The Legends of Catherine Howard

It’s almost impossible to find fiction (or even non-fiction) about Catherine Howard that doesn’t paint her in an extremely negative light.

The historical facts, in brief, are like this: the teenage Catherine came to Henry VIII’s court as a maid in waiting to the new queen, Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry married Catherine very soon after annulling his marriage to Anne, who he considered dull and ugly, and was apparently besotted with Catherine. However, Catherine had an affair with a courtier called Thomas Culpepper, as well as an apparent prior engagement from before she came to court with a man called Francis Dereham. When Henry found out, she was locked up, stripped of her title of queen, and ultimately beheaded. And, for flavor, one of the most famous stories about Catherine tells us that she asked for the execution block the night before her beheading, so that she could practice how she would lay her head on the block.

I’ve read multiple novels set during her rise and fall now, including The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory, Gilt by Katherine Longshore, and the newly released Maid at the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley, which inspired this post. These books frequently tell the story from another character’s perspective — Gilt is about Catherine’s best friend, Kitty Tilney, while Maid at the King’s Court is about Catherine’s invented cousin, Elizabeth — and, inevitably, they all portray Catherine as incredibly vain and overambitious. She’s an idiot, overconfident, cruel to other characters, and full of her own self-importance. Manipulative, simpering, positively evil. Most importantly, she is completely responsible for her own rise and for her own ensuing downfall.

It’s a compelling narrative for both fiction and history to fall into. Catherine was a teenage girl who stepped above her station, acted recklessly and foolishly, and was punished for it. It’s easy to portray this as a cautionary tale, a story of a girl getting her just desserts, or, at its most sympathetic, a tale of Icarus, flying too close to the sun.

But this is also a narrative provided by people’s biases, not necessarily by history. It’s people looking at the facts in the most unsympathetic light, expecting Catherine, as the beheaded teen wife, to be somehow responsible for what happened. Catherine may have been charismatic and somewhat vain, but she was also only either 15 or 16 when she married the old and incredibly dangerous Henry. In the couple of years before this marriage, he had killed Anne Boleyn and many of his close courtiers, including his closest advisor, Thomas Cromwell. His fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, narrowly escaped a similar fate. The message in court was more than clear — don’t disagree with the king, don’t fail to give him what he wants, and don’t make any mistakes.

Meanwhile, Catherine Howard was the niece of Thomas Howard, Anne Boleyn’s uncle, the man who pursued Anne’s rise to facilitate his own rise to power, and then threw her to the wolves when she was no longer useful. He was partly responsible for bringing down Cromwell after Henry’s failed married to Anne of Cleves, with Catherine marrying Henry on the same day as Cromwell’s execution. And although many of Catherine’s relatives were locked up in the Tower during her downfall, Thomas Howard somehow managed to escape punishment. He used young female relatives for his own ambitions, and both of them ended up dead as a result, while he continued on.

So Catherine is about 15, in a family fighting for the power that they lost after Anne’s downfall. The king no one should ever disagree with likes her, she’s catapulted to a position of great influence, but one with certain caveats — keep the king happy at all costs and make sure you have a son. Is her rise and fall any surprise, in that context?

By all accounts, Catherine Howard was not a particularly nice person, but then, neither was Anne Boleyn. She was clearly charismatic, and perhaps vain and frivolous, but that doesn’t mean she deserved her own execution at 17. Yet people always suggest she married Henry because she was conniving and manipulative, and she fell because she was an idiot who got too confident in herself. Add in some historical slut-shaming, and you’ve got yourself a legend.

16 comments on “The Legends of Catherine Howard

  • Lars Sjöström , Direct link to comment

    Interesting, my own country’s equivalent, who lived a few devades later, is depivted completely differently. In history books and fiction as far as I have read, she is depicted as innocent and possibly naive, good-hearted and with a calming influence on the hot-tempered, mentally unstable king. Rarely have anyone suggested that she might have had ambitions of her own or even influenced what happened to her. She is commonly depicted as the girl the king fell in love with, with the unstable king making all the decisions that eventually led to his downfall.

    In contrast, the king’s closest advisor, our equivalent to Thomas Cromwell, is usually given little sympaty. He worked himself up on his own merits, served an unstable king loyaly, and was eventually literary torn to pieces by rebels after that the king had surrendered him in an attempt to save himself.

