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

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.

Related Post

One thought on “Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen by Josephine Wilkinson”
  1. For years the common view of Catherine was that of a very young reckless girl frivolous empty headed and tragically, a slave to her own passions that saw her fall for another man and in doing so, betray the trust of her powerful autocratic husband which led to her ruin and death, she was married very young and reigned briefly as Henry V111’s consort, and is famous only for being the wife who cheated on him and becoming his second queen to be beheaded, she left no lasting impression on history unlike her iconic cousin Anne Boleyn whose marriage to the king split England from Rome and heralded in the reformation, she was no princess of a powerful nation like the Spanish Katherine from Aragon, or her predecessor Anna from Cleves, whose annulments could have triggered war at the most, and did create in the case of the kings first wife a serious drop in diplomatic relations between England and Spain, neither was she exceptionally educated to a high standard unlike her Boleyn cousins and her husbands last queen Katherine Parr, who was the first English queen to have her works published, however she was not stupid, like all girls her class she was taught how to read and write, how to sing embroider and deportment lessons along with dancing were all taught for when she entered Court life, she was also taught how to manage a large household which meant distilling herbs and certain baking skills, in noble houses the mistress would make the ultimate dessert herself, the marchpane cake and this would take hours for it meant grounding the almonds into powder, a very long and arduous task, it these attributes that was needed for her to bring to her husband so she was no dullard, she was after all a Howard and that family prided itself on its noble descent from Edward 1st and later because of her lineage was considered a very suitable match for Henry V111, when later writers and those keen on the tales of this kings marital adventures learnt of his love for his giddy bride who was young enough to be his granddaughter, often there is mockery and a ‘what did he expect’ kind of attitude, yet Henry was looking I believe at another potential mother for his next son, lust aside of which there was plenty, he was always aware of the frailty of his only son’s existence on earth, how quickly it could be snatched away, he had lost his bastard son when the boy was in his teens, tragically it was to happen to Edward and having lost so many offspring over the years, a young firm body was what was needed to carry his next son, not an ageing spinster whose love of books was all very well to debate with, he did not need such a companion but young blood, tragic his choice of bride fell on the young Catherine whose history was marred by immorality, there have been questions raised if she indeed a victim of child abuse, but what is considered child abuse now was not back then where children were often married before their tenth birthday, if we look at Margaret Beaufort an example of child abuse was never more apparent, whose selfish husband more or less raped her to make sure she conceived, and in doing so traumatised her forever and nearly caused her and her infants death, was Catherine abused also? Young people become sexually attracted to each other often before they are twelve years old I remember having crushes on very handsome film stars growing up, and so Henry Manox must have had the same attraction to his young mistress and student, and she to him, flirting went on and they both must have looked forward to these sessions very much, I don’t believe she was a victim of child abuse, she was probably highly sexed and later as we know did enter into a physical relationship with the thuggish Francis Dereham, thus her balmy existence continued whilst in her grandmothers rambling house in Lambeth, the women companions whom lived alongside her also indulged into love affairs they shared a dormitory and there were midnight feasts and it sounds like an idyllic 16th century version of Ednid Blyton Mallory Towers, the difference being these were not schoolgirls but the element of fun was there, Catherine was not conducting herself like a great lady should and of course she had no idea her behaviour would have serious consequences for the future, having no example she continued blithely on her wayward path and her dreams were all of going to court when she was old enough, as she herself remarked everyone knew how much she longed to go, her marriage to the king was as doomed as her cousins and her wasted life only served as a strong warning against immorality, it was a very great scandal something which this time around was not pre meditated and served as a shock to the ageing besotted monarch, he possibly never recovered from his child brides betrayal and the image we have of this king is pitiful, even more pitiful is the young blood he caused to be shed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *