Catherine Parr c. 1513-1548
English autobiographer and editor.
The sixth wife of King Henry VIII, Parr was known in her day for her piety and learning as well her immensely popular devotional works. The volume she edited, Prayers or Meditations (1545), was one of the earliest Protestant devotional works, and her spiritual autobiography, The Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner (1547), was one of the first Protestant confessionals and an especially unusual publication for a woman of her day. A devoted humanist, Parr worked tirelessly to make religious works available to the English reading public, and her works reveal her deep interest in promoting Protestantism and calling for reform. She also was a patron to a number of Reformist thinkers in her court circle and promoted the production of other Protestant religious works.
Parr was born around 1513, the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal in Westmoreland. When Parr's father died, her mother chose not to remarry, and she encouraged all her children, including her daughters, to be educated. Catherine became a notable scholar, fluent in Latin and capable in Greek and modern languages. Parr was married early in life to Edward Burough, but by 1529 she was widowed. She then married the wealthy landowner Sir John Neville, Lord Latimer. During this time she became renowned for her learning as well as her sensitive and caring nature and her interest in the Protestant faith. Parr's second husband died in 1542, and although Parr was in love with Sir Thomas Seymour, uncle of Edward VI, when Henry VIII proposed to her she had little option but to accept. In 1543 she became the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII.
The king was old and in failing health, and Parr took care of him; she probably also modified some of his policies, such as the persecution of Roman Catholics. When Henry was away in France in 1544, she acted as regent in his absence. She was also said to have behaved kindly to his children, the future queens Mary and Elizabeth, encouraging them in their learning. Factions at court were envious of Parr's influence on Henry and sought to destroy her by linking her Protestant leanings with “heretical” religious reformers, and went so far as to accuse her of treason. In 1545 Henry signed a warrant for her imprisonment in the Tower of London, but Parr submitted to the king and did away with his suspicions. Thereafter Parr retained her ascendancy over Henry, and when he died in 1547 he left her a considerable inheritance, “for her great love, obedience, chasteness of life, and wisdom.” After Henry's death, Parr married Seymour. She soon became pregnant and died in childbirth on September 5, 1548. Her husband was accused of hastening her death in childbirth by poisoning.
Before she began writing, Parr had a reputation as a patron to a number of humanist thinkers. In addition to influencing the careers of Reformists such as Roger Ascham, John Foxe, and Thomas Wilson, she arranged for the translation and publication of the first part of Erasmus's Paraphrase of the Gospels, engaging the services of Thomas Udall, Thomas Kay, and Princess Mary for the project. Parr's interest in theology and devotion to the Protestant faith are also evident in her own works. Her first effort was Prayers or Meditations, a compilation of meditational writings that was one of the earliest publications of Protestant devotional literature. The volume was extremely popular and came to be known as The Queen's Prayers. Parr's spiritual autobiography, Lamentation or Complaint of a Sinner, was one of the first Protestant autobiographies in England. In this work Parr presents an account of her conversion and her struggle to achieve faith, discusses the meaning of Christ's passion, criticizes those who would stifle reform, and encourages everyone to reform his or her life. The Lamentation offers a distinctly humanist perspective and synthesizes important Reformist ideas. The work was published after her death during the reign of Elizabeth I, which could not have been done without royal approval—a sign of Elizabeth's affection for her kind stepmother. Although Parr's works have political overtones and stress Reformist ideals, the emphasis in her works is on the importance of God's word, and her great concern was to promote the production and reading of scriptural works in the vernacular.
Parr's works were extremely popular in her own day, with Prayers or Meditations going through ten editions in the sixteenth century. Her autobiography was also widely read throughout the sixteenth century. After the seventeenth century, interest in Parr's works declined, and by the early twentieth century she was known more for her influence and status as the sixth wife of Henry VIII than for her literary efforts. In the mid-twentieth century many scholars regarded her writings as being of interest only as historical documents, but by the later twentieth century, feminist critics were beginning to take an interest in Parr's effect on women's learning and religious life in the sixteenth century as well as the challenges she faced as a woman expressing her religious experiences. Scholars have investigated Parr's influence and sources, the questions her works raise about gender and authorship, and her ideas about reformation doctrine and politics.
