The Body of the Queen: The Strange Journey of Kateryn Parr

Today is the anniversary of the death of Kateryn Parr, Henry VIII's sixth and final queen. In life, she was a fascinating woman, and her interesting journey did not end with her death.

Kateryn survived Henry - though by the skin of her teeth - when he died in January, 1547. Everyone was shocked when she married Thomas Seymour in April or May, only a few months later.

Thomas Seymour was an ambitious man. His sister, Jane Seymour, had been Henry's third queen. Unlike Henry's previous wives, Jane's family retained his favor. (Jane had been polite enough to die of puerperal fever after childbirth, instead of being divorced or beheaded.) Thomas was still unmarried when the king died, and it was no secret he was looking for a rich and well-connected wife. He'd been connected to - possibly courting - Kateryn when she caught Henry's eye. Thwarted, Thomas considered Mary Howard, the widow of Henry FitzRoy, or one of the king's daughters, Elizabeth or Mary.

Kateryn seems to have been in love with Thomas, possibly even before she married the king. But she did not have the option of saying "no" to the king when he asked her to marry him. Kateryn did her duty, just as she'd always done, and she was a good queen. A patron of the arts and literature, she was England's first queen to publish under her own name. She also was kind and supportive of the king's children, especially his neglected daughters. Her dedication to the "new religion" emerging from the Reformation almost cost her life, but she managed to convince the king she was only pretending to disagree with him on the matter of religion so he could teach her more. Flattered, the king canceled her arrest.

Kateryn must have breathed a sigh of relief when Henry breathed his last. She was now free, safe, and the richest woman in England. Knowing she would find herself married off again once the new king and council got around to it, Kateryn decided to take her fate into her own hands. Three times, she'd wed for duty. This time, she would follow her heart. She and Thomas Seymour wed quietly.

It came as a further surprise that the former queen found herself pregnant shortly after the wedding. Kateryn was thought to be barren because none of her previous three marriages had produced children.

She was around thirty-five or thirty-six, dangerously old for a first pregnancy according to the standards of the day. Her friends wrote to her, expressing their concern, but Kateryn was happy. Or, at least she would have been, if her husband hadn't been paying undue attention to her step-daughter, Elizabeth, who was living with her. Elizabeth eventually had to be sent away, but she and Kateryn kept in touch by letter.

Thomas may have been hedging his bets in case his wife died in childbirth, trying to groom Elizabeth into accepting him as a husband. Kateryn was very hurt by this, though she doesn't seem to have believed Elizabeth was to blame.

The birth went well, except for the unfortunate outcome that the child was a girl. They named her Mary Seymour. But it soon became clear that Kateryn wasn't doing well. Like Jane Seymour, Kateryn was stricken with puerperal fever, and she did not think she would survive it. The following testimony was given by one of her ladies, Elizabeth Tyrwhitt. (Elizabeth was the wife of Sir Robert Tyrwhitt, who had been previously married to Bridget Wingfield - the lady whose deathbed testimony may have helped condemn Anne Boleyn.)

“Two days afore the death of the Queen, at my coming to her in the morning, she asked me where I had been so long, and said unto me, she did fear such things in herself, that she was sure she could not live. Whereunto I answered, as I thought, that I saw no likelihood of death in her. She then having my Lord Admiral [Thomas Seymour] by the hand, and divers others standing by, spake these words, partly, as I took it, idly [in delerium], ‘My Lady Tyrwhitt, I am not well handled, for those that be about me careth not for me, but standeth laughing at my grief, and the more good I will to them, the less good they will to me.’ Whereunto my Lord Admiral answered ‘why sweetheart, I would you no hurt.’ And she said to him again aloud, ‘No, my Lord, I think so’ and immediately she said to him in his ear, ‘but my Lord you have given me many shrewd taunts.’ Those words I perceived she spoke with good memory, and very sharply and earnestly, for her mind was far unquieted. My Lord Admiral perceiving that I heard it, called me aside, and asked me what she said; and I declared it plainly to him.

Despite her anger at the way her husband had treated her, Kateryn made out her will on the 5th, leaving everything to him with the notation she wished it could be a thousand times more. She died in the wee hours, between one or two AM. Depending on which version you believe, she was buried the same day she died, or two days later.

Either way, she was buried with bizarre haste and very little ceremony, especially for a woman who had been the Queen of England. (Katharine of Aragon was buried 22 days after she died, having lain in state, surrounded by thousands of wax candles.) Kateryn had no funeral effigy, no procession of mourners in new clothing provided by the family of the deceased. The only notable aspects of her funeral were that Miles Coverdale preached the sermon and Lady Jane Grey served as chief mourner.

Kateryn's body was wrapped in cere (waxed) cloth and her body was wrapped close in sheets of lead, forming a small coffin, and was buried in the chapel of Sudeley Castle.

