Katherine Howard is widely known as the dumb wife, the spoiled bimbo wife, the promiscuous wife who got what she deserved.
Now I’m not saying the rest of Henry Vllls wives don’t have wildly unfair labels attached to them – of course they do, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleeves will forever be seen as boring and ugly respectively – but for some reason the Katherine Howard=Stupid entitled whore thing just gets me. In fact, I’d argue that the current historic portrayal hides a brave, ballsy and determined young women. So let’s knock down some of these misconceptions:
‘Katherine Howard was stupid’
This sits across almost all historic interpretation of Howard, including noted historians, e.g Alison Weir offers a sympathetic view of the young Queen in her book, Six Wives, but still sees her as ’empty headed’, Suzannah Lipscomb describes her as ‘a stupid girl’. This trend sticks in more fictitious offerings; Phillipa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance portrays Howard as vacuous and thoughtless and The Tudors well..
For her time Katherine Howard was educated as well as any woman was expected (or could be hoped) to be. She was proficient in household skills, dancing, needlework and music. Put bluntly she was educated in a way that was suited to her gender and class.
Yes she is less educated than Henrys other wives, her cousin Anne benefited from an education at European courts, Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleeves were educated as European Princesses and Katherine Parr was extremely fortunate in having a mother who valued girls education.
But Katherine Howard was never expected to be royalty, she was never expected to be high up in court, the most she was expected to accomplish was a good marriage and her education was the best a woman in her position could hope for. If anything Katherine Howard’s education is the most similar to Henrys favourite wife Jane Seymour.
In fact when Katherine becomes consort she rather cannily models herself after this beloved late wife. She learns from the mistakes of her predecessors and becomes ‘the rose without a thorn’. Her motto is ‘no other will but his’, she takes what Henry sees as Jane Seymour’s best traits and is submissive and sweet but also more charming, charismatic and vivacious than Jane could ever have been. This is not the move of a teenage bimbo but rather the calculated work of a determined and intuitive young woman.
She was a slut
Acclaimed Historian Lacey Baldwin Smith called Katherine Howard a ‘common whore’ also writing that ‘there never was such a whore’ as she (I don’t wanna say he was hung up on this whole whore thing, but…)
The picture works: a beautiful and sexually flighty young woman pulled up to the highest position in the land. Her aging husband gifts her with wealth, comfort and security and she repays him by sleeping around with his most trusted servants and friends.
We know that Katherine had sexual partners before marrying Henry Vlll. However modern evidence shows that these early relationships were not romantic whirlwinds but deeply traumatic experiences, based in neglect, emotional abuse and were most likely forced – yes Katherine Howard was a victim of sexual abuse (feeling bad yet?)
When Katherine was around 12 Henry Mannock was employed as her music tutor. Mannock took a liking to the young Howard and started attempting to seduce the pre-teen. Howard turned down his initial advances stating ‘I will never be naught with you and able to marry me you be not’. Still Mannock continued his persuit and eventually Katherine gave in, giving her tutor permission to touch her ‘secret parts’ in hopes this would placate him and he would ‘desire no more’.
It didn’t work. Mannock continued to abuse his position of power over Katherine, boasting to friends that he knew of a secret mark on her body. Finally Katherine’s Grandmother (who she was living with at the time) found out about the ‘affair’ and ordered that Mannock never be alone with Katherine…but not before beating Katherine for putting the previous commodity of her virginity at risk.
Sadly this would not be a respite. When Katherine was 13, Francis Dereham, a man of low but noble birth was installed as ‘Gentleman Usher’ in the house; he essentially served as Katherine’s boss. (Apologies, its going to get really bleak again)
Though Dereham started affairs with other girls in the house his attention soon turned to Katherine Howard. Once more Katherine resisted and denied consent. Once more she was ignored.
There are accounts of Dereham lifting Katherine’s dress past her naval so he could get a good look at her body. It didn’t stop there, Dereham had a key that allowed him access to the quarters where Katherine and the other girls slept, and using this he frequently ‘lay’ with her.
