Seymour's ward and did not receive their daughter back until the death of Queen Katherine.

There are a couple of frustrating moments in the book. When Porter makes an assertion usually there is a chapter note, but on occasion such as the death date of the senior Edward Borough, which is new information, she doesn't. And, as in her Queen Mary biography she can be a bit of an apologist. But, I do recommend the Katherine book, it is a good second choice for scholarship to Susan James.

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