The story of how Catherine Parr almost suffered the same fate as her predecessors is well-known. To summarise: In 1546, the conservative faction at court, led by Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Wriothesley, the Lord Chancellor of England, attempted to move against Catherine, using Henry’s irritation with her outspokenness to gain his consent to draw up a warrant for her arrest on the grounds of heresy. A sympathetic observer warned Catherine of the plot, which sent her (understandably) into such distress that Dr Wendy had to be summoned, who advised her to go to the King and plead her case. Catherine managed to reconcile with Henry by saying that she only sought to learn from his wisdom and distract from his pain. Unfortunately, this reconciliation did not reach the ears of Lord Wriothesley, who brought armed guards to arrest her whilst she walked with the King, who chastised him and sent him away. I have included John Foxe’s account at the end of this post for those interested, as even truncated, it is very long.
This is a compelling, and oft-repeated story, and it seems to fit what we know of the characters involved; it shows Catherine’s intelligence, the connivingness of the anti-reform faction, and the mercurialness of Henry’s nature.
Curiously, though, it is very similar to another plot that took place a few years earlier, in September 1543, in which the same conservative faction tried to have Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, arrested, also on charges of heresy. There are several accounts of this plot, this one is from a Ralph Morice:
‘…wherin the counsaile required that the L. Cranmcr might be committed unto the Tower, while he were examined, the kinge was veraie straight in graunting therof…
That nighte about xj of the clocke, the same night before the daie he should appere before the counsaile, the kinge sent mr. Deny a to my lorde at Lambeth, willing hym incontynently to come unto Westminster to speake with hym. My lorde being abedd rose straight waie, and wente to the king into his galery att Whitehall at Westminster; and there the king declaird unto hym what he had don in gyvyng libertie unto the counsaile to committe hym to prison, for that they bare hym in hande a that lie and his lernyd men hadd sowne suche doctrine in the realme that all men almoste were infectid with heresie, and that no man durste bring in matter against hyra being at libertie and one of the counsaile oneles he were comitted to prison, “and therfore I have grauntid to thair requeste, (quod the king,) but whither I hare don well or noo, what sey you, my lord?” My lorde answered and rnooste humblie thancked the king that it woldc please his highnes to give hym that warnyng aforehandc, saying that lie was very well contente to be committed to the Tower, for the triall of his doctrine, so that he miglite be indifferentlie harde (heard), as he doubted not but that his majestic wolde see hym so to be used. ” Oh Lorde God ! (quod the king, b ) what fonde symplicitie have you: so to permitt yoiuself to be ymprisoned, that every enemy of yours ‘ may take vantage againste you. Doo not you thincke that yf thei have you ones in prison, iij or iiij false knaves wilbe sone procured to witnes againste you and to condempne you, whiche els now being at your libertie dare not ones open thair lipps or appere before your faee. Noo, not so, my lorde, (quod the king,) I have better regarde unto von than to pcrmitte your enerayes so to overthrowe you. And therfore I will that you tomorow come to the counsaile, who no doubte will sende for you, and when thei breake this mattier unto yow, require theym that, being one of theym, you maie have thusmoche your as thei wolde have themselves, that ys, to have your accusers brought before you, and if thei stande with you withouten regarde of your allegations, and will in no condition condiscende unto your requestes, but will nedes committe you to the Tower, than appele you frome them to our person, and give to them this rynge, (which he delivered unto my L. Cranmer than,) by the whiche (saied the kyng,) thei shall well understande that I have taken your cause into my hande frome theym…
The nexte mornyng, according to the kynges monition and my lorde Cranmer’s expectation, the counsaile sent for hym by viij of the clocke in the mornyng…
Anon my lorde Cranmer was callid into the counsaile. And it was declaird unto hym, that a great complaynte was made of hym both to the king and to them, that he and other by his permission had infectid the hole realme with heresie, and therfore it was the kinges pleasure that thei shoulde committ hym to the Towre, and there for his triall to be examined. My loile Cranmer required, as is before declaird, with many other both reasons and persuations, that he might have his accusares come there before hym, before thei used any suche extremity againste hym. In fyne, there was no entreatie colde serve, but that he muste nedes departe [to] the Tower. ” I am sorye, my lordes, (quod my L. Cranmer,) that you dryve me unto this exigente. to apple (appeal) frome you to the kinges majestic, ayIio by this token hathe resumed this mattier into his awne handes, and dischargeth you therof;” and so delivered the kinges ryng unto them. By and by the lorde Paissell a sware a grcate othe and saied, ” Did not I tell you, my lordes, what wolde come of this matter? I knewe right well that the king wolde never permitte my lorde of Canterbury to have suche a blemyshe as to be ymprisoned, oneles it were for high treason.” And as the maner was. when thei hadd ones receyvid that ryng. they lefte of thair mattier, and wente all unto the kinges person both with his token and the cause.
