Catherine Parr is immortalized in history as the one who survived, the lucky last of Henry VIII’s six wives. But the Tudor queen came close to meeting a grisly fate, much like Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, both of whom were beheaded on the English king’s orders.

By 1546, the ailing, corpulent and increasingly paranoid Henry had grown disillusioned with Catherine. Though Henry broke from Rome and declared himself head of the Church of England 12 years prior, he was arguably still a Catholic at heart, and his wife’s advocacy for pushing the church even further away from Catholicism frustrated him. Further complicating matters was the fact that the famously mercurial monarch did not enjoy being told what to do by anyone, let alone a woman.

“A good hearing it is, when women become such clerks, and a thing much to my comfort, to come in mine old days to be taught by my wife,” Henry reportedly complained to an adviser. Seizing on the king’s dissatisfaction with his outspoken queen, the English court’s conservative Catholic faction convinced him to sign a warrant for Catherine’s arrest on charges of heresy. If convicted, she could be burned at the stake—a punishment designed to offer heretics a final chance to recant and save their souls from eternal torture.

FIREBRAND | Official Trailer | In theaters June 14

Firebrand, a new film from Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz, dramatizes this episode in Henry and Catherine’s relationship, pitting the spouses against each other in a battle of wills. Starring Jude Law as the king and Alicia Vikander as his queen, the movie is based on Elizabeth Fremantle’s 2013 novel, Queen’s Gambit. Rechristened Firebrand to avoid confusion with the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” the film is framed as a political thriller rather than a traditional biopic or period drama. It presents Henry as a “psychopathic figure” who terrorized Catherine during their “brutally toxic marriage,” says Fremantle. The queen, meanwhile, emerges as a “radical [who is] treading that really dangerous line” politically.

Here’s what you need to know about the real history behind Firebrand before it arrives in theaters in the United States on June 14.

Bringing Firebrand to the screen

Aïnouz’s film and its source material are poised to bring attention to a figure who has long been overlooked in favor of her predecessors. Historically, “most people’s image of Catherine Parr was of this matronly, nurse-type figure who spent most of her time on her hands and knees, dabbing at Henry VIII’s ulcerated leg in the last years of his life. This is completely untrue,” says historian Linda Porter, author of Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr. (The queen’s first name can be spelled in a variety of ways, including Catherine, Katherine, Katharine and Kateryn.)

Alicia Vikander as Catherine Parr in Firebrand
Alicia Vikander as Catherine Parr in Firebrand, an upcoming film from director Karim Aïnouz Brouhaha Entertainment

In truth, Porter says, Catherine was a “bright, vivacious, attractive” consort whose achievements were manifold, extending far beyond the care of her husband. She was the first woman in England to publish an original work under her own name in English, as well as one of just two of Henry’s wives to serve as regent in his absence (the other being Catherine of Aragon). She encouraged the king to restore his estranged daughters, the future Mary I and Elizabeth I, to the line of succession and pushed him to embrace Protestantism, a new branch of Christianity that emphasized salvation by faith alone and the translation of the Bible into English.

Fremantle decided to write a book about Catherine because she wanted to bring the queen’s story to a wider audience. Queen’s Gambit opens in 1543 with the death of Catherine’s second husband and follows its protagonist until her own death in 1548. Though Fremantle took care to ensure historical accuracy, reading “pretty much everything that’s been published” on Catherine, she departed from the known facts in certain regards, particularly those related to the queen’s innermost thoughts and feelings.

Firebrand condenses the narrative, focusing on a shorter stretch of Catherine’s life. While Henry is off fighting the French, Catherine—then acting as regent—secretly meets with Anne Askew (played by Erin Doherty) an outspoken Protestant reformer. Though the queen is sympathetic to Askew’s cause, she must hide her beliefs to avoid attracting the ire of the court’s powerful Catholic faction, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester (Simon Russell Beale). The strategy only works for so long, and Catherine soon finds herself in a fight for both England’s religious future and her own survival. Referencing his previous wives in the film’s trailer, Henry asks, “Is [Catherine] more vicious than all the others? We’ve been here before, and … we cut them down.”

