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CONFERENCES: Bookend Brides – Tudor Queens First and Last

220px-Queen_Catherine_ParrCONFERENCES: Bookend Brides – Tudor Queens First and Last

Thames Valley History Festival 

TonightI had the fantastic luck of attending the Thames Valley History Festival event, Bookend Brides: Tudor Queens First and Last hosted at the very appropriately selected, Tudor Stables at the George Inn in Windsor-Eton. Four well known historical fiction authors sat in a panel to discuss, compare and answer questions about Queen Catherine of Valois, the founder of the Tudor dynasty and Queen Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, near the end of the Tudor line.

What did it mean to be a queen consort in the 1540s? What did it mean to be a Queen consort at the end of the Middle Ages? The four authors attending this session were: Linda Porter, Vanora Bennett, Elizabeth Fremantle and Joanna Hickson.

Linda Porter is an English historian born in Exeter with a doctorate from the University of York in History. She has also been a lecturer in New York City at CUNY and Fordham University. She has written Mary Tudor: First QueenKatherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr. her latest book is, Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots.

Vanora Bennett grew up in London and studied French and Russian and was a journalist for the Times and Reuters. She has published books about Russia and several books on historical England, The People’s Queen, Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Figures in Silk and Blood Royal.

Joanna Hickson has written for the BBC and is the author of The Agincourt Bride

Elizabeth Fremantle has written several Tudor period novels, Queen’s Gambit, and Sisters of Treason. She is working on a third book due out in spring 2014.

Each woman took the floor to explain how they viewed these two famous Queens.

Linda Porter

Catherine of Valois, daughter to Charles VI of France was married to Henry V in 1420 but widowed only two years later when Henry died suddenly at the age of thirty five of dysentery while on campaign in France. Catherine was only twenty one and had their infant son, King Henry VI. Catherine defied royal marriage conventions and Lived her final years as the secret wife of Owen Tudor, a Welsh soldier and squire. She died in 1437.

Just over one hundred years later, we have Catherine Parr. Catherine was a courtier’s daughter with no royal links until she married King Henry VIII. A lot happened between the one hundred years in which the two queens lived, i.e., the War of the Roses which killed off a lot of the old aristocracy and gave rise to new nobles. The War of the Roses was an English dynastic dispute with European dimensions and ties. The European economy at the time made England more unstable and helped set the stage for this conflict. By the time Parr married Henry VIII, England had vastly changed: the country’s religion had changed, the rise of the upper class educated Protestant emerged, and the Dissolution of the monasteries had occurred in the 1530s. “Catherine married an aging and ailing Henry VIII.  The country had moved from civil war to one where religious lives and ideas were overturned.”

By 1512, Henry VIII was on the throne. Catherine Parr was born that same year in the South of England. Her family were not royal or even noble, they were upper gentry, and hailed from the north of England. They were Lancastrian and originally made their money in sheep farming. Her grandfather was a courtier to King Edward IV. He was raised up to a position of influence because the Yorkists didn’t trust old nobility. Her father had married a young ward, Maud Green, which was typical of lower levels of aristocracy. Their marriage was successful and both enjoyed court life. Maud Parr was widowed when Catherine was five years old. She brought up her children when she was not at court and Catherine’s uncle took an interest in the family and ensured she had a good education. Catherine could read and speak French, and may have known a little Latin. Her mother was away often but she had a stable family background. In 1529, she went north to marry Edward Burgh, where Catherine lived under her tyrannical father in law for several years. Catherine and Edward moved out of this home and her husband died in 1533. At this point, she falls off the map for a little while until she meets her second family, John Neville, 3rd Baron of Latimer. Catherine is a widowed at age twenty one and is a step mother. Catherine was widowed a second time when Latimer dies in 1543.

Linda wanted to leave us with the sheer brutality of this period: there were men who risked everything for power. Politicians today would not risk “going to the block”. Thomas Seymour, Catherine’s last husband, was “tainted”, meaning he had no opportunity to defend himself and have a proper trial. This also happened to Catherine Howard, she too was “tainted”, whereas Anne Boleyn had a trial. During this age, they knew the risks and would take them gladly to achieve power.

Vanora Bennett

Henry Tudor was the last Lancastrian left standing but he wasn’t great Lancastrian. However, the disruption within the French royal family earlier made England look normal by comparison. The French princess, Catherine of Valois, was married to Henry V and after he died two years later, she moved on to marry a Welsh man of no reputation; it was basically political suicide. She made a marriage so below her rank that even Shakespeare made her out to be a bit daft. However, Bennett felt she was a victim and was given a bad rap. Catherine of Valois’s mother had an affair with the king’s brother which led to civil war when she was seven. At fourteen, the English invaded, “She and her brother grew up unbelievably neglected.” Catherine’s brother Charles, once very close to her, now grew to be her enemy and had her arrested. Catherine was married off to the king of England after their mother declared Charles a bastard. Henry of England was made the heir of France; he was twice her age and a soldier. Catherine had escaped a horrible childhood, married, and had a son. Henry died on campaign and she was left alone in England to care for an infant son. “She was looking at a replay of her French childhood”. She threw out the strategic marriage rule book and married into private happiness, “it’s not a medieval story but a very modern story” they went on to have six children and they lived “happily ever after”. They never knew the descendants of this love match would found the Tudor dynasty. “What held the Tudors together was the quiet courage of these ancestors”. Bennett felt that instead of being an example of neglect of duty or a bad match, Catherine had a strength and conviction to do what was unheard of in that era and marry for love. She was not weak, but strong and independent, valuing happiness over politics.