When thei came uuto his liigliues tlie king saied unto theym, “Ah! my lordes, I hadd thoughte that I had hadd a discrete and wise counsaile, but nowe I perceyve that I am deceyvid. Howe have ye handeled here my L. of Canterbury? “What make ye of him a slave, shitting hym oute of the councell-chamber emonges servyng men? Wolde ye be so handeled yourselfes?” and after suche tanting wourdes saied, ” I wold you shoulde well understande, that I aceompte my L. of Canterbury as faithfull a man towardes me as ever was prelate in this rcalme, and one to whome I am many waies beholding, by the faith I owe unto God (and so laied his hand uppon his breste) and therfore who so loveth me (saied he,) will regarde hym therafter.”’
When you compare the plot against Catherine Parr with the one against Cranmer, it is easy to see how strikingly similar they are: both involved the conservative faction bringing accusations of heresy to the King, who granted an arrest warrant; both saw a private reconciliation between the King and the accused; and both saw the accusers humiliated and berated by the King for their presumption.
How should we account for these similarities? How should it affect our interpretation of events?
The first thing to point out is that there is actually very little evidence for the plot against Catherine. The only source we have regarding this affair is John Foxe’s ‘Actes and Monuments,’ also known as ‘The Book of Martyrs.’ Foxe’s book, first and foremost, was a Protestant martyrology, and many of the stories he relates are, nowadays, demonstrably untrue.
So how reliable is Foxe’s account of Catherine here? Well, I believe we have two options. On the one hand, he may have taken the plot against Cranmer, for which we have multiple sources. One of the most reliable sources, that Foxe himself drew from, was written by Ralph Morice, Cranmer’s secretary and biographer. Another account was written by Matthew Parker, Elizabeth I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, who, like Cranmer, owed his career to the King’s Great Matter and Anne Boleyn. For Catherine, surely there would be some other evidence of such a plot; guards being sent to arrest the Queen of England only to be sent packing by the King would warrant a mention in ambassadorial letters, at the very least.
It is very possible that Foxe took plot against Cranmer and reworked it to fit Queen Catherine, in order to further stress her status as a Protestant icon, her positive influence on the King, and the failure of the conservative courtiers.
On the other hand, in general it seems that whilst Foxe stretched, twisted, and modified the truth to fit his agenda, he never completely invented anything in ‘Actes and Monuments.’ And Foxe was correct to some extent; it is true that there was a conservative, anti-reform movement at court, led by Gardiner and Wriothesley. And there is evidence that they were trying to get to the Queen through her ladies, most brazenly during the interrogation of Anne Askew.
Foxe was well connected, and he may have heard of the plot against Catherine from his friend, Hugh Latimer, who was chaplain to the Duchess of Suffolk, who was herself a close friend and lady-in-waiting of Catherine (and rumoured to be the woman who would supplant her). As for the lack of contemporary letters and accounts relating to the matter, many at court would have wanted to sweep the entire embarrassing affair under the rug, as it cast the conservative faction in a bad light, and, despite her survival, even showed the weaknesses in Catherine’s position.
It is hard to know how accurate Foxe’s account is. But if we take it as true, I think a comparison with the Thomas Cranmer plot does still raise an interesting possibility.
With Cranmer, the King secretly sent for him in the middle of the night to warn him of the plot against him, and it is clear that Henry’s intentions from the start was to show his support for his Archbishop of Canterbury and to show the conservative faction that they did not have as much power and influence as they thought.
