Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII's Fifth Queen, by Josephine Wilkinson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The first major turning point in a year [1536] that was to be replete with turning points was greeted with sadness by some and with much rejoicing by others, particularly Queen Anne. On 7 January, Katherine of Aragon died at Kimbolton, having endured five years of exile. Separated from the court and forbidden to see her daughter, the former queen's lonely death ended a life marked by unhappiness and grief.
Trigger warning: abuse

Of the six wives of Henry VIII, Katherine Howard is probably the most obscure; basically we remember that she was executed for much the same reason as her cousin Anne Boleyn, ie alleged adultery, and then we move on. Josephine Wilkinson has shone a light on the sorry tale of this young woman, beheaded while still a teenager after less than two years as queen of England. There is a surprising amount of documentation - the evidence against her was obviously carefully assembled and preserved, to allow posterity to make its own judgement.

It's pretty clear from the evidence that she was an abuse victim who was then framed. At 13 she was repeatedly groped in bed by her music teacher, Henry Mannox. At 15 she was moved to her grandmother's household where she was seduced by one of the secretaries, Francis Dereham; they started to call each other "husband" and "wife", which was to prove (literally) fatal. At 17, in the royal household, she began a flirtatious relationship with her distant cousin Thomas Culpeper, who was a favourite of the king's. This was then turned upside down after a few months when the king himself took an interest in her, having spotted her as one of the attendants of Anne of Cleves during that very brief marriage.

But, even married to the king, Catherine couldn't stay away from Culpeper, and her lady-in-waiting Lady Rochford (whose husband, Catherine's cousin George Boleyn, had been executed along with his sister Anne) facilitated the continuing contact. It's not even clear that the relationship with Culpeper ever became physical, but it is pretty clear that she was very emotionally committed to him.

This all amounted to high treason, by the standards of the time. Catherine's relationship with Dereham, looked at from some angles, amounted to a marriage which would have made her subsequent marriage to Henry VIII invalid. Culpeper had also a political role, which made his privileged access to the queen a matter of state security (and he and Katherine were foolishly indiscreet, whatever else they may or may not have done).

When Henry found out that his teenage bride was not as virginal as he had imagined (and in a court with many watching eyes, where jealousy could literally kill, he was always going to find out) the end came quickly. Catherine was arrested on 1 November 1541 and stripped of her queenship on 23 November. Dereham and Culpeper were tried on 1 December and executed on 10 December, Culpeper beheaded and Dereham hanged, drawn and quartered. (Mannox, the music teacher, escaped without punishment because groping 13-year-old girls was not a crime.) Parliament voted for Catherine's execution on 7 February and it was carried out six days later. Lady Rochford was beheaded the same morning, almost six years after her husband had met the same fate for his alleged incest with Anne Boleyn.

Josephine Wilkinson has put all of this together very well, but I missed a few things. The documentation obviously does survive, but I'd have liked to know how and where. I'd also have liked to know a bit more about the political and religious context of the accusations, though of course the human drama is compelling enough on its own.

It can't have been much fun being a young woman in Tudor times, even at the highest levels of society. Elizabeth I, ten years younger, was also abused as a teenager, by her stepfather. Katherine had little choice in her relations with older men, never expected that she would be in a position where this would become an issue of life and death, and she had absolutely no protection when it did (those accused of high treason had no access to legal counsel, or indeed any other form of help).

The most vivid image we have of Katherine is that the night before her execution, she asked to have the headsman's block brought to her cell, so that she could practice positioning herself confidently for the next morning. Having been robbed of control for most of her life, she wanted at least to have some control of the manner of her end. It's a tremendously sad image.

Tags: bookblog 2017, tudor history

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.