Guest post by Lissa Bryan
Of all of King Henry VIII’s queens, Katheryn Howard is viewed with the least sympathy. If not technically guilty of adultery, she’s at least seen as having “deserved” her fate because of her immoral lifestyle. One recent historian referred to her as an “empty-headed slut.” Others have described her as a “good-time girl” or a frivolous young woman only interested in pretty dresses and boys.
Down through the centuries, our view of many of Henry’s queens has changed as historians re-interpret the records and old myths are debunked. Anne Boleyn has her fierce partisans; perhaps it’s time we also swept away the layers of cobwebs from Katheryn’s memory, too.
Katheryn had a terribly neglected upbringing. In the Tudor age, the only value a woman had was in the alliances her marriage could bring her family. Though high in bloodline, Katheryn was from the “poor side” of the Howard family, and had little to no dowry. No one expected much of her.
Her mother died around 1528 when Katheryn was about five years old. She was eventually sent to the house of her grandmother, the dowager duchess of Norfolk, who fostered a number of young aristocratic ladies, as was common in that era for those of noble blood. Children would be sent to the home of another noble – preferably superior in rank – to finish their education and learn the social graces. Unfortunately, the dowager duchess does not seem to have taken her responsibility to the young ladies in her charge seriously, and their supervision was lax at best.
Katheryn was pretty, “very small in stature,” with the auburn hair that seems to have run in the Howard family. She was kind-hearted, and viewing her behavior from a modern psychological standpoint, it appears she had an understandable longing for attention and affection.
As a very young girl – possibly only thirteen or fourteen, she was touched inappropriately by her music teacher. Though today we would consider this sexual abuse, in that era it was considered a black mark against her character. The music teacher, Mannox, bragged about it to other members of the household in very crude terms. When the dowager duchess learned what had happened, she slapped Katheryn twice, and ordered her to never be alone with the teacher again. It’s somewhat chilling to imagine the poor girl having to continue lessons with the man who had groped her and bragged about it to others.
A few years later, Katheryn stole the keys to the young ladies dormitory from her grandmother and opened the door for young men who brought “wine and cheer,” for them. She engaged in a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham.
Though Katheryn later steadfastly denied a marriage to Dereham had taken place, she did admit to allowing Dereham to call her his wife in front of others and then having sexual relations with him, which constituted a legally binding marriage by church and civil law. Katheryn doesn’t seem to have believed this was true. In her mind, they were just playing, young lovers having fun calling one another by pet names.
The dowager duchess knew about their relationship. She once slapped Katheryn and Dereham because she caught them kissing. When asked where Dereham was, the dowager duchess would say, “I warrant you if you seek him in Katharine Howard’s chamber ye shall find him there.”When she learned of the young men visiting the girls’ chamber, she lectured Katheryn that she would “hurt her beauty” if she spent late nights drinking.
In November or December 1539, Katheryn’s uncle secured her a position at court as Queen Anna von Kleefes’s maid of honor, and Dereham decided to go off to Ireland to attempt to make his fortune. He gave Katheryn money to hold for him, and secured a promise from her that she would “never swerve” from her devotion to him.
The king’s immediate interest in Katheryn was so obvious that ambassadors were commenting on it even before his marriage to Anna was annulled. By spring, the king was sending her a steady stream of gifts. Anna was a very intelligent woman and took the deal Henry offered in dissolving their marriage.
Henry was reportedly obsessed with Katheryn, more “in love” with her than any of his previous wives. He couldn’t keep his hands off her, even in front of the court – notable behavior for the prim king who had always found public displays of affection distasteful.
The Howard family seems to have come to a silent consensus that no one would say anything about Katheryn’s relationship to Derham, or what had occurred earlier with the music teacher. Certainly many of them were aware that Katheryn was not a virgin and that the level of the Dereham relationship made any marriage to the king questionable without a dispensation being issued, but none of them said a word as Henry VIII married Katheryn Howard on July 28, 1540.
Katheryn Howard wasn’t raised for the role like Katharine of Aragon, nor highly-educated like Anne Boleyn, nor ambitious like Jane Seymour, but she tried to be a good queen. Despite her youth, terrible upbringing, and lack of preparation, Katheryn took her role seriously, with the spirit of reconciliation in mind. She tried to make friends with everyone across religious divisions.
She tried to use her influence with the king for good purposes, and urge him toward mercy. Researcher Conor Byrne says in his biography of her that she interceded on behalf of at least four prisoners, including Thomas Wyatt and Countess Pole. It is interesting, because neither of these people were partisans or friends of Katheryn – she got no political or personal reward from trying to help them.
Katheryn also made it a point to show kindness to her neglected cousin Princess Elizabeth. Perhaps it was because she knew what it was like. Katheryn wouldn’t really get any benefit from this generosity, since Elizabeth was currently still in disgrace with her father, and as an unfavored bastard, she had little dynastic value.
Katheryn directed that the Elizabeth be brought to court and seated directly across from her at the dinner table, the position of honor. She’s also noted as having sent the princess small gifts from time to time.
