The Lamentation of a Sinner

Confessions of Henry VIII's Sixth Wife

by Ian Conrey December 4, 2018

Most people today have heard of Henry VIII and his six wives. Countless books, television series, and movies have documented and reenacted the conspiracies, adulteries, and executions surrounding the House of Tudor. It is no exaggeration that Henry and his wives are some of the most famous characters in English history today, and yet none of them are particularly remembered for any “Christian” qualities they possessed.

Enter Queen Katherine Parr, the last of Henry’s wives. She was certainly not as famous as Anne Boleyn or Katherine of Aragon, but nonetheless, she has made her mark in history. Tragically, however, that mark is entirely unknown by many. 

Originally a member of Henry’s court, Katherine Parr was proposed to by Henry just over a year after he beheaded his previous wife, Catherine Howard – a tragic and impious teenager who had an affair with Thomas Culpeper, one of Henry’s favorite courtiers.[1] Once married to Henry, Katherine Parr managed to outlive him, though narrowly at times[2], by nearly two years. 

Originally a Catholic, she quickly became sympathetic to the beliefs brought in through the English Reformation. Interestingly, she even wrote a couple of books. Her first work, Prayers or Meditations, was “the first book published by a woman in England under her own name and in the English language”[3] — an incredible accomplishment itself. But, as profound as that was for the time, her second book, The Lamentation of a Sinner, was even moreso. 

Though a relatively short work, The Lamentation of a Sinner is a deeply personal and overwhelmingly theological confession of her unworthiness for the grace of God. In a time when kings and queens consorts were expected to present themselves as dignified and proper, she openly confessed, “in myself I find nothing to save me, but a dunghill of wickedness to condemn me.”[4] This was a wildly unpopular way for anyone in the royal court to present themselves. As Don Matzat put it: 

It was one thing for the average person, of whatever degree or position he or she may have attained, to be confronted with the Law of God and engage in confession and self-accusation as a prelude to hearing the Gospel. But this was the Queen of England accusing and abasing herself to gain Christ!

And this is precisely why this work is so important for Christians today. She may be in the shadows of English giants like Thomas Cranmer and William Tyndale, and she may not be as theologically "on-point" as John Calvin or the later Puritans, but this almost forgotten work is magnificent to say in the least. For a queen to humble herself in such a public and belittling way not only deserves our attention but serves as an example we should all follow — to walk in the light of confession, caring not what the world thinks of us (despite our public position), but what God thinks of us. Below are two excerpts from her work, which I recommend reading in full.[5] Perhaps there was more to Henry’s court than we often realize?

Behold, Lord, how I come to You: a sinner, sick and grievously wounded. I am not asking for bread, but for the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. Cast me not out of Your presence, although I deserve to be cast into hell fire. If I should look upon my sins, and not upon Your mercy, I should despair. For in myself I find nothing to save me, but a dunghill of wickedness to condemn me. If I should hope, that by mine own strength and power, to come out of this maze of iniquity and wickedness wherein I have walked for so long, I should be deceived. For I am so ignorant, blind, weak, and feeble that I cannot bring myself out of this entangled and wayward maze. The more I seek means and ways to wind myself out of it, the more I am wrapped and entangled in it. So, I perceive my struggling to be a hindrance, and my travail to be labor spent in vain. It is the hand of the Lord that can and will bring me out of this endless maze of death...

I must unceasingly give thanks to the mercy of God, asking also that the same delay of punishment cause not His plague to be more severe, since mine own conscience condemns my former doings. But His mercy exceeds all iniquity. And, if I should not thus hope: where should I seek refuge and comfort? No mortal man has the power to help me; and, for the multitude of my sins, I dare not lift my eyes to heaven where the seat of judgement is. I have so much offended God. What, shall I fall in desperation? No! I will call upon Christ, the light of the world, the fountain of life, the relief of all the weary, and the peacemaker between God and man, and the only health and comfort of all true repentant sinners. He can, by His almighty power, save me and deliver me out of this miserable condition...[6]

Notes

  1. ^ For Katherine Howard’s only surviving letter to Culpeper, see Hanson, Marilee. "Queen Katherine Howard to Master Thomas Culpeper" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/letter/queen-Katherine-howard-master-thomas-culpeper/, February 4, 2015.
  2. ^ Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Wriothesley attempted to arrest her for heresy in 1546.
  3. ^ See Don Matzat’s introduction: Queen Katherine Parr, Lamentations of a Sinner. O’fallon, MO. Good News Books. 2017. 12. 
  4. ^ Withrow, Brandon, et al. Katherine Parr: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen. P & R Publishing, 2009.
  5. ^ There are very few editions of this work around, and as far as I can tell, nothing in the public domain. But you can find Don Matzat’s edition (as cited above) on Amazon as well as Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence (edited by Dr. Janel Mueller). Finally, Brandon G. Withrow’s A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen from the Guided Tour series also provides a tremendously helpful introduction to Katherine Parr as well as a copy of both of her written works.
  6. ^ Matzat, Lamentation of a Sinner. 38-39.