Catherine Howard – The Material Girl?

Posted By on February 22, 2011

Catherine Howard has been on my mind a lot over the past few weeks, due to the BBC finally airing the final season of “The Tudors”, and I’ve been struggling to understand her and how she got into the almighty mess that saw her go from the King’s “jewel of womanhood” to being executed as a traitor and adulteress. Catherine is like her cousin, Anne Boleyn, in many ways, a bit of an enigma.

So, before we try to get to grips with who the fifth wife of Henry VIII really was, let’s look at the labels she has been given and the way she has been represented in fiction and on TV:-

  • Rose without a thorn – Henry VIII referred to Catherine as his “Rose without a thorn” and “a jewel of womanhood”.
  • Victim of child abuse and paedophiles – The idea that Catherine was preyed on by her music teacher and three older men: Dereham, the King and Culpeper.
  • Slut, prostitute and common harlot – The Tudors Season 3 episode guide says “As Henry presses for an end to his new marriage, a new sexual conquest emerges – young prostitute Katherine Howard” and the series shows Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and Edward Seymour, Earl Hertford, procuring Catherine and almost pimping her out to the King.
  • Romantic heroine – The Victorians saw Catherine as a tragic, romantic heroine forced into marriage with a fat, smelly tyrant but who was in love with a dashing courtier.
  • A teenage tearaway – The idea that Catherine lacked a proper upbringing and that she was allowed to run riot in the busy household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk and was corrupted by the behaviour of her elders there.

  • Airhead and bimbo – Catherine is often seen as an airhead and bimbo, a girl whose only education was into how to please a man. This was emphasised by the giggly and dizzy character of Catherine in “The Tudors”.
  • Material Girl – A true material girl who loved jewels, pretty dresses, money etc. and who thought of nothing else.
  • A tragic character looking for love, attention and affection – The idea that Catherine had been starved of love in her childhood and was just looking for love and attention, and that’s why she had her dalliance with Thomas Culpeper.
  • A victim of manipulative older men – Some portray Catherine as putty in the hands of older men who used her and abused her.
  • A reckless fool – That Catherine “was the sort of girl who lost her head easily over a man”1.
  • Always naked – Did anyone else notice that Catherine Howard spent most of her time naked in The Tudors? Naked on a swing, naked practising with the block, naked except for rose petals…
  • A nymphomaniac – A promiscuous girl who put her sexual desires ahead of everything else.
  • Cold, calculating and ambitious – The Catherine Howard of Suzannah Dunn’s “The Confession of Katherine Howard”. Kate as she is called in that, seemed to be a girl who used people to get to the top and who used Culpeper to try and provide the King with an heir.
  • Spoilt child – Was Catherine just a self-indulgent teenager used to getting her own way and used to getting away with things because she was “petite, plump, [and] pretty”2?
  • A Proud Howard – A girl whose Howard pride cost her her life.
  • A worldly girl – The idea that Catherine was very worldly wise and sexually experienced, that she even knew methods of contraception. Michael Hirst describes her as a “Lolita figure”.

Catherine Howard’s Age

Many of the above labels and views depend on how old you think Catherine was when she had her relationships with Henry Manox, Francis Dereham, Henry VIII and Thomas Culpeper, so when was Catherine Howard born?

That is a very tricky question to answer and historians argue over this just as they do over Anne Boleyn’s birth date. Lacey Baldwin Smith devotes the appendix3 of his book, “Catherine Howard”, to this question. In it, he cites the various clues we have:-

