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Katherine the Queen
The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, The Last Wife of Henry VIII
By Linda Porter
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Linda Porter
All rights reserved.
The Courtiers of the White Rose
'The final end of a Courtier, where to all his good conditions and honest qualities tend, is to become an Instructor and Teacher of his Prince.'
Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 1528
Whitehall Palace is a long way from Westmoreland. In the sixteenth century the contrast between this opulent mansion on the busy river Thames and the wild country of the Lake District was even more pronounced. It took two weeks to travel between London and Kendal, the area's main town; a daunting prospect indeed and one seldom attempted in winter. Westmoreland was border country and its landowners and men of influence, often viewed as somewhat crude by their southern counterparts, were nevertheless expected to protect the king and the realm of England from the depredations of the country's neighbour, the violent, unpredictable kingdom of the Scots. But there was a lingering air of unreliability about the English nobility in this part of the kingdom. The Percy family's loyalty, in particular, was often in doubt, as was that of the other great northern clan, the Nevilles. The prospect of rebellion was never far away.
And yet, even in this hostile environment, it was possible to prosper and to gain for one's family the prospect of influence and a better future. The family of Henry VIII's sixth wife had built their wealth, and thus their place in society, on the backs of the hardy sheep who grazed their lands on England's northern fringes. The famous Kendal Green wool produced by their flocks was much in demand and made them money. Though not of the aristocracy, service in the household of John of Gaunt and a marriage alliance with the prominent de Roos family enhanced their standing. Knighthoods followed and they began to hope for ennoblement, that most cherished of medieval social aspirations. In the late fourteenth century, they took their first steps on the path that promised advancement: they became courtiers and servants of the Crown. The Parr family motto, 'love with loyalty', seemed entirely apt.
Over the next fifty years, the wealth of the Parrs grew. They acquired more lands and began to develop the complex web of local patronage and political presence that underpinned the fabric of rural England in the declining years of feudalism. But as the fifteenth century passed its midway point, with dissatisfaction growing against the inept rule of Henry VI, the Parrs had to consider exactly what 'loyalty' meant. In 1455, following the lead of the ambitious Nevilles, his powerful neighbours, Sir Thomas Parr, the head of the family, made a decision that had profound implications for his three sons. He would align himself with the party of Richard, duke of York, against the queen, Margaret of Anjou, and the clique of nobles who were manipulating the king and ruining the country.
He did not know then what confusion, mayhem and sorrow lay ahead for the ruling class of his country, as it slipped into the troubled time known to history as the Wars of the Roses. Sir Thomas Parr fought alongside Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and Warwick's father, the earl of Salisbury, at the battle of St Albans in 1455 and four years later at the battle of Ludlow. Here the Yorkists came off very much second best and Sir Thomas fled south, with the future Edward IV, and eventually took a ship from the Devon coast to France to await happier times. His action left him an attainted traitor, the future of his family very much in doubt.
On his return, things at first went from bad to worse. He and his sons fought at the battle of Wakefield in December 1460, which saw the summary execution of the duke of York by the Lancastrians, led by the duke of Somerset. Sir Thomas himself was listed as dead but survived for another year. By that time, the pendulum had swung again and the Yorkists emerged victorious from the carnage of Towton in Yorkshire, on Palm Sunday, 1461. It was one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil. When William Parr, the eldest son, assumed responsibility for the family's lands and future, there was no question that the Parrs were confirmed supporters of the White Rose.
Nothing, however, was straightforward in those confusing times. As many of the old aristocracy perished in the convulsions of the next twenty-five years, so new opportunities arose for men who were willing to serve the monarchy in their stead. The Parrs were shrewd when they decided to divide their efforts. William stayed mostly in the north, managing the family estates and trying to combat the decline of law and order brought about by civil war and the continued menace of Scottish armies. He became, despite all the challenges, a very active local businessman, expanding his flocks, building new fulling mills to boost cloth production and, by the 1470s, controlling the net fishing industries of Windermere and other major sources of local food supply.
His younger brothers, John and Thomas, meanwhile, went south to London, intent on establishing themselves at court. John became an esquire of the body in Edward IV's household and Thomas a retainer of Richard, duke of Gloucester. Yet the brothers were themselves to experience the tensions that ripped families apart during the Wars of the Roses. William was, unavoidably given his position in the north, Warwick's man. As the 'Kingmaker' grew into the fearsome overmighty subject who would challenge the young king himself, William Parr found himself on the opposite side from his siblings.
