Catherine Parr was Henry VIII’s sixth, and final, wife. Yes, she was the one that survived. However, she was much more than just the wife that survived and today’s post is about her contributions to English literature and English religion in the Tudor era. I know that her name was also spelt Katherine, Katheryn, Kateryn and Katharine but I’ll be sticking to Catherine in this post because that’s what I learnt when I was in primary school and I haven’t moved on since then.
Also, a quick disclaimer: Parr’s views about religion are obviously not my own. Please remember that these texts were produced during the 1540s – during the first English Reformation – and Catherine Parr had very strong opinions.
Catherine Parr wrote and published three religious books:
- Psalms or Prayers (1544)
- Prayers or Meditations (1545)
- The Lamentation of a Sinner (1547)
Each book shows the progression of Catherine Parr’s writing, from translation to original work, and I want to spend a little bit of time exploring each individually.
Psalms or Prayers was the first book published by Catherine Parr who, at the time, was Queen consort of England. It is an English translation of the Latin Psalms which was published by John Fisher in c.1525.
She published the book anonymously through the King’s printer, Thomas Berthelet, but Janel M. Mueller argues that the translation is Catherine’s work for a number of reasons. Notably, two extant prints from the original run of twenty copies were gifts from Catherine to Henry VIII, her husband, and William Parr, her brother.
It has been stated that the translation revealed Catherine’s Protestant sympathies. England had a complicated relationship with Protestantism during the reign of Henry VIII and I’d describe the Church of England as both Anglo-Catholic and semi-Protestant at this time. Henry VIII still had Catholic advisors and there were Catholics at court – who did not like Catherine Parr – but the CoE had adopted certain Protestant ideas. During the latter years of his reign, Henry was committed to mixing Catholicism and Protestantism in the English Church.
Parr made some interesting changes to the text and these changes are, as pointed out by Mueller and Micheline White, most prominent in ‘A Prayer for the King’. White emphasises that this translation was written and published around the time that Henry went to war with France and Parr’s translation of ‘A Prayer for the King’ works to affirm Henry’s virility and masculinity but also ‘served (amongst other things) to represent Henry to God, his courtiers, his soldiers, and his people as a particular kind of Davidic monarch’.1 This translation reflected the events of the time and Henry VIII’s needs as he prepared for war.
Prayers or Meditations, written in 1545, was the first book published in England by a woman under her own name and in the English language. Mueller states that the book was first printed on the 2nd of June under the title Prayers stirryng the mynd vnto heauenlye medytacions and this edition reprinted two non-biblical prayers that originally featured in Psalms or Prayers.2 The definitive edition, which was the third edition of the book, was first printed on the 6th of November of the same year.
It was sixty pages of vernacular texts that Catherine Parr used for personal devotion. Catherine based the book on the fifteenth-century Catholic devotional book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis but she altered it to suit the practices and beliefs of the developing Church of England and her own beliefs. Mueller acknowledges several ‘divergences’ in the ‘theological and psychological outlook’ between the work of Thomas à Kempis and Parr’s book which only ‘widen as Parr excerpts and reworks her source’.3 She imbued the book with her own spirituality but respected the word of the Bible to such an extent that she quoted it verbatim, never deviating from the word of the Bible when she included it. All three editions of Prayers or Meditations were a success among English readers during Catherine’s lifetime.
Parr is thought to have envisaged this book as a private counterpart to the Exhortation and Litany by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, which was intended for public devotion, and Mueller argues that this was an ‘ambitious’ and ‘autonomous’ project by Parr who sought to provide English readers – including Henry VIII – with a private devotional experience.4
Princess Elizabeth (who later became Elizabeth I) even translated it into Latin, French and Italian as a New Year’s gift to Henry VIII and Catherine. Imagine getting a trilingual translation of your own book as a present from your stepdaughter.
The Lamentation of a Sinner, Parr’s wholly original work, was the first conversion narrative published in England. It is thought to have been written in the autumn of 1546 at the latest and the manuscript was circulated at court in November of the same year. The book was eventually printed in November 1547, after Henry VIII’s death, but it was much less circulated among English readers than Parr’s previous works.