Toledo Museum Portrait

  • The will of Dame Isabel Legh, Catherine’s maternal grandmother – Catherine is mentioned in this will from 1527 so she was definitely born before 1527.
  • The will of John Legh, Isabel’s husband and Catherine’s step-grandfather – This will from 1524 does not mention Catherine and although some historians use this as proof that Catherine was not born until after 1524 Baldwin Smith points out that it also does not mention any of the Howard girls so he feels that it “may have been a reflection of the masculine standards of the age” and that “infant girls did not warrant mention as beneficiaries in a will.”4
  • That if Catherine’s parents, Jocasta Culpeper and Edmund Howard, married around 1514-1515, as has been suggested, and Catherine had three elder brothers, then Catherine could not have been born before 1517/1518.
  • The French Ambassador reported that Catherine was 18 years of age when she slept with Francis Dereham5 and that Catherine’s confession dated their affair to 1538-1539. However, the ambassador also said that Dereham had “violated her at the age of 13 until 18”. If Catherine was 18 in 1539 then her year of birth would be 1521.
  • The Spanish Chronicle (The Chronicle of Henry VIII) has Catherine meeting the King at the age of 15, making her date of birth 1524.
  • The Toledo Museum of Catherine Howard – Lacey Baldwin Smith writes of how this portrait gives Catherine’s age as 21 and was painted c1540/1541 – However, some historians do not believe that this portrait is of Catherine.

Lacey Baldwin Smith does say that all of this is speculation and many things, including her parents’ marriage date, are “conjectural” and all we really know for sure about Catherine’s family is that “Edward Howard was claiming ten children in 1527”. We are left none-the-wiser, with Catherine being anything from 11 to 15 when Manox had a relationship with her, and 17 to 21 when she died.

Catherine Howard’s Appearance

We only have one definite likeness of Catherine Howard and that is the miniature by Hans Holbein. David Starkey6 writes of how we can be sure that this is Catherine because she can be identified by the jewels she is wearing which match with contemporary records of jewels she owned at the time. This miniature shows a young woman with “auburn hair, pale skin, dark eyes and brows, the rather fetching beginnings of a double chin and an expression that was at once quizzical and come-hither.” Starkey also describes her as “petite, plump, [and] pretty.” Joanna Denny describes Catherine as “demure and dainty, with peaches-and-cream complexion and blonde hair”7 Later, in her book, Denny writes of Catherine’s “rich dark blonde” hair, her “hazel-green eyes”8 and her love of French fashion and low cut necklines which often exposed the breasts! No wonder that Henry noticed her!

Antonia Fraser9 writes of how the French Ambassador rated her beauty as just “middling”, which, interestingly, was how he had also described Anne of Cleves, and she was also described by contemporaries as petite and diminutive. She must have looked tiny compared to the King who was over six feet tall and had a chest measurement of 57 inches and a waist measurement of 54 inches in 1541.

Victim of Child Abuse

As I said, the way we view Catherine’s life and what happened to her does depend on what birthdate we accept for her, but, we have to remember that Tudor girls went from being a child to being a woman, there weren’t teenagers in Tudor times. Joanna Denny writes of how, today, Manox’s relationship with Catherine would be viewed as “a blatant case of child abuse”, however, “under the Tudors there was little sentimentality about childhood. The onset of puberty was regarded as an acceptable age for sexual and matrimonial consent.”10

Lacey Baldwin Smith writes that “Child marriages were the constant custom of the age and most of Catherine’s relatives were married young. Her mother, at the age of twelve, had taken as her first husband a man who belonged to a previous generation”11 and we know that Henry VIII’s grandmother was 12 when she married and 13 when she gave birth. If we accept the 1521 birthdate, as Lacey Baldwin Smith and David Starkey do, then Catherine was around 14/15 when Manox and she were involved, and around 19 when she married the King. Although Manox, Dereham, Culpeper, and particularly Henry VIII , were older than her, it was not unusual for a young woman to be involved with an older man. Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, had married his ward, Catherine Willoughby, when she was just 13/14 and he was in his late 40s.

