Katherine Howard is the dirty joke of the Tudor era.
The second of Henry VIII's wives to be executed, she is a tragic figure, but there is not the same level of outrage over her fate as exists for Anne Boleyn, her cousin. Many who have studied the life of Queen Anne believe that the charges of adultery and incest and treasonous conspiracy were false, concocted by Thomas Cromwell to free Henry VIII of a woman he had come to hate. Not so for Henry's fifth wife. Queen Katherine, some 30 years younger than her ailing and obese husband when they wed, took lovers before and after her marriage, it is commonly believed. She was guilty.
|A miniature portrait believed to show |
Katherine Howard, perhaps 18 when she married
I believe that Katherine Howard was guilty but not of what you may think. Whether she was unchaste before marriage is not her chief crime. Her struggles to hide her premarital past from her husband and his councillors--and her mysterious meetings, perhaps adulterous, with Thomas Culpepper after her marriage--were just the excuse seized on to effect her removal.
It could be argued that her alleged misdeeds were echoes of the mistakes in judgment Anne Boleyn made, in her flirtatious banter with Henry Norris and Francis Weston. But most importantly, Queen Anne was the victim of a politically motivated coup, and I would argue that her cousin Katherine Howard was too.
|Anne Boleyn, first cousin of Katherine Howard.|
To read the books written about Katherine Howard is to plunge into a vat of scorn, contempt and disgust: "empty headed," "good time girl" and "juvenile delinquent."
There has, recently, been a shift of opinion. In his excellent book Katherine Howard: A New History, Conor Byrne makes a convincing case that Katherine, whose mother died when she was very young and whose father was the black sheep of the Howards, was the victim of sexual predators while living with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. And Thomas Culpepper's attentions may have veered into blackmail.
In this post, though, I would argue that the crime she was actually guilty of—the reason Katherine Howard died—was not her morals, or lack of. It was her effectiveness as queen. She was the wife that Henry VIII was visibly most besotted with, according to contemporary records: his "affection was so marvellously set upon her." And, most critically, she was more than a mere plaything. She was the effective center of a power base.
What? people scream. But Katherine was promiscuous, frivolous, semi-literate, immature, grasping and heedless, right? That's what the miniseries depict and the books all agree on, even those that are supposedly sympathetic.
I would like to present some facts of Katherine's life and reign as Queen.
* Within the span of not more than six months, Katherine, a barely literate teenager, was able to convince Henry VIII that she should be his next queen, rather than his mistress, even though he was married to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, when he "first set eyes upon her." Jane Seymour is credited with shrewd managing of Henry VIII in similar circumstances. But Jane displaced a wife who was most likely pregnant when she began her relationship with King Henry, and is not known to have balked at Anne Boleyn's execution to make way for her. Anne of Cleves received a divorce and large settlement, not the axe. Moreover, Katherine went to great lengths to treat her predecessor, Anne of Cleves, with kindness and respect in public after the divorce.
* Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was more than 60 years old when arrested and confined in the Tower of London, charged with treason. Henry VIII considered her son, Reginald Pole, his greatest enemy, but the religious scholar lived in Italy and France, safe from the English king's grasp. So the king wiped out his family: brother, nephew and, finally, mother. Her imprisonment was not only terrifying but physically rigorous. Katherine arranged to have a set of warm clothes sent to Margaret Pole in the Tower, including a satin-lined nightgown, shoes, and slippers. It was an act of incredible bravery.
* Katherine persuaded her husband to pardon at least three people who could easily have been executed were it not for her intervention, including Thomas Wyatt. In 1541, Wyatt was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, accused of corresponding with Cardinal Pole, and referring to the prospect of Henry VIII's death. Katherine's actions led to his freedom. This success sets her apart from Jane Seymour, who when she attempted to dissuade Henry VIII from dissolving the monasteries, was told never to meddle in his affairs, and from sixth wife Catherine Parr, who was very nearly arrested after haranguing the king over religion. Although considered a 16th century "bimbo," Katherine was an effective political player.
* Katherine managed a relationship with a man in ill health, possessing volatile emotions and holding high expectations of a wife. After a "honeymoon" of several months during which Henry VIII appeared rejuvenated, his health problems returned and he was often in pain--and highly irritable. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reports rumors that Henry VIII refused to see his wife for a long stretch of days, and even considered divorce briefly. Rumors flew throughout the marriage that Katherine was pregnant, though it is unlikely she ever was. This must have been a source of considerable stress to Katherine, since the king continued to be obsessed with begetting male heirs. Yet Katherine was able to solidify her hold on the king's affections. When they returned from their progress in late October, the king proclaimed his wife a "jewel."
