Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Katherine Howard - schemer or victim?

Judith Arnopp

Believed to be Katherine Howard
On February 12th 1542 (some sources say 13th) a young queen went to the scaffold accused of adultery and treason, leaving history to make of her what it would. Katherine Howard has been dismissed as a bit of a trollop, a superficial girl interested only in jewellery, gowns and dancing. Since she clearly lacked her cousin, Anne Boleyn’s, poise, her intelligent wit and sparkling personality, it is not easy to pinpoint exactly what it was about Katherine that so entranced Henry VIII.
Perhaps it was just her seeming simplicity and her youth.

Although of good pedigree Katherine was borne to impoverished parents and placed in the care of her grandmother, Agnes Howard (nee Tilney) the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk who ran a very lax household.  The other ladies that served the Dowager were left to run wild and did nothing to protect Katherine from their sexual indiscretions and gave no credence to her position in life.  Indeed, Katherine while still at an impressionable age seems to have been embraced as ‘one of the gang’ and subjected to what would now be seen as sexual abuse.

The first man to know Katherine intimately was her music master, Henry Mannox. Although the relationship was not fully consummated Katherine later confessed that Mannox had completely crossed the bounds of gentlemanly behaviour.
 "At the flattering and fair persuasions of Mannox, being but a young girl, I suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body…’

She was just a little older when Francis Dereham took Mannox’s place. This time there seems to have been a deeper commitment and the couple formed a sort of pseudo marriage, naming each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ Such arrangements were commonplace but not lightly undertaken and considered to be binding betrothals. The relationship did not stop at an exchange of vows and, after her arrest, Katherine confessed that Dereham, ‘lay with me naked and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife many and sundry times but how often I know not.’

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk
A girl in Katherine’s position was an invaluable bartering tool in the marriage market and any stain upon her character could completely devalue her. When the Dowager Duchess got wind of the affair (one report says she was tipped off and burst into the chamber catching the couple in a compromising position) there is little doubt that Norfolk was informed. Katherine was reprimanded and Dereham sent away but Norfolk was left in the position of having a disgraced female relative to marry off respectably, and he knew just how hard that would be. It is not a surprise that Norfolk kept quiet about the affair, the surprising thing is that he had the nerve to go ahead and dangle soiled goods before the king himself.

After a string of unsuccessful marriages, the thing that Henry desired most was a soft pliant wife in his bed; one who could be relied upon not to meddle in politics. Although Henry now had his heir, Prince Edward, Katherine’s primary role was to provide the ageing, sick King with another son, a Duke of York to secure the Tudor dynasty once and for all. The fact that she was young, pretty and affectionate could only be a bonus for Henry. It was Katherine who was faced with the problem of conceiving and if she failed to do so the fault would be laid at her door.

An aging Henry pictured with his fool, Will Somers
Since the break from Rome the royal court had split into two factions.  Those who favoured Rome, notably Stephen Gardiner: Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard: Duke of Norfolk; and those who were on the side of religious reform, Thomas Cranmer and the King’s Secretary, Thomas Cromwell.
It was Cromwell who had introduced to Henry the idea of marriage to Anne of Cleves and when she failed to please, he fell into disfavour and was executed as a result. The way was cleared for a new bride and Norfolk lost no time in trying to regain Henry’s favour and, filling the gap left by Cromwell, he placed his pretty niece, Katherine Howard, in the King’s way.

Katherine was first brought to Henry’s notice at the home of Norfolk’s friend, Bishop Gardiner in Southwark and it is often said that the marriage was engineered by the two men to weaken the cause for reform. Although there were many party to the knowledge of Katherine’s earlier indiscretions Norfolk still went to the risk of bringing her to the King’s notice.  Of course, whether Henry took the bait or not was out of Norfolk’s hands and his relief must have been great when Henry took to her straight away. They were married in July 1540.

In the beginning the marriage seemed to go very well. Henry was openly content with his bride, describing her as his ‘rose without a thorn.’ The royal party embarked upon a progress to the north of England and it is believed that during this time Katherine and Thomas Culpepper, a gentleman of the King’s privy chamber, became lovers. There have been many romantic stories built around this relationship; they were childhood sweethearts and distant cousins reunited at court; often Thomas is depicted as a romantic swain whom Katherine couldn’t resist. In actual fact the Culpeppers seem to have been a dysfunctional family and Thomas (although we must acknowledge it could have been his elder brother who was also called Thomas) was involved in rape and murder. Whatever the truth of his character, it is quite clear that he and Katherine risked everything and formed an illicit and deeply dangerous relationship. This may be seen as romantic or foolhardy depending on one’s perspective.

The Winchester Palace, Southwark, where Henry and Katherine met.
Once Queen, Katherine failed to see the importance of leaving her dissolute past behind and seems instead to have embraced it. Not content with embarking on a mad cap liaison with a member of the King’s household, she also took into her own household those who should never have been allowed anywhere near. 

Slowly, women she had known whilst in the care of the Dowager Duchess came to be placed in her household. Most puzzling of all was the engagement of Francis Dereham into her household as her private secretary. Since the relationship between them was not resumed it could be deduced that Katherine was ‘buying his silence’ or felt she owed him something but, either way, it was a bad move and undeniably stupid. Young and inexperienced as she was, even Katherine must have known that she would never sit easy on the throne while surrounded by those in possession of such volatile information. 

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before word of her former indiscretions began to leak out and arrests and torture followed. Dereham, eager to salvage himself, wasted no time in mentioning Culpepper’s name. Katherine was sent to upriver to Syon Abbey while investigations were carried out. While Norfolk made himself scarce, the Tower began to fill with Katherine’s relatives and friends. Culpepper was beheaded, Dereham hung drawn and quartered, and their heads placed on London Bridge. Katherine herself was condemned to death without trial, and beheaded at the Tower on February 13th 1542, the same place her cousin, Anne Boleyn had met her own death, six years previously.

Opinion of Katherine Howard varies. She has been seen as a brazen adulteress, a reckless, greedy doxy, an innocent victim of her scheming uncle. As always, we will never know the real ‘truth’ of the matter and it is for each to make up their own mind.  To me, she will always be a mixture of all of the above. 

Katherine Howard
Today it is difficult not to see her as a victim of child abuse, and her story illustrates that she was sexually liberal as an adult. Her main downfall was that her physical attraction provided a tool for Norfolk's political schemes which, in turn, put her in the way of the king. 

Unable to reject an offer of marriage from her monarch, the idea of jewels and parties, pretty dresses galore may have been some compensation but, once married and finding herself expected to provide an heir for an ageing (and possibly impotent) husband, Katherine was now in an impossible position. It may have been her reason for falling so foolishly into Culpepper’s bed, perhaps she didn’t need much persuasion, but either way, she didn’t deserve to die for it.

If her pre-contract to Dereham is to be believed then Henry's marriage to Katherine was never valid. This in turn raises the question of the legality of her execution. If she was not married to the King then she was not guilty of adultery.

The king had been fending off old age for some time and, whether he managed it in private or not, Katherine helped to restore the allusion of his vitality. with her on his arm he could pretend to still be in his prime. In cuckolding him she destroyed the remaining vestiges of his youth and caused the whole world to snigger behind their hands. It was something Henry could not allow.
On her death, to mark the end of his fifth marriage and restore his self-esteem, Henry returned to Whitehall and embarked upon three successive days of feasting and celebration and, as Chapuys reported, ‘received (women) with much gaiety without however showing particular affection for any of them.’ This is classic behaviour of a cuckolded man. Henry, to hide his hurt and anger, buried himself in gaiety and sought the company of women who would soothe his damaged ego.
Katherine died because she had injured Henry’s self-esteem. She had ruined his carefully constructed image.

Katherine Howard features in my novel The Winchester Goose. Isabella Bourne, a fictional lady in waiting to the queen, at first concurs with the general view that Katherine is a shallow, grasping trollop but, as she and the reader come to know the queen better, the reasons behind Katherine’s behaviour emerge and ultimately her death can be seen as both tragic and unjust.

The Winchester Goose is available in paperback and on Kindle.
More information on Judith’s novels can be found on her official website: www.juditharnopp.com


  1. Excellent! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Judith. I didn't actually know about her youth, only about her as Queen. Thanks :)

  2. Excellent post! Poor Katherine! She was a silly young girl and, yes, a victim. Interesting point about the pre-contract, but as you say, she'd wounded his ego. That was her downfall. Think how different history might have been if Richard III had survived. No Tudors, no Henry VIII... Interesting looking at the Duke of Norfolk's portrait - the man really does look like Patrick Troughton, who played the role in the Keith Michell series...

  3. He does! I hadn't noticed, the portrait is so familiar to me and I haven't seen the Keith Michell series for years.

  4. I've often wondered if Anne of Cleeves' failure to recognize him and respond to his "charms" when he first went to meet her offended Henry so greatly that he couldn't bring himself to try. A flirtatious pretty girl would be just the anecdote, and it appears he met KH fairly early on in that marriage. A of C was the only one to succeed in getting a divorce, because Henry wanted it and there wasn't any scandal about Anne. Poor Katherine HAD to be executed-I don't thing there was a chance Henry was going to go through the whole thing in court (possible adultery,precontract, etc.) after the Catherine of Aragon/Anne Boleyn situation. Neither he nor his heir would have to deal with Katherine again...

  5. Since I watched the Keith Mitchell series in my teens, I've always felt sympathy for KH. She was "in over her head" at court, and should never have cheated on the king, but she didn't deserve to die.

  6. I know one shouldn't judge historical characters by the moral standards of today, but is there anything good to say about Henry VIII?

  7. A fascinating post. Katherine played a dangerous game when she risked Henry's displeasure but she was little more than a pawn and quite out of her depth in the politics of the court.

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