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.

Elizabeth I: The Education of the Future Queen of England

King Henry VIII once said, “without knowledge our life would not be worth our having.” In fact, he took pride in the intelligence of his wives and determined that his daughters would be equally smart. Since his first daughter Mary Tudor received an education that included not only “women’s work” but also the study of other languages and the classics, it made sense that his second daughter should be similarly educated.

Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, took her first lessons from her governess Katherine Champernowne. Katherine taught her student the fundamentals of languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish. She also introduced the young girl to history, math, and science. Since Elizabeth’s mother died when she was very young, she had a close bond with her kind, intelligent governess. Katherine took motherly pride in Elizabeth’s accomplishments, but she knew her bright student would need to continue her studies with a more accomplished teacher.

When her father married Katherine Parr, the new stepmother took an interest in Elizabeth’s education. She appointed a private tutor for the young girl. William Grindal was a Latin scholar who also excelled in teaching Greek. Under his instruction, Elizabeth mastered both languages, exceeding her sister Mary’s knowledge of them as well as her father’s.

After William Grindal died of the plague, Grindal’s teacher Roger Ascham became Elizabeth’s tutor. The schedule Ascham arranged for his pupil makes today’s school day seem easy by comparison. In the morning Elizabeth studied Greek, including the Greek New Testament and Greek literature. In the afternoon she worked on Latin authors, and in the evening she learned history and studied oratory. Unlike other teachers in the sixteenth century, however, Ascham thought that learning should be enjoyable. He believed in praising rather than punishing students. He wrote, “I have dealt with many learned ladies, but among them all the brightest star is my illustrious Lady Elizabeth.” He also thought his students should learn about a variety of things, so in addition to her schoolwork Elizabeth also played musical instruments, hunted, and rode horses.

Although her father never intended her education to aid her as a ruler, her tutors gave her a love of learning that aided her when she took the throne. Her knowledge of languages and speech-making skills helped her talk with foreign ambassadors. As Queen she “entered…first into the school of experience” and had to devote herself, as she stated, to “the study of that which was meet for Government.” Her desire to learn new things and her education helped her to become a successful ruler.