SOURCE: Hoffman, C. Fenno, Jr. “Catherine Parr as Woman of Letters.” Huntington Library Quarterly 23, no. 4 (1960): 349-67.
[In the following essay, Hoffman assesses Parr's career as an author, finding that although she was not a significant literary figure, her writings represent important historical documents and that she exemplifies the personality of a learned Tudor lady in the age of humanism.]
Among England's learned ladies of the early sixteenth century, those to whom, in William Bercher's phrase, “bothe greke and lattynne [were] vulgare,” Catherine Parr knew little Latin and no Greek but had the distinction of utilizing the “vulgare” to spread her religious convictions and of befriending good learning when opportunity permitted.1 By her contributions to learning and literature Catherine became, according to Agnes Strickland, “the admiration of the most learned men in Europe and the intellectual model of the ladies of England.”2 But room remains to define more objectively what place Catherine deserves in the age of humanism. It is true that to her royal stepchildren Catherine was a beloved figure always interested in their education and welfare; to partisan contemporaries like Nicholas Udall and later admirers like Foxe and Strype—and also Miss Strickland—she was a Reformation heroine. In assessing her career as a woman of letters, however, it may seem that what she wrote now has historical value at best. But the writings are well worth examining as documents of the time. A definite personality emerges as do certain general characteristics, those of the learned Tudor lady who was primarily neither an artist nor a scholar.
So far as specific attainments are concerned—the skills and subjects that an educated Tudor woman might have at her disposal—we have a full list in the obituary of one Elizabeth Lucar (aged twenty-six at her death in 1537), compiled by her husband Emmanuel. In music these include skillful playing of three instruments (viol, lute, and virginal) and accomplished singing in several languages; in the domestic arts the skills include needlework and tapestry making. Elizabeth also acquired enough arithmetic (“algorism”) to cast “accounts in every fashion,” and she had mastered three kinds of handwriting. She knew Latin, Spanish, and Italian. The heart of her education was her knowledge of English, which “cloathed her with Vertues, from naked Ignorance / Reading the Scriptures, to judge Light from Darke / Directing her faith to Christ, the onely Marke.”3 These concluding lines indicate the link between Elizabeth Lucar and Catherine Parr. Elizabeth's training was in several respects the more stringent and thorough, but with respect to the joint influence of Christian faith and the vernacular their stories coincide.
Before turning to Catherine's life in detail, it is necessary to recall two points about the education of women in her time. One is that only the daughters of intellectual and, usually, aristocratic parents had any hope of a good education; the other is that the daughters of education-minded parents (the daughters of More, of the duke of Norfolk, of Sir Anthony Cooke, of Henry Grey, marquis of Dorset, of—most conspicuously—Henry VIII) faced the same notions of what a good education constituted as did, for example, the students of William Lyly at St. Paul's. Girls, entrusted to humanist parents or tutors, received essentially the same education as boys in grammar school. Basically this was an eight-year study of Latin grammar. Its controlling idea, however, was not grammar for the sake of grammar but language study for the sake of virtue. In the grammar schools classical texts most esteemed for their moral values as well as for style were taught as an antidote (so Sir Thomas Elyot makes clear in The Boke Named the Governour) to medieval emphases on hawking, hunting, and heraldry and as preparation for enlightened political leadership. Consequently in a Christian country, even though the new education was mainly in secular hands, study of the Bible accompanied the study of the classics. In the hands of the reformers, as Thomas W. Baldwin has pointed out, “all this Latin and Greek was but a means to a very definite religious end.”4 That language study should have a moral purpose and that sound morals could not be separated from Christian worship became the central themes in Catherine Parr's own philosophy of education.
