Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence, edited by Janel Mueller

Regardless of anything else I ever read or do, I’ve always got at least one foot in the Medieval or Renaissance world at all times.  It’s what I do.  I’ve come to learn that, as with pretty much anything else I study in-depth, the more I learn, the more I think I need to learn.  Sometimes I bite off a bit more than I can chew, and it forces me to stretch my understanding in ways I might not have been able to under other circumstances.  This book is one of those scholarly catalysts that pushed some boundaries for me.

I’ve been whittling away at this for a couple of months now, marveling at the wonderfully archaic and elevated speech.  I had to remind myself constantly that this was before Shakespeare, and it was not composed for stagecraft.  Or was it?  If the Bard is correct in that “all the world’s a stage,” then surely courtly politics and the religious dramas that unfold in the time of Henry VIII were of the highest theater possible in those days.  It certainly makes for interesting fictional entertainment, if the sheer amount of such works are anything to judge by.  For me, it’s far more satisfying to read the real history.  The problem with that, which is where fiction fills in the blanks, is that it’s difficult to get a sense of the voice of the person.  Fiction turns people into characters.  A book like this brings us into the mind of the real queen.

Known as Henry’s sixth and final queen, the one who survived into dowager widowhood according to the famous rhyme, Katherine Parr made a mark on history that deserves to be recognized.  She is the first woman author to be published in England under her own name, and in English.  Much of what she put into place led the way for the Reformation under Elizabeth I, much which stands even today.  A book like this gathers together the words she wrote and puts them into proper context, bringing the queen to life once more.

There are some things to note about this book that the Tudor enthusiast absolutely needs to know.  The first is this is a scholarly tome, and all that implies.  It’s not meant for the general public, and it is priced accordingly.  The second is that most of what is here is translated to modern English from the English of her own time or sometimes Latin or French.  There are examples within of the older, original version, which serve to remind that the past is a foreign land with a foreign tongue.

Following the general introduction that includes a brief but thorough biography, the correspondence comprises the first section of the book, broken into five parts and ordered chronologically.  There are footnotes all through this that are far more numerous than the text itself, and for justifiable reason.  Those of a less scholarly bent will likely skip past them, but I feel that might be a disservice for the more enthusiastic readers out there.  The next four sections are Katherine’s books, all of which are religious in nature and showcase her personal beliefs and understandings, which is no small feat considering the turmoil before and during of her reign.  The last of these is her Personal Prayerbook, better known as “Lady Jane Grey’s Prayerbook” as it was in her possession when she was executed, but research pinpoints that “Its earlier history, however, lies entirely with Queen Katherine Parr.”

As a whole, this book is an astounding volume for a niche audience, and I’m sure you already know if you’re in that niche.  It sheds a great deal of light on the politics of the age, some of the legal hoops that had to be jumped through as in any age, and much of the spiritual character that defined Katherine as a person.  Ultimately that’s the greatest reason for me to have read this, to humanize her.  In doing so, it humanizes many of the personalities around her in a way that neither biography nor fiction could ever truly do.

5 stars

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