Authors: Elizabeth Norton
Attempting to woo the king’s sister with the express disapproval of the Council was a desperate act. Seymour cannot have been surprised at Elizabeth’s decision ‘to decline the happiness of becoming your wife’, although it disappointed him. She did, at least, assure him of her eternal friendship and the pleasure she would feel ‘in being your servant, and good friend’. While friendship with a princess was potentially useful, it would not increase Seymour’s actual status one jot.
Picking himself up quickly from this second rejection, Thomas made a decision. On 3 March 1547, in a private moment amid the comings and goings of the queen’s household, Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr were married. The queen forgot her station when she promised ‘to honour, love, and such in all lawful thing obey’ her alluring lover, as he later reminded her in a letter.
It was only thirty-four days since the death of the old king.
Necessarily, the ceremony was conducted in the strictest secrecy. The couple went to bed together immediately – so soon, in fact, that they placed the royal succession in jeopardy. For, as it was later alleged, ‘if she had conceived straight after it should have been a great doubt whether the child born should have been accounted the late king’s or his’.
Although a bachelor, Thomas Seymour was no sexual novice.
He had so debauched an earlier conquest that she became known as ‘a lewd woman that had lived an unclean life’.
In her fourth marriage, the queen now finally had her young and vigorous husband; but she was not thereby prepared to jeopardize her position or reputation. She swore Thomas to secrecy.
The Protector’s brother slipped quietly back to Westminster following his wedding and attended a Council meeting the next day. The agenda was dominated by fear of conflict with France. Somerset granted a commission to Lord Russell, the Earl of Warwick, Thomas Seymour and William Paget to enter negotiations for a defensive league with the French ambassadors,
with whom they went to dine on 5 March 1547.
They failed to do this discreetly for, as they walked together, the Imperial ambassador’s spies noted that Paget was carrying a great packet of papers with which to negotiate a treaty. Although very much a junior partner in the discussions, Seymour could congratulate himself, as he made merry at dinner, that – even before his marriage to the queen was known – this was a sign that he was far from being out in the cold.
His was a starkly different situation from that of others who had displeased the Protector. Stephen Gardiner, who had already been excluded from the Council, had so little credit left that – as he noted – he could not even succeed in banning a play in Southwark scheduled to be performed at the same time as a solemn requiem mass for Henry VIII in the cathedral there.
As Somerset established himself, the balance of power on the Council was constantly shifting. The day after Thomas’s ambassadorial dinner, the Protector struck against Wriothesley, requiring him to resign his office and placing him under house arrest.
He went quietly.
Somerset hid his insatiable desire for power and his absolute conviction in his own righteousness beneath a cloak of benignity; but some believed him capable even of murder.
In large part, his ‘sabling’ as Protector had been due to his fine personage, the eloquence of his speech and his learning, all of which were noted, even by his detractors, as the means by which he forged goodwill.
By March 1547, he considered himself to be secure. Even Warwick, whose ‘liberality and splendour’ made him more popular than the ‘dry, sour, opinionated’ Somerset, appeared to submit to second place willingly enough, in spite of predictions at court that he would never countenance his colleague’s dominance.
The Earl of Warwick, with his ‘high courage,’ was very good at dissembling.
With the coronation out of the way, Somerset set himself the task of organizing the king’s household, as well as considering future provision for the dowager queen.
Catherine, along with her stepdaughters Mary and Elizabeth, were still in London in early March. They paid at least one visit to the court at Westminster that month.
But Catherine was already considering a move out of London to her fine manor house at Chelsea. She busied herself with her council of receivers, surveyors, attorneys and solicitors, and took steps to put her financial affairs in order.
In the eyes of everyone, Catherine continued to appear the grieving widow – although she did permit her troupe of Italian viol players to play for her mourning household.
Princess Mary, who continued to grieve openly, left London before the end of March, travelling to Essex and thereafter to her East Anglian estates.
Her sister Elizabeth remained in the capital and was frequently seen in the queen’s company: she was rather more aware of Catherine’s secret marriage than her stepmother realized.
Towards the end of the month, the queen and her younger stepdaughter moved briefly to St James’s Palace, while they prepared for the move to Chelsea.
It was warmer now and Elizabeth’s lady mistress, Kate Ashley, took her exercise in the park beside the palace. One day she came upon Thomas Seymour, who was probably attempting to visit his wife. She approached, telling him boldly that she had heard it said that he should have married Elizabeth.
No, said Thomas, she was mistaken since he did not intend to lose his head for a wife. ‘It could not be,’ he continued, but he assured Mistress Ashley that he would prove to have the queen. The forthright Kate merely laughed, saying this was past proof as she had heard he had already married Catherine. Seymour said nothing; but his silence was telling.
Catherine and Elizabeth set out for Chelsea in April 1547, accompanied by their households. The queen, who distributed alms liberally to the poor that she met on the road, had mixed feelings.
She was relieved to be leaving behind the strictures of life in the capital, but she regretted the inevitable separation from her new husband. Before parting, the couple promised to write to each other every two weeks.
It was an interval that the queen found too long, and she playfully claimed to Thomas that ‘weeks be shorter at Chelsea than in other places’ as she sat down to write to him long before two weeks had expired. Signing the letter ‘by hers that is yours to serve and obey during her life’, Catherine settled down to wait impatiently for a reply.