    The king’s mistress who became queen survived the rebellion, and after that the king had died during imprisonment, possibly poisoned, she was given a large farm and lived out her life there.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Oh, that’s really interesting! I don’t really know any Swedish history, so I’m going to have to look into this!

      • Lars Sjöström , Direct link to comment

        I am flattered, the king was Erik XIV, the mistress/queen was Karin Månsdotter and the advisor was Jöran Persson.

  • Penelope Wallace , Direct link to comment

    Is it too old-fashioned to point you in the direction of Jean Plaidy’s “Murder Most Royal” which is a fictionalised version of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, sympathetic to both?

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      No, I’ve actually never read anything by Jean Plaidy! Which seems to be a big omission on my part. Putting in a reservation at the library now. 🙂

  • Rachel , Direct link to comment

    First of all, I would just like to state YAY YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT THE TUDOR QUEENS I AM SUCH A TUDOR NERD!

    Regarding Katherine Howard in particular….I was sort of surprised that you’d encountered such negative portrayals of her in fiction. The only book you mentioned that I’ve read is The Boleyn Inheritance, which I enjoyed a lot and I think is one of Gregory’s better books. Between that and the historical accounts I’ve read, the impression I’ve gotten is that of a ditsy but sweet teenager who was ruthlessly used by the men around her for their own gain, and then she took the blame when things fell apart. I am sorely disheartened and disappointed that there are a number of authors who apparently decided she was a manipulative slut.

    I guess I don’t particularly mind the depiction of her as dumb…if she’d had two brain cells to rub together she should have realized that having an affair under the nose of a king who had already sent one wife (her own cousin no less) to the block on trumped-up adultery charges was a PHENOMENALLY bad idea. But that makes her story no less tragic, and no excuse for people slut-shaming her, or acting like she had ANY say in what happened to her beyond her decision regarding Culpeper. Her male relatives placed her in front of the king in the hopes he would take sexual interest in her and then they could profit financially from essentially pimping out their own daughter. When the king took an interest, HE decided to marry her, and there was no way for her to refuse the most powerful man in England.

    Regarding the Boleyn Inheritance, I thought Gregory did a good job of portraying this young woman who, yes, was kinda dumb and shallow, but wanted nothing more nefarious than to enjoy life. I found her to be an interesting counterpoint to the good and sensible Anne of Cleves and the demented and manipulative Jane Parker. Sometimes the shallowness was annoying, but I can’t help but think that it’s good to have a variety of female characters, and that while “dumb blonde” had many problems attached, having a dumb woman in a book as a counterpoint to two intelligent women works just fine.
    (for a Gregory heroine whose pettiness I just couldn’t stand, no matter how hard I tried, see Margaret Tudor in Three Sisters, Three Queens….)

    Out of curiosity, have you watched The Tudors TV series? I know, I know…the Tudors is one of my guilty pleasures. The historical accuracy is SO off in a lot of ways, but I can’t stop rewatching it, and in those countless rewatchings, I keep finding tidbits that show they did do their research. I ask because I think that show has characterized my mental image of Katherine Howard a lot (and really, am I going to say no to more Natalie Dormer?).

    The Tudors show, for me, is a fascinating study in toxic masculinity and misogyny and how society rationalizes abuse, of which Katherine Howard is a prime example. Henry is a paragon of abusive behavior, but almost every character in the show bends over backwards to characterize him as the Good and Noble King (especially Henry himself), who has either been led astray by bad advisors, or seduced by wanton women, when in reality, he is the one with all the decision-making power and makes all the bad choices that get him into his marital problems. The show, true to it’s most unfortunate aspect of having pointless sex everywhere, made Katherine the most promiscuous female character on the show, with the result that you have to choke back laughter when Henry proclaims to the court how he was attracted to her by her “maidenly behavior” (when her behavior towards Henry was many things, none of which were virginal).