The year 1470–1 has been described as one of the most confusing in English history. Opposed by the man who had helped put him on the throne, and by his own brother, the duke of Clarence, Edward IV fled to Burgundy, leaving his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, to take sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, where she gave birth to her first son. Edward was not exactly welcome in Burgundy – fugitive monarchs are always an embarrassment to their reluctant hosts – but he was determined that he would not stay there long. Henry VI was briefly restored, but the move smacked of desperation, for his sanity was clearly compromised. And despite the chaotic times, when shifting allegiances were commonplace, Warwick and Margaret of Anjou made strange allies. In reality, the earl had overstretched himself. His domination of English politics was at last broken on the battlefield of Barnet on Easter Sunday 1471, and he himself despatched by Edward's soldiers.
William Parr had deserted Warwick by that time. In March, when Edward returned to reclaim his throne, the eldest Parr brother met him at Nottingham with 600 of his own men 'well arrayed and habled [prepared] for war'. It must have been a difficult decision to break with the Nevilles, and the anxiety that he might have miscalculated stayed with William Parr until Warwick was dead. That his gamble eventually paid off was no comfort for the loss of his youngest brother. Thomas Parr fell fighting beside the duke of Gloucester at Barnet. So the Parrs were not, in the end, immune to the sorrows experienced by many families in those unquiet days. Finally, on 4 May 1471, Edward IV inflicted a comprehensive defeat on Queen Margaret and her son at Tewkesbury. There was to be no sentiment for the vanquished. Henry VI may have been saintly but he was too dangerous as a figurehead to be kept alive any longer. His murder in the Tower swiftly followed the death at Tewkesbury of his only son. Edward had, at last, gained undisputed control of England. William and John Parr were with him at the climax of the Wars of the Roses. However much they mourned their brother and feared for their own survival, they did not waver in the end. The victorious king knighted John Parr on the battlefield. At last, the brothers would reap the full rewards offered by a grateful king.
Recognition came quickly. Only weeks after Tewkesbury, Sir William Parr was appointed comptroller of the royal household, a key role in which essentially he managed all the king's personal expenditure. He also became a royal councillor. Sir John Parr was named master of the horse and constable of Kenilworth Castle. These were no mere decorative functions. The master of the horse controlled all the king's stables, horses, hounds and the paraphernalia that went with them. Both Parrs were given properties in the north that had belonged to the fallen earl of Warwick and John's position at Kenilworth, together with other grants of lands in Warwickshire, suggests that the king intended to build up a role for him in the heart of England.
It was, however, in their frequent and physical proximity to the king that the Parrs enjoyed the greatest influence. They were typical of the kind of men, sound in outlook and loyalty, conscious of where they had come from and also where they hoped to go, whom Edward encouraged. He was suspicious of what remained of the old nobility and was under pressure from the tensions produced by the rivalries between his own brothers and the relatives of his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. The counsel and company of men he could trust and speak with freely were highly valued. These were true courtiers, not vainglorious aristocrats. And Edward, with his mixture of energy and laziness, his affability often masking a steely resolve when it came to his own survival, could not have been an easy man to serve.
The year 1474 was perhaps the high point of Sir William Parr's life. He became a Knight of the Garter, one of only two members of the gentry to receive this honour in the second part of Edward IV's reign. By this time he held more than a dozen offices and had recouped the financial losses of the previous decade, when even his business acumen could not cover his mounting debts to the Crown. His successes enabled him to make an impressive second marriage in the same year that he received the Garter. On the death of his first wife, Joanna, William married Elizabeth Fitzhugh, niece of the late earl of Warwick and became, through her, a cousin to the king himself. William was forty by then and his new bride a mere twelve years old. A significant, though not quite so large, difference in age was to become a feature of Parr marital unions in the sixteenth century. Initially, the marriage was perhaps nothing more than in name. Elizabeth Parr did not give birth to her first child until she was sixteen years old. It was the dynastic alliance itself that mattered in such arrangements.
Yet just one year after he wed Elizabeth, Sir William resigned from his role as comptroller and went back up to Westmoreland. This move may have been necessitated by the unexpected death of Sir John Parr, whose affairs required management. The elder Parr was with Edward IV in France for the campaign of the summer of 1475, but, that period apart, he did not return permanently to court and the personal service of the king again until the end of 1481. His reinstatement in the same office he had held before suggests that his stock had remained high with his royal master. In the six years of his absence, Sir William had worked mainly with Richard, duke of Gloucester, by now the king's only surviving brother. Gloucester had built up a power base in the north during his time as the visible presence of monarchy there and Sir William Parr was, effectively, his lieutenant. Parr's experience of dealing with the Scots was also important as relations between Edward IV and Scotland declined again in the last years of the king's reign. Whether Sir William was personally close to the duke, as his brother Thomas had been, is another matter. The unfolding of events in 1483 suggests that William Parr's loyalty was first and foremost to the Crown and to legitimate descent.