Slut, Prostitute and Common Harlot

As I said earlier, the episode guide to “The Tudors” Season 3 described Catherine as a prostitute and it certainly portrayed her as what David Starkey calls “a good-time girl”. We see her seducing Henry, something that does not tally with his perception of her as virginal, and we also know that she has had experience with other men, she has a rather colourful past. It is true, Catherine Howard had been involved to some with Henry Manox and Francis Dereham before her marriage to Henry VIII. Manox had boasted to Mary Hall (née Mary Lascelles), one of the women in the Dowager Duchess’ household, “I know her well enough, for I have had her by the c*nt and I know it among a hundred… And she loves me and I love her, and she hath said to me that I shall have her maidenhead, though it be painful to her, and not doubting but I will be good to her hereafter.”12 Manox also said that he knew a “privy mark” in Catherine’s “secret parts”13, but it seems that the couple did not ‘go all the way’ as when he was questioned later, he was adamant that “he never knew her carnally”. It seems that it was Dereham who de-flowered the “rose without a thorn”.

According to Joanna Denny14, Francis Dereham was a gentleman of the Duke of Norfolk and a favourite of the Dowager Duchess. He and other young men in the Norfolk household sneaked into the Maiden’s Chamber, the girls’ dormitory, at night, enjoying sexual relations with the females there. He had previously had a relationship with Catherine’s friend and dormitory companion, Joan Bulmer, but was soon taken with Catherine. The couple obviously had a full sexual relationship as Catherine’s bed companion, Alice Restwood, described “puffing and blowing” between the couple, another witness, Mary Lascelles, testified that “they would kiss and hang by their bills [lips] together and [as if ] they were two sparrows” Margaret Benet described how she saw “Dereham pluck up [Catherine’s] clothes above her navel so that [he] might well discern her body”15.

Although these illicit goings-on went on by night at the Dowager Duchess’ homes in Horsham and Lambeth, Antonia Fraser points out that it was not “something closely approaching a high class brothel” but that “the true comparison was to a high class finishing school”16. Starkey concurs, calling it “a slackly run mixed boarding school”. Catherine Howard was not a prostitute in a brothel and her affair with Manox can be put down to youthful experimentation and her relationship with Dereham could have been described as a marriage, in that the couple had agreed to marry, they referred to each other as husband and wife, and they had consummated the relationship. Although Catherine went on to have secret meetings with Thomas Culpeper, her husband’s groom, and evidently planned to sleep with him, I’m not sure that she can be labelled as promiscuous or a slut, more a girl who lacked judgement and loved attention.

Romantic Heroine

It is tempting to feel sorry for Catherine, to see her as a teenage beauty who’s had a rough upbringing, starved of love and affection, who is forced into a loveless marriage (on her side anyway) with a monster and who can’t help but have an affair with the love of her life: the swashbuckling, gorgeous Thomas Culpeper. Hmm… tempting, but it’s not what happened in real life, is it?

OK, so Catherine’s mother died when she was young and she had an absent father, but she was sent to stay with family and she was no different from many girls of her age and station. She had friends, she had fun, and then she ended up in the glamorous world of the English Court, serving the new queen, Anne of Cleves. There she met Thomas Culpeper, who was far from the romantic hero of chivalric legend, someone who Antonia Fraser describes as having “the charm of Don Giovanni rather than that of Sir Lancelot”; in fact, he was a rapist and murderer, and was quick to lay the blame on Catherine and Lady Rochford when he was caught out. Catherine married the King who doted on her and gave her everything she wanted, including love and affection, and she cheated on him. The furious King had his “Desdemona”17 executed, along with her love and previous lover, and that was the end of little Catherine Howard.

The romantic Catherine and Culpeper story comes from the pages of The Spanish Chronicle18 which tells of how the couple fell in love before Catherine’s wedding to the King, that Culpeper “was much grieved and fell very ill” when Catherine married Henry VIII and that “every time he went to the palace and saw the Queen he did nothing but sigh, and by his eyes let the Queen know what trouble he was suffering”. Catherine was then tempted by the Devil and “as Culpepper was a gentleman and young, and the King was old, she remembered the good-will she formerly bore to the young courtier, and let him know by signs that he might cheer up.” It goes on to tell how the couple corresponded by letter and that Catherine bribed Jane Rochford with dresses, jewels and the promise of an honourable marriage to keep her secret and to help her meet with Culpeper. Jane then, apparently, betrayed Catherine by telling the Duke of Somerset (who wasn’t even Duke of Somerset at this time!) and Culpeper was arrested and interrogated by Cromwell (who was dead by this time) and others. In this romanticised version of the story, Culpeper and Catherine have done nothing but write to each other and Culpeper does not lay the blame on Catherine, but, instead talks of his love for the Queen “the thing I loved best in the world… though you may hang me for it”. When Catherine is executed, in this account, she says to the crowd “I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper!” How romantic! But can we really rely on this overly romanticised account with all of its inaccuracies? I doubt it.