The education Catherine received as a child quite evidently fell far short of humanist ideals. It included little, if any, Latin and no Greek. There was, however, considerable study of English and French and some training in the less scholarly arts of needlework and music. In Maud Parr's household, it was said, could be learned “as well norture as French and other language.”5 Catherine as a child was praised for “wisdom.”6 Yet one of Maud Parr's principal concerns after the death of Sir Thomas Parr in 1517, when Catherine was about five years old, had to be the marriage of her children (there was another daughter, Anne, and a son, William), and her will, proved in 1531 leaving no bequest to either daughter, styled Catherine as already “Catherine Borough.”7 A widow herself by 1534, Catherine moved to Sizergh Castle as the guest of her stepson, Henry Borough. There she embroidered a “magnificent counter-pane and toilette-cover.”8 Of her childhood experience with the needle a story is recorded by John Strype (he found the account in the margin of a copy of Bale's Centuries). After a fortune-teller had told Catherine that “she was born to sit in the highest seat of imperial majesty,” she objected to her mother's household discipline, saying “my hands are ordained to touch crowns and scepters, not needles and spindles.”9 That music was taught in Maud Parr's household is also likely. In a letter to the Princess Mary of September 20, , Catherine refers to the bearer as a man skilled in music, making him the more acceptable, Catherine supposes, to her stepdaughter, who takes in music “as much delight as myself.”10
Besides music, needlework, and foreign languages (probably Italian as well as French) Catherine's early education gave her an excellent handwriting and a preference for the vernacular. Though the study of mathematics and the classical languages seems to have been omitted, her education evidently was meant to be practical. As mentioned, Maud Parr had to consider her daughters' marriageability. Catherine, in fact, was to marry four times, and she did not survive to bring up her only child; her care for Henry's children, however, and other evidence show that she had acquired a humanist idea of education. She came to believe that the best education involved a lifelong commitment to virtue and good letters.
From Catherine's correspondence we see that the ethical content of education was uppermost in her mind. With her encouragement all three of the royal stepchildren made contributions to Christian scholarship. The principal topic of the letter to Mary cited above was Mary's translation of the Erasmus Paraphrase of St. John's Gospel; this work Catherine urged Mary to have published under her own name. It was eventually published as part of the complete two-volume translation of the Paraphrase, containing, in its final form, no less than six dedicatory prefaces to Catherine.11 From Princess Elizabeth, too, Catherine received a tribute to her “affectuous will and fervent zeal … towards all godly learning.”12 Elizabeth wrote this tribute in a letter accompanying her handwritten translation of Margaret of Navarre's The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, which she sent to her stepmother as a New Year's present in 1545. Within a few years after her marriage to the king Catherine was engaged in a correspondence with Edward. Less than six years old by July 12, 1543, the date when Catherine became his stepmother, Edward began a series of epistles as early as May 12, , reflecting Catherine's concern for his progress as scholar and Christian. Catherine's replies to these letters are represented indirectly by Edward's comments and by one draft in Latin of her answer to a letter of January 10, 1547. Dating from May 1546 to September 1547, ten of Edward's letters are in Latin, two are in English, and one is in French.
From Edward's letters we learn that letters from the queen gave him “much comfort and encouragement to go forward in such thinges wherin your grace bereath [sic] me on hand that I am already entered.”13 We learn that Edward's tutor was so impressed by the beauty of Catherine's handwriting (“Romanis literis”) that he believed she employed a secretary until he saw her signature done in the same handsome script.14 In the same letter written in June 1546, Edward congratulates his stepmother on her progress in the Latin language and in literature (“in Latina lingua et bonis literis”), a fairly sure indication that Maud Parr's home tutoring had given Catherine little or no command of Latin. Another letter from Edward praises “la beaute de voz lettres” and also “l'invention des mesmes lettres.”15 Confirming Catherine's knowledge of French is a devotional poem by her preserved among the Hatfield House manuscripts.16 The date and occasion of composition are unknown. The poem begins:
Considerant ma vie misérable Mon coeur marbrin, obstiné, intraitable, Outrecuidé, tant, que non seullement Dieu n'estimoit ny son commandement.
