Abuse and Dishonour in the Life of Katherine Howard – Guest Article by Conor Byrne

Posted By on December 17, 2014

Katherine Howard bookHistorians, particularly popular writers, have customarily identified Katherine Howard’s relationships as consensual. Believing that she was, in fact, older than she actually was, they have suggested that she was the dominant party in her liaisons.

Tracy Borman termed Katherine ‘a sexual predator’, believing that Katherine ‘knew exactly what she was doing’.1 Lacey Baldwin Smith similarly affirmed in his biography of the queen: ‘that Catherine knew exactly what she was doing is undeniable’.2 These accounts have largely ignored the early modern culture of sexual coercion, while failing to factor in their analyses culturally constructed notions of masculinity and the subservient position of women within aristocratic households. This short article seeks to redress this deficiency by examining Katherine’s experiences in the 1530s in line with these cultural and social conditions.

Because Katherine identified her seducers as ‘vicious’ and persuasive, it is helpful to examine early modern constructions of masculinity and attributes that were deemed essential to successful manhood. Early modern men were socialised to be fiercely protective of their honour. Jennifer Feather and Catherine E. Thomas’s research has demonstrated that, because social expectations for men came under extreme pressure during this period, masculine ideals became closely connected with aggression.3 Violence was a way in which manhood was reaffirmed and protected from threat for, as Alexandra Shepard notes, misgivings emerged in this period that, ‘far from being self-contained exemplars, many men constantly worked against the patriarchal goals of order and control’.

To protect their honour and safeguard their manhood from the threat of an allegation of effeminacy, men employed violence.

With this understanding of early modern masculinity in mind, it is worth examining sixteenth-century responses to sexual violence and forms of coercion. Garthine Walker noted that pre-modern societies did not acknowledge women to be victims in the same way in which modern society does.5 As today, rape was rarely prosecuted and had a low conviction rate in all early modern jurisdictions while, again as with today, rape was vastly under-reported.6 Partly, this silence ensued because of contemporary notions of shame and dishonour. Women were entreated to guard their chastity and present a modest and chaste demeanour at all times, to safeguard the honour both of themselves and of their families. It is significant, in this context, that the dowager duchess of Norfolk instructed her granddaughter Katherine to remain silent about her sexual past when she arrived at court in 1539, in order to ensure that scandal did not besmirch the Howard name.7

The early modern period, moreover, saw muddy distinctions between ‘persuasion’, ‘seduction’ and ‘rape’, all of which were terms to explain and describe coercion.8 When, in November 1541, Katherine confessed to her sexual relations with Francis Dereham, she testified that Dereham, ‘by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose’ and referred to ‘the subtle persuasions of young men and the ignorance and frailty of young women’.9 Historians have failed to consider the importance of language here. Lyndal Roper noted that the language used by men and women to describe sexual experiences was fundamentally gendered. As Warnicke noted in relation to Katherine, ‘not one of her comments indicates she enjoyed the affair with Dereham’, or, for that matter, Manox, since ‘a girl’s loss of maidenhead in a society esteeming virginity could result in emotional as well as painful physical issues’.10 Because she was a member of one of the premier noble families in the kingdom, in which family members were married off in prestigious alliances with other elite families, it does not seem likely that Katherine would heedlessly and unthinkingly have plunged with reckless abandon into sexual relationships with no consideration of her own, or her family’s, honour. From an early age, she would have been educated as to the importance of preserving her honour and modesty, in order to redound to the wellbeing and advantage of her family.

As today, consent in the early modern period was central. Describing instances of rape and sexual coercion necessarily involved a description of sex, which worked to the advantage of accused men, who sought to deflect an accusation of rape by asserting that they had enjoyed sexual intercourse with the consent of the woman concerned.11 This privileging of male testimony has remained continuous across time, for modern historians tend to assume that Katherine was lying when she testified that Dereham had raped her. Female victims were, moreover, disadvantaged by the cultural construction of ‘interior consent’, which assumed that reluctant women actually provoked rape and found pleasure in it.12 This advantaged male aggressors, who could seduce non-consenting women with the justification that their victims had enjoyed or desired their seduction.

