Lady Mary Seymour: An Unfit Traveller
What became of the baby daughter of Henry VIII's widow Katherine Parr and her disgraced fourth husband Thomas Seymour after their deaths? Linda Porter unravels a Tudor mystery.
On August 30th, 1548 Katherine Parr, widow of Henry VIII and then wife of Thomas Seymour, Lord Sudeley, gave birth to a daughter at her fourth husband’s country seat, Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Katherine was 36 years old and the pregnancy, so far as we know, was her first. For Tudor times this was very late to be embarking on motherhood and Katherine, plagued by morning sickness and general discomfort, found the experience trying. Her general condition was compounded by the realisation that Seymour’s very open flirtation with the Lady Elizabeth, her late husband’s daughter and now her ward, had passed the bounds of propriety. So Elizabeth had been sent away in the spring and the 11-year-old Lady Jane Grey had, instead, accompanied Katherine to the Cotswolds for her confinement. There Thomas and Katherine seem to have repaired their marriage while waiting with mounting excitement for the birth of the child whom Thomas was confident would be a boy.
To his credit Seymour seems to have been equally delighted that the new arrival was a girl. She was christened Mary, after Katherine’s elder stepdaughter, was healthy and pretty and her life with two doting parents seemed set fair. But though Katherine had come through the labour itself well there were soon indications of a disquieting nature. The queen developed puerperal fever, the greatest health hazard of post-partum women at the time. Katherine had received the best available medical care, attended by her personal physician, Dr Robert Huicke. Yet she was no more able to withstand the dangers of bacterial infection than a woman of much more humble origins. The disease took its inexorable course. Katherine became disorientated, frightened and restless, telling one of her ladies on the morning of September 3rd that ‘she feared such things in herself that she was sure she could not live’. It was reported (admittedly by a source unfriendly to Thomas Seymour) that she had chided her husband for his behaviour as he lay beside her on the bed trying to calm her. However, when her fears were confirmed by her doctor, Katherine dictated her will, leaving everything she had to Thomas and wishing it could be ‘a thousand times more’. She seems to have made no mention of little Lady Mary, lying nearby in the splendid crimson and gold nursery that Katherine had prepared, nor do we know if she asked to see the child during the few lucid intervals that were left to her.
Katherine Parr died in the early hours of September 5th and was immediately wrapped in wax cloth and buried in a lead coffin in the small church in the grounds of the castle. It was a simple funeral, the first Protestant service of its kind for a queen in England and Lady Jane Grey acted as chief mourner. Thomas, as was the custom at the time, did not attend the ceremony. His wife’s death left him stunned: ‘I was so amazed’, he wrote to Jane Grey’s father, ‘that I had small regard either to myself or to my doings’. He did, though, think of his daughter and, turning to his family for support, took her with him to London to be looked after in the household of his brother, the Protector Somerset. The Duke and Duchess of Somerset had numerous children and a new baby of their own, so probably took Lady Mary’s arrival in their stride. Unfortunately, their relations with her father were much more volatile.
Without the steadying influence of Katherine Parr and perhaps suffering more from the effects of bereavement than has often been supposed, Thomas Seymour’s judgement, which had been unpredictable in the past, now deserted him completely. His resentment against the power and authority of his brother rankled, his own role in politics being ill-defined, and he began to develop schemes for raising the country in revolt and perhaps even marrying Elizabeth. Neither of these ideas was as hare-brained as they look with hindsight, but both were fraught with danger and Thomas lacked any real power-base from which to impose himself on England. Eventually he was caught apparently trying to kidnap Edward VI, who had been very fond of his younger uncle until he shot his pet dog in the ensuing fracas. The background to this incident remains murky but the campaign of vilification that swung into action to discredit Seymour was swift and relentless. Attainted and therefore never brought to trial, Thomas was executed for treason on March 17th, 1549, leaving Lady Mary an orphan at the age of seven months.
Thomas did not appoint any of his own or Katherine’s relatives as guardian to his daughter. He could scarcely have handed her to the brother who signed his death warrant and no one else among the extended Parr or Seymour families seems to have taken much interest in the child. Like most of his former ‘friends’, they were all trying to put as much distance between themselves and Thomas Seymour as possible. Instead, Katherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, a close friend of Katherine Parr and a lady of seemingly unimpeachable reforming religious ideas, was appointed as guardian. It was not a charge she accepted with enthusiasm.
Despite her strong religious views, the duchess’s bosom was not full of Christian charity. Lady Mary may have been a dispossessed orphan, but she was an expensive one. As a queen’s daughter, she came with a household of her own, consisting of a lady governess, rockers, laundresses and other servants. The government was supposed to provide for her upkeep and the payment of her staff but the duchess could not get Somerset to part with the money until she appealed to William Cecil, then a prominent member of the duke’s household, to intervene on her behalf. The letter she wrote makes it clear how much she resented ‘the queen’s child’, as she frostily referred to the little girl.
The Duchess of Suffolk’s complaint clearly brought about some response, because in January 1550 Lady Mary Seymour was allowed, by act of Parliament, to inherit any of her father’s property that remained. There was not much left but no claim was ever made and, thereafter, Katherine Parr’s daughter disappears from the historical record completely. What could have happened to her?
The answer to this compelling Tudor mystery seems to lie in a Latin book of poems and epitaphs written by John Parkhurst, Katherine Parr’s chaplain, who had previously served the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk. The discovery was made by the American academic, Janel Mueller, but has been overlooked by historians. I am grateful to Jean Bray, the archivist at Sudeley Castle, for drawing it to my attention. In Parkhurst’s Ludicra sive Epigrammata juvenilia, published in 1573, appears the following poem, which translated reads:
I whom at the cost
Of her own life
My queenly mother
Bore with the pangs of labour
Sleep under this marble
An unfit traveller.
If Death had given me to live longer
That virtue, that modesty, That obedience of my excellent Mother
That Heavenly courageous nature
Would have lived again in me.
You are, fare thee well
Because I cannot speak any more, this stone
Is a memorial to my brief life
Though no name is given, this must surely be the epitaph that Parkhurst, who would have known Lady Mary Seymour, wrote on her death. It suggests, as has long been conjectured, that she died young, probably around the age of two. She may well be buried in Lincolnshire, near Grimsthorpe, the estate owned by the Duchess of Suffolk, where she had lived as an unwelcome burden for most of her short, sad life.