Monday, May 16, 2011

Question from Anon - Catherine Parr's mistress quote

Did Catherine Parr really say, better to be his mistress than his wife?


Cate Drewry said...

This is one of those apocryphal things that we can never know 100%. So this is my opinion only, I'm sorry I can't help with a definite answer.

My opinion is that this is not something C Parr would have been likely to say. It is rude by the standards of the time ("rude" doesn't really cover it, since she would have been speaking of/to the monarch) and bordering on sarcastic. These are not traits I would associate with what we know of Parr, nor was she prone to thoughtless remark or unintentional insult.

This was a very different Henry than the one Anne Boleyn had so boldly and repeatedly spurned and refused. This Henry had executed two queens - something that made people consider him mad at worst, dangerous at best. He had very recently been publicly humiliated and cheated on by a woman he loved, which would have made him touchy and tender of his pride. That is not the type of man you get uppity with.

Also, we have to remember that we have the gift of historical perspective. At that point, Henry probably only considered himself to have been truly "married" once. He considered his other four to have been invalid for various reasons. If the comment had been said jokingly, he probably would not have seen the humour since he held himself blameless for his marital foibles. And given the attitudes of the day, many men probably would have agreed with him.

Christina of Denmark's famous remark about having two heads was made from the safety of the continent, and the relative security of knowing no one in her family wanted to see her married off to Henry. It would be a far different thing to stand in the English court, within the king's hearing or not, and make a statement that would more or less mean you thought the king was a bad bet. People were imprisoned for less at the time.

I do not doubt that Parr was filled with dread at the realization that the king had decided to notice her. I am sure she felt that she was walking out onto a tightrope with no end in sight and no net. But the simple fact that she survived that walk, indicates to me more tact and wisdom than would have been present in making such a remark.

Lauren said...

I agree, it seems rude, but also she was a religious woman. It's widely reported that she said it, but where did this 'statement' come from?

Cate Drewry said...

That is a good question (besides the obvious answer, "everyone was thinking it" lol). I have been researching since yesterday and although many fictional books and tv/films seem to include one version of the quote or another, I cannot find any historical references for it. Perhaps someone will come along with a factual reference.

Foose said...

Strickland traces the remark to the 17th-century Italian historian Gregorio Leti, who is generally considered unreliable but whose fountain of colorful Tudor anecdote is often a powerful temptation to writers who want to add details.

From Il Teatro Brittanico o vero Historia della Grande Brettagna (The British Theater or True History of Great Britain):

"... considerando questa Signora l'infelice fine di tante altre Regine Mogli d'Henrico temendo d' alcuno di questi simili accidenti, non sollecito molto Henrico per la Corona, anzi haurebbe voluto esser piu tosto Favorita che Moglie ..."

Which I can roughly render as:

"...this lady considering the unfortunate ends of so many other Queen Consorts (wives) of Henry and fearing a similar fate, did not much press Henry for the Crown, rather she wanted sooner to be the Favorite (mistress) than Wife ..."

I would agree that in view of Katherine Parr's ("Caterina Parthe") character and religious outlook, this is an unlikely thing for her to say. Leti wrote some other "histories" with titles like The Amours of Messalina and The Loves of Charles Duke of Mantua so he had a certain line in sensationalism.

Foose said...

A slightly different version is in Leti's Historia o vero vita di Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra (History or True Life of Elizabeth, Queen of England):

"... considerando questa Signora l'infelice fine, di tante altre Regine moglie di Henrico, dubiosa di cadere in disgratie simili, si dechiaro col Re, che amava meglio d'esser sua Concubina, che sua moglie, comunque sia ..."

In English:

"...this lady considering the unfortunate ends, of so many other Queen consorts (wives), wary of falling into similar disgrace, so declared to the King, that she would like better to be his Concubine, than his wife, however that may be ..."

This version goes on to comment that the queen was "mostro odiosissima" (most hateful monster) to the Papacy, "contributing to the deaths of many Catholics" by her promotion of the Reform, and (if I am reading the Italian correctly) that the young Elizabeth was much influenced by her. (Which may be the point of the anecdote; a hostile observer might note that the mature Elizabeth also preferred to be "rather a mistress than a wife," and also manifested a predilection for Catholic-killing.)

Leti was apparently in England in the 1680s when he published these two works, and may have had access to genuine sources for this Katherine Parr anecdote. However, it does seem like he had an ideological ax to grind, as well as a taste for the lurid detail.

Foose said...

Sorry, my Italian's not great, so it turns out Katherine Parr is actually not a "most hateful monster," but rather "she appeared most hateful" (inimical) to the Papacy. Caveat lector, and all that.

shtove said...

Hehe - Foose, you dig up some great stuff with that spade!

"Leti wrote some other "histories" with titles like The Amours of Messalina and The Loves of Charles Duke of Mantua so he had a certain line in sensationalism."

So Leti was a historical novelist?

Foose said...

It's interesting to trace the history of history, as more rigorous standards evolved regarding sources, evidence, provenance and tradition. Leti and other "historians" regarded today at best as unreliable - and at worst utter fabulists - did not have the modern research tools or framework to sharply distinguish between truth and fiction, or between competing truths.

I'm always reluctant to completely discard a source, however poorly rated by experts. You never know. Leti may have had access to a Catholic tradition on Katherine Parr that differed sharply from the Protestant hagiography we are familiar with. (It's rather ironic that the Agnes Strickland, a tireless promoter of Parr, selected this particular anecdote to present Parr as a virtuous woman trapped in a dreadful predicament, when Leti's possible intent was to show Parr as morally suspect. Both writers were influenced by the cultures of their respective centuries.)

Herodotus has been for centuries attacked as the "Father of Lies," but every so often something turns up that proves Herodotus right. I think the latest incident was the discovery that genetic material from the tombs of the ancient Etruscans pointed to their origins in Anatolia - supporting Herodotus' contention that they were Lydians who had migrated to Italy.

It could be the same with many Tudor sources often dismissed as fanciful or plain lying. If nothing else, they tell us about the prejudices, background and affiliations of the writer. If what they record about their subject is not "true," it may nevertheless express something important about his or personality, or the impact that person's life and image have had on succeeding generations.

And it is a dull Tudor biography stripped of Leti and Sander and all the other dubious sources! Note the problems with their testimony, by all means, but include what they have to say.

shtove said...

Thank you, Foose.

Lots to chew on.

There was recent genetic evidence that seems to support the ancient Irish origin myth of the Milesians. The myth was carried on for centuries by gaelic annalists(historians? - hehe!), until English colonists in Ireland dismissed it in favour of a Scythian origin myth. The annalists didn't respond, because their source of income had been destroyed during the colonisation.

I think the genetic evidence doesn't prove anything, adds another layer to the history.

I recently got a link to John Davies' law report of the case of mixed money.

The link came from a forum discussing the 2008 banking disaster and the case for investing in precious metals based on the continual debasement of fiat currncies by modern central governments.

The case comes from Ireland in 1601. The report recounts the legal history of debasements by the medieval crown, and provides a justification for the policy.

This is official history, used by modern investors to point out that officials make history!

I also came across the notion of autobiographical memory - which may help add certainty to first-hand historical accounts, by filtering out the common self-deceptions.

Having jumbled up the thread, I'm inclined toward the notion that we, not just Herodotus, are the "father of lies".