In my opinion, Catherine was far from the romantic heroine and the story is far from a fairytale, chivalric legend or romantic tragedy. It is a sordid story of ambition, lust, lies, power and downright foolishness.

Teenage Tearaway, Spoilt Child and Immature Airhead?

As I have said, teenagers did not really exist in Tudor times, but, it is easy to see Catherine as a spoilt child, a child saying “I want, I want…” all the time and sticking out her bottom lip and sulking if she didn’t get her way. That is certainly the Catherine of “The Tudors”, the young woman who confronts her step-daughter, Mary, hands on hips, accusing her, in quite a whiny voice, of not showing her the respect she is due as queen. When Mary does not play ball and accuses Catherine of being frivolous, Catherine removes two of Mary’s ladies and draws attention to Mary’s single status. When Mary says “How dare you speak to me like that?”, Catherine replies “I dare because I can!” Isn’t that something that a teenage girl would say in an argument? It’s an incredibly immature reply.

Lacey Baldwin Smith describes Catherine as “cheerful, plump, and eagerly indulging in each new caprice, but totally incapable of appreciating the consequences of her actions, the Queen had most of the characteristics of the pampered child. Sulking when crossed, constantly demanding assurance of her own importance, and hysterically gyrating between poles of tearful remorse and haughty indifference, she existed in a hothouse environment that tenderly fostered most of her worst traits of personality.”19 However, David Starkey sees a different side of Catherine:-

“Catherine’s behaviour in her step-grandmother’s household has often been seen to indicate that she was a crass, self-indulgent teenager, without a thought in her head, unless others had put it there. But a different reading is possible. Catherine, like many teenagers, certainly showed herself to be wilful and sensual. But she also displayed leadership, resourcefulness and independence, which are qualities less commonly found in headstrong young girls.”20

Starkey writes of how Catherine was quick to form a good relationship with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, showing her intelligence, how she acted graciously when her predecessor, Anne of Cleves visited Court, showing “herself to be a model consort”, and how she was “warm, loving and good natured” with ” a good heart, and a less bad head than most of her chroniclers have assumed. She may not have had the intelligence of her predecessors or their strong faith, but she seems to have been a likable girl who managed to establish “cordial relations with her stepdaughter, Mary, who doted on the little Lady Elizabeth and who “felt a strong loyalty to those who had brought her up” and the friends she had made at the homes of the Dowager Duchess. While she may have been foolish in giving Francis Dereham the position of her private secretary, and her former bedfellows positions as her ladies, it shows that she was a caring person. Starkey writes of her:-

“This was not the stuff of martyrs. But nor was it the stuff that made martyrs of others. And that, in the reign of Henry VIII, was something.”21

Rather than being a failure as queen, Starkey believes that she had actually made a good start as consort and writes that she was clever in combining Jane Seymour’s submissive character, in her motto “no other wish but his”, with the style of Anne Boleyn. It was an “ingenious combination of two of the most successful management techniques of her predecessors: Anne Boleyn’s deployment of seductive French fashions in behaviour and dress, and Jane Seymour’s carefully calculated submissiveness.”22 It is such as shame that this queen who showed such promise, and who obviously had the affection of her husband, could not control her feelings.