Was Henry using his wife in a similar way? Within the confines of the court, it would be difficult for Henry to summon Catherine or visit her discreetly; and besides, he was genuinely annoyed with her. But it does seem very convenient that the arrest warrant would make its way into Catherine’s hands. Did Henry arrange it? Did Henry send Dr. Wendy to tip Catherine off? Even if that were the case, it seems that Catherine was unaware of the fact, which is a rather cruel piece of manipulation on Henry’s part. Then again, it could be that that was the public story that was put about, and Dr. Wendy was sent to Catherine to enlighten her of the plot and Henry’s plan to use it to take Wriothesley and his faction down a peg or two.
So perhaps Catherine was never in any true danger at all. Henry’s history with Cranmer suggests that it is possible that it had never been his intention to have his sixth wife arrested. As I am so often saying on this page, we will never truly know what Henry’s intentions were, or even whether this event actually took place. But as historians and history-lovers, it is fascinating to deconstruct these sources to try and imagine how the past unfolded.
John Foxe’s account of the plot against Catherine Parr:
‘…Winchesters flatteryng phrases, meruelously whetted þe kyng, both to anger and displeasure towardes the Queene…with hys flatteryng wordes, seeking to frame the kinges disposition after hys owne pleasure, so farre crept into the kyng at that tyme, and with doubtfull feares he with other hys fellowes so filled the kinges mistrustfull mynde, that before they departed the place, the kyng (to see belyke what they would do) had geuē commaundement, with warrant to certaine of them made for that purpose, to consult together about the drawyng of certaine Articles agaynst the Queene, wherin her lyfe might be touched: which the kyng by their persuasions pretended to be fully resolued not to spare, hauing any rigour or colour of lawe to countenaunce the matter. With this Commission they departed for that tyme from the kyng, resolued to put their pernicious practise to as mischieuous an execution…
…the kyng of hym selfe vpon a certayne night after her beyng with hym, and her leaue taken of hym, in mislykyng her Religion, brake the whole practise vnto one of his Phisicians, either Doct. Wendie, or els Owen, but rather Wendy, as is supposed: pretendyng vnto hym, as though he intended not any lōger to be troubled with such a Doctresse as she was, and also declaryng what trouble was in workyng agaynst her by certayne of her enemyes, but yet charging hym withall vpon perill of his lyfe, not to vtter it to any creature liuyng: and therupon declared vnto hym þe parties aboue named, with all circumstances, and whē and what the finall resolution of the matter should be…
…the bill of Articles drawen against the Quene, and subscribed with the kinges own hand (although dissemblingly ye must vnderstand) falling from the bosome of one of the foresayd Councellours, was founde and taken vp of some godly person, and brought immediately vnto the Queene. Who reading there the Articles comprised against her, and perceiuing the kinges owne hand vnto the same, for the sodayne feare thereof, fell incontinent into a great melancholy and agony, bewailing and taking on in suche sorte, as was lamentable to see: as certayne of her Ladies and gentlewomen being yet alyue, which were then present about her, can testifie.
The King hearing what perplexitie shee was in, almost to the peryll and danger of her lyfe, sent his Phisicions vnto her…Wendy, perceauing by her words what þe matter was, according to that þe king before had tolde him: for the cōforting of her heauye mynde, began to breake with her in secrete maner, touching the sayde Articles deuised agaynst her, which he him selfe (he sayd ) knew right well to be true…he exhorted her somwhat to frame and cōforme her self vnto the kings mynde, saying he dyd not doubt, but if she would so do, and shewe her humble submission vnto hym, shee shoulde finde hym gracious and fauourable vnto her.
It was not long after this, but the king hearing of the daungerous state wherein she yet styll remayned: came vnto her hym selfe…the Queene remembryng with her selfe the wordes that M. Wendy had sayd vnto her, deuised how by some good oportunitie she might repayre to the kynges presence…the king did behold, very curteously he welcomed her, and breakyng of the talke, which before her commyng he had with the Gentlemen aforesayd, began of hym selfe, contrary to his maner before accustomed, to enter into talke of religiō: semyng as it were, desirous to be resolued by the Queene of certein doubtes which he propounded.
The Queene perceiuyng to what purpose this talke did tende, not beyng vnprouided in what sorte to behaue her selfe towardes the kyng, with such aūsweres resolued his questions as the time and oportunitie present did require, myldly and with a reuerent countenaunce aunsweryng agayne after this maner.