Reading this was an odd experience, even today, because it feels like a very personal book. It’s written in first person and it recounts Parr’s own religious experience and her journey towards the faith that she’s so confident in. The first section is confessional as Parr details her life before she, to quote Parr, ‘knew Christ’ and parts of this section are very striking. There’s one moment where she’s talking about ignorance in which she says:
Such were the fruits of my carnal and human reasons, to have rotten ignorance in price, for ripe and seasonable knowledge. Such also is the malice and wickedness that possesseth men; such is the wisdom and pleasing of the flesh.5
These lines strike me as uncomfortably honest, especially as they were written by a queen during the Tudor era, as she admits that she did not accept Jesus and God but, instead, happily lived in sin with ‘blind […] Ignorance’ guiding her.6 Just before this she also says ‘I made a great idol of myself; for I loved myself better than God’ and this bit made me raise my eyebrows a bit because I couldn’t believe that Catherine had admitted to so great a sin.7 I know that this is a conversion narrative (a document detailing her own conversion to Protestantism from Catholicism or ‘Ignorance’) and she also was trying to encourage other Christians in England to consider Protestantism more seriously – some bits of this book are blatantly pushing forward an anti-Catholic narrative – but it also feels too personal to be reading. I felt as though I was intruding upon her diary or something like that even though she wrote this with the intention of it being published for all to read.
Catherine also writes about the disconnect between Christians: ‘It is much to be lamented: the schisms, varieties, contentions, and the disputations that have been, and are, in the world about Christian religion; and no agreement or concord of the same, amongst the learned men.’8 This is a bit odd because she too was advocating for a specific branch of Christianity but perhaps she thought she could unite all Christians under her own understanding of Protestantism. I’m not sure. She goes on to, very briefly, mention how ‘unlearned’ people – which, at this point in time, was most of the population of England – had a different relationship with God because their access to the Bible was restricted. During the 1540s, there was a lot of conflict surrounding the English Bible and in 1546 all English-language Bibles were burnt except for the Great Bible (the first authorised English Bible) and Henry VIII actually attempted to restrict the use of the Great Bible to certain social classes. Catherine speaks so frankly about her own privilege and it seems like she did truly care about the people of England – if only on a spiritual or religious level – as she advocated for their access to the English Bible.
In the later sections of this piece there is a clear sense of anti-Catholicism as Catherine argues, in her simple and unlearned judgement’, that people should not follow the doctrines of men (by which she means Catholic clerics) because they are ‘so blinded with the love of themselves and the world, that they extol men’s inventions and doctrines, before the doctrine of the Gospel’.9 This argument against Catholicism became very common in England later in the Reformation, especially in the reign of Elizabeth I, but Catherine is leaning into it even in 1546/7. She was definitely a Reformist at heart. At one point, she refers to the Bishop of Rome as ‘riffraff’ and I apologise to any Roman Catholics reading this but that bit actually made me laugh.
Catherine’s The Lamentation of a Sinner is just fascinating because it reveals so much about her and her beliefs. I could have written a whole series of posts just about that one book.
Researching this was absolutely fascinating for me because I’m really interested in the development of English religion after Henry VIII’s reformation but if you want to read more about Catherine Parr and her work then I’d really recommend Mueller’s book*. It is rather expensive – as most academic texts are – but it does include detailed background info, excellent analysis, and complete versions of each of Catherine’s books.
If you enjoyed this post or found it interesting then please consider buying me a coffee or, if you’re interested in any of the books I’ve talked about in this post, check out my bookshop.org* list which features all of the books I’ll be talking about during Women’s History Month!
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1. White, Micheline, ‘The Psalms, War, And Royal Iconography: Katherine Parr’s Psalms Or Prayers (1544) And Henry VIII As David’, Renaissance Studies, 29 (2015), 554-575 (555)
2. Janel M. Mueller, Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), p.369
3. Mueller, Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence, p.378
4. Mueller, Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence, p.370
5. Catherine Parr, ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’, in Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), p.452
6. Catherine Parr, ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’, in Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), p.449
7. Catherine Parr, ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’, in Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), p.449
8. Catherine Parr, ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’, in Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), p.469
9. Catherine Parr, ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’, in Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), p.470
1. Queen Catherine Parr (1512–1548) attributed to Master John (c.1600) – via National Trust
2. Title page of Prayers or Meditations by Catherine Parr (1550) – via Folger Shakespeare Library
3. Title page of The Lamentation of a Sinner by Catherine Parr (1547) – via Folger Shakespeare Library