She also reached out to Princess Mary, who reportedly didn’t think much of her new stepmother. Katheryn and Anna von Kleefes also exchanged gifts, and danced with one another when Anna was at court.
The king certainly lavished gifts on his pretty young queen, but Katheryn’s own expense books show she spent more on trying to help others than she did on herself. One of her biggest purchases was the fur-lined clothing she bought for the elderly Countess Pole who was suffering from the cold and damp during her imprisonment in the Tower.
Dereham got the shock of his life upon returning to England, expecting to take Katheryn as his wife, but discovering she was now Queen. Katheryn made a terrible mistake in appointing him to be one of her secretaries. It would later be alleged that she had done so with the intent of continuing her “sordid life” with him.
By the time Dereham returned, Katheryn’s attentions were taken up by another of the king’s courtiers, Thomas Culpepper, whom Dereham thought had “succeeded him in her affections.” But some historians have theorized that it’s entirely possible that Katheryn was being blackmailed by Culpepper into meeting with him to keep quiet about her past.
That past came to light when a proposed lady in waiting refused to serve Katheryn because she’d been at the dowager duchess’s home and had seen that Katheryn was “light in living and condition.” The comment triggered an investigation, at first dismissed by the king as vicious gossip, but when confronted with evidence she’d been sexually active before her marriage, the king screamed and cried, demanding a sword be brought to him. He vowed she would suffer more in death than she’d ever experienced pleasure in her lover’s arms.
Only a few days prior, he had given a public prayer of thanksgiving that he had finally found such a perfect wife. He had long held himself up as an expert on women, able to determine whether or not a woman was pure just from looking at the firmness of her body. Katheryn had not only broken his heart, she had made a fool of him, as well.
Katheryn’s meetings with Culpepper would be investigated, but she was doomed for death as soon as Henry discovered she’d been “impure” when she came to his bed. Both Katheryn and Culpepper would swear that the relationship never became sexual, but Culpepper admitted he would sleep with the queen if she’d been willing. One of the major pieces of evidence against her was an undated letter Katheryn had written to Culpepper in the florid language of the day. Adultery was never proven despite the intense efforts put into the investigation. All the indictment could allege was intent.
The Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, spoke to Katheryn’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. It’s interesting to speculate about what Norfolk knew of his niece’s sexual history when she came to court. Surely his mother, the dowager duchess, told him about the difficulties she’d had with her ward when they discussed sending Katheryn to court.
Did Norfolk decide it was best just to pretend none of it had happened in the interest of finding Katheryn a husband? Of course, he never imagined that Katheryn’s husband would be the king. Did he panic at the thought of how the king might react when he discovered his bride wasn’t a virgin?
Now that the secret was out, Norfolk was eager to disavow this second niece who had married the king and fallen from favor. Chapuys says that Norfolk told him he’d liked to see Katheryn burned at the stake. The French ambassador also wrote of it and said, “Norfolk says she shall die, and specially because the King could not marry again while she lives.”
Ultimately, Katheryn was guilty of nothing but having sexual experience before she married the king. Adultery was never proven, only the possibility of intent. Katheryn was being punished because her husband was heartbroken that his “perfect jewel of womanhood” had been touched by others before him. His condemnation of her became history’s judgment.
Perhaps had her reign been longer, we would have seen more of Katheryn’s kind spirit in action and her historical reputation would be different. But it was not to be. Katheryn wasn’t queen long enough to make a delible mark. She wasn’t a passionate advocate for education like Katharine of Aragon, nor a religious reformer like Anne Boleyn, but it appears she took her role seriously and attempted to be a good queen to her people. But her sexual experiences cast a large enough shadow to blot out the good she had done, and history would dismiss her as an empty-headed and sexually voracious girl who deserved what she got.
Katheryn would spend her last hours in her chamber with the execution block, practicing laying her head on it so she would bring no further disgrace to her family by fumbling it. Her last words are not recorded as Anne Boleyn’s were, but witnesses were impressed that the pale, frightened young girl made such a “godly and Christian end that ever was heard tell of (I think) since the world’s creation.”
Her legacy would be a new law which made it treason for a woman to conceal her sexual history from the king if he expressed an interest in marrying her, and treason for anyone who knew of the bride’s sexual history not to reveal it within 20 days of the king’s marriage.
About the Author:
Lissa Bryan is an astronaut, renowned Kabuki actress, Olympic pole vault gold medalist, Iron Chef champion, and scientist who recently discovered the cure for athlete’s foot … though only in her head. Real life isn’t so interesting, which is why she spends most of her time writing. She is the author of three novels. Ghostwriter is available through The Writer’s Coffee Shop, Amazon, iTunes, and Kobo. The End of All Things is available through TWCS, Amazon, and iTunes. Under These Restless Skies is available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and directly from the publisher.
She also has a short story in the Romantic Interludes anthology, available from TWCS, Amazon and iTunes, or can be purchased separately from Amazon. A short story collection featuring the characters from The End of All Things is also available from Amazon.
Find Lisa on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/LissaBryan.Author
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