Essay: How did we get the Katherine Howard story so wrong?

On the warm July evening that Henry VIII married Katherine Howard, the men of the Tower of London were burying a body. Only hours earlier, Henry’s once-esteemed Chamberlain, Thomas Cromwell, had been publicly beheaded as punishment for treason. He had been the one to arrange the King’s disastrous and short-lived marriage to Anne of Cleves; a furious Henry had Cromwell charged and sentenced to death. If the English court had possessed a bit of foresight, they might have seen the situation — a failed marriage and blood on the scaffold — as prophetic. They did not, of course, possess such foresight, and so neither could anyone could have foreseen Katherine’s swift downfall, nor the swift loss of her head. Later, people would blame her for her execution, declaring her in over her head in her ambitions to become Queen of England. In truth, Katherine never had any choice in her marriage to the King: it was never her right to refuse him. But her story was turned on its head. She should never, people decided, have risen to such heights. Katherine Howard was never meant to be great.

One of 6 children born to Lord Edmund Howard, a measly younger son of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and his commoner wife Joyce Culpeper, Katherine’s birth was indeed of little concern to the people of 16th-century England. There is not even an existing record of her birth, forcing historians to guess the year in which it occurred. It is almost certain that she was born between 1518 and 1524; the most widely accepted year of birth is 1523. This means Katherine (notably described by one Spanish chronicler as “a mere child”) would have been perhaps 17 when in 1540 she was married to King Henry VIII, newly divorced from his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, under whose employ Katherine had recently been. It was this event that erased the expected fate of young Katherine Howard. Once slated to live in the shadows of minor English aristocracy, and to live and die in obscurity, Katherine was now immortalised as one of Henry VIII’s six wives. Her story, as with those of the other wives, has enjoyed steady popularity through the years. Some hundreds of pieces of literature — biography, fact, fiction, prose — feature Katherine in a starring role. To date, she has appeared in film and television over a dozen times.

In almost every portrayal, she is an adulterer, a harlot. She is the disloyal wife whose beheading was at least partially justified. Historical fiction based on her life is sold with a cover depicting an adult woman with a sly smile and a scandalously revealed shoulder. In film and television she is played by women in their twenties, thirties, though she never made it past eighteen. Even the most sympathetic portrayals depict Katherine as promiscuous and cunning in her disloyalty. Those of us living in the modern era know Katherine as an adult woman with a fierce sexual appetite. In the modern view of Katherine’s story, Henry comes out as notorious, if a bit eccentric, and Katherine The Adulterer gets what was coming to her. But we’ve been looking at the story all wrong. And while in historical circles, people have come to understand the truth — if only partially — of Katherine’s situation, the popular view of Henry VIII’s youngest wife remains that of a snake.

Our view of Katherine as a seductress who bewitched and tricked the king, and thus as a sort of sexual predator, is a horrific inversion of the truth. If anything, Henry himself was the predator. Katherine Howard was only about 16 when, in her role as lady-in-waiting to Henry’s then-wife Anne of Cleves, she caught the King’s eye at court. Henry, on the other hand, was 48. Henry divorced Anne not long after, and married Katherine at Oatlands Palace sixteen days later, on 28 July 1540. 17-year-old Katherine was young enough to be Henry’s daughter, and in fact his eldest daughter (the future Mary I) was some seven years Katherine’s senior. By modern standards, Henry VIII’s marriage to young Katherine was a manifestation of pedophilia; by contemporary standards, he really came off no better. Aristocratic women of Katherine’s age did marry, sometimes even at younger ages, but their husbands were almost always the same age or not much older — certainly not 32 years older. Further, the marriage of someone so young, especially if it took place with a man so much older, would not have been expected to be consummated for some time. At the time, the average Englishwoman was married in her early or mid-twenties, an age range Katherine would barely have entered even when placing her date of birth in 1518. The King’s marriage to a girl barely of acceptable age was criticised in many circles, but such criticism was also treasonous, and many kept their concern to themselves.

The early months of Katherine’s marriage were happy and peaceful, and passed by with few events. She was recognised as Queen, but there would be no coronation until she became pregnant with what would, hopefully, be a Duke of York. No such pregnancy occurred, and it is likely that Katherine would not have gone out of her way to conceive. Henry was three times Katherine’s age, possessed little of his once-famed looks, had reeking ulcers on his legs, and flew into rages with little provocation, possibly as a result of undetected brain damage. But as months passed without sign of a royal pregnancy, Katherine’s life began to crumble around her. The first problem came in the form of blackmail from those who had known her when she was a ward of her step-grandmother, Agnes, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Following popular custom Katherine had been transferred into Lady Norfolk’s care as a child. Supervision on the Duchess’ estates was lax, and the older girls often entertained boys and men in the sleeping quarters. The flaunting of such premarital relations by those Katherine would likely have seen as role models may have influenced Katherine against protesting sexual abuse by her music teacher, Henry Mannox, from 1536. Katherine was only around 13 years of age; Mannox was in his twenties or thirties. Katherine severed contact with Mannox in 1538, and not long after became the focus of the attention of Francis Dereham, the Dowager Duchess’ secretary.

