Catherine Parr Critical Essays

Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.