Susan E. James. Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen. Aldershot and Brookfield: Ashgate, 1999. xii + 467 pp. Â£47.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84014-683-7.
Reviewed by Judith Richards (Department of History, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Australia, 3083)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2000)
Another sixteenth-century queen to take seriously
This work offers the first modern biography of Henry VIII's sixth and surviving wife, hereafter referred to as 'Kateryn' Parr. Perhaps this wife has received less attention than some of Henry's other wives precisely because she not only survived that royal marriage but enthusiastically married again, for love. Tales of his grievously wronged wives make for more popular reading than those of a woman who survived. Susan James's biography is directed at a much more sophisticated audience, setting the sometime queen's life within that crucial early modern context of family and the associated networks of friends and patrons. Although she offers a longitudinal sketch of the family, she has concentrated on three Parr siblings who grew to maturity during the struggles between the reformed and the old religion. Despite their relatively impecunious background each Parr played a significant role in the religious and political contests out of which Protestant Elizabethan England was to evolve. James thereby adds another strand to the gradually widening understanding of the strategies by which a Protestant minority survived the Henrician uncertainties and came to political dominance. James sets out to make a particularly strong case for the significance of 'Kateryn' Parr's promotion of the Protestant cause while she was queen consort, and also discusses William Parr's less effective efforts to do the same.
This is a story of familial, individual, political and religious intrigue, of ambition, of conspiracies, of fleeting success and equally transitory defeat. 'Kateryn', William and Anne Parr were raised by their widowed mother, who had a much keener eye for social advantage than she had interest in marital compatibility for her children. Only the youngest, Anne Parr, married successfully the first time, and she matched herself after her mother's death to one William Herbert, an illegitimate Welsh soldier who already had a promising court career. He advanced even more dramatically after his sister-in-law became Queen, to become Earl of Pembroke, patriarch of an important political dynasty. William Parr's mother had given precedence to a socially brilliant marriage for her only son; but he disliked his wife and, having failed to have her declared legally dead, managed anyway to cut her out of her considerable inheritance, which he retained. Despite his part in the Lady Jane Grey fiasco, Parr -- by then raised to Marquess of Northampton -- survived into the reign of Elizabeth. This was made possible by his discarded wife pleading before Mary Tudor for his life, and he was not allowed to live with his beloved mistress as long as Queen Mary reigned. He was not a man taken seriously by his contemporaries for anything but the influence he wielded because of his good connections, at which he worked assiduously. This biography, in brief, offers a fascinating study of the importance of family connections in both male and female careers, whatever the talents of the individual. The story is well told, and James has an enviable eye for telling anecdotes.
James's research on the family and wider circle of Queen 'Kateryn' Parr is admirable, but her main interest was to provide a case study of the life of a queen consort. In that it is very much in the genre of works examining the lives of, and opportunities for power and patronage for queens consort in the early modern period. As a study of the life of a queen (and one who was caught up in power struggles which could have ended in her death, as other Henrician queens had died), it will long remain an important reference book. It is indeed a comprehensive introduction to 'Kateryn', her family and her significance in Tudor history. Some of the larger claims James has made for 'her' queen's path-breaking career are sustainable only if the achievements of previous Henrician queens --particularly Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn -- are ignored, as indeed they are here. James does, however, make a serious case for Henry's last wife being worthy of much greater historical interest than she has conventionally received.
An additional attraction of the book is the inclusion of some otherwise scarce sources, in helpful appendices. James's transcription and publication of such texts as the Parr-Seymour letters, and listings of the jewels Parr still possessed at the time of her death are very welcome. These, and the academic apparatus with which the whole is presented suggest a book directed at a scholarly market. It is the more disappointing, therefore, that this study of the three siblings shows only intermittent familiarity with the wider contexts of that society. Her discussion of the 'idiocy' of 'necromancy' and soothsaying more generally (pp.66-7) would suggest that most inhabitants of sixteenth-century England were very silly indeed. Again, the extent to which James has read conventional Protestant rhetoric as particular to 'Kateryn' Parr's expression, and her limited knowledge of recent historical trends in mid-Tudor history writing all point to features which limit this biographical study. She has not, moreover, always been well-served by her editors. They have let too many slightly awkward sentences stand, and presumably completely overlooked one which notes that during Northumberland's uprising for Queen Jane, his associate William Parr had 'failed to inspire singularly little support'. (p. 376)
This volume is published as part of the 'Women and Gender in Early Modern England, 1500-1750' series. It is therefore the more surprising that the author appears to be so unfamiliar with recent studies of sex, gender and power in the period. Even Barbara Harris's seminal essay, "Women and Politics in Early Tudor England' (The Historical Journal 33, 1990, pp. 259-81) is apparently unknown to her. Reference to that might have refined some of James' notions of the range of responsibilities upper gentry women were frequently expected to undertake. She then might have distinguished in a more informed way between the relatively normal and the seriously unusual capacities expected of women. The failure to consult that essay and such works such as Margaret Sommerville's Sex and Subjection (Arnold, 1995) is surprising. Patricia Crawford and Sara Mendelson undoubtedly published Women in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1998) too late for James to consult. The point remains that James has read very narrowly (and within one school of thought only) in recent works on gender construction. Her work explicitly endorses the 'poor weak woman' as 'vessel of all human frailty' model, of women, despised if not rejected by men (p.19) theoretically inferior at all times and in every way. This is so despite the extent to which her own empirical evidence demonstrates how much more was expected of women in practice at that social level in many of the matters she considers.
This is a carefully compiled and suggestive biographical introduction to Queen 'Kateryn' Parr and her generation of the Parr family. The basic research is now done. I, for one, now look forward to the further studies of court and public rituals, political and patronage networks, and religious significance which should follow, expanding on the tantalizing issues raised, but not exhausted in this book.
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Judith Richards. Review of James, Susan E., Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen.
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