This relationship was more scandalous than the last: many believed Katherine and Francis had married in secret. Thirty-something-year-old Francis called Katherine “wife” and it is possible they at least promised to marry one another, if they did not make marriage vows in private or consummate their relationship, as many believe. Katherine would later assert, however, that she had not consented to Dereham’s advances; in fact, Katherine was adamant, at trial, that her sexual contact with Dereham was rape. At the time, the Church did not consider a marriage valid unless both parties consented. (In modern England, the reality would be seen that fourteen-year-old Katherine could not truly consent to sex or marriage with a grown man in any case.) The unequal affair between Dereham and Katherine ended when she left to serve Anne of Cleves, but the threat of scandal still loomed. Even the suggestion of Katherine’s betrothal to or premarital sexual activity with another man could have brought the validity of Katherine and Henry’s marriage into question. To have pointed out any pre-existing commitments when the King proposed, however, would have been to incite his wrath. Katherine was not the only one carrying these secrets; many girls who had lived with Katherine on Lady Norfolk’s estates were aware of Katherine’s “light” behaviour. Many apparently took the opportunity to threaten the Queen with blackmail in exchange for the considerable power and fortune she had at her disposal, and as such a number of Katherine’s potential blackmailers were offered positions in her household or at court to keep them quiet.

The second problem was increasingly urgent: Katherine was not yet pregnant, even months after marrying Henry. It is possible that this may have led Katherine to conduct a liaison with distant cousin and courtier Thomas Culpeper in order to conceive. Or perhaps Katherine simply (and, if true, unsurprisingly) sought a relationship with a man closer in age to herself. Not that Thomas was a much better choice: he was closer to thirty than to seventeen. With the help of an older lady-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, Katherine had several secret meetings with Culpeper and the two exchanged a number of letters which, in the context of an alleged affair, might be read as expressions of love. Conor Byrne suggests that the two may not have been in love at all, but instead that Culpeper was one of those blackmailing Katherine with knowledge of her past, this time in exchange for access to her bed or for her political position. It is also worth noting that felicitations of the sort often used as evidence of an affair — those like “Yours as long as life endures”, which ended Katherine’s only surviving letter to Culpeper — were common among even minor acquaintances and did not inherently signify romance. At trial both Katherine and Culpeper would deny having had any sexual contact, though Lady Rochford stated that she allowed Culpeper to sneak into the Queen’s chambers. Katherine herself stated that she asked Lady Rochford to chaperone when she was with Culpeper, and so the two would almost never have been alone.

Perhaps Katherine’s greater offense, however — moreso than cuckolding the King (or seemingly having done so) — was her failure to secure the line of succession. Henry’s only son, Edward, was a sickly child, and indeed would die only months after coming to the throne as Edward VI. But the lack of a child was not the final nail in Katherine’s coffin, despite Henry’s obsession with male heirs. Instead, it was her last name. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, led court intrigue and, later, lawful intrigue into Katherine’s crimes. Incidentally, Cranmer despised the Howard family, still a Catholic powerhouse post-Anglican Reformation. Cranmer collected evidence and testimony (often on threat of torture) and compiled it into a neat letter discreetly provided to Henry at church. There is little need to outline the events of Katherine’s trial, because its outcome was decided before the trial began. Katherine was, of course, found guilty and swiftly sentenced to death. She spent the evening before her execution practicing how to lay her head on the executioner’s block, reciting a speech no one would bother to write down. In popular folklore, Katherine’s last words are claimed to be “I die a queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper”. This is, of course, not the case — no contemporary records contain reference to this quote. Katherine did not go to her death flaunting and approving her adultery. Katherine went to her death pale, terrified, and declaring herself evil that her family might be spared. She was eighteen.

It seems hard to look at the tragedy and horrific abuse endured by Katherine and make from it a villain. Here was a young girl, consistently sexualised and abused by grown men all her life, forced to marry an erratic man three times her age and used as a political pawn in an unsympathetic court. Yet Katherine has undoubtedly been remembered as a traitor. How exactly did her story get turned so absolutely on its head?

The first answer is perhaps the most obvious. Katherine was a woman in 16th-century England and was not even legally a human being. Women who did not submit to the wills of their husbands were scorned; women perceived as being disloyal and sexually loose never had a chance. Katherine was stripped of her title of Queen; it was incredibly simple to do as much when she had never had a coronation. Despite Katherine’s return to commoner status, Henry never bothered to annul their marriage, probably because he expected her to be executed regardless. It would have been shocking for Katherine to have been found innocent instead: there was no such thing as an innocent woman in 1541. Against this backdrop of immediate and all-encompassing hatred for Katherine, Henry was able to conduct a very successful smear campaign against her, which has managed to cloud her reputation even in the modern era. Much like Henry’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Katherine’s portraits, coat of arms, and letters were removed and destroyed. The only surviving examples of her writing come in the form of an incriminating letter to Culpeper and her written confession to her crime; because of this it became impossible for future scholars to read any genuine quotes by Katherine unrelated to her criminal behaviour. The only words Katherine is verified to have said are the words that paint her in the most unsavoury light. Because only her guilt can be truly proven by strict academic standards, speculation on Katherine’s innocence has been turned into just that. Speculation.