Over the years, the castle and its chapel fell into ruin. The buildings' roofs were removed and nature did the rest. In the 1780s, the new resident of the land poked around in the ruins and found Kateryn's coffin buried at a depth of two feet. A witness wrote a description of the discovery:

Mr. John Lucas (who occupied the land of Lord Rivers, whereon the ruins of the chapel stand) had the curiosity to rip up the top of the coffin, expecting to discover within it only the bones of the [deceased] but to his great surprize found the whole body wrapped in 6 or 7 seer cloths of linen, entire and uncorrupted, although it had lain there upwards of 230 years. His unwarrantable curiosity led him also to make an incision through the seer cloths which covered one of the arms of the corpse, the flesh of which at that time was white and moist. I was very much displeased at the forwardness of Lucas, who of his own head opened the coffin. It would have been quite sufficient to have found it and then to have made a report of it to Lord Rivers or myself.
In the summer of the year following 1783, his Lordship's business made it necessary for me and my son to be at Sudeley Castle, and on being told what had been done the year before by Lucas, I directed the earth to be once more removed to satisfy my own curiosity and I found Lucas's account of the coffin and corpse to be just as he had represented them, with this difference, that the body was then grown quite fetid, and the flesh where the incision had been made was brown, and in a state of putrefaction in consequence of the air having been let in upon it. The stench of the corpse made my son quite sick whilst he copied the inscription which is on the lead of the coffin; he went thro' it, however, with great exactness. I afterwards decided that a stone slab should be placed over the grave to prevent any future and improper inspection, &c.

Here lyeth quene
Kateryn wife to Kyng
Henry the VIII And
last the wife of Thomas
lord of Sudeley high
Admyrall of England
And unkle to Kyng
Edward the VJ
5 September
The coffin bore a lead plate with an identifying description. A replica is pictured to the left.

Lucas cut off a few locks of her hair, a piece of the cere cloth, and possibly snagged a tooth (or else someone did during another of the disinterments; the tooth is in the Sudeley museum). The stone slab described by the visitor was apparently never put in place.

From The Lives of the Queens of England and Their Times by
Francis Lancelott (1894):
In 1784 some rude persons again opened the grave and taking the body out left it exposed on a heap of rubbish where it remained till the parish vicar procured its re-interment. On the fourteenth of October 1786 the Rev. T. Nash F.A.S. made a scientific exhumation of the body and from his report published in the Archaelogia we extract the subjoined: "Delicacy prevented me from uncovering the body; the face was totally decayed the teeth sound, but had fallen out, and the hands and nails were entire but of a brownish hue... I could heartily wish more respect were paid to the remains of this our first Protestant Queen and would willingly, if permitted by the proper authorities, have them wrapped in another sheet of lead and coffin, and decently buried another place that at least her body might rest in peace, whereas the where she now lies is used for the keeping of rabbits which make holes and scratch very irreverently about the royal remains."

The coffin was opened again a few more times over the next decade by curious people who wanted a peek at Henry's last queen. In 1792, a party was assembled to rebury Kateryn's body, but they got drunk before setting out and abused the corpse.

The last occasion of opening the tomb was in 1817 when the then rector of Sudeley, the Revd. John Late, who had undertaken the repair of the chapel, determined to search for the remains of Queen Catherine Parr, in which he was assisted by Mr. Edmund T. Browne, the Winchcombe antiquary, who in a letter to Mr. Hogg gives the following account of its discovery on 18 July, 1817. He says after considerable search, and aided by the recollection of Mrs. Cox, the coffin was found bottom upwards in a walled grave, where it had been deposited by by the order of Mr. Lucas.
It was then removed to the Chandos vault, and after being cleaned we anxiously looked for the inscription. To our great disappointment none however could be discovered, and we proceeded to examine the body; but the coffin having been so frequently opened, we found nothing but the bare skeleton, except a few pieces of sere cloth, which were still under the skull, and a dark-coloured mass, which proved to contain, when washed, a small quantity of hair which exactly corresponded with some I already had. The roots of the ivy which you may remember grew in such profusion on the walls of the chapel, had penetrated into the coffin, and completely filled the greater part of it.

Kateryn was moved, temporarily, into an intact tomb. When the property passed into the hands of the Dent family, they began to restore the castle and grounds.

The ancient chapel, which had been desecrated by the Puritans, was thoroughly renovated under the direction of Sir John Gilbert Scott, and a handsome decorated altar- tomb, surmounted by a gothic canopy, was erected on the north side of the Sacrarium to the memory of Queen Katherine Parr, whose effigy was rendered as correctly as it could be from the portraits which are extant, and in the ornamentation of the tomb there is a reproduction of the pattern carved on the fragment of the original tomb. On a pillar next to the west end of the tomb a plate is now affixed upon which there is an engraved facsimile of the inscription upon the leaden case or coffin in which remains of Q. Katherine Parr were found[.]

Queen Kateryn now rests in the finest tomb of any of Henry's wives, her journey - hopefully - at an end.

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