Although the pursuit of pleasure had broadened Edward IV's girth and coarsened his youthful bloom, there is nothing to suggest that his health was giving rise to alarm. As late as Christmas 1482 he presided over sumptuous celebrations with his usual hedonistic enjoyment, in the company of his large family, 'frequently appearing clad in a great variety of most costly garments, of quite a different cut to those which had been usually seen hitherto in our kingdom', according to the Croyland chronicler. Ever conscious of his public image, Edward would have taken satisfaction in the comment that his dress gave him 'a new and distinguished air to beholders, he being a person of most elegant appearance, and remarkable beyond all others for the attractions of his person'. Even allowing for some judicious flattery, this was clearly a monarch to be noticed and admired. So the sudden onset of serious illness in late March 1483 caused consternation. It may well be that Edward IV suffered a stroke. For eleven days after being stricken he lingered, alert enough mentally to try to reconcile his feuding relatives, aware as he must have been of the difficulties that would ensue for the minority of his son. But there was little doubt that he would not survive, and he died on 9 April, aged only forty. At his funeral, Parr was chosen to play the ceremonial role of man of arms: 'Sir William Parr, arrayed in full armour, save that his head was bare, and holding in his hand an axe, poll downward, rode up to the choir and, after alighting, was escorted into the church to make his offering as the man of arms'. It was Parr's last service to the king who had contributed so much to the rise of his family.
The unexpected death of Edward IV plunged England into a deep political crisis that has been the stuff of drama, romance and divided opinion for more than five hundred years. The struggle for power that culminated in the disappearance of two young boys is one of the most fascinating in English history and the mystery that lies at its heart has never been solved. It remains an emotive issue to this day. But it is easy to overlook the impact that the events of the spring and summer of 1483 had on men like Sir William Parr, torn between conscience and expediency as they watched events unfold. In Parr's case, this led to a decision which could have caused a rift with his wife and her family.
In the immediate aftermath of Edward's death it became apparent why, in the colourful language of the late fifteenth century, the collective term for a group of courtiers was a 'threat'. As his struggle with the Woodvilles and the queen became more bitter, the duke of Gloucester, nominated Protector of the Realm, had the full support of Sir William Parr. Lady Fitzhugh, Parr's mother-in-law, also put pressure on him to follow the duke's lead, perhaps because she and Elizabeth Parr were close to Gloucester's wife, Anne Neville, herself the daughter of Parr's old commander, the earl of Warwick. But these complex family networks were not, eventually, sufficient to persuade Parr that Gloucester's determination to gain the throne for himself was justified. The ruthless murder, on 13 June 1483, of William, Lord Hastings, one of the late king's closest friends and most trusted advisers, was the tipping point. Parr was loyal to the institution of monarchy but baulked at the idea of such a usurpation, however much it could be justified in terms of political expediency. He was wise enough to keep such thoughts to himself, though, and his attendance at the coronation of Richard III on 26 June was expected – indeed, he was listed as one of those who would carry a canopy during proceedings. But when the ceremony took place, he was absent. His womenfolk, however, were most definitely there, Lady Parr resplendent in the seven yards of cloth of gold and silk given 'by the King's special gift'. Her mother had been provided with material for two gowns, one of blue velvet and crimson satin as well as one of crimson velvet with white damask. It is not known which she wore as she rode behind Queen Anne, one of seven noble ladies given this honour. Elizabeth Parr was swiftly appointed as one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, a further sign of royal favour.
But while his wife seemed set to uphold the family's tradition of service in the new regime, Sir William Parr returned, for the last time, to Kendal. He personally wanted no part in King Richard III's regime. This does not mean that he and Elizabeth had fallen out; they may simply have felt it sensible for her to stay close to those in power, when he could not bring himself to do so. But it is not known whether she ever saw him again. He died in late autumn 1483, aged forty-nine, the last member of his family to reside in Kendal Castle. He had lived through a prolonged period of civil strife and still there seemed no permanent resolution of the dynastic problems that had beset England during his lifetime. He left behind four children, three sons and a daughter, the eldest of whom, his heir, Thomas, was five years old. When Richard III fell at Bosworth Field just two years later, in 1485, Lady Parr, still only twenty-three, faced a most uncertain future.
Excerpted from Katherine the Queen by Linda Porter. Copyright © 2010 Linda Porter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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