Jude Law as Henry VIII and Alicia Vikander as Catherine Parr in Firebrand​​​​​​​
Jude Law as Henry VIII and Alicia Vikander as Catherine Parr in Firebrand Brouhaha Entertainment

The filmmakers “played a little fast and loose with the historical record,” says Fremantle. (Some critics have described Firebrand as revisionist, pointing out that it overemphasizes Catherine’s ties to Askew and fancifully places the queen at her husband’s deathbed.) “But I love when you look at the way someone else takes a project that’s yours and transforms it into something different,” the author adds. “It’s got the essence of those characters that I created, but it’s not trying to mimic the novel.”

Henry VIII’s sixth wife

By the time Catherine caught Henry’s eye in 1543, she had been married and widowed twice over. Charming, intelligent and well-respected, the 30-year-old was the polar opposite of Henry’s most recent wife, the young, doomed Katherine Howard. She hailed from an up-and-coming family with a record of loyal service to the crown. Catherine’s mother had served as a lady-in-waiting under Catherine of Aragon, and she may have even named her daughter—likely born in August 1512—after her royal mistress. In her youth, Catherine received an education typical of women of her class, learning to read, perform basic arithmetic, and speak some French and Latin. She also studied embroidery, dancing and other arts associated with “the more fine points of being a lady,” according to Porter.

Catherine’s first husband was roughly her age and of the same social standing. After he died around 1533, she married into the aristocracy, wedding a much-older member of the powerful Neville family. Neither union produced any surviving children, leaving Catherine a childless widow upon her second husband’s death in March 1543.

A portrait of Catherine Parr by William Scrots
A portrait of Catherine Parr by William Scrots Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein
A portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Historians are unsure when or how Catherine first came to Henry’s attention. But the king wasn’t her only suitor: Thomas Seymour, the dashing brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, also sought the widow’s hand, and Catherine returned his affections. Still, the king’s will outweighed all, and Catherine had little choice but to accept his proposal. “Who among us would have had the nerve to turn down Henry VIII?” asks Porter. “It’s simply something you couldn’t do. And Catherine did prevaricate for a number of months, while she turned over in her mind how she could get out of this.” The couple married on July 12, 1543, in an intimate, traditional ceremony.

At 52 years old, Henry was a far cry from the dashing, cultured ruler of his youth. He suffered from leg ulcers and was in generally poor health—a fact that often dampened his already unpredictable mood. Marriage to a monarch who had executed two of his wives couldn’t have been an enticing prospect for Catherine, but the position had its benefits. “Court was this terrible game of snakes and ladders,” says Fremantle, “and if you could climb one of those ladders, your family was enriched, [and] you were given titles. … To marry the king was the biggest ladder of the lot,” winning Catherine a crown and positioning her relatives at the heart of the English court.

Family tree of relevant Tudor figures
Click here to see a larger version of this family tree. Birthdates are approximate. R. indicates the years of the monarch's reign. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

Catherine Parr and the English Reformation

Henry’s reign was a time of great religious upheaval. “People have this idea that he abolished Catholicism in England, and after that, everything was straightforward,” Fremantle says. In truth, “everything was really, really complicated,” with the level of reform endorsed by the crown ebbing and flowing in accordance with the changing fortunes of factions at court. When Thomas Cromwell was the king’s chief adviser, the reformers had the upper hand. Henry dissolved the kingdom’s monasteries, seizing their riches for himself, and brutally suppressed the Pilgrimage of Grace, a 1536 uprising against these seismic changes. He also had an English translation of the Bible placed in every parish church, allowing laypeople to read the text for themselves instead of relying on Latin-speaking priests to interpret God’s word.

But Cromwell’s execution for treason in 1540 brought an end to the reformers’ dominance, allowing traditionalists like Gardiner to convince the king to reverse some of his policies. Reflecting on the shifting religious tides that year, the French ambassador wrote, “The government will not have either the one or the other, but insists on their keeping what is commanded, which is so often altered that it is difficult to understand what it is.” At one end of the spectrum, Catholics who declared their loyalty to the pope could find themselves hanged, drawn and quartered for treason; at the other, Protestants who hewed too closely to the most radical teachings then sweeping across Europe could be burned at the stake for heresy.

