I read this volume about Queen Catherine Howard, after reading Alison Weir’s THE SCANDALOUS QUEEN. I was so baffled by Catherine’s poor choices, especially given that she was married to a paranoid monster in the shape of Henry VIII, that I sought out another opinion (so to speak).
I found it in this volume, Gareth Russell’s take on this tragic young woman. As I said in an earlier post, I do NOT believe that Catherine was 19 when she married Henry VIII in July 1540 as Alison Weir would have it. As we are not certain of her date of birth, it typically is given as somewhere between 1518 and 1527. Mr. Russell puts her date of birth in 1523 (which is what her Wikipedia entry has.) That means she was either 16 or 17 when she married Henry, depending on when she was born. For example, if she was born on St. Katherine’s Day (November 25) in 1523, that would have made her 16 in July 1540.
(Given that we seem to be talking about a very young woman between the ages of 16 – when she married Henry – and 18 – when she was executed – a recent article from the New York Times about risk-taking behavior amongst teens was particularly apposite. I provide the link here in case anyone is interested.)
Catherine’s age is NOT helped by the usual portrait of her looking a lot older than a teenager. When I was growing up, I was told that this portrait was of Catherine, aged 21 (as the portrait says: Etatis Suae 21.) However, the young woman pictured looks somber and old-for-her-age. She doesn’t seem like the vivacious fun-loving Catherine whose favorite pastime was dancing. Mr. Russell believes this to be a portrait of Elizabeth Seymour, younger sister of Queen Jane Seymour, who was born around 1518 and would therefore have been 21 in either 1539 or 1540.
It was only by experiencing this volume that I learned that there is another possible portrait of Catherine, this one from New York. Just to the sitter’s left one can just make out her age in Roman Numerals, and it says 17 (xvii.)
To my eye, this young woman has that kind of innocent sexuality that attracts men. Although she looks demure in this portrait, it is much easier to understand why this wide-eyed innocent with the luscious lips was so attractive that she could captivate King Henry, who was devastated when he learned the truth about her.
So what is “the truth” about her? It isn’t easy to say. Listening to the testament read by narrator Jenny Funnell, which was taken down during the proceedings against her, it seems pretty clear that Catherine was lying at least part of the time. It does beggar belief that she and Thomas Culpepper – one of her admirers – were only talking behind locked doors. It also seems pretty clear that she had made some sort of promise to Francis Dereham (another smitten young man) that he took as a plight troth (i.e. a promise to marry at some future date.) What a pity she lied about that as that plight troth might have saved her.
On the other hand, given that she wounded Henry VIII’s considerable vanity and made him a laughing-stock throughout Europe, perhaps the blood sacrifice of her death on 13 February 1542 was the only thing that would appease him.
If you are interested in this least-known of Henry’s queens, read this book. It is excellent! Five stars.
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