That Catherine also knew Italian is attested by a letter in that language to her from Elizabeth dated July 31, 1544, written while Henry was in France.17 This letter expresses Elizabeth's gratitude for Catherine's taking her part with the king after a year of banishment—for unexplained reasons—from the royal presence. Among books in Edward's library recorded by Nichols is Queen Catherine Parr's copy of Petrarch, “con l'espositione d'Alessandro Vellutello,” printed at Venice, 1534.18
The marriage by which Catherine became “Kateryn the Quene, K. P.” (the signature she adopted for her correspondence) had been performed by Bishop Gardiner on July 12, 1543. Early in the year Catherine's second husband, John Neville, Lord Latimer, had died, leaving her free to fall in love with Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry's third wife. But she had given up Seymour for the king. To this same spring of 1543 is often attributed her discovery of the Scriptures in English, the great event of her intellectual life, and her definitive turning away from Catholicism. But the evidence of Catherine's own writing points to a much later date. What is certain is that up to 1543 her Catholic upbringing and two marriages to northern Catholics (Latimer was a prominent leader in the Pilgrimage of Grace) had shielded her from Protestant influence. In the later relations with the royal stepchildren there is a striking lack of doctrinal bias in her efforts to further their education.
On June 2, 1545, Catherine's first published work, Prayers or Meditacions, appeared.19 According to the title page, it was a group of religious writings in English “collected out of certain holy woorkes by the moste vertuous and gracious princes Catherine, Quene of Englande, France, and Irelande.” One must infer that its author's name and quality carried weight here, for it went through ten editions by 1559. Its composition can be dated to the summer of 1544 when Henry was in France leading the siege against Boulogne, leaving Catherine behind as queen regent. One prayer for the king asks that “he maie vanquysshe and overcome all his and our foes”; a second prayer, which is for men to say entering into battle, calls for strength against the enemy, “our cause now being just,” and ends with a plea for a prompt end to the war and then a knitting together of both sides in concord and unity. (It should be noted that these prayers were retained in later, postwar editions with the king's name modified first to include the queen and later to “Edward the sixth” instead of “Henry.”) The first edition contains two prayers and the meditation; in a second edition, only five months later, three prayers were added. The theology of these prayers, which are perhaps not original, is distinctly Catholic.
A prayer added to the November 1545 edition starts, for example, with this sacramental plea: “Gyve us, we beseeche thee (O mercyfull father[)] that heavenly breade, the bodye of thy sonne Jesu Christe, the veraie foode and helthe of our soules” and it ends on the hope of “the fruicion of celestiall delectations, accumpanied with angelles and blessed sainctes.”20
Preceding the prayers is the sixty-page “meditation,” which could hardly have a Protestant tone since it is borrowed from the Imitation of Christ. Its themes of the unworthiness of the speaker and her need for Christ may well have had a deep personal meaning for Catherine. The language, however, except for the adjustment of pronouns and many minor alterations, comes from Richard Whitford's translation (published about 1530) of the Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chapters xv-l, abbreviated by fairly judicious skipping.21 One can only conclude that Catherine found the content of the Whitford translation, theology as well as style, suited to her own needs. But no credit is given to the translator or the original author. Only the title page shows that Catherine did not mean the work to be accepted as her own.
On the assumption then that the Catholicism inherited from her family upbringing and from her first two marriages had not been seriously challenged when she published Prayers or Meditacions, there is, nevertheless, evidence that by the end of 1545 Catherine had given serious thought to the message of the reformers. At some time during her royal marriage she took Matthew Coverdale as her almoner. At another time (unfortunately the date is not known) one Francis Goldsmith commended her in a letter for making every day at court like Sunday and for cherishing the religion long since introduced, not without great labor, to the palace.22 Furthermore, there is Foxe's story, confirmable at many points, that Catherine nearly lost her life for owning forbidden, that is, Protestant, books.23 Robert Parsons, no admirer of Foxe, confirmed rather than denied the general truth of Foxe's story by conceding that the racking of Anne Askew in the summer of 1546 had as its main object the discovery of “hereticall books” in the queen's chamber, “brought or sent her in by Anne Askue.” The principal witnesses were Catherine's ladies in waiting, Lady Herbert (Catherine's sister, Anne), Lady Tyrwhitt (later Elizabeth's governess, succeeding Kate Ashley), and Lady Lane (Maud Parr, Catherine's first cousin, the daughter of her Uncle William, Lord Parr of Horton).24 These are the same ladies whom, according to Foxe, Bishop Gardiner and Wriothesley, the lord chancellor, planned to interrogate to get evidence against their mistress. It is significant that, in Foxe's story, besides ministering to the king's gout Catherine had passed the time in doctrinal argument with him; and also that, in seeking forgiveness, Catherine represented herself as interested only in the wisdom of his majesty's replies. Certainly Catherine's conversion, whenever it happened, took place in an atmosphere complicated by the religious party line at court.