Women who remained silent about their experiences were viewed with distrust or suspicion, since ‘a woman’s silence was interpreted as a form of collaboration with her assailant, suggesting her consent after the act if not before’.13 Because Katherine remained silent about her experiences until her downfall in late 1541, she was viewed as having encouraged her seducers’ advances. That she experienced distress and emotional turmoil, however, is clear from her confession, in which she informed Cranmer that ‘the sorrow of my offences was ever before my eyes’.14

Important continuities have remained across time. Then, as now, male testimony tended to be privileged over women’s, while the burden of responsibility for sexual misconduct was laid on women and meant that women who were thought to have encouraged their seducers ‘by word or deed’ were judged to have been culpable.15 That male testimony was privileged in Katherine’s downfall there is no doubt: because the interrogators accepted Culpeper’s admission that he and the queen had discussed their love for one another and had planned to consummate their love, they never asked Katherine about the topic of her discussions with Culpeper in Lincoln and elsewhere, ‘perhaps because they assumed adultery occurred’.16

Although Katherine confessed to illicit communications with Manox and Dereham and to meeting in secret with Culpeper after her marriage, she never stated that she was guilty of adultery. Any analysis of her life, or that of any premodern woman more broadly, must factor in contemporary gender expectations. Attention must be directed to social and cultural constructions of both sexuality and honour. This failure to do so in previous accounts has resulted in the general acceptance that Katherine’s sexual affairs were consensual and voluntary. When attention is given to early modern notions of sexual coercion and honour, however, it is impossible for this interpretation to remain viable. Furthermore, historians should remain sensitive to the use of language and the way in which it was gendered. Katherine’s admission of the ‘persuasions’ of both Manox and Dereham cautions against accepting, at face value, the limited evidence of their interactions. Rather, it appears that she was a victim of early modern notions of sexuality, coercion, and blame in which male aggressors were privileged and female victims viewed with suspicion and distrust.

Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne

Conor is the author of Katherine Howard: A New History, which was published in August 2014.

In this new full-length biography of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Conor Byrne reconsiders Katherine’s brief reign and the circumstances of her life, striping away the complex layers of myths and misconceptions to reveal a credible portrait of this tragic queen.

By reinterpreting her life in the context of cultural customs and expectations surrounding sexuality, fertility and family honour, Byrne exposes the limitations of conceptualising Katherine as either ‘whore’ or ‘victim’. His more rounded view of the circumstances in which she found herself and the expectations of her society allows the historical Katherine to emerge.

Katherine has long been condemned by historians for being a promiscuous and frivolous consort who partied away her days and revelled in male attention, but Byrne’s reassessment conveys the mature and thoughtful ways in which Katherine approached her queenship. It was a tragedy that her life was controlled by predators seeking to advance themselves at her expense, whatever the cost.

The book is available from Amazon and your usual book store.

Notes and Sources

  1. Tracy Borman, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen (London, 2009), p. 72.
  2. Lacey Baldwin Smith, A Tudor Tragedy: The Life and Times of Catherine Howard (Stroud, 2009), p. 55.
  3. Jennifer Feather and Catherine E. Thomas, Violent Masculinities: Male Aggression in Early Modern Texts and Culture (New York, 2013).
  4. Alexandra Shepard, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2006), p. 88.
  5. Garthine Walker, ‘Sexual Violence and Rape in Europe, 1500-1750’, in Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher (eds.), The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present (Abingdon, 2013), p. 430.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Retha M. Warnicke, Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners (New York, 2012), p. 60.
  8. Walker, ‘Sexual Violence’, p. 433.
  9. HMC, Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquis of Bath Preserved at Longleat, Wiltshire, vol. 2 (Dublin, 1907), pp. 8-9.
  10. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 60.
  11. Walker, ‘Sexual Violence’, p. 434.
  12. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 51.
  13. Walker, ‘Sexual Violence’, p. 434.
  14. Retha M. Warnicke, ‘Katherine [Catherine; nee Katherine Howard] (1518×24-1542), queen of England and Ireland, fifth consort of Henry VIII’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2008); accessed online at http://oxforddnb.com/view/article/4892?docPos=3.
  15. Walker, ‘Sexual Violence’, p. 435.
  16. Warnicke, Wicked Women, p. 76.
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