I should also point out that although she was not highly educated, Catherine was literate, as is shown from her letter to Thomas Culpeper. She may have put jewels and pretty dresses before learning, but she was not thick and her level of education could be compared to the likes of Jane Seymour. I think “The Tudors” lets Catherine down when it portrays her as a girl who spent all of her time “oohing” at pretty things, laughing at the book of midwifery and giggling more than talking.

I feel that Lacey Baldwin Smith is being too harsh on Catherine Howard when he says that her life “was little more than a series of petty trivialities and wanton acts punctuated by sordid politics” and that she was “had many characteristics of a juvenile delinquent, who was spoiled, fawned upon, and flattered.”

The Material Girl

I don’t think there’s any denying that Catherine Howard was a material girl. For a girl who had grown up in a kind of boarding school, sharing a bed with another girl and not having any possessions to really call her own, it must have been a dream come true to become queen and to be lavished with jewels, dresses, money, property etc. Joanna Denny writes that even before the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves Henry was showering hi new love with gifts:-

“He made her lavish gifts of rich materials with which to make even more extravagant gowns, besides jewellery and even, on 24 April, land that had been declared forfeit from a prisoner.”23.

Marillac, the French ambassador, wrote that “The King had no wife who made him spend so much money in dresses and jewels as she did, who every day had some fresh caprice.”24

Lacey Baldwin Smith describes her as “the most giddy of Henry’s wives” and a girl who spent most of her time having fun, but who can blame her for enjoying herself and making the most of the King’s attentions?

A Naked Nymphomaniac

I had to laugh in “The Tudors” when they showed a naked Catherine practising with the block on the night before her execution! I think my comment to my husband was “Oh, another opportunity to show her naked!”. She did seem to be naked or partially dressed most of the time in the series and so, combined with the stories of her past in Horsham and Lambeth, her seduction of Henry VIII and her illicit meetings with Thomas Culpeper, it is easy to imagine Catherine as a complete nympho. Also, was it me, or was there a hint that she hadn’t just had experience with men? Wasn’t there a bit when Joan Bulmer was stroking her shoulder or something? Hmm…

The Catherine Howard I believe in was not a nymphomaniac, she was simply a young and passionate woman who fell head over heels in love with the wrong man at the wrong time. It is clear from the letter that was found in Culpeper’s belongings that she was completely besotted with Culpeper and Antonia Fraser describes her as “the sort of girl who lost her head easily over a man, a girl who agreed generally with what men suggested.” How ironic that she really did lose her head over Culpeper! We have all known women who have fallen hopelessly in love with the wrong man, with a bad boy, and who have lived to regret it, poor Catherine was not so lucky.

A Worldly Girl

Catherine Howard had had to grow up quickly in the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. There, it could be said that she had been ‘corrupted’ by seeing the sexual behaviour of older girls and boys, and having her own dalliances with older boys. It is ironic that the wife who Henry referred to as his “rose without a thorn” was the one who was far from virginal and who even boasted that “a woman might meddle with a man and yet conceive no child unless she would herself”, showing that she had some knowledge of the primitive contraception of the age, even if it was simple coitus interruptus.

David Starkey makes the point that Henry, who had struggled to ‘get it up’ (sorry to sound so vulgar but I’m not quite sure how else to put it!!) with Anne of Cleves, had no problem with Catherine and there are many reports of him not being able to keep his hands off her even in public. Starkey goes on to say “Henry, lost in pleasure, never seems to have asked himself how she obtained such skill”. Did Henry never wonder how his wife knew so much about sex and pleasuring her man? Could this ‘whore in the bedroom’ really be a virgin? Perhaps he just pushed his doubts to one side, he was so desperate to be happy and to have another son.

A Proud Howard

Thomas Howard 2nd Duke of Norfolk

Catherine Howard was a member of the powerful Howard family and although she was one of the less important Howards, being the daughter of Edmund Howard who was only the third son of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, she definitely had the Howard pride and it was this that could be seen to be her downfall.