Nevertheless, we see by her encouragement of her three royal stepchildren, by her own publication, and by her alleged habit of haranguing the king that Catherine believed in giving open currency to religious opinions. Yet there is no evidence that she would have encouraged an opinion she regarded as unorthodox or individualistic.
In the second of her religious publications, however, The Lamentacion of a Sinner, first published November 5, 1547 (some nine months after Henry's death), Catherine unmistakably and in her own voice described—but without dating it—a radical change in her religious views. Lamentacion, indeed, may be read—perhaps should be read—as a repudiation of Prayers or Meditacions. The tone of Lamentacion is, above all, personal: “I neyther knewe Christ, nor wherfore he came,” Catherine writes, “I forsoke the spirituall honoring of ye true livying god, & worshipped visible idoles, and ymages made of mennes handes.” Secondly, in this work Catherine explicitly turns away from the church she previously had honored: “I sought for such rifraf as the bisshoppe of Rome hath planted in his tyranny and kingdom, trusting with greate confidence by the vertue & holynes of them, to receyve full remission of my sinnes.” Thirdly, the change in her outlook is associated directly with the king who, in recent years, “hath taken awaye the vayles, & mistes of erroures, and brought us to the knowledge of ye truthe, by the lyghte of Goddes worde, which was so long hydden and kepte under, that the people wer nigh famished, & hungred for lacke of spiritual foode.”25
Though the subject of Lamentacion is her recovery from “Ignoraunce and blindnes,” Catherine limits the autobiographical content of her confession to pious generalities. All names, places, and dates are suppressed. The impression conveyed, however, is of a recent struggle from which she has emerged with new confidence. “I never had this unspeakable and most high charitie, and abundant love of god, printed & fired in my hart dulye,” she writes, “tyll it pleased god of hys mere grace, mercy, & pitie, to open myne eyes, makyng me to see, and beholde with the eye of lively fayth, Christ crucified to be myne only saviour and redemer.” So far as a source or agent of her conversion is concerned, she implies by both emphasis and omission that a personal discovery of the Bible, particularly of the New Testament in translation, had led her to her present “simple, and unlearned judgement” in religious matters, namely, that “no mannes doctrine is to be estemed or preferred lyke unto Christes and the Apostles, nor to be taught as a perfect and true doctrine, but even as it doth accorde and agree with the doctrine of the gospell.”26 Throughout Lamentacion runs not only the record of Catherine's personal...
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SOURCE: Haugaard, William P. “Katherine Parr: The Religious Convictions of a Renaissance Queen.” Renaissance Quarterly 22, no. 4 (1969): 346-59.
[In the following essay, Haugaard explores Parr's religious beliefs, including her acceptance of Reformation doctrine and her desire for peace and unity, and suggests how they influenced her court, her subjects, and, likely, the future Queen Elizabeth I as well.]
Among the wives of Henry VIII, only his first and last, Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr, possessed both the education and the intelligence to exemplify the Renaissance ideal for a woman born to gentle life. Both Katherines took their religion seriously, and...
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SOURCE: Bainton, Ronald H. “Catherine Parr.” In Women of the Reformation in France and England, pp. 161-80. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1973.
[In the following essay, Bainton offers an account of Parr's religious attitudes and influence from the Protestant chronicler John Foxe, and goes on to assess her religious stance by looking at her writings, her friends, and her actions.]
Catherine Parr was the only one of the six wives of Henry VIII to survive him. One reason was that her failure to bear a son was not crucial since Henry already had an heir in Edward; another that she was English and no shift in foreign alliances could require that she be set...
(The entire section is 6491 words.)
