C. Fenno Hoffman, Jr. (essay date 1960)
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career as an author, finding that although she was not a significant literary figure, her writings represent important historical documents and that she exemplifies the personality of a learned Tudor lady in the age of humanism.]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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