Hostage to Fortune: Katharine Parr and the Pilgrimage of Grace

by Alison Weir

Katharine Parr was twenty when her first husband, Edward Burgh, died in 1533. Unwelcome in Lincolnshire, she may have gone to stay with her paternal cousin, Katherine Neville, Lady Strickland, at Sizergh Castle in Westmorland (modern Cumbria). It was perhaps Lady Strickland who introduced her to John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer of Snape Castle in Yorkshire. Born in 1493, he was nineteen years older than Katharine, but she accepted his proposal of marriage. The Neville family was one of the oldest and most influential in the North, where the Parrs were part of their affinity.

Latimer was a good match. He was active on the Council of the North and sat in Parliament as one of the two knights of the shire for Yorkshire. He had first attended court as one of the King's elite bodyguards, the troop of gentlemen, and had been knighted after capture of Tournai in 1513. His had succeeded his father to the barony in 1530. That year, he was one of many lords who signed a petition to the Pope asking him to grant Henry VIII a divorce from Katherine of Aragon.

Latimer’s chief seat was Snape Castle, and he had a London residence in Charterhouse Square. His first wife, Dorothy de Vere, had borne him two children, John, his heir, and Margaret, before dying in 1527. The following year, Latimer married Elizabeth Musgrave, but she bore him no children and died in 1530.

Lord Latimer and Katharine Parr were married in the summer of 1534 and Katharine settled down to the conventional life of a noblewoman, ordering her household, looking after her stepchildren, accompanying her husband on trips to London, and enjoying the varied social life Yorkshire had to offer. There were no children.

Latimer sat several times in the Parliament that passed the legislation that underpinned the Reformation and made Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England, but he was a Papist at heart and did not support the King’s reforms or the dissolution of the monasteries.

Discontent in the north against these reforms erupted in September 1536. During the great rebellion that followed, which became known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, the people protested their loyalty to the King, but demanded that traditional religion be restored and the monasteries spared. But what they were really questioning was the right of the sovereign to make decisions affecting religion, which cut to the core of Henry VIII’s views on monarchy.

The revolt broke out in Lincolnshire amid rumours that the government was planning to close churches as well as monasteries. The vicar of Louth preached an incendiary sermon in defence of traditional religion and his congregation and others in neighbouring towns sprang to action. The King furiously rejected the rebels’ demands and sent an army under the Duke of Suffolk to crush it. Katharine’s brother William supervised the executions that followed.

Undeterred, a lawyer called Robert Aske had now raised parts of Yorkshire. On 11 October, hundreds of insurgents descended on Jervaulx Abbey, ten miles from Snape. The Abbot hid until they threatened to burn it down; when he emerged, he was assaulted and forced him to swear an oath of loyalty to the rebel cause.

Wounded men began arriving at the gates of Snape. A tax collector, Sir William Askew, had been attacked by the rebels as he went about his duties. His daughter Anne was to become one of England’s most famous Protestant martyrs, but he was probably of the old faith. It is possible that Katharine Parr had known the Askews when she lived in Lincolnshire during her first marriage, and that Sir William presumed on this acquaintance to seek shelter with her.

In October 1536, Aske entered York with 10,000 rebels and drew up the ‘Oath of the Honourable Men’. All who assembled under the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ had to swear to restore the Church and suppress heresy.

We do not know what Katharine’s religious views were at this time, but she must have felt torn. Her husband was a conservative, but her uncle, Lord Parr of Horton, and her brother William were staunch king’s men, and William was avid for religious reform.

The rebels ‘surprised a great many gentlemen in their own homes’. In October, they appeared before Snape, threatening violence if Latimer did not join them. Katharine saw her husband borne away. She would have known that he was in great danger from the Pilgrims and for defying the King.

Latimer was taken to Pontefract Castle, the rebel leaders’ headquarters. There, he was forced to swear the Pilgrims’ oath and lead his men in the rebellion. He later recalled: ‘My being among them was a very painful and dangerous time to me.’

Within a week of his capture, the royal forces were aware that he had defected to the rebels. He and others who had been constrained had no choice but to take active roles in the rising because they knew they would suffer if it failed. But they made it known that they sought only to bring it to a peaceful and honourable conclusion. When Aske resolved to march on London, Latimer was appointed one of his commanders.

When the King sent an army under Norfolk to confront the rebel forces at Doncaster, Latimer spoke for the Pilgrims, but Norfolk could see that he was a reluctant rebel and later defended him to the King, saying, ‘He was enforced and no man in more danger of his life.’ The Duke assured the insurgents that their demands would be heard in London and promised them pardons, whereupon they disbanded and went home.

Latimer wrote to Katharine at Snape, anxious for her safety. They must have been living in fear, each worried about the other. In November, he returned home, but there was still unrest in the north, and he was worried about how his part in the rising would be viewed by the King, having played a prominent role in the revolt and the truce, and by his fellow Pilgrims, for neither side trusted him. A general pardon was issued, but Henry VIII warned that he would deal with any fresh rebellion in person, at the head of an army.

In December, Latimer was present at a council of rebel leaders who persisted in challenging royal policy. Amongst other things, they demanded that Papal authority be restored and that the dissolution be halted. A list of articles was presented to the Duke of Norfolk.

Latimer returned to Snape, knowing that he must restore himself to the King’s good graces. Early in 1537, he rode to London to explain his actions, but, on the way, he received orders to return north and serve on the Scottish border.

In Yorkshire, unrest persisted. People were suspicious of the King’s intentions, and of Latimer’s loyalty. An angry mob descended on Snape, shouting that he was a traitor. They ransacked the castle, seized family treasures and did considerable damage. Katharine and her stepchildren were taken hostage and held as sureties for Latimer’s continuing commitment to the rebel cause. It must have been a terrifying experience, especially when the occupiers sent to Latimer, warning him that, if he did not return immediately, they would destroy the castle. Katharine got a message to him, begging him to come to her aid, and he hastened back in the cold, spending a night in a ruined manor house. The next morning, he arrived at Snape and talked the rebels into leaving.

When Sir Francis Bigod, an associate of Latimer’s, incited a new rising, Norfolk suppressed it vigorously, at the King’s command. Aske and other rebel leaders were arrested and later executed. Latimer was fortunate to escape such a fate. Henry VIII was unsure whether he had supported the rebels voluntarily or been constrained to. It appears that Katharine’s brother and uncle interceded for him and persuaded the King to pardon him. Norfolk too spoke up in his favour: ‘I cannot discover any evidence other than that he was enforced and no man in more danger of his life.’ But Latimer's standing with the King would never fully recover. He was removed from the Council of the North and was required annually to pay the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, what amounted to protection money.

It is possible that the behaviour of the rebels was a deciding factor in Katharine embracing the reformed faith. It may have been around the time of the rising that she first became interested in Protestantism, a leaning she would be forced to conceal for many years behind a facade of conventional Catholic observance.