    But one of the most heartbreaking things for me was after things start going south for Katherine and she’s under arrest, and all of the men at court are acting shocked and outraged that she betrayed the king, when it was REALLY FUCKING OBVIOUS TO ANYONE WITH EYES that she should never have been made Queen to begin with. Henry deludes himself into thinking that this nubile young girl who teases him at their first meeting by shoving his ring up her skirt will somehow make a good wife and queen, her male family members are fully aware of her promiscuity and place her in front of the king for EXACTLY that reason, yet they all act surprised when she cheats on him with a handsome young man her own age….at which point, when she can no longer bring them monetary gain through the king’s favor, they throw her to the wolves, she dies, and the rest of them get off scot free…
    The ONLY person who calls them out on their bullshit is another woman, Edward Seymore’s wife. Not that she tries very hard, but when they pompously declare their shock at Katherine’s behavior, she does roll her eyes and tells them they knew exactly what kind of girl she was, and while the show doesn’t frame it as such, it’s one of the saddest moments in the show for me. A naive young girl has been ruthlessly used and is soon to be killed by the men who have complete control over her life, and the only person willing to point out the obvious hypocrisy is another woman. Henry was fine with her behaving like a slut as long as she was being slutty for HIM, but as soon as she is sexual with another man, then she needs to die.
    And then, of course, there is the last episode where the ghost of Anne Boleyn comes back and has a little chat with Henry about how he treated her and Katherine….

    But while I can (sort of) handle the victim-blaming in the show, it’s incredibly frustrating to see people in this day and age who should know better to look at that scenario in history and think that somehow the whole debacle was the fault of a powerless teenage girl instead of an old, decaying but still all-powerful king who was enslaved only by his own ego.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      YAY, I AM SUCH A TUDOR NERD TOO! And I’m actually really glad to hear that this portrayal of Catherine Howard isn’t completely universal. Maybe I just have bad luck choosing books. I feel like a lot of the books I read portray her as quite scheming, conducting her affairs because she knows she needs to have a son, and she can’t have one with Henry, but somehow they usually seem to fall on the side of “but even so, she’s a terrible person.”

      The most memorable part of The Boleyn Inheritance, for me, was actually how I ended up sympathizing with Jane Boleyn, even though I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to.

      I’ve seen most of the first season of The Tudors, a couple of years ago now, and although I intended to keep watching past that, I never did. So I’ve never got to the part where Natalie Dormer started having more say in how Anne was portrayed, or seen any of the later women. Do you think it’s worth watching despite the issues?

      • Rachel , Direct link to comment

        I do! I think Natalie Dormer’s Anne only gets better as the second season goes on, and she is fan-friggin’-tastic in the “execution” episode!
        Jane Seymore gets an actress change between seasons 2 & 3…the Season 2 one is kinda bland, but I thought Annabelle Wallis did a wonderful job in Season 3! I feel like half the reason I watch this show is to see how the women closest to Henry try to survive him in whatever way they can, and Wallis’s Jane Seymore does it by being submissive to Henry but working small kindnesses wherever she can to make the lives of the people around her just a little bit better.
        The remaining queens I thought were all well done! Joss Stone is an ADORABLE Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Parr’s actress fits the bill perfectly….just be aware that the showmakers decided to make Katherine Howard naked at every available opportunity (sigh), but like I said, Tamzin Merchant really defines my mental image of the historical figure.
        Also, Sarah Bolger does a great Princess/Lady Mary, and watching her with Spanish Ambassador You’re-More-Of-A-Father-To-Me-Than-My-Abusive-Biological-Father Chapuys will give you ALL OF THE FEELS!

        So as long as you can stand watching Henry continuing to be “(Worst) Husband/King of the Year”, and don’t mind certain costuming inaccuracies (seriously. Chemises. They were a thing back then, but you wouldn’t know it from this show) I’d give it another go, especially if you’re interested in analyzing female characters!

        • Rachel , Direct link to comment

          (Trigger Warning regarding rape…if you would like to avoid the rape scenes, then skip past George Boleyn’s wedding night with Jane Parker…that was a weird addition but I guess they wanted a reason for Jane to hate George… and when Thomas Culpeper rides off to vent his frustration at not being able to sleep with Katherine Howard and starts talking to the peasant woman.)

          • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

            Thanks for the heads up! I think I may skip over wherever I was in season one (although I heard the Wolsey stuff in the finale is really good) and dig in with S2!

  • Rebecca , Direct link to comment

    Hi Rhiannon,
    I remember The Fifth Queen trilogy, by Ford Madox Ford, being pretty good (although it’s a long, long time since I read them!).

What do you think?

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