When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer interviewed Catherine regarding the allegations that she had had a carnal relationship with Francis Dereham, Catherine begged for the King’s forgiveness and mercy but would not admit to there being any type of pre-contract or marriage between the two of them. Her pride prevented her from seeing that admitting to being pre-contracted to Dereham could save her. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Catherine’s life may have been spared if she had confessed to the pre-contract as her marriage to Henry could then have been annulled on these grounds. If only she had been willing to put her pride and title aside, then Dereham may not have been tortured, Culpeper’s name may not have come up, and she may have lost her title as queen but kept her head. It was the Howard pride that made Catherine fight to stay queen, “which refused to acknowledge the possibility that she had never been Queen of England even for eighteen months”25

An Innocent Victim of a Manipulative Man?

One thing I am not sure about is whether Catherine Howard was the victim of a manipulative man, a man with a plan. It is clear that Thomas Culpeper had a dark side and a sordid past. After his arrest and execution, a merchant in London wrote to a friend in Germany of how, two years previously to his execution, Culpeper “had violated the wife of a certain park-keeper in a woody thicket, while, horrid to relate! three or four of his most profligate attendants were holding her at his bidding”26. The merchant went on to say that Culpeper killed a man when an attempt was made to apprehend him for the crime but that he was pardoned for the rape and the murder by the King. It seems that Culpeper had grown up at court and Joanna Denny writes of how he had “won the King’s favour with his good looks and by his skill at dressing Henry’s ulcer” and that he was “on call day or night and used to sleep in the King’s chamber, possibly even in the King’s bed, as the French Ambassador reported.”27

Although Culpeper had this rather colourful past, he was also very popular at court. Lady Lisle sent him a hawk, notes and various gifts and Joanna Denny describes how he was “attractive to women” and David Starkey writes of him being ” a handsome, delinquent boy and a favourite of men and women alike”. He was the proverbial ‘bad boy’, the type of man who some women feel the need to tame. Starkey describes Catherine as “his female equivalent” and goes on to say that when Catherine first got to court it was rumoured that she and Culpeper would marry, but then they drifted apart and she married the King. What is not clear is whether Culpeper set out to win Catherine back in order to benefit from her status or from her future status. As a man who was close to the King, who dressed the King’s leg ulcer, he would have known about the two flare ups of the infection in 1541, both of which were serious and thought to be life threatening. Did Culpeper believe that the King was not long for this world and did he think that he could control the Dowager Queen Catherine and therefore also the new King, if Catherine was made regent? Who knows, but the trusting, kindly, young Catherine could have been easy prey for Culpeper.

Catherine the Fool?

I really disagree with comments suggesting that Catherine deserved her fate as I don’t believe that anyone deserves to die such a brutal death, however, I have to conclude that Catherine was incredibly stupid and foolhardy. I cannot blame her for keeping her past a secret, after all, at what point do you say to the rather moody Henry VIII “by the way, darling, I’m not a virgin”? Plus, Catherine probably thought that her past was firmly behind her, she had no way of knowing that Dereham would come back from Ireland and end up on her doorstep. But, she must have had rocks in her head to believe that she could have secret meetings with Thomas Culpeper and get away with it – hello! Didn’t your cousin get beheaded for adultery?!

Historians, such as Lacey Baldwin Smith, talk about how Catherine would have seen examples of other women, such as Dorothy Bray (a lady in waiting), taking a lover at court, but they weren’t the Queen were they? It may have been exciting to have a dashing young man in love with you and it may have been highly tempting to take things further when your husband just didn’t do it for you, but surely Catherine was well aware of the danger of acting on such an impulse. There is no doubt in my mind, that she was foolish and reckless.

What we don’t know is whether anyone tried to stop her. Surely one of her ladies should have pulled her to one side and said “What are you doing? Don’t be stupid! Look at what happened to Anne Boleyn?” Perhaps one of them did and Catherine was too head over heels in love to take any notice, perhaps she was blinded by love and passion and thought she could get away with it. Or, perhaps she was let down by those who were older and should have known better.

Cold and Calculating?

