Has there ever been a truly accurate, indeed, unbiased characterization of Katherine Howard? Though she has been the focus of many novels, biographies, films, and television shows, the true Katherine still eludes us. Was she really such a wild girl as some sources depict her? Was she naïve and easily led, as The Tudors would have viewers believe? Or was she just behaving as was (and is) natural to many girls of her age? The character of Katherine is fascinating in all of her portrayals, yet her true self, which is most likely lost to us, is even more so.
What we can garner about Katherine is scant; she was somewhat of a latchkey child, belonging to the poorer end of the Howard family, she was educated communally at the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s establishment, and there, her ‘education’ which she is most commonly known for most likely began with her music teacher, Henry Mannox. It is generally accepted she also entered into some sort of sketchy contract with Francis Dereham during this time. I believe that is where her actual sexual prolactivities ended—with the exception of Henry VIII himself, of course. I am disinclined to believe that Katherine actually consummated her relationship with Thomas Culpepper, though that may have been the eventual intent.
If one views portrayals of the wives of Henry VIII from many different modern (and some contemporary) sources, most are generally similar across the board, with one or two exceptions. Katherine, however, has the most varied persona in the canon, which makes her excellent fodder for novelization. Unfortunately for her, I have found her most often cast as the slut, which I believe is a smear on who the historical Katherine was.
As a historian and avid reader, I am most inclined to go with the concept that Katherine was young, indiscrete, and a political pawn—much as her cousin Anne was to Cromwell. The mere fact that she was so inexperienced and untrained in court politics and intrigue made it impossible to save herself, unlike her successor, Katherine Parr. The fact that her friends were similarly boasters and gossip-mongers did not help her cause in the slightest. A whispered word here and there, and Katherine Howard was the easiest wife to discard.
Another part of Katherine I fear we will never learn is her true feelings towards Henry VIII. Did she love him? Did she love her position? Did she even understand what was being asked of her? Unlike Anne Boleyn, who certainly understood her role as the king’s wife and a Howard with his ear, it doesn’t seem as though the family used Katherine in the same way. Of course, Norfolk wanted to use her for advancement, but it is interesting to note that the Howard faction never gained the same type of power as they did in Anne’s reign. I believe this was partially due to the girl in the bed at the time, to be crude. Despite what Katherine’s actual level of comprehension was as to her elevation and what it entailed, this time around, the Howards used their champion as pretty bait to distract the aging Henry, rather than an equal who was able to use her own considerable mind as queen. I find it interesting to ruminate on the concept that Katherine may actually have understood more than her own family gave her credit for. Perhaps she could have done some good if the political machine of the court factions had not moved against her so quickly and viciously.
Each time I read that Katherine was 17-19 years old when executed, I find it incredibly sobering. Though she was not considered a child by Tudor standards, in modern times, she would be. Her execution (and later, Lady Jane Grey’s) are shocking doses of reality into the often o’er painted picture of the life of Tudor royalty. Even young women who in essence, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, were not exempt from the political machinations surrounding them. I don’t believe Katherine could have avoided her untimely end—she was in the way of others more powerful than she. However, I don’t believe she deserved her fate.
Though to many, Katherine is forever cast in the story of Henry VIII as a minx and adulteress, I find her compelling for her mystery, for what we do not and most likely will never know about her. The saucy, sexy view of Katherine having midnight romps with Culpepper as Jane Boleyn watched over is an exciting one and excellent steamy scene fodder, as is seen in every filmed portrayal of the fifth wife. However, I find it difficult to accept this rather one dimensional view of Henry’s youngest queen and I thoroughly enjoy reading and watching each different portrayal of this mysterious child who lies under the floor of St. Peter ad Vincula.