Your Maiestie (quoth she) doth right well know, neither I my self am ignoraunt, what great imperfection & weakenes by our first creation, is alotted vnto vs womē, to be ordeyned and appoynted as inferiour and subiect vnto man as our head, from whiche head all our direction ought to procede: and that, as God made man to his owne shape and lykenes, wherby he beyng endued with more speciall giftes of perfection, might rather bee stirred to the contemplation of heauenly thinges and to the earnest endeuour to obey hys commaundementes: euen so also made hee woman of man, of whom and by whom shee is to bee gouerned, commaunded and directed. Whose womanly weakenes and naturall imperfection, ought to be tolerated, ayded and borne withall, so that by his wisedome such thinges as be lackyng in her, ought to be supplyed.
Sithence therfore that God hath appointed such a naturall difference betwene man and woman, and your Maiestie beyng so excellent in giftes and ornamentes of wisedome…yet must I and will I referre my Iudgement in this and all other cases to your Maiesties wisedome, as my onely anker, supreme head, and gouerner here in earth next vnder God, to leane vnto.
Not so by Saint Mary, quoth the King. You are become a Doctor, Kate, to instruct vs, (as we take it) and not to be instructed, or directed by vs.
If your Maiestie take it so (quoth the Quene) then hath your Maiestie very much mistaken me, who haue euer bene of the opinion, to thinke it verye vnseemely and preposterous for the woman to take vpon her the office of an instructer or teacher to her Lorde, and husband, but rather to learne of her husbande, and to bee taught by him. And where I haue with your Maiesties leaue, heretofore bene bolde to holde talke wyth your Maiestie, wherein some times in opinions there hath seemed some differēce, I haue not done it so much to maintaine opinion, as I dyd it rather to minister talke, not onely to the end that your Maiestie might with lesse griefe passe ouer this paynfull time of your infirmitie, being intentiue to our talke, & hoping that your Maiestie should reape some ease therby: but also that I hearing you Maiesties learned discourse, might receaue to my self some profit therof. Wherin I assure your Maiestie I haue not missed anye part of my desire in that behalfe, alwayes referring my selfe in all such matters vnto your Maiestie, as by ordinaunce of nature it is conuenient for me to doo.
And is it euen so sweete hart, quoth the king? And tended your argumentes to no worse an ende? Then perfect friendes we are nowe againe, as euer at anye tyme heretofore: and as hee satte in hys chaire, embracing her in hys armes and kissing her…
Now then (God be thanked) the kinges minde was cleane altered, & he detested in his hart (as afterwards he plainly shewed) this tragicall practise of those cruell Cayphases: who nothing vnderstanding of the kings well reformed mynde, and good disposition toward the Queene, were busily occupied about thinking and prouiding for their next dayes labour, which was the daye determined to haue caried the Queene to the Tower.
The day and almost the houre appointed being come, the king being disposed in the after noone to take the ayre (waited vpon with two gentlemen onely of his bed chamber) went into the Garden, whether the Queene also came, being sent for by þe king himself, the three Ladies aboue named, alone waityng vppon her. With whom the king at that time dysposed him selfe to be as pleasant as euer he was in al his lyfe before: when sodainly in the myddest of their myrth, the houre determined being come, in commeth the L. Chauncellour into the Garden, with a fourtye of the kinges garde at hys heeles, with purpose in deede to haue taken the Queene together with the three Ladyes aforesayde, whome they had before purposed to apprehende alone, euen then vnto the Tower. Whom the king sternly beholding, and breaking of his myrth with the queene, stepping a litle a side, called the Chauncellour vnto him. Who vpon his knees spake certayne woordes vnto the king, but what they were (for that they were softly spoken, and the king a good prety distance from the queene) it is not well knowen: but it is most certayne that the kinges replying vnto him was, knaue, for his aunswere: yea, arrant knaue, beast, and foole, and wyth that the king commaunded him presently to auaūt out of presence. Which words although they were vttered somewhat low, yet were they so vehemently whyspered out by þe king, that the Queene did easely with her Ladies aforesayd ouer heare them: which had bene not a litle to her comfort, if she had knowen at that time the whole cause of his comming so perfectly, as after she knewe it. Thus departed the L. Chauncellour out of the kings presence as he came, with all his trayne, the whole mould of all his deuise being vtterly broken.’