One episode of Katherine Parr’s life that almost never fails to be mentioned is the battle between her and Anne Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset, for precedence following Katherine’s remarriage to Thomas Seymour. Thomas was the younger brother of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector to Edward VI. As generally reported, the Duchess of Somerset, indignant that she should have to give way to the wife of her husband’s younger brother, fumed, “If master admiral [Thomas Seymour] teach his wife no better manners, I am she that will,” and even physically forced the queen out of her appointed place.
But is there less to this dispute than meets the eye?
First, Anne never uttered the comment attributed to her. Rather, she is reported by Peter Heylyn, writing in the seventeenth century, as merely having thought it. The passage from Heylyn gets rather extravagant–so much so that it is worth quoting in full:
Thomas Lord Seimour, being a man of lofty aims and aspiring thoughts, had married Queen Katharine Parr, the relict of the King deceased; who, looking on him as the brother of the Lord Protector, and being looked on as Queen dowager in the eye of the court, did not conceive that any lady could be so forgetful of her former dignity as to contend about the place. But therein she found herself deceived; for the Protector’s wife, a woman of most infinite pride, and of a nature so imperious as to know no rule but her own will, would needs conceive herself to be the better woman of the two. For if the one were widow to the King deceased, the other thought herself to stand on the higher ground, in having all advantages of power above her:
“For what,” said she within herself [emphasis added], “am not I wife to the Protector, who is King in power, though not in title; a Duke in order and degree; Lord Treasurer, and Earl Marshal, and what else he pleaseth; and one who hath ennobled his highest honours by his late great victory? And did not Henry marry Katharine Parr in his doting days; when he had brought himself to such a condition by his lusts and cruelty that no lady who stood upon her honour would adventure on him? Do not all knees bow before me, and all tongues celebrate my praises, and all hands pay the tribute of obedience to me, and all eyes look upon me as the first in state; through whose hand the principal offices in the court, and chief preferments in the Church, are observed to pass? Have I so long commanded him who commands two kingdoms? And shall I now give place to her who, in her former best estate, was but Latimer’s widow, and is now fain to cast herself for support and countenance into the despised bed of a younger brother? If Mr Admiral teach his wife no better manners, I am she that will; and will choose rather to remove them both,—(whether out of the court or out of the world, shall be no great matter)—than be out-shined in my own sphere, and trampled on within the verge of my jurisdiction.”
Unless we are to suppose that Peter Heylyn had the gift of reading the mind of a woman who had been dead for many decades when he wrote, we must put down his account of Anne’s thoughts to imaginative reconstruction.
The companion story of Anne’s forcing the queen aside comes from a very dubious source: the Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England, or the so-called Spanish Chronicle, which also gives us the story of Katherine Howard’s unlikely scaffold declaration that she would rather die the wife of Thomas Culpepper. (Among other choice errors, it has Henry VIII marrying Anne of Cleves after the execution of Katherine Howard.) The queen/duchess feud is reported thusly:
Hardly a year had passed after the marriage of the Queen with the Admiral before there was great jealousy between the Queen and the Protector’s wife, who seeing that the Queen was the wife of the younger brother, resolved not to pay the usual honours to her. When the Queen saw it she was much annoyed, and said to her husband the Admiral, “How is this, that through my marriage with you the wife of your brother is treating me with contempt and presumes to go before me? I will never allow it, for I am Queen, and shall be called so all my life, and I promise you if she does again what she did yesterday I will pull her back myself.” The Admiral was greatly grieved at this, first that his brother should not treat the Queen with more respect, and next because he did not wish these two to be on bad terms; so he spoke to the Duke about it; but as he (the Duke) was more ruled by his wife’s desires than anything else, instead of trying to pacify the Admiral, said, “Brother, are you not my younger brother, and am I not Protector, and do you not know that your wife, before she married the King, was of lower rank than my wife? I desire, therefore, since the Queen is your wife that mine should go before her.”
Here the Protector showed his great arrogance; and it is thought when he got the Queen to marry his brother it was principally to exalt his own wife over her, as he was Protector. The Admiral was very sorry at what his brother said, and he replied, “My brother, I am sorry there should be any anger between them, but I can tell you that the Queen is determined not to allow it, so do not blame me for it.” And no more passed.
The next day, at the time when they usually went to the chapel of the palace to hear matins, the Protector’s wife came and thrust herself forward, and sat in the Queen’s place; and as soon as the Queen saw it, she could not bear it, and took hold of her arm, and said, “I deserve this for degrading myself from a Queen to marry an Admiral.”
This is entertaining indeed, but unlikely. For one thing, the passage follows a chapter in which a match-making Protector arranges the marriage between Thomas Seymour and the queen himself–when Katherine Parr’s and Thomas Seymour’s letters to each other, and Edward VI’s journal, make it clear that the Protector opposed the marriage. For another thing, assuming that Katherine Parr’s marriage took place in May or June 1547, “hardly a year” after the marriage brings us to the spring of 1548, when Katherine Parr was not at court jostling with the Duchess of Somerset, but at her own manors, and later Sudeley Castle, preparing for the birth of her first child (born on August 30, 1548). In fact, the Duchess of Somerset was also pregnant in the spring of 1548, giving birth in July. It’s hard to believe that the fine sight of two heavily pregnant great ladies jockeying for position would have gone unnoticed at court.