Thomas Cromwell, chief adviser to Henry VIII until his execution in 1540
Thomas Cromwell, chief adviser to Henry VIII until his execution in 1540 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester
Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It’s possible that Catherine harbored reformist views prior to her marriage and hoped to use her newfound influence to advance this cause. Firebrand suggests as much: In the film’s trailer, Catherine proclaims, “I believe that I was chosen by God to get the king to change his will.”

The historical record, however, is spottier. “She was clever at hiding what she really believed,” says Fremantle, so scholars don’t know exactly when she embraced Protestantism. By 1545, the queen was “undoubtedly interested in new religious ideas, like many women of her background,” says Porter. “The idea that she could read the Bible in English was quite liberating.” Catherine and her ladies would often meet to discuss the latest religious writings, almost like a “book group nowadays,” the historian adds. “And certainly, some of the [women] in Catherine’s circle were perhaps almost dangerously interested in religious reform.” The queen herself published four religious texts, one of which remained popular well into the 17th century.

The changing nature of England’s religious policy meant that courtiers’ views often evolved over time. “It was an era of great flux, and people’s views changed … and could change back again,” says Porter. Today, Catherine is remembered as an ardent Protestant, while her eldest stepdaughter, the Catholic Mary, is known for her zealous persecution of English Protestants. Yet the pair once collaborated on a publishing project, with Catherine recruiting Mary to translate the Gospel of John for her English-language edition of an Erasmus treatise.

A woodcut of the execution of William Tyndale, who published an English translation of the Bible, for heresy in 1536
Before his execution for heresy in 1536, William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English, cried, "Lord! Open the king of England's eyes." Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Catherine Parr as queen

One of Catherine’s priorities as queen was improving her husband’s relationships with his three children. Henry’s daughters occupied a nebulous position at court, as he’d declared them illegitimate and removed from the line of succession in favor of their brother, the future Edward VI. As bastards, they had fewer marriage prospects than most princesses. (Both were stripped of that title, known instead as Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth.) Their lives had been marked by uncertainty, with a rapid succession of stepmothers doing little to ensure stability in the young women’s lives.

In comparison, Catherine “treated her role as stepmother to the royal children with the utmost seriousness, taking a keen interest in all of them and lavishing them with gifts, such as cloth of silver for the girls,” writes Nicola Tallis in Young Elizabeth: Elizabeth I and Her Perilous Path to the Crown. “They, in turn, welcomed her with open arms.” Elizabeth, who was 9 years old when her father married Catherine, was particularly eager for a maternal influence, and the two became close, with the queen helping to oversee her stepdaughter’s education. Due in large part to Catherine’s influence, Henry restored Mary and Elizabeth to the succession in 1544, though they both remained illegitimate.

portrait of Catherine Parr
This portrait of Catherine was wrongly identified as Lady Jane Grey for decades. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The title page of Catherine's 1545 book, Prayers or Meditations​​​​​​​
The title page of Catherine's 1545 book, Prayers or Meditations Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Catherine’s success at winning over her stepchildren mirrored her ability to maintain her husband’s affections—at least initially. For the first two and a half years of their marriage, says Porter, “she had Henry’s absolute attention and devotion.” To entice the king in the bedroom, she ordered perfumes and lozenges and bathed in milk. A woman of great intellect and charisma, she was a welcome companion, distracting Henry from his chronic pain with lively discussions. Catherine readily adapted to life as queen, “very consciously [setting] about establishing an image and a role for herself,” writes Porter. She bought fine clothes, commissioned portraits and refined her diplomatic skills by studying languages.

