Catherine of Aragon is remembered primarily for the humiliation of her divorce from Henry VIII in favour of Anne Boleyn and miserable end in a damp castle separated from those she loved. But that is a mere fragment of her story. As Henry’s queen for more than twenty years, and with her illustrious family ruling over most of Europe, she was the most powerful woman in England, prompting Thomas Cromwell to say of her ‘if not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of history,’ and this from an enemy.
She promoted education for women and relief for the poor and during Henry’s French campaign she was made Regent of England, raising an army to fight the invading Scots, who thought with the King away they would find an easy victory in England. This was not to be, James IV was killed at Flodden Field and the pregnant Catherine, who had ridden north in armour to encourage her troops, sent a piece of the Scottish King’s bloody coat to her husband in France to mark her triumph.
Katherine Parr is not an obvious choice for the Tudor power list as she is remembered as the wife who managed to survive marriage to Henry VIII by being meek, uncontroversial and managing to outlive him.
This was far from the case: Katherine used her position as queen to forward her reformist political agenda in a volatile, polarised court. Her Catholic enemies tried to bring her down but failed miserably as she managed to stay a step ahead of them causing them to topple in her stead. At a time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard, she was one of the first women to publish in the English language, penning two widely read books, one a highly dangerous political text that might have seen her follow her predecessors to the block.
Like Catherine of Aragon, Katherine Parr was the only other of Henry’s queens to hold the position of Regent of England, while Henry was campaigning in France, a role she performed with aplomb, managing the politically divided council and ensuring the safety of the realm. It was Katherine who encouraged Henry to reinstate his outcast daughters to the succession, thus playing an important role in the eventual half-century of female rule in England, and played a pivotal role in the education of the young Elizabeth Tudor.
Katherine Parr is the focus of my novel Queen's Gambit