Queen of Hearts

500 years ago Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s least known wife, best-selling author and England’s most married queen was born

Counterpoints History
A slim and elegant Queen: Katherine Parr by William Scrots

The Queen of England celebrates an important anniversary. For once, though, this is not about Elizabeth II. Five hundred years ago, Katherine (or Catherine) Parr, the sixth, last and surviving wife of Henry VIII, was born. Sudeley Castle in the Cotswolds, site of her untimely death, celebrates her quincentenary over the next six months with a varied and informative festival, featuring talks by historians such as David Starkey and Alison Weir, Tudor activity days, conferences with Arts and Crafts experts, and tea with the current owner, Lady Ashcombe. 

Sudeley has dominated the Cotswolds scenery for a thousand years; on a clear day the views reach to the Black Mountains in Wales. Katherine Parr moved here after her somewhat hasty marriage to her true love Thomas Seymour, Baron of Sudeley, just one month after Henry’s death. Her brother-in-law Edward, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, stripped her of her royal jewellery and properties, yet this did not diminish her passion for her husband. Original love letters to Thomas are on display and are quite racy for Tudor days. Katherine, a slim and elegant woman, was highly educated and had a way with words: her two books were bestsellers. 

The castle was slighted by Cromwell during the Civil War: today, ten different gardens frame its ruined walls as well as the surviving wing. Sudeley’s garden adviser Sir Roddy Lewellyn dotes with vagabond charm on his pet projects, such as a 16th-century-style knot garden and the Tudor herbarium. 

Katherine, with four husbands England’s most-married queen, did not enjoy life as châtelaine of Sudeley for long. During her only pregnancy she had to watch the ambitious Seymour wooing Princess Elizabeth. On September 5, 1548, just seven days after giving birth to her only child, Lady Mary Seymour, who survived but probably died aged two, she died aged 36 of puerperal sepsis. A short walk leads to her tomb in St Mary’s Chapel. Parr’s sarcophagus was only discovered in 1782. Thanks to its lead coffin, her corpse was found to be in perfect condition before the tomb was repeatedly pilfered. A re-enactment of her splendid Anglican funeral is the final highlight of the festival.