Somewhere along the line, the world decided that Katherine had been genuinely guilty, and it was Anne Boleyn only who had been indicted on false charges. While Katherine’s cousin and fellow Queen was initially considered a guilty party by most — in fact, much of the bias against Katherine may have reflected popular ideals of Anne, who was hated and touted as a whore and a witch for winning Henry’s affections over his publicly-loved wife, Catherine of Aragon — her story had seen significant redemption by the 20th century. After all, Anne was the paragon of Anglican Protestantism and the devoted mother of Elizabeth I, who was able to determinedly clean up her mother’s tarnished reputation. Katherine was not so lucky: she was a desperate child with the world about to fall on her head. Anyone who had something to say about Katherine’s innocence would not have dared to contest the King’s will, and by the time Henry had died and the danger had passed very few people cared anymore. So though many believed that Henry fabricated the charges of adultery in the same way he had done to Anne Boleyn — Byrne asserts that in the years following Katherine’s execution, “it remained uncertain […] whether [Katherine] actually was guilty of adultery” — nothing was done or said about it. Incriminating texts by Katherine and writings by those careful to avoid offending the King became the only primary sources available to historians who wrote about Katherine in the following centuries, and this distorted their opinions and biases on and against Katherine.

Anne Boleyn also had the added benefit of her connection to the hated Howard family being underlined, following her death, by her own markedly Protestant faith, which stood in contrast to that of the staunchly Catholic House of Howard. (While Katherine Howard herself was Protestant as well, she was not the one remembered for having been the cause of the Anglican Reformation.) The Howard family’s Catholicism made it unpopular, especially with the King. As such, Katherine’s uncle Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and head of the Howard family, was keen to curry royal favour. Having already lost a niece to Henry, further tarnishing the Howard reputation, Norfolk’s eagerness to restore his standing at court would have been double. The possibility of returning the Howard family to its former glory was much of the reason why Norfolk pushed Katherine to marry Henry and — should he have known about her premarital indiscretions — to lie about her past to get to the altar and the throne. It is important to reiterate that though her ascension to the throne is portrayed as a symptom of cunning ambition, in real life Katherine had no choice. She was a teenage girl, perhaps as young as fifteen, being pressured into marriage by not only the powerful king but also her powerful uncle. Saying no was not just dangerous but impossible. Katherine was trapped from the start.

She remains trapped now, if only in a story she never lived. To Henry VIII’s undoubted joy, Katherine has been cast as not the terrified teenage girl she was, but the airheaded, sexual woman whose execution is not just easily stomached but justifiable. In search of an entertaining story, Katherine has become a pawn for those eager to attract an audience interested in the story of a power-hungry temptress. The story of Katherine’s childhood sexual abuse has turned to one of a young woman with no regard for her honour. The damage to her reputation has worsened the farther we move from her lifetime. Perhaps the disconnect of time makes it seem less abhorrent to turn a child bride into a seductress, but it does not. And it never will. How unfair, to turn Katherine into a pawn — for pleasure, for political ambitions, for money and power, for one’s own religious bias. How unfair to then call her evil for the distortion of her image by those more powerful than her. By destroying any evidence of Katherine’s innocence, or of anything other than her fabricated guilt, the powerful men of the 16th-century English court have turned her into the villain, rather than the victim, of her own terrible story. The average person living in the modern era knows Katherine best for her position as one of history’s most notorious criminals and whores. But that narrative is false. Here is the truth: Katherine has become a criminal and a whore because that is all that has survived of her. The intelligent, cheerful girl she truly was has been left to rot on the scaffold. When Katherine was buried, without a coffin, in an empty grave, her headless body was destroyed with quicklime. Her grave was unmarked. Someone, clearly, was trying very hard to keep the world from remembering Katherine, and in a way this is horrifying. At the same time, looking at the way the world has turned on Katherine, that young girl with the world before her and, then, with a sword at her neck — maybe it would have been better to forget.

Sources:

Byrne, Conor. “Abuse and Dishonour in the Life of Katherine Howard.” The Anne Boleyn Files, 17 Dec. 2014, www.theanneboleynfiles.com/abuse-dishonour-life-katherine-howard-guest-article-conor-byrne/.

Byrne, Conor. “The Teenage Tudor Queen.” Lady Jane Grey Reference Guide, 30 Apr. 2019, www.ladyjanegrey.info/?p=15017.

Byrne, Conor. Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen. History Press, 2019.

Grueninger, Natalie. “The Portraiture of Queen Katherine Howard By Conor Byrne.” On the Tudor Trail, 14 May 2019, onthetudortrail.com/Blog/2019/05/14/the-portraiture-of-queen-katherine-howard-by-conor-byrne/.

Russell, Gareth. Young and Damned and Fair: the Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: King and Court. Vintage, 2001.

Moira Rickett is a history student and writer based in Canada's national capital.