Sunday, January 29, 2012

Question from Deborah - Katherine Parr not at Henry VIII's deathbed

Why did Queen Katherine (Parr) not see King Henry VIII in the weeks prior to his death at the end of January 1547? I read on line that she spent Christmas at a different palace with the royal children and returned to Henry on Jan. 10, 1547 but the king died on Jan. 28th without her having seen doesn't seem possible...any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you-Deborah Haase

[Edited from original submission to correct dates. - Lara]

1 comment:

Foose said...

Katherine's absence is often interpreted as a deliberate move by Henry's councillors and the ambitious party of Edward Seymour to exclude the queen from her husband's deathbed. The reasons usually cited include their fear that Katherine might influence the king's will with particular reference to control of Edward VI - that she might secure the regency.

It's also been postulated that with the king dying, Katherine Parr was seen as a spent force, a now-negligible pawn who could be pushed aside as the future leaders of the Edwardian regime made their calculations.

Another suggestion made to explain her relegation is that Katherine's religious convictions might have led her to harangue the king, who was dying in the full panoply of Catholic ritual but was still conscious enough to be provoked.

Actually, it might have been Henry's deliberate decision and/or part of a royal deathbed ritual. The history of dying English kings with consorts in attendance seems a bit spotty; I couldn't get any information on whether Elizabeth Woodville was actually in the room with the dying Edward IV, and the other kings of the 15th century died under circumstances where the queen's presence was either not feasible (Henry V, Henry VI) or she had predeceased him (Richard III, Henry VII). It might be worth looking at the deathbed of Henry IV, whose second wife Joan of Navarre held a position roughly analogous to Katherine Parr's - not being the mother of his heirs - for an instructive parallel.

Linda Porter agrees that Katherine and Henry did not meet again after Christmas 1546 (although she notes that rooms were prepared in Whitehall, where Henry died, for her return on January 11). Janel Mueller makes the interesting remark that after Christmas 1546 "[Henry] sequestered himself with his Privy Council and excluded all female companionship." (Italics mine)

In the book Widowhood and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe, Allison Mary Levy discusses the period's ars moriendi (art of dying) and the concept of the "good death." "The 'good death' had three basic spiritual requirements: to die in faith, to die readily, in submission to God's will, and to render up the soul into God's hands. A 'bad death,' by contrast, was the outcome of a deathbed trial characterized by a lapse of faith and demonstrations of ill-behavior indicating that the dying person's soul was at risk of damnation."

She goes on to explain "the traditional misogynistic representation of women as both marginal and disruptive to the 'good death' ... The book of the craft of dying, a guide for the organization of the deathbed available well into the sixteenth century, directs the wife not to be present during her husband's dying and admonishes those in attendance not to discuss her in the presence of the dying man in order to spare him from the temptation to despair." (Italics mine)

Levy also mentions The rules and exercises of holy dying by Jeremy Taylor. It's from the seventeenth century, but the thinking may have been current in Henry's time - Levy describes it as "hostile and recommends barring all women from the deathbed because the goal of achieving a 'good death' is made more difficult by the 'women and the weepers, the swoonings and the shriekings.'"

Just food for thought. A number of reasons may have been in play and collectively account for Parr's exclusion. But if the councillors were scheming to exclude her for their own benefit, custom and Henry's own religious beliefs about death may have been powerful allies.