The Kate of Suzannah Dunn’s novel is desperate to get pregnant by any means. When her friend, Cat, worries about her relationship with Culpeper and asks “What if you get pregnant?”, Kat replies, with “a humourless laugh”, “Oh, I need to get pregnant.”28 Although this seems a good reason for Catherine’s rather reckless relationship with Thomas Culpeper, I think that the real Catherine was simply in love, or in lust, with Culpeper and that it had nothing to do with any grand plan. If her failure to conceive was actually due to Henry’s impotence problems then there is no way that she could pass off Culpeper’s baby as the King’s! Also, what if it was a little Culpeper clone!

Was Catherine Guilty?

This is such a hard question to answer. Catherine’s past was colourful but she can hardly be seen as a criminal for her relationship with Francis Dereham. As David Starkey says, “Catherine had been shameless. She had been deceitful. But that was all” and that “neither had been married then; and while fornication was a sin, it was not a crime.” She had kept her past a secret and had not corrected the King’s view that she was a virgin, but she had not committed a crime.

Some even question whether she had a full sexual relationship with Thomas Culpeper, as both Catherine and Culpeper confessed to being in love and having secret meetings but denied sex or “carnal knowledge”. So, it seems that technically Catherine may not have committed adultery. However, she and Culpeper had committed treason. Lacey Baldwin Smith points out that “the law determining the character of treason under Henry VIII had been enacted in 1534”29 and that “it extended the punishment for the most heinous act a subject of the Crown could commit to all who ‘do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine’ the King’s death or harm.” Catherine Howard, Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were therefore deemed to have intended to do the King harm by their thoughts and actions. Culpeper had confessed to intending to sleep with the Queen, Dereham’s position as the Queen’s secretary, after his previous relationship, with her was seen as an attempt to re-start their romance and Catherine was seen as planning to sleep with both men. Lacey Baldwin Smith explains:-

“As Shakespeare’s Kate was ‘a foul contending rebel and graceless traitor to her loving lord’ when she refused his ‘honest will’, so subjects lost not only life but also their justification for existence when they denied their lord, their King, their governor. In doing wrong to her husband, Catherine committed treason against the State. She betrayed her duty as a wife and her loyalty as a subject, and perpetrated the one crime for which society could find no excuse or sympathy.”30

Not only had she betrayed the King, she had impugned the royal issue, the succession, because if she had had a child then the King would never have known if it was his real heir.

Whether or not Catherine had actually slept with Thomas Culpeper, their secret meetings and her love letter to him are evidence of a relationship and it surely would have been consummated at some point.

Conclusion

Catherine Howard is a mystery and it is impossible to know what her motives were for having a relationship with Thomas Culpeper and why she put her neck on the line for a few secret liaisons. Popular culture has been cruel to her, although we still end up sympathising with her plight, but it is hard to judge a woman we know so little about. The real Catherine Howard could have been a sex-mad girl looking for a good-time or she could have been a victim of manipulation and greed, a toy in the hands of a power hungry man. Will we ever know? No, I don’t think so.

What do you think?

Notes and Sources

  1. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Antonia Fraser, p416
  2. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, David Starkey
  3. Catherine Howard, Lacey Baldwin Smith, p192-194
  4. Ibid., p193
  5. LP xvi. 1426
  6. Starkey
  7. Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy, Joanna Denny, p47
  8. Ibid., 157-158
  9. Fraser, p386
  10. Denny, p86
  11. Baldwin Smith, p44
  12. Starkey
  13. Denny, p239
  14. Ibid., p116
  15. Starkey
  16. Fraser, p391
  17. Denny
  18. The Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England (The Spanish Chronicle), p82-87
  19. Baldwin Smith, p140
  20. Starkey
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Denny, p165
  24. Ibid., p175
  25. Baldwin Smith, p170
  26. Ibid., p153
  27. Denny, p190
  28. Suzannah Dunn, p279
  29. Baldwin Smith, p175
  30. Ibid., p133
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