Soon the pair formed a relationship of sorts, Katherine allowing the affair to go forward under the promise that one day Dereham would marry her.
Dereham did not marry Katherine. He eventually left, returning to Katherine’s life only when she became Queen; when he essentially used their prior relationship as leverage to force himself onto her privy council – in doing so helping to set up both their demises.
Fine….BUT having an affair when your married to Henry VIII? That’s some poor decision making skills…
I mean have you seen her husband?
Look – there is no concrete evidence for an affair between Henry Vlll’s servant Thomas Culpepper and Katherine Howard. However, it is widely accepted that an affair of sorts probably did happen or would have happened eventually (yes it is that super vague and complicated)
For the sake of argument (and ease) let’s say the affair did happen – what does that say about Katherine’s decision making skills?
Look – You do not want to be married to Henry Vlll. Fact. He is a categorically crap husband, especially at this time of his life. Prone to volatile outbursts and mood swings, he also has a scary amount of power at his disposal (hello one executed wife and Thomas Cromwell his most trusted advisor beheaded on the same day as Katherine and Henrys wedding) oh and he also his a gaping leg wound – just for added sex appeal.
Now imagine being Katherine, a teenager with little experience of Court and a string of abusers behind you. Now married to the King of England, who also happens to be a tyrant. I’d argue that’s a slightly precarious position.
Enter Thomas Culpepper.
Guess what – it turns out that Thomas Culpepper is also a dick! Not just any dick though…he’s a rapist AND a murderer!!!
Thomas Culpepper was accused of raping a park keeper’s wife (whilst serval of his men held her down) and then when people from the local village tried to apprehend him for this crime, he murdered one of them – but don’t worry, Henry Vlll pardoned him for both the rape and the murder, so it’s totally fine and legit.
Culpepper’s contemporary, George Cavendish, also described Culpepper as violent, disorderly and arrogant. So essentially an all around stand up gent. Yet, Culpepper rose quickly at court, and soon becomes one of Henry Vlll’s most vaulued servants.
Around 1541 Culpepper starts taking particular notice of Katherine Howard. This date is important because it is also when Francis Dereham blackmailed his way into being on Katherine’s privy council.
It is very likely that Culpepper caught wind of Dereham and Howards previous relationship (Dereham had a fun habit of telling people all about it). It is also worth noting that around this time the aging Henry Vlll falls very ill and it is looking more and more likely that he may die.
It’s arguable then that Culpepper took this as his advantage; using knowledge of Dereham and Howards sexual past to gain leverage to meet with the young Queen in private and start to position himself for power come Henry’s death, perhaps even as Katherine’s new husband. The dates fit in with this theory as does what we know about the kind of man Culpepper was.
When both Katherine and Culpepper are arrested for this potential affair, both are quick to point the finger at the other. Culpepper admitted to intending to do ‘ill with the Queen’ and she to him- though he makes it clear that Katherine Howard was the seducer.
Again this seems unlikely, especially as Katherine made a point that her servant, Jane Rochester, was in attendance at every private meeting, serving as both a guard and a witness. Once more, worth noting that Jane Rochester most likely served witness against her own husband, George Boleyn, when he was on trial for treason just years earlier (something Katherine would have known). So why would Katherine put this known informant in place if she was the initiator of a sordid affair?
Then there’s the infamous love letter from Katherine to Culpepper. I’m inclined to agree with historian Retha Warnicke’s reading which tells a tale of blackmail rather than passion. Katherine’s wording seems tense and desperate to placate Culpepper, particularly around the ‘promise’ he has made her – most likely a promise to withhold information about her sexual history.
So could it be then that Katherine Howard was not an oversexed airhead with a penchant for the finer things but not enough brain power to keep them – but a brave, feisty and determined young woman that fell the unlucky victim to male dominated society that manipulated her into a corner.
This was interesting, how do I find out more: I’d suggest checking out Josephine Wilkinson’s book: Katherine Howard, The Tragic Story of Henry Vlll’s Fifth Queen. It’s a good starting off point; a thorough read and not so heavy you need an encyclopaedia and pack of highlighters to get through it.