Other accounts of the alleged battle for precedence are more prosaic, but also problematic. Nicholas Sander in the Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, published in 1585, whose anti-Protestant bias is quite apparent, writes,
The protector, the duke of Somerset, had a brother, Thomas Seymour, admiral of the fleet, who had married Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII., after the king’s death. Between her and the wife of the protector there sprung a quarrel about precedence, and the quarrel was not confined to the wives, it passed on to the husbands. And as the rivalry grew from day to day, and as the protector’s wife gave her husband no rest, matters came at last to this: the protector, who, though he ruled the king, was yet ruled by his wife, must put his brother to death, that he might satisfy his ambition without let or hindrance. But as Thomas Seymour was innocent of everything for which he deserved to die, except heresy, and as the protector, himself a heretic, could not lay that to his brother’s charge, it was necessary to have recourse to falsehood.
John Clapham, writing about Elizabeth I in 1603, picked up the theme of the battle for precedence, but I have not seen his work. The story, however, is presented in full bloom by John Haywood in The Life and Raigne of King Edward the Sixth, published in 1630, three years after the death of its author. Heywood, it is safe to say, had issues with women:
O wiues! The most sweete poison, the most desired evill in the world. . . . [T]here is no malice to the malice of a woman, so no mischiefe wanteth where a malitious woman beareth sway, a woman was first giuen to man for a comforter but not for a counsailor, much lesse a controler and directer.
For Hayward, all of the Duke of Somerset’s problems began at home, starting, of course, with the quarrel over precedence.
This woman [the duchess] did beare such invincible hate, first against the Queene Dowager for light causes and womens quarrels, especially for that she had precedency of place before her, being wife to the greatest Peere in the land, then to the Lord Sudley [Thomas Seymour]for her sake. That albeit the Queene Dowager dyed by childbirth, yet would not her malice either dye or decrease. . . . The Duke embracing this womans counsaile (a womans counsaile indeede and nothing the better) yeelded himselfe both to aduise and demuise for destruction of his brother.
John Foxe also noted a quarrel between the ladies, but did not assign a cause:
Now it happened (upon what occasion I know not), that there fell a displeasure betwixt the said queen and the duchess of Somerset, and thereupon also, in the behalf of their wives, displeasure and grudge began between the brethren; which, albeit, through persuasion of friends, it was for a time appeased between them, yet, in short space after (perchance not without the privy setting-forward of some, who were back friends to the gospel), it brake out again, both to the trouble of the realm, and especially between to the confusion of them both, as after it proved. First, to the lord admiral’s charge it was laid, that he purposed to destory the young king, and translate the crown unto himself; and for the same being attainted and condemned, he did suffer at Tower-hill the twentieth of March 1549. As many there were, who reported that the duchess of Somerset had wrought his death; so many more there were, who, misdoubting the long standing of the lord protector in his state and dignity, though and affirmed no less, but that the fall of the one brother, would be the ruin of the other; the experiment whereof, as it hath often been proved, so, in these also, eftsoons it ensued.
Now, there is no doubt that the Duchess of Somerset had a prickly personality, and also no doubt that Katherine Parr disliked her. In a letter to Thomas Seymour written early in the couple’s courtship, she wrote, “This is not his first promise I have received of [the Protector’s] coming, and yet unperformed. I think my lady hath taught him that lessson, for it is her custom to promise many comings to her friends and to perform none.” In another letter to Thomas Seymour, this one composed after the couple had married, the queen stated, “This shall be to advertise you, that my lord, your brother, hath this afternoon a little made me warm. It was fortunate we were so much distant, for I suppose else I should have bitten him. What cause have they to fear having such a wife? It is requisite for them continually to pray for a short dispatch of that hell.” In neither letter, however, does Katherine mention any quarrel about precedence; the cause of her anger in the second letter appears to have been the Protector’s handling of her dower lands. Katherine also was involved in a dispute with the Protector about his appropriation of the queen’s jewels; if some of these jewels had ended up gracing the person of the duchess, it’s easy to see how this would have angered the queen.
So what does that leave us with? As Retha Warnicke and Linda Porter both note, there is no contemporary evidence that the queen and the duchess battled for precedence; the source nearest in time, the Spanish Chronicle, is unreliable. The later sources each have the dispute about precedence leading to a feud between the Seymour brothers–but contemporary evidence of Seymour’s scheming against his brother, which led to Seymour’s execution in 1549, makes it clear that no help was needed from Anne Somerset. It seems most probable, then, that while the two women had no love for each other, their supposed battle over precedence was used by later writers to explain and oversimplify the much more deadly contest between the Seymour brothers.
Stephen Reed Cattley, ed., The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, Vol. VI. London: Seeley and Burnside, 1838.
John Hayward, The Life and Raigne of King Edward the Sixth, ed. Barrett Beer. Kent State University Press, 1993.
Peter Heylyn, Ecclesia restaurata: The History of the Reformation of the Church of England. Vol. I. James Craigie Robertson, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1849.
Martin A. Sharp Hume, ed., Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
Susan James, Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999.
John G. Nichols, “Anne, Duchess of Somerset.” Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 177, 1845.
Linda Porter, Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr. London: Macmillan, 2010.
Nicolas Sander, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism. David Lewis, trans. London: Burns and Oates, 1877.
Retha M. Warnicke, “Inventing the Wicked Women of Tudor England: Alice More, Anne Boleyn, and Anne Stanhope.” Quidditas: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, 1999.