On the anniversary of the execution of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Collections Curator Brett Dolman investigates how difficult it is to reconstruct and understand her life. Bringing the past alive is part of what historians are expected to do, but how far should we go to tell a good story?
Today, 13 February, is the anniversary of the execution of Catherine Howard at the Tower of London in 1542.
I have purposely not added any adjectives or qualifiers to that statement, though it is extremely tempting so to do. Novelists and scriptwriters, even historians, usually colour their texts with emotional imagery, designed to create connections across time. But by labelling Catherine as ‘tragic’, ‘adulterous’, ‘helpless’ or even, simply ‘young’, we are adding our own judgmental vision, our own subjective interpretation, to the narrative of the past.
What’s in an Adjective?
Adjectives are tricky. They look innocent enough on their own, but placed next to a person they can become explosively controversial, and any attempt to recover an historical truth can be lost beneath a storm of argument and debate. The adjectives end up revealing more about us, our own prejudices, sympathies and perspectives, than they do about historical figures like Catherine Howard.
And Catherine Howard’s story is a particularly difficult one to discover and re-tell.
The first stumbling block is the King.
The King’s Perspective
Our view of Catherine is too frequently defined by the image of a bloated 49-year-old man marrying a more attractive, much younger woman. And Henry VIII is one of English history’s most divisive monarchs: was he a strong leader or a brutal tyrant? A murderous misogynist or a wronged husband? I have written about what I think about Henry elsewhere, and this blog is not about him. Catherine deserves her own soliloquy, not a supporting role as Henry’s wife.
But giving Catherine a voice is challenging. There is so much we don’t know, including her date of birth. She may have been 22 when she married Henry VIII, or as young as 16. Does this matter? This may make a difference when we seek to judge Catherine’s actions, but age may not have given her much more agency at the time. The sixteenth century was a world run by men for men, where women’s lives were legally circumscribed by fathers and husbands, and dominated by assumptions about their subservient roles.
There is a letter. A sole surviving single sheet in Catherine’s own hand, written to her alleged lover Thomas Culpepper during her marriage to the King.
She longs to see him, so that they can talk: ‘it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. Yet my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me … Yours as long as life endures.’
An adulterous affair then. Perhaps not. Just possibly this is the voice of a victim of blackmail penning a misguided attempt at appeasement, imperilled amidst the avarice and treachery at court.
We’re also not sure what Catherine looked like, beyond the translated and unrewarding adjectives of the French ambassador: ‘of mediocre beauty, very graceful, short and thin, brave and modest, sweet and deliberate’. And there are no certain surviving portraits of Catherine. There are a few which have persuasive arguments in their favour, but the identification of unknown Tudor portraiture remains a fluid game played by historians, art dealers and writers. You could, for example, take two of the portraits sometimes identified as Catherine, and use them to construct quite different ideas about her character (the adjectives and interpretations here are my own):
Catherine’s portrait reveals a sexually adventurous, calculating young woman who captivated Henry VIII, but began a clandestine, adulterous relationship with Thomas Culpepper.
This is a haunting image of a young queen, the helpless victim of three men: the ambitious Duke of Norfolk (her uncle), the volatile Henry VIII (her husband) and the iniquitous Thomas Culpepper (her seducer).
But if these portraits are not of Catherine, then we run the risk of basing our visual image – which can too easily influence our view of the woman herself – on the likeness of someone else. And even if they are of Catherine, then what do they really say? Tudor portraits are not psychological profiles.
Catherine’s story does not require an ultimately unrewarding debate about what she may have looked like, still less a romanticised adventure story swamped by modern value judgments and guesswork. She was not Henry’s ‘rose without thorns’, a 19th-century fabrication. Nor is she Binnie Barnes in The Private Life of Henry VIII nor Tamzin Merchant in The Tudors, nor any of the quite varied reinventions of Catherine for modern audiences.
I believe that Catherine’s story is better told without romanticisation. Perhaps the unadorned facts of her short life should speak for themselves. I have chosen to spell her name the way she did in her letter:
Katheryn spent her childhood within the enormous household of her step-grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Norfolk. She learnt how to read, write and play the lute. Her early sexual encounters may have been abusive, they may not, but they were concealed when she was promoted into the Tudor court as a maid-of-honour to Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Here, Katheryn attracted – willing or unwillingly – the attention of the King. Henry and Katheryn were married at Oatlands Palace on 28 July 1540. The new queen was showered with gifts and attention; we do not know whether she felt thrilled or frightened. Men and women from her teenaged past were given posts at court, perhaps to buy their silence. One of them, Francis Dereham, became her secretary. Another, Thomas Culpepper, may have blackmailed Katheryn, may have seduced her. All for nothing. Katheryn’s past was exposed, and her secret trysts with Culpepper discovered. The Queen was accused of adultery; the King was enraged even to madness. Reportedly, Katheryn was terrified and guilt-ridden. But these are the words of men sent to question her and to report back to Henry. Can we rely on what they say? Katheryn was charged with leading an ‘abominable’ and ‘vicious’ life, like a common harlot, with diverse persons. For Henry to be appeased, the character assassination had to be coruscating and comprehensive. A new Act of Attainder was devised that made it treason for a King’s wife to conceal evidence of a former ‘unchaste life’. Katheryn’s fate became legally inevitable. She was taken to the Tower and beheaded on Tower Green, accompanied by her ‘accomplice’, Lady Rochford.
At the last, I have given in. Adjectives are sometimes required after all. Particularly if they are those employed at the time and if their usage helps to reveal the awful reality of the violence of the Tudor age.
Historic Royal Palaces