Sunday, May 8, 2011

Little Reviews (1): The Sixth Wife

                  Katherine the Queen :The Remarkable Life of  Katherine Parr,  The Last Wfe of  Henry VIII, by Linda Porter  St. Martins Press.
         The Tudors and their colorful  era continue to fascinate us.  Granted, Henry the Seventh , after a promising beginning at Bosworth field, turned out to be an colorless, if efficient, ruler, : but virtually  all of his successors  were a colorful lot, with an aura of glamour and myth clinging to them. From television  ( The Tudors) to movies ( Elizabeth : The Golden Age) to novels middle-brow ( The Other Boleyn Girl) and high- brow ( Wolf Hall ), their stories have been told and retold. Yet  still, some nooks and crannies remain largely obscure. Now, light has been shed on one such almost forgotten figure.
          As almost everybody knows, the wives of Henry The Eighth were an unhappy lot.  The first, a Spanish Princess, could not produce a male heir and was discarded. The second was executed on trumped-up charges of adultery.. The third finally gave both to the son  he always wanted, though she died in the attempt and  the poor fellow grew up to  to be a sickly, short-lived weakling. The fourth, a German Princess, proved too plain for Henry's taste and was discarded as well. The fifth proved to be a strumpet and was executed on not so trumped -up charges of adultery.
            And there was the sixth, the least known of all. The now decrepit (and obese ) Henry, worn out from his lusts, sports, and gluttony's, needed a companion in his dotage and found one, in the person of one Katherine Parr. When she is mentioned in most  history books, the impression one gets is that she was a rather boring, respectable widow lady , from the lower nobility, and that she managed to make sure that the dying years of the monarch were tranquil ones. However, such an impression would be highly misleading. At least; the first half of the sentence  is misleading. She did give the old monarch some measure of happiness; but she was far from boring, as a new biography manages to show.

            Linda  Porter has already proven herself to be a formidable, learned, revisionist historian of England in the Age of the Tudors. Her first foray in sixteenth century biography, The Myth of  "Bloody Mary", won plaudits from almost all reviewers for finally shattering the historical demonology encrusted around that much  maligned monarch. Now she has turned to the task of rescuing Katherine Parr from her little deserved obscurity.
              It is a fascinating tale, after all.  Katherine Parr had already been twice widowed when she was chosen to be the sixth wife. She came from the lower nobility of the north of  England, allied with such formidable families as the Nevilles and the Percy's. The Parr's chose to be loyal to the White Rose rather than the Red, but still did well enough in the Wars of the Roses  to attain a measure of wealth and power. Katherine's mother, herself a formidable figure, made sure her intelligent and pretty daughter had a much better education than was customary for most women of her era. 
               Katherine was married twice before she became a Queen. Her first husband, Thomas Burough, was a minor nobleman and courtier who has left faint footprints in the sands of history. Her second husband, Lord Latimer played a major role in that complex historical tragedy, the " "pilgrimage of grace ", as an less than successful intermediary between the Catholic rebels of the North and the Crown.
               After Henry had his fifth wife, the adulteress Katherine Howard ( Henry seems to have had an obsssession with marying women named Katherine or Anne- the only one exception was  Jane Seymour.) sent off to her dubious cosmic reward, he soon realized he needed a new companion, and she ought to be more intelligent, more dependable, and less lusty than the fifth wife. He soon found someone who possessed all these qualities in Lord Latimer's widow. In Ms. Porter's words, " ( Katherine was ) an intelligent,determined but also vivacious woman who very consciously set about establishing an image and role for herself. " Unlike her immediate predecessor she was a woman of dignity and good sense; unlike all of her predecessors she was determined to be an excellent mother to all three of her children- and succceded admirably at the task. In short, she was a complex woman, both a person in love with finery and pomp and  someone  of sincere religious devotion. She even wrote numerous  pious texts herself, including a volume oddly titled, Lamentation of a Sinner.  ( Her own sins do not seem to have been numerous.)
               Katherine was more than a devoted wife and an able mother, she was a ruler in her own right. Henry made her regent of England, tasked with running the domestic affairs of the kingdom when he was away on foreign business, negotiating with the French or warring against the Scots. In this role, Katherine made an indelible impression on the ablest of her children, Elizabeth.  Again in Ms. Porter's words:

                                       While Elizabeth watched, Katherine governed England. This
                      practical lesson was far more valuable than anything her tutors could have
                      devised, and it left an indelible impression.
             The only real danger to Katherine's survival as Queen came when Bishop Stephen Gardiner, an determined foe of further religious reform, tried to paint her as too fervent a Protestant, and even as a sympathizer with the radical religious enthusiast Anne Askew. Askew ended up being tortured on the rack and dying at the stake. Katherine survived, thanks to bother her own political acumen and, as Ms. Porter points out, Henry's very sincere love for his wife.
                                             In the end, Katherine had been saved because this old man,
                         so often represented as a monster in his last days, sincerely loved his sixth
                         wife. He had grown tired of marital failure and he appreciated what
                          Katherine brought to his wife and family. So she survived.

                 On the twenty-eighth day on January, 1547, Henry died, and Katherine began a very different, if short,  phase of her life. She found a fourth husband in the person of a 'dashing sea dog" named Thomas Seymour and returned to writing the religious texts which had aroused Stephen Gardiner's ire. Her own death on on the fifth of September, 1548, was followed by dignified funeral in the reformed Protestant fashion. It is said that when her body was exhumed almost two hundred years later, her flesh remained  uncorruppted. That is a matter for dispute.What is not a matter for dispute is that she played  a crucial role,  perhaps the crucial role, in shaping the character of Elizabeth the First, the monarch who did more than any other  to shape the power and destiny of England. Thus, in her own modest way, Katherine Parr did much to help shape modernity. That was her greatest accomplishment.
                  Katherine Parr's personal motto was " To be useful in all I do." Readers of Linda Porter's book, who promise to be numerous, will find it more than simply useful, they will find it  thoughtful, informative, and entertaining.

                   Verdict: A delightful biography, shedding new light on a much studied , but still misunderstood, chapter of British- and human- history. Five stars out of five.






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