Henry trusted his wife enough to appoint her regent in 1544, when he embarked on the Siege of Boulogne in France. Tasked with ruling the kingdom, she “was no mere figurehead, instead adopting a hands-on approach to monarchy, evidenced by her attendance at council meetings, signing of documents and issuing of orders in her husband’s absence, all on top of seeing to the running of the royal household,” writes Tallis. “What was more, she was good at it, approaching the task with a cool and level head.”

Despite Catherine’s early successes as queen, “the sword of Damocles hung over her whole marriage,” says Fremantle. “She was constantly trying to ameliorate this kind of crazed man,” who had shown few qualms when ordering the deaths or dismissals of her predecessors.

Then, in 1546, the king’s ever-changing whims turned against his sixth wife.

A 1545 portrait of Henry VIII and his family
A circa 1545 portrait of Henry VIII and his family. The king's daughters, Mary (left) and Elizabeth (right), appear in the wings of the painting, while his son, Edward, and third wife, Jane Seymour, stand on either side of him. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Catherine Parr’s brush with heresy

The main source for this episode is John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, also known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. First published in 1563, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the account vividly chronicles the history of Protestantism in England, with an emphasis on the martyrs burned at the stake under Mary I. Because the book is a polemical text written years after the events it described, its veracity is the subject of debate among historians.

According to Foxe, Henry had tired of Catherine’s efforts “to move him … zealously to proceed in the reformation of the church.” When he complained about his wife within earshot of Gardiner, the bishop saw an opportunity to move against the rival faction headed by the queen. Condemning Catherine’s insolence in arguing with the king, Gardiner promised to investigate “such treasons cloaked with this cloak of heresy, that His Majesty should perceive how perilous a matter it is to cherish a serpent within his own bosom.”

Gardiner and his co-conspirators secretly compiled evidence against Catherine and her reform-minded ladies. Apparently convinced of his wife’s heretical leanings, Henry signed a warrant for her arrest. Luckily for Catherine, one of the king’s councilors dropped the piece of paper, which an unidentified person brought directly to the queen. Caught unaware, Catherine “fell incontinent into a great melancholy and agony, bewailing and taking on in such sort as was lamentable to see,” wrote Foxe.

A posthumous portrait of Anne Askew by Hans Eworth
A posthumous portrait of Anne Askew by Hans Eworth Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley
Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, Catherine saved herself from the flames by professing her humility, telling Henry that she’d only raised the topic of theology to distract him from his poor health and benefit from his “learned discourse.” Accepting his wife’s apology, the king declared the pair “perfect friends … again.” In a dramatic coda to the confrontation, Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley showed up the next day to arrest Catherine and bring her to the Tower of London, not knowing that the couple had reconciled. A furious Henry commanded Wriothesley to leave, berating the confused councilor as a knave, a beast and a fool.

Foxe’s account of the summer of 1546 is widely cited in books about Catherine, and it serves as a source for the central conflict in Firebrand. But while the tale makes for a good story, “we don’t know whether any of this is actually true,” says Porter. “Certainly there is indirect evidence that Catherine was thoroughly spooked, and that she and Henry had grown apart for some reason in the summer of 1546.” Fremantle suggests the aging king was especially susceptible to his Catholic advisers’ warnings because he was “increasingly afraid of meeting his maker and having to account” for all of the changes he’d made to the church.

Adding to the queen’s precarious position at court was Anne Askew’s arrest on charges of heresy in June 1546. Wriothesley and his allies questioned the 25-year-old Protestant preacher at the Tower, asking about her ties to various members of Catherine’s household. As Askew later testified, “They put me on the rack because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion, and thereupon they kept me a long while; and because I lay still, and did not cry, my Lord Chancellor and Master [Richard] Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nigh dead.”

A woodcut of the executions of Anne Askew and three other Protestant heretics in July 1546
A woodcut of the executions of Anne Askew and three other Protestant heretics in July 1546 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The horrific torture of a woman by two of the king’s top advisers shocked the court, standing out even in an age marked by brutality. On July 16, Askew was burned at the stake, her body so broken that she had to be carried to the place of execution in a chair. To the end, Askew refused to name Catherine or any of her ladies as fellow heretics (despite having clear-cut links to court), helping to save the queen from meeting the same fiery fate.

