Katherine Parr Quincentenary – A Report on the Literary Lunch at Sudeley Castle

Today I have a guest post by Helen Graham-Matheson. You can follow her on Twitter @helenjgm.

Helen is a Renaissance PhD student at CELL specialising in early modern women and politics. Last week she attended the literary lunch at Sudeley Castle which featured talks by Tim Porter, Linda Porter, Susan James and Janel Mueller.

A huge thank you to Helen for writing this report.

(c)Sudeley Castle

Literary Lunch Day at Sudeley Castle, in honour of the Quincentenary of Katherine Parr’s Birth

by Helen Graham-Matheson

On Monday 11th June 2012 I was lucky enough to be at the magnificent Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, participating in the celebrations of the quincentenary of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last Queen, born in 1512. When she died Katherine was married for the fourth time to Thomas Seymour, Baron Sudeley, so it is tragic but fitting that her death in 1548 following the birth of her, only known issue, was at Sudeley, where she is still buried today. The castle’s owners have teamed up with the organisers of the Cheltenham Literary festival to create a programme of events intended to commemorate, celebrate and raise awareness of Katherine Parr and continue her legacy for further generations. One of these events was the literary lunch day, in which interested persons could share the wisdom of renowned Katherine Parr scholars whilst enjoying a delicious lunch in fabulous surroundings. As a PhD student focusing on mid-Tudor women, and with a fondness for good food and impressive buildings, I couldn’t resist.

The programme of events for the day was a welcome by the event’s organiser, followed by a lecture by local historian, Tim Porter. After lunch Emeritus Professor and Jane Grey expert Eric Ives introduced and chaired the presentations by the three panellists, historians Linda Porter, Susan James and Janel Mueller. Monday’s weather was truly atrocious but rather than (literally) letting it put a dampener on proceedings the lunch attendees warmed up with an extra cup of coffee, huddled close and prepared to be enthralled.

Tim Porter’s account of the history and importance of the local area was, particularly to me as an outsider, both informative and engaging. Sudeley sits on the outskirts of Winchcombe and I was entranced by the beauty of the little town and interested to learn more about how it had been 500 years ago. Porter focused his talk on John Leland’s Itinerary – a project undertaken by the author to record interesting facts, figures and the history oflocations throughout England c. 1530-1546, a fascinating period in which to have explored rural England. Leland suggested that there was once another church and another castle in Winchcombe but now no traces remain – archeologists have looked. I found Porter’s talk and Leland’s text so intriguing I think the copy of the text (available in paperback) that I plan to give my father for Christmas will soon after find its way onto my bookcase.

The organisers had hoped that around the lunch break visitors would have time to take in the magnificence of the castle, but due to the inclement weather this was not to be. After the meal (poached salmon with hollandaise sauce and new potatoes followed by English strawberries) we settled back in for the main event. Eric Ives elegantly introduced the three speakers, reminding the audience of the significance of the event and the current re-evaluation of the importance of Henry VIII’s queens consort in Tudor historiography. Ives encouraged the audience to think of the Tudor court as a business, with Henry VIII as the ‘managing director’.

Linda Porter spoke first, and delivered an engaging biography of Katherine Parr, continuing the current efforts to revise the hitherto traditional idea of Katherine as a middle-aged spinster who was little more than Henry’s nursemaid. Porter highlighted the imbalance of primary source material relating to Katherine’s life – unsurprisingly far more is available relating to her years as Queen than for her youth and childhood. Porter also corrected the still widely held assumption that Katherine’s first husband was the ageing Edward Borough rather than his teenage nephew. She followed this with a discussion of Katherine’s pivotal role in her husband Thomas Seymour’s escape from a treasonous death in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace and argued that her involvement with Thomas was a conscious decision based on mutual love and affection, rather than the foolish actions of a woman swept of her feet by a rogue. Porter described a Katherine Parr who was an educated and authoritative woman, deeply religious but warm and feeling, who was more fully in control of her circumstances and fate throughout her life than most women of her time and than has previously been recognised.

Susan James’ talk focused on Katherine’s portraits. James is an authority on the subject, as demonstrated by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) recently reclassifying a portait previously thought to be Lady Jane Grey as one of Katherine Parr following James’ work. James compared five portraits where the identities of the sitters have previously been questioned, and made her identification of them as Katherine seem beyond doubt. James used primary source material including Katherine’s household accounts, inventories following Seymour’s arrest in 1548 and eye witness accounts of her costumes to pinpoint her favourite colours, fabrics and items of jewellery. A particular example is the crown brooch she wears in the NPG portrait, which appears in the 1548 inventory. James claims that Katherine was ‘the first woman to recognise the value of the portrait as propaganda’ and that her portraits should be seen as a ‘treasure map’ for the historian to make links between all kinds of source material.

Janel Mueller took Katherine’s writings as the focus for her talk. As she highlighted, Katherine Parr was the first woman to publish a text under her own name when her Prayers and Meditacions was printed in 1545. Mueller’s aim was to show the extent to which Katherine was responsible for the works with which she is associated – the Prayers, her 1548 Lamentations of a Sinner and the translations including the Erasmian Paraphrases in which she enlisted the help of others including Princess Mary Tudor. Mueller described the influence of Cuthert Tunstall and others on Katherine’s early education, and highlighted key and overlapping phrases in her texts and letters that evidence her personal involvement. Mueller sought to establish that Katherine’s excusing of her education and intellectual accomplishments was a female modesty trope wrapped up in her evangelical views that education served only to increase one’s closeness to God and ability to do His work, rather than something to be advertised.

The individual talks were followed by a discussion between the panelists and questions from the audience – even Ives pitched in. Highlights for me included Mueller gleefully regaling the audience with the famous story from Foxe’s Acts and Monuments where Katherine reputedly saves herself from imminent arrest by submitting herself to Henry’s superior wit and knowledge, and, following comments about black satin nightwear in Tudor times, Ives getting excited about the prospect of Anne Boleyn (she who should not be named on such a day, but comparisons can’t help but be drawn) in a green satin night gown, but perhaps the less said about that the better. Questions were followed by informal discussion and mingling while the authors signed copies of their books. I was fortunate enough to chat to Mueller and James. In addition I also had the pleasure of meeting Lady Ashcombe, the owner of Sudeley, and the lady responsible for initiating the wonderful series of events taking place at the Castle this year. I also met Jean Bray, Sudeley’s archivist, whose book of Sudeley’s other celebrated female resident Emma Dent has found it’s way onto my reading list, and whose work on the Katherine Parr exhibition at Sudeley will certainly help continue the review and reinterpretation of Katherine Parr’s role from nursemaid to important influence.

As a lover of all things Tudor I cannot think of a better way to spend a day than enjoying good company, good conversation and good food in wonderful surroundings. Despite the torrential rain the literary lunch day at Sudeley was in my opinion a resounding success, both informative and accessible. I really hope that many people will have the opportunity to take advantage of the varied programme of events taking place at Sudeley Castle this year for many reasons, but not least so that the life and legacy of Katherine Parr can be celebrated, remembered and perpetuated. It only serves to thank Lady Ashcombe and all at Sudeley Castle for the thoughtful, sensitive and engaging manner in which they have constructed and present the exhibition and events that are celebrating the Quincentenary of Katherine Parr, and recommend that you all go. Now.

Further Information:

Helen Graham-Matheson @helenjgm

Queen Katherine Parr Quincentenary

Sudeley Castle

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