Books

KATHERINE HOWARD, HENRY VIII’s SLANDERED QUEEN by Conor Byrne

KATHERINE HOWARD, HENRY VIII’s SLANDERED QUEEN is not an historical novel. It is a work of history that studies the sexual politics of the Henrician court in the 1530s (the era of Queen Anne Boleyn) and the 1540s (when Katherine Howard became Queen.) Unlike the two historical novels I read recently, Alison Weir’s KATHERYN HOWARD, THE SCANDALOUS QUEEN and Gareth Russell’s YOUNG AND DAMNED AND FAIR, this volume gives the best explanation of Katherine’s actions, especially her seemingly foolhardy relationship with Thomas Culpeper, which led to her downfall in November 1541.

It is not easy to tell exactly when Katherine was born, as even high-born women in the Tudor era did not necessarily have their births recorded. However, a few facts narrow down her age. First, there is a  portrait of a lady from the workshop of Hans Holbein, owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing a member of the Tudor court from around 1540. Just to the sitter’s left one can just make out a statement about her age: Etatis Suae xvii (her age 17). As I’ve said in previous posts, this young woman looks much more like the teenaged beauty who so captivated Henry VIII, with her fun-loving ways, her wide-eyed innocence and those luscious lips, than the portrait I grew up with, showing a grim young woman whose age is given as 21.

This portrait is probably a depiction of Elizabeth Seymour, who was born in around 1518, and was around 21 when it was painted in 1539. For some reason, many historians and historical novelists (like Alison Weir) have glommed onto this portrait, believing it to be of Katherine Howard. And this has encouraged them to believe that Katherine was 19 when she met Henry VIII, and 21 when her reign came to an end.

Another interesting fact is that Katherine Howard’s relatives did NOT apply for a place for her at the court of Anne Boleyn, when Anne was Henry VIII’s second wife between 1533 and 1536. (This would have been a natural thing to do as Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard were cousins.) If Katherine was born in 1524 or 1525 (rather than 1521 as Alison Weir has it) then she would have been either 8 or 9 in 1533, and 11 or 12 in 1536. In other words, she would have been TOO YOUNG to be appointed a “maiden” in the household of  Queen Anne Boleyn, as such appointments went to girls who were 13 years old at least. When Katherine was eventually appointed as maiden to Queen Anne of Cleves in November 1539, she joined her cousins Katherine Carey (born in 1524) and Mary Norris (born in 1526), suggesting she was born around that time.

IMHO, Katherine was born around St. Katherine’s Day (November 25) in 1524, which meant that she had just turned 15 when Henry VIII met and fell in love with her at the end of 1539. This is confirmed by the anonymous author of The Chronicle of Henry VIII, who stated that she was 15 when she met Henry. In addition, many at Henry’s court commented on her youth, describing her as a “young girl” or “young lady.” If she was 15 by the end of 1539, she would have been about 9 years younger than Henry’s daughter Mary.

This book further confirms the abuse Katherine received in the unchaperoned atmosphere of her step-grandmother’s household. Henry Manox, her music teacher (appointed in 1536,) fondled her private parts (and boasted about it) for 2 years, when she would have been 11 going on 12. Francis Dereham raped her in 1538, when she was 13 going on 14, and thereafter controlled and manipulated her into agreeing that they were “married,” even though Katherine disliked his “attentions” and psychological abuse. In November 1539, Katherine was delighted to go to court, in part because she could finally get away from Dereham. At court, she met Thomas Culpeper, one of Henry VIII’s Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, who stood high in favor with Henry.

All the books I have read recently say that Katherine did not know Culpeper before she went to court, and they claim that she fell in love with him in the spring of 1541, and began an affair in the summer when she and Henry went on royal progress around the North of England.

This baffles me. Assuming that Katherine was not totally stupid, and not suicidally naive, she must have known that Queens who misbehaved could be beheaded, like her cousin Queen Anne Boleyn, who was executed on the grounds that she had been sleeping with various gentlemen of the court (including her own brother.) Katherine must have known that having private meetings with Culpeper at night and behind closed doors would put her in great danger, even though they were chaperoned by one of her ladies-in-waiting, Lady Jane Rochford.

So why did she do it?

According to Conor Byrne, the reason is because Culpeper learned about her unsavory past, and was using it to manipulate her into granting him gifts, money and power. Just like Dereham, he tried to control her. In response, Katherine desperately tried to get him to promise her that he would NOT talk about her past. (Thus the private conversations behind closed doors at night.)

To add fuel to the fire, Henry VIII had been seriously ill in the spring of 1541, which must have had many wondering what would happen to pretty young Katherine once she became widowed, as she would have been extremely wealthy. Naturally, such men as Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham wanted to get their paws onto her money, as they would have had complete control over it once they married her.

Another element to this perfect storm was the fact that Francis Dereham became Katherine’s personal secretary, because her step-grandmother asked it of her as a favor, presumably so that Katherine could keep a watchful eye on him. Unfortunately, Dereham was indiscreet, and no sooner had he arrived at court than he started bragging about his affair with the Queen. Which is how Culpeper must have heard about it in the spring of 1541.

With such a past, there was no way poor Katherine was ever going to be safe, as the men of the time regarded women with the greatest contempt, seeing them as out-of-control, emotional, irrational, and most importantly naturally lustful. (According to the mores of the time, women wanted to be raped.)

Katherine was executed not because she actually did anything wrong, but because Thomas Culpeper told his interrogators that he intended to have sex with her, and because Henry VIII, devastated, the laughing-stock of Europe, his manly pride bruised and bloodied, believed that she could have had an affair with Culpeper and could have continued her affair with Dereham.

There was no trial for Katherine (unlike her cousin Anne Boleyn). When she died on 13 February 1542, Katherine was probably only 17.

Five stars for an un-put-downable history book! #conorbyrne #queenkatherinehoward #queenkathrynhoward