Posted By Claire on July 21, 2009
Alisa M Libby, author of “The King’s Rose”, has written a special exclusive guest blog post for The Anne Boleyn Files – thanks so much Alisa. Here it is…
Everyone has an opinion about King Henry VIII’s many queens. When I say I’ve written a novel about Catherine Howard, I’ve heard “oh, you mean the tramp?” and “she must have been the stupidest girl in the world.” My favorite came from the Yeoman Guard at the Tower of London in England: “Why are you writing about her? Why not write about Anne Boleyn?”
Given Catherine’s disgraceful history I can’t blame anyone for these judgments. After less than two years of marriage Catherine was convicted of having an affair with the king’s groom, Thomas Culpeper. This charge, in addition to an earlier accusation that she had not been a virgin on her wedding night, led to the end of Catherine’s brief reign—and the end of her life.
Having known Henry’s colorful marital history—including the execution of her own cousin, Anne Boleyn, on similar charges—wouldn’t Catherine have been on her very best behavior? Her bad choices made me want to write about her, to discover the reasons for her reckless actions. Where history didn’t provide a clear answer I created one myself; such is the beauty of fiction.
Fictions aside, Catherine made some bad decisions which legend has seen fit to inflate. I’ll attempt to debunk some of the most insidious rumors about my favorite of Henry’s wives.
Catherine was incredibly stupid.
While certainly not one of the greatest thinkers of her day, I don’t think it’s fair to label Catherine as “stupid.” She was not as educated or as well-read as Anne Boleyn, nor did she have the strict religious upbringing of Catherine of Aragon. But Catherine’s barely literate status was not out of the ordinary for the time period. More importantly, Catherine was new to court. She arrived in the fall of 1539 as a lady in waiting for the new queen, Anne of Cleves. She was receiving expensive gifts from the king by the following spring, and they were married in the summer of 1540. After less than a year at court she was married to the King of England. It’s not difficult to believe that she wouldn’t understand the political intrigues taking place all around her, and perhaps was too naïve to even know the danger of what she was missing.
Catherine was a greedy slut who thought she could cheat on the king and not get caught.
Catherine showed some bad judgment in her past: first a childhood flirtation with her music tutor, and later a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham, whom she called her husband, though they were never given permission by her family to wed. Whether this was merely a term of endearment or if she was technically his wife is debatable; an agreement such as this could have been considered binding at the time, especially seeing as it was consummated.
While certainly unwise, her behavior was not uncommon for young women of the time. While enjoying midnight parties at Lambeth, I doubt that Catherine considered that she would one day find a position at court, or that her options for marriage would considerably improve. Further, those pushing her before the king—the Duke of Norfolk, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk—most likely knew about Catherine’s past indiscretions. Still, they described her as completely innocent and virginal. For Henry, Catherine was an illusion of youth, beauty and purity.
As for Catherine’s affair with Culpeper, I created a “logic” for her to follow in my novel, but I found no evidence of any logic in the non-fiction I’ve read: their actions were perilously reckless. However, David Starkey, author of Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, claimed that they may have been in love but never consummated the affair. Personally, I can believe that Catherine did have an affair—considering her past, her untenable position as queen, her desire for Thomas evident in the letter she wrote to him—but this involves a lot of connecting the dots on my own. The truth is this: we can never really know what went on behind closed doors over 400 years ago.
In the moments before her death, Catherine proclaimed her love for Thomas Culpeper.
According to some of the costumed historians at the Tower of London, before her death Catherine proclaimed “I die a queen, but would rather die the wife of Culpeper!” I can see that hearing this on such historically hallowed ground would, indeed, be very stirring…only there is no factual record to back it up. These words were written years after her execution in a fictional version of Catherine’s story. This proclamation is more memorable than the words she actually said before her death, which are recounted only vaguely in Lacey Baldwin Smith’s A Tudor Tragedy.
Catherine was likely greedy and ignorant, but she did have some goodness, some grace. Perhaps she was just following the advice of her family, but she did protest the imprisonment of certain people in the Tower, who were eventually released. She even attempted to have the Countess of Salisbury released, for she was an old woman who had done nothing against the King aside from having the misfortune (in Henry’s eyes) of being a Plantagenet, with their own claim to the throne. Unluckily for the Countess, Catherine’s petition on her behalf failed.
In the end, we’re still left with a lot of questions about Catherine. Was Thomas Culpeper her true love? Would King Henry have spared her life, or was he eager to condemn her for the pain and humiliation she caused him? There are historians to agree with all of these and myriad other theories. But isn’t this part of the fun of history, to consider all the possibilities from the safe distance of centuries. If Catherine learned nothing else, it was this: it is dangerous to be loved by a king.
By Alisa M Libby
Click here to read my review of Alisa’s fantastic novel, “The King’s Rose”.