Katherine Parr was a remarkable woman who actually published three books – two translations and then her own work.
This first book, called Psalms or Prayers, was a remarkable achievement. Its importance is underscored by the fact that Katherine’s *second* book was the very first work in English to be published by a woman under her own name…Psalms or Prayers cleared the path for that one by being published anonymously – though with a trail of breadcrumbs leading back to Katherine Parr. First, the printer was Thomas Berthelet (Henry’s printer). Then, there were the stunning presentation copies that were too expensive for most people. Finally, Katherine included one of the prayers in her second book.
It is clear that Henry was enormously proud of his learned wife. Psalms or Prayers, was published about a year after Katherine and Henry married – so he definitely knew and approved of her activities. It is a translation of the Latin Psalms that John Fisher published around 1525. John Fisher you say? The Catholic bishop executed for refusing to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church? Yep. You would think that would be a major issue…but as Renaissance scholar Micheline White puts it in a wonderful article, “Importantly, Parr made timely alterations as she translated the Latin prayer into English, alterations that underscore Henry’s religious authority, his obedience, and his military prowess.” Professor White goes on to explain that it was in fact “a book of military propaganda designed to aid Henry in his wars against the Scottish and the French” – which makes perfect sense given that Henry would be leaving to go siege Boulogne only three months later.
For me, the point of the book is the wonderful insight it gives us into their relationship – and one of the great Henry stories. In 1546, Bishop Stephen Gardiner attempted a coup against Katherine, provoking her into a theological argument with Henry, then pricking Henry’s vanity when she won – enough that Henry agreed to have her arrested so that her beliefs could be examined. Katherine was saved, so the story goes, when the warrant was accidentally dropped where one of her maids found it, giving her the chance to explain to Henry that she considered him the ultimate expert, that her intention in arguing was only to draw knowledge and distract him from his pain. The thing is, the warrant was never “accidentally dropped” – Henry manipulated the situation to give her a warning. We know that because he pulled a similar trick when Gardiner tried to move against Thomas Cranmer (giving Cranmer his ring as a signal that the Council could not proceed without Henry present). This story reminds us how much he enjoyed discussing theology with Katherine…when he won (or at least when she was complimentary). Of course, she likely avoided these discussions after this…we do know she did not publish her third book until after Henry died!
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