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.