Was it Culpepper or a lack of virginity that doomed Katheryn Howard?

Posted By on June 30, 2015

Catherine Howard sketchToday we have a guest post from Kyra Kramer author of The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters – thanks so much Kyra!

Katheryn Howard began her first Summer Progress as Henry VIII’s queen on June 30, 1541. Was this the beginning of her end? It was on this progress that Katheryn and Thomas Culpepper engaged in the probably unconsummated trysts that would eventually get them both beheaded. But was it already too late for Katheryn, even if she hadn’t whispered sweet nothings in the dark to Culpepper on her way to York?

I have a serious soft spot for Katheryn Howard. Part of it that in spite of the fact her sexual ‘history’ consists of a single sexual partner prior to marriage (she just “made out” with her other pre-marital beau and even after they were condemned to die she and Culpepper said their romance did not go so far as intercourse) she is derided as a vile and immoral harlot. As I pointed out in The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters:

“Even those who are sympathetic to Katheryn Howard often describe her in terms that suggest a harlot. For example, David Starkey condescendingly explains that he can write about Kathryn’s “promiscuity without disapproval”, calling her a “woman with a past” but without intention of condemnation because “like many good-time girls, she was also warm, loving and good-natured” (Starkey, 2003:648 and 655). Lacey Baldwin Smith wrote that her life was “little more than a series of petty trivialities and wanton acts, punctuated by sordid politics”, but nevertheless lamented that her life was cut so tragically short due to the backstairs politics that “transformed juvenile delinquency into high treason” (Smith, 2009:10). Both biographers have a genial attitude about the fallen queen, and they obviously view her as having been overly punished and victimized by forces beyond her control. Notwithstanding their sympathy, though, it is also clear they see her primarily as a sweet natured and simple-minded strumpet.

Others have been even less kind to the young queen. In fact, it could even be said that most “historians judge her by the same standards of behavior expected of an early modern Englishwoman, and, perhaps unwittingly, assume that because she broke the cardinal rule of chastity, she must have failed completely in adhering to expectations of femininity. Therefore, Katherine has often been depicted as stupid, promiscuous, foolish, greedy, and vain” (Kizewski, 2014). David Loades assures his readers that Katheryn Howard “wanton slut” who “certainly behaved like a whore both before and after her marriage” (Loades, 2009). It wasn’t just her sexual ethics that were called into question. Alison Weir wrote that Henry’s fifth bride was “a frivolous, empty-headed young girl who cared for little else by dancing and pretty clothes” (Weir, 2007). Sometimes Katheryn’s sluttiness is excused upon these terms. Antonia Fraser described Katheryn as “a flighty young thing with an eye for a handsome young man … pleasure loving … the sort of girl who lost her head easily over a man, a girl who agreed generally with what men suggested” (Fraser, 1992).”

This characterization of Katheryn as a stupid slattern is terribly unfair. She was an orphan who slept with her serious boyfriend in her teens. Is it so remarkable that she would brave social disapproval in exchange for intimacy and affection? Is it so depraved to have a single sexual partner? Does going to “third base” with her much older music instructor make her an addle-pated tramp, when it should make him seem predatory? Does flirting with a handsome young man when she was married to a pus-oozing old king make her utterly morally bankrupt?
Katheryn’s less-than-pristine past came to light in November of 1541, and at first it focused solely on her life before court. However:

“The fact she had given Dereham the post as her private secretary made the investigators suspicious that Katheryn had continued her affair with him after she was married. Dereham, desperate to prove that he had not resumed his romance with Kathryn, offered the information that “Culpepper had succeeded him in the Queen’s affections” (Starkey, 2003:674). This was much worse that Katheryn’s lack of virginity. Any dalliance Kathryn had indulged in as queen was high treason, and death for treason included being hanged, drawn and quartered.”

Was she killed for her emotional affair, or for her unlawful fornication? For myself, I believe even if Katheryn had not developed an amour for Culpepper, Henry would have still had her killed because she had not remained “pure” until he wanted her. Even worse from Henry’s point of view, the king could not tell she wasn’t a virgin. Henry thought he knew what a virgin acted like, and felt like in bed. It turns out he was easy to dupe if shown a woman with a sweet face and perky bosom. For that he hated his bride.

“On November 22, Katheryn’s title was stripped from her by the Privy Council and she was indicted for “having lead an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, and vicious life” before marriage and acting “like a common harlot with diverse persons” while falsely “maintaining however the outward appearance of chastity and honesty” (Farquhar, 2001). In sum, Katheryn was accused of being a slut but not “looking” like a slut. This was, in the Tudor mind, particularly heinous. It put paid to the common myth that men could tell a woman was a virgin at a glance by her innocent demeanor and firm breasts. It reminded Tudor men that sluts could hide in plain sight and that they could ‘trick’ men into marrying them. Sluts were dangerous because they were women who could make men look like idiots.”

The summer of her Progress with Henry was the last summer the young woman would ever see. She was judicially murdered for the crime of having not been a virgin upon her wedding on February 13, 1542. The Progress was the last time she would feel warm days, and taste fresh strawberries, and laugh with her friends. Her summers would be forevermore denied to her because she had indulged in sex with a single partner as a teenager. She would never have children, or grow old, or be allowed to find love simply as a result of an infatuation she experienced when young.
It is easy to weep over Anne Boleyn’s death, inasmuch as she was innocent of the charges, but we should likewise weep over Katheryn Howard’s death, because her “guilt” was so excruciatingly paltry.

jezebel effectKyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She has written essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie. She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII – Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII.

Kyra is also a regular contributor for the Tudor Society’s Tudor Life magazine.

The Jezebel Effect is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK and Amazon’s other Kindle stores.