The dowager queen

Financial records show that Catherine had been restored to Henry’s good graces by the fall of 1546, when the king showered his wife with luxurious gifts. “Yet the queen’s position had been weakened by the efforts to bring her down, and she was unable to recover it fully,” Porter writes.

As Henry’s health faltered in late December, Catherine found herself shut out of his inner circle, unable to be at his side in his final days. After the king died on January 28, 1547, at age 55, the now-dowager queen learned that she would have no role in the governance of the kingdom. Instead, a 16-person Regency Council headed by Edward Seymour (Catherine’s former suitor’s brother) would rule on Edward VI’s behalf, overseeing England as Lord Protector until the 9-year-old king came of age. For Catherine, who had expected to be named regent in recognition of her successful stint in 1544, as well as her close relationship with the young Edward, the news was a devastating blow—one that set her life on an entirely different path.

Free to marry for a fourth time, Catherine reunited with her former love interest, Thomas Seymour, who had been similarly disappointed by Henry’s failure to name him to the Regency Council. As she wrote in a letter to Thomas, “For as truly as God is God, my mind was fully bent the other time I was at liberty to marry you before any man I knew.” The lovers wed in secret sooner than was socially acceptable, just a few months after Henry’s death. The move alienated some of Catherine’s former allies, including her stepdaughter Mary. But the queen’s other stepdaughter, Elizabeth, was content to remain in her beloved stepmother’s household as Catherine’s ward. At the couple’s estate, Thomas soon began paying early morning visits to 14-year-old Elizabeth, engaging in behavior that might be classified as sexual abuse by modern observers but is more difficult to characterize by the standards of the Tudor era, when life expectancy was much shorter, and aristocratic women could wed as early as 13 or 14 years old.

Elizabeth I as a teenager
Elizabeth I as a teenager Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour and the fourth husband of Catherine Parr
Thomas Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour and the fourth husband of Catherine Parr Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Elizabeth was like forbidden fruit for him,” Tracy Borman, joint chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, told Smithsonian magazine in 2022. “He was very much drawn to power. Knowing that she’s Henry VIII’s daughter and she’s under his roof [is] pretty irresistible for [Thomas]. … For him, it was a game.”

Catherine’s role in this affair is unclear. Pregnant at the time with her first and only child, the queen initially appeared to view her husband’s behavior as “nothing more than a playful surrogate father teasing his young foster daughter and engaging her in innocent games,” writes Susan E. James in Catherine Parr: Henry VIII’s Last Love. But when she found the pair locked in an embrace one day, Catherine realized the potential for scandal, and she decided to send her stepdaughter away.

In September 1548, Catherine died of puerperal fever at age 36, just days after giving birth to a daughter, Mary, who likely died around age 2. Thomas followed his wife to the grave seven months later, dying on a scaffold at the Tower for such treasonous acts as plotting to kidnap the king and scheming to marry Elizabeth. The future queen herself perhaps put it best, reportedly reacting to the news by saying, “This day died a man of much wit and very little judgment.”

Detail of Catherine's tomb at Sudeley Castle
Detail of Catherine's tomb at Sudeley Castle MikPeach via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

As for Catherine, Fremantle says, “She may have been highly educated and really politically astute, but when it came to romance, that was her Achilles’ heel.” The queen’s fourth husband is one of the most polarizing figures in Tudor history, his actions reflecting rather poorly on Catherine’s own judgment. Still, some evidence indicates that Catherine didn’t marry Thomas entirely out of love: As the king’s uncle and the brother of the Lord Protector, he was well positioned to keep her adjacent to power, if not fully in charge of the kingdom. “That makes her perhaps more shrewd than might otherwise be the case,” Porter says.

Combined with her patronage of the arts, religious writings and model of queenship (which was later emulated by Elizabeth), Catherine’s ideas, the philosophies she “espoused and supported, didn’t die with her,” Porter adds. Instead, they endured through the centuries, helping to preserve the legacy of a queen whose greatest achievements extend far beyond simple survival.

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