Katherine (Catherine) Parr: Henry VIII’s Regent

In the summer of 1544, the future Queen Elizabeth I had one of the most important experiences of her life. While her father Henry VIII was on a military campaign in France, he left his wife Queen Katherine Parr in charge of England. Elizabeth watched as her stepmother successfully ruled England. Although Katherine did have male advisors, the queen made final decisions on any important matter.

As regent (meaning someone who took over the king’s duties), Katherine proved that Henry chose his temporary replacement well. Careful of her country’s interests abroad, she kept the king’s troops supplied with food and weapons. If England’s enemies thought they could take advantage of the king’s absence, they were wrong. Under her orders, men captured a ship from England’s rival Scotland and obtained letters that proved the Scots supported the French. In addition, Katherine squashed false rumors that the French were trying to invade England. During her regency, she kept Henry informed. She wrote of the false invasion rumor “We thought good to advertise you of the same, lest any other vain report passing over might have caused the king’s majesty to have conceived other opinion of the state of things here…all things here are in very quiet and good order.”

In addition to sending information and supplies to the king, Katherine had to make decisions about domestic problems. She released Scottish prisoners when England’s jails became too crowded with the exception of those who might do harm. Even these prisoners, however, would have food paid for by the king. She also issued a proclamation for tolerance of French citizens in England who worried that the king’s war might put them in danger.

During her stay with her stepmother, Princess Elizabeth learned to combine the male qualities of a ruler with those of a woman. Katherine wrote Henry, “And even such confidence I have in your majesty’s gentleness, knowing myself to never have done my duty as were requisite and meet to such a noble prince, at whose hands I have received so much love and goodness that with words I cannot express it.” Katherine’s description of her faults to Henry despite the fact that England was doing fine without its king shows her intelligence as a wife and female ruler. Elizabeth would later encounter prejudice against female rulers and she would refer to herself as a “mere woman.” Through Katherine, however, she learned that mere women could handle the pressure of decision-making and could rule a country just as well or better than some men.

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