Soon, Thomas was haunting the fields around Chelsea, seeking the intimacy of a secret encounter with his wife. In the early hours of the morning, as the spring sky was just beginning to lighten over Chelsea, a cloaked figure intent on remaining unseen would make its way through the damp grass to the gate at the edge of the field. Here Catherine would listen for footsteps, and, on hearing them, would open the gate, before slipping back with her visitor to the smart brick manor house. There they could spend a few precious, unnoticed hours alone together. In this way, the woman who to all the world was a grieving dowager queen and the man who was looked upon as the realm’s most eligible bachelor could make the most of their still-secret marriage. By 7 o’clock in the morning, Thomas had hurried away.
In their correspondence Thomas reminded Catherine of a promise she had made, ‘to change the two years [of public mourning and widowhood] into two months’.
He had seduced her, he had married her and he had bedded her. The time had come, as far as Thomas Seymour was concerned, for Catherine’s ostentatious mourning to end. He wanted to reap the rewards of having a royal bride.
Seymour had also already managed to alienate Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he complained about his hospitality to the king (Narratives, pp. 260–3).
He was the son of Edmund Dudley who, along with Sir Richard Empson, had attracted opprobrium under Henry VII for their assiduous implementation of royal measures to squeeze money out of England’s nobility. Henry VIII, on his accession in 1509, courted popularity by having both men arrested and charged with treason. They were executed in 1510.
Records at The National Archives (TNA E36/120 f. 70) describe the discovery of a wax effigy of Prince Edward, stuck through with a knife in 1538. Prophecies and other such attempts on his life are also recorded.
See Vertot, pp. 101–3, for Seymour’s declaration of love, and Leti for the date of the marriage. The marriage date is controversial, although the surviving evidence supports an early date. (James, in
, p. 269, suggested that the marriage occurred at Baynard’s Castle in late May 1547, though this is mere supposition.)
There is at least one earlier recorded mistress.
Catherine and Thomas struggled to decide on the best way of presenting their secret marriage to his brother. Catherine’s relationship with the Duke of Somerset was coloured by her belief that he had outmanoeuvred her in the dying days of Henry VIII. She had once been close to his wife, Anne Stanhope, and had hoped for more support from her.
In the weeks following Henry’s death, as the two women’s positions shifted, Catherine found Anne’s conduct towards her neglectful: it was ‘her custom to promise many comings to her friends, and to perform none’. Catherine was still brooding over these slights when she arrived at Chelsea. She wrote to Thomas to complain that his brother had made many promises, but that they were as yet ‘unperformed’. She thought Anne ‘hath taught him that lesson’. Thomas, however, was more hopeful that his sister-in-law could be their friend. He spoke to her in person at court one day in March, and asked her if she would see Catherine. The Duchess of Somerset’s imperious response was that she would be at her house in Sheen for the next few days, but that ‘at her return on Tuesday’ she would see the queen.
Neither Catherine nor Thomas was convinced that they could obtain the duchess’s favour. Thomas wrote to Catherine asking her: ‘if ye see yourself in good credit with her, to desire Her Grace to be my good lady. And if I see myself in more favour than you, I shall make the like request for you.’
But Anne Stanhope, as the Protector’s wife, saw herself as the queen of the court, and she was not prepared to cede her place to a woman whom Henry VIII had merely married in what a chronicler described as his ‘doting days, when he had brought himself so low by his lust and cruelty that no lady that stood on her honour would venture on him’.
The Duchess of Somerset questioned the morals of ‘Latimer’s widow’ even before she knew of the queen’s secret marriage; either way, she was determined not to ‘give place to her’.
As spring turned into summer, Catherine and Thomas continued their snatched meetings at Chelsea. Such trysts were highly charged given the constant danger of detection. On one occasion, while he was lurking in the fields with a letter for his wife, Thomas was spotted by a servant of Catherine’s brother, the Marquess of Northampton.
Seymour thought no more of it, as he did not recognize the man, but he himself was instantly recognizable. The servant rushed to inform Nicholas Throckmorton, Catherine’s cousin.
The couple were lucky that it was only Throckmorton, who loved his kinswoman, and the matter went no further. Nonetheless, on realizing how close they had come to being discovered, Thomas threw his letter in the fire. Catherine had already cautioned him to ensure that their correspondence, so full of passion and plotting, did not fall into hostile hands. Yet she had already broken her own commandment by keeping his letters. And Thomas could not bring himself to stay away from her. He wrote to her again, expressing the hope that his words would be received with ‘goodwill’. In May he sent her a red deer and a buck that he had killed. The queen generously rewarded the servants who bore the gifts.
She ordered that her plate be brought up from London for a banquet but, without Thomas there, the celebrations must have been muted.
There is no doubt that Thomas, in spite of his earlier attempts to find a more prestigious bride, was deeply attracted to Catherine. He probably even loved her. He swore that when he wrote letters to her they were ‘from the body of him whose heart ye have’.
On another occasion he wrote in reply to one of Catherine’s letters to him: ‘from your highness humble servant, assured and faithful friend, and loving husband during his life’.
Her intellect daunted him, but he also admired it, excusing his own literary deficiencies by saying that since he never re-read his words after they were written, ‘wherefore if any fault be, I pray you hold me excused’.