Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen by Josephine Wilkinson

Aug 18, 2023

I’ve been looking forward to this book coming out for some time as I knew that Josephine was working on it. For years, the only real biographies of Katherine Howard were the ones by Lacey Baldwin Smith and Joanna Denny, so I am very pleased that Katherine is now being reappraised by the likes of Conor Byrne, Gareth Russell and Josephine Wilkinson (plus I’m writing about her fall!). It’s good to get different viewpoints on this fifth wife of Henry VIII and to see her getting some attention.

Josephine Wilkinson’s book opens with a beautifully written prologue. It’s actually about the execution of Katherine’s cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn, which confuses you temporarily, but it ends with the words “It was a momentous event. Anne Boleyn was the first Queen of England ever to be executed; none could have imagined that she would not be the last.” It was the perfect opener to this biography, it sets the scene.

The reader is then taken through Katherine’s life chronologically, from her “calamitous childhood” to her execution. It is the perfect go-to book on Katherine because it is so detailed and the quotations, notes, and bibliography show just how meticulously this book has been researched. Josephine challenges the views that Katherine was a foolish and reckless airhead who was allowed to run riot at her stepgrandmother’s houses and who later made the grave error of cheating on her husband the king. Josephine puts forward her view of Katherine’s upbringing and her relationships with Henry Manox, Francis Dereham, and Thomas Culpeper, backing it up with solid primary source evidence. I enjoyed the details on the Dowager Duchess’s household and what life would have been like there for young Katherine. This detailed background and context, along with information on the roles of people in the household and Katherine’s status, help the reader to understand Katherine’s sexual past and to look at it and Katherine in a new light.

One thing that really made me stop and think was Josephine’s depiction of Katherine’s marriage to Henry VIII. So often we think of Katherine as a young girl forced to marry a much older, smelly, bad-tempered tyrant of a man who’s well past his prime, but Josephine asks us to consider an alternative. It is clear that Henry VIII doted on his young wife and perhaps Katherine was happy with this. Here was a man who was gentle and loving to her, and who offered her security. Josephine writes of how he shielded her from his temper and treated her well. He showed Katherine “genuine, passionate love, and had treated her with respect.” So why then did she look to Thomas Culpeper, you may ask, well perhaps that wasn’t what it seemed either.

I’m not going to spoil this book by sharing any more information. If you’re interested in reading a fresh take on Katherine Howard then this is a must-read. Although it’s fully referenced and is perfect for a research book, Josephine uses a writing style that would draw any Tudor enthusiast into Katherine’s story. It is an enjoyable and enlightening read.


Looming out of the encroaching darkness of the February evening was London Bridge, still ornamented with the severed heads of Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham; the terrible price they had paid for suspected intimacy with the queen.

Katherine now reached the Tower of London, her final destination.

Katherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII and cousin to the executed Anne Boleyn. She first came to court as a young girl of fourteen, but even prior to that her fate had been sealed and she was doomed to die. She was beheaded in 1542 for crimes of adultery and treason, in one of the most sensational scandals of the Tudor age.

The traditional story of Henry VIII’s fifth queen dwells on her sexual exploits before she married the king, and her execution is seen as her just dessert for having led an abominable life. However, the true story of Katherine Howard could not be more different.

Far from being a dark tale of court factionalism and conspiracy, Katherine’s story is one of child abuse, family ambition, religious conflict and political and sexual intrigue. It is also a tragic love story. A bright, kind and intelligent young woman, Katherine was fond of clothes and dancing, yet she also had a strong sense of duty and tried to be a good wife to Henry. She handled herself with grace and queenly dignity to the end, even as the barge carrying her on her final journey drew up at the Tower of London, where she was to be executed for high treason.

Little more than a child in a man’s world, she was the tragic victim of those who held positions of authority over her, and from whose influence she was never able to escape.

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: John Murray (7 April 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1444796267
ISBN-13: 978-1444796261
ASIN: B0117JD9KU (This is my affiliate link for Amazon.com and I may receive a small payment if you buy the book through this link).
Available as a hardback and kindle now from Amazon UK and as a kindle book from Amazon.com. I haven’t seen a date for the US hardback.


Originally posted on  April 7, 2016.

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