SOURCE: Martienssen, Anthony. “The Queen's Ladies.” In Queen Katherine Parr, pp. 185-223. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973.
[In the following essay, Martienssen discusses Parr's humanist intentions and activities, and provides details on the queen's relationship with the religious martyr Anne Askew.]
Katherine Parr had now been Queen for some fifteen months. During that period, her main concern had been to establish herself as a loving and obedient wife, and as an affectionate and industrious stepmother. Her few sorties into politics had all been connected with the King's children, and nothing she had done could be interpreted as having any motive other...
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SOURCE: King, John N. “Patronage and Piety: The Influence of Catherine Parr.” In Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works, edited by Margaret Patterson Hannay, pp. 43-60. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, King examines the influence of Parr on the development of women's learning and religious life in sixteenth-century England.]
At the very end of the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), a circle of aristocratic women emerged who sponsored humanistic scholarship and patronized the translation and publication of religious works into the vernacular. Under the auspices of Catherine...
(The entire section is 7868 words.)
SOURCE: Mueller, Janel. “A Tudor Queen Finds Voice: Katherine Parr's Lamentations of a Sinner.” In The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture, edited by Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier, pp. 15-47. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Mueller discusses the achievement of Parr's Lamentations and examines its origins and composition, and in so doing raises questions about gender and authorship.]
Did women have a Renaissance? Arguing for gender as one crucial factor in the differential cultural advances shown by historical eras, Joan Kelly followed up her question a decade ago...
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SOURCE: Mueller, Janel. “Devotion as Difference: Intertextuality in Queen Katherine Parr's Prayers or Meditations. Huntington Library Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1990): 171-97.
[In the following essay, Mueller offers an account of Parr's Prayers or Meditations, which she says is more than a gesture to affirm her status in the royal household. It is, she states, a work which seeks to universalize religious experience and which involved considerable compositional challenges because of the author's gender.]
Nowadays we bring to our reading of those rarities—writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance and Reformation—two questions...
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SOURCE: Dowling, Maria. “A Woman's Place: Learning and the Wives of Henry VIII.” History Today 41 (June 1991): 41-42.
[In the following excerpt, Dowling surveys Parr's intellectual and religious activities.]
Henry's sixth wife tried to revive something of the pious and cultured atmosphere that had formerly characterised the queen's household. Catherine Parr's religious and political importance should not be exaggerated. She was neither the director of a ‘royal nursery’ where the king's three children embarked on a novel course of humanist study: nor was she the head of the reform faction at court, only one of its more vulnerable members and as such open to...
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SOURCE: Mueller, Janel. “Complications of Intertextuality: John Fisher, Katherine Parr, and ‘The Book of the Crucifix.’” In Representing Women in Renaissance England, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted Larry Pebworth. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997, pp. 24-41.
[In the following essay, Mueller investigates the source of Parr's metaphor of “the book of the crucifix,” which had its source in a sermon by John Fisher, and compares the two writers' use of the metaphor.]
The level of current interest in interpreting texts as registers of cultural change in early modern England bespeaks an increasingly shared perspective in literary studies that...
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SOURCE: James, Susan E. “‘All the Words of Angels.’” In Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen, pp. 220-52. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1999.
[In the following essay, James examines Parr's involvement in the publication of works of humanist scholarship and the queen's own writings on religion.]
Between the spring of 1544 and the spring of 1546, the queen involved herself in a number of projects related to humanist scholarship and to the reformed religion that ultimately earned her the ire of the conservatives. Her involvement in these projects should also have earned her the interest of posterity but as she chose to keep much of her activity...
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Fraser, Antonia. “Obedient to Husbands.” In The Wives of Henry VIII, pp. 377-95. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Discusses Parr's authorship, her role as a patron and stepmother to the future Queen Elizabeth I, and her relationship with King Henry VIII.
McConica, James Kelsey. “The Last Years of the Reign: The Role of Catherine Parr.” In English Humanists and Reformation Politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI, pp. 200-34. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.
Surveys the humanist writings of the sixteenth century before investigating the humanist circle around Parr and its effect on state policy....
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