Joanna Hickson

Hicks on echoed Bennett’s sentiment saying that Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor  had one of the big romances Marriage_of_henry_and_Catherineand historians have actively tried to kill this for centuries. Nobody was expected to marry for love and people had to do what they were expected to do, nobody mixed classes. This is a wonderful love story because she did everything she wasn’t supposed to do and died happy. “A lot of what was done afterwards was done under the Tudor propaganda machine.” Henry VIII was not really legitimate, he was the son of a Welsh squire and French princess. Catherine had a very secret life after she had her son taken from her when he was six or seven. “She didn’t want to be tucked away into a convent…she wanted to be a real person with a real life…and that’s what’s cracking about the story!”. Hickson loves Catherine of Valois’s story and thinks she’s a wonderful character. Hickson’s latest book, The Tudor Bride will be released in January 2014. She stated that the story of the founding of the Tudors, “was a wonderful, amazing extraordinary start”

Elizabeth Fremantle

Fremantle spoke at length about Catherine Parr. At some point, Catherine fell in love with Thomas Seymour. He held a strong position at court, was dashing, glamorous and of “loose morals”. Her sister was in service in the house of lady Mary. Catherine was also offered a position in the household and when Henry VIII met her, he was rather taken with her. It was only nine months after beheading Catherine Howard for having an affair with one of his men. Catherine Parr was a surprising choice because in two marriages she hadn’t shown she was capable of bearing children. Many courtiers were throwing their daughters at him, and he had previously chosen three women who were not good dynastic choices – Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard, – these women should’ve been mistresses, not queens. He had been stung so hard, that Parr was a safe bet. Catherine may have been a safe bet but she not a boring woman, Fremantle said,  “She’s chosen by the king but she’s in love with another man, she had no choice and became queen. She was vibrant, her favorite color was red, she was thirty one when she married Henry and she wasn’t dowdy. She employed artisans and painters and created a circle of very important people.” He respected her and adored her, not so much loved her the way he had Catherine Howard. However, Catherine has her detractors at court and Henry was worked on by Gardiner and Wriothesley – they wait to see a chink in the armor and go for it. Catherine somehow got the warrant for her arrest in her hands, which, Fremantle believes could’ve been a way for Henry to diffuse the situation. She saw what had happened Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and didn’t want to end up the same way. She is granted an audience with her husband, talks her way out of arrest and foils Gardiner and Wriothesley. Henry VIII forgave her and the two conservatives were publicly humiliated. She survived. “I suppose after that she had to live very cautiously”. She did, however, write a controversial book after this but doesn’t publish it until Henry dies in 1547. Upon his death, she is enormously wealthy and decided to take herself out of the equation and marry Thomas Seymour, her prior love. Sadly, it didn’t work because he was power hungry. She married him within two months of the king’s death. She became pregnant and realised Seymour was having a flirtatious affair with her step daughter, Elizabeth Tudor, who was fourteen. She found them together and she sent Elizabeth away to preserve her chastity; Seymour was eventually beheaded. She died giving birth to Mary Seymour in 1548 at age thirty-six. For Fremantle, Catherine’s life had a very sad end. She had hoped to be regent for Edward VI and she had hoped that Thomas Seymour would have regained her power if he had been able to get a good role in government. There is a family in Sussex who believe they are direct descendants of Mary Seymour, but this is highly unlikely as she disappears from the records in 1555. The likelihood is that she had died by age two and a half. There is a poem about her written about a child who had died, so it would not seem feasible for any direct relations to exist.

What were the similarities of these two Queens of the same name?
Both were involved in love and married for love. This was not the norm, especially in the upper eschalons of English society. In the one hundred years between the two, the role of the queen consort had not changed at all. The expectations hadn’t changed but the practice of the role in the way Catherine Parr undertook had changed.

The session was extremely enjoyable and insightful. The four authors made up a wonderful panel and gladly answered audience questions. The Thames Valley History Festival runs from November 7 – 17 in Windsor & Eton. It runs seminars, panels and talks on all areas of history from medieval to modern. Please support history programmes such as these by attending these fascinating and educational events.

You can follow the Thames Valley History Festival on Twitter:@tvhistory

For more information on the festival, please visit their website:

~Sandra  Alvarez

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