Less than two weeks later, Katherine was being investigated. What happened?
It is a story often told that Anne Boleyn said of Mary Tudor, her husband's daughter, that "she is my death and I am hers." As it happened, it was not her stepdaughter who killed Queen Anne. However, that same phrase could be used for Katherine Howard and Thomas Cromwell. She was his death. Many historians believe that Cromwell stalled in obtaining the king a divorce from Anne of Cleves because he didn't want a Howard queen, but that stalling was fatal.
Yet in a chilling way, Cromwell, executed on the wedding day of Henry VIII and Katherine Howard, was the cause of her death 20 months later.
The Duke of Norfolk and his heir, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, openly gloated over the destruction of Cromwell. Their ally, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, returned to the King's council and a leading role. But what is not often written about is how this faction tried to wipe out Cromwell's supporters. The arrest of Sir Thomas Wyatt was part of their "clean up operation," as was the arrest of Sir Ralph Sadler, Cromwell's protegee. (Sadler, too, was eventually released.)
Other Cromwell allies, like Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich, jumped to the winning side, no matter how they felt about the Howards, to survive. Thomas Audley, who had shared many of Cromwell's religious and political views, accommodated himself to the winners at court, but he was not fully trusted by Norfolk. Audley was lord chancellor, though--too useful to destroy. For now.
|Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury|
The man in the kingdom left most exposed was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the only one to publicly lament the fall of Cromwell, in a distressed letter to the King himself. Some at court expected Cranmer to follow Cromwell into disgrace. But the Archbishop survived, protected (as much as one could be) by King Henry's esteem. He retreated from the forefront of court affairs.
Bishop Gardiner, Cranmer's triumphant rival, left the court in the fall of 1540 to represent England at a German meeting of many religious and state leaders determined to resolve the question of religion, including the Emperor Charles V and John Calvin. Gardiner had instructions from Henry VIII that should a way be found for the Pope to welcome England back into the fold, he should not rule out such a possibility. One can only imagine how Cranmer felt about this summit and his relief when the Diet of Regensburg failed in the summer of 1541. But there was no doubt that Gardiner would continue to lobby for a return to Rome.
|Katherine's husband, Henry VIII|
In the coming year, the Howard-Gardiner faction did what they could to return the kingdom to the "True Faith" and repeatedly tried to move against former Cromwell allies. Those men they targeted must have been frightened. And frightened men make passionate enemies. It was unwise to alienate men who were capable of striking back. With the King entranced by his teenage Queen, the Howards felt invincible.
When Henry VIII and his Queen went on their historic progress to the North of England, three men were left behind. One was Thomas Cranmer. Another was Thomas Audley, with whom he had a friendship. The third was Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who quietly shared their evangelical views and quite possibly worried that the Seymours were endangered, especially if Queen Katherine had children. There might have been occasions for this trio of men to meet and speculate about their future.
That is the moment when a man entered the picture who set the match leading to the horrible deaths of four people: Katherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, Thomas Culpepper, and Francis Dereham. His name was John Lascelles, and he was a fanatical evangelical, someone who would do anything for the Protestant cause. He had once served Thomas Cromwell. He hated Thomas Howard and Bishop Gardiner (he would die himself five years later, burned to death for heresy). His sister, Mary Hall, had served in the household of the dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and she saw and heard things about Katherine Howard's past. Scandalous things.
Lascelles found his way to the Cranmer-Seymour-Audley group and told them what he knew. The opponents of the Howards had found a fatal weakness. If they played this card, it could bring down the Howard faction, but it could also devastate King Henry. What should be done? Shortly after Cromwell was arrested, Katherine Howard had personally sent a note to Thomas Cranmer, reassuring him he was safe from harm. She was perhaps 20 years old when she returned with her doting husband from their northern progress; she had never done Cranmer any harm. But what if Lascelle's story were to reach the King's ears some other way?
On All Souls' Day, as King Henry left his devotionals in Hampton Court, his Archbishop of Canterbury handed him a letter and urged him to read it...
On February 13, 1542, not four months later, Katherine was executed. The match had been lit--and it destroyed the Howard faction more completely than their Protestant enemies may ever dared to dream.
Katherine Howard, RIP.
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the new historical thriller The Blue, praised by Stephanie Dray as a "heart-stopping story of adventure, art and espionage," and a trilogy of novels set in the reign of Henry VIII: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Russia.. Katherine Howard is a character in the books.