The Tudors captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and in honor of Open Letters Monthly’s 10th year of publication, Steve Donoghue revisits one of the journal’s most popular features by embarking on A Year with the Tudors: The Second – looking at the year’s crop of new books telling the gaudy, fascinating stories of the Tudor dynasty.
Young and Damned and Fair:The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII
By Gareth Russell
Simon & Schuster, 2017
The tawdry spectacle of King Henry VIII and his six wives, irresistible to biographers and cod-psychologists, is a roundelay of morality plays with a constantly-shifting cast of characters, except of course for the actor playing Satan. There’s something for every shade of pietist in the parade of these marriages. Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first bride, stands as the rightful wife and queen even though she probably had to lie to gain that position, attesting to all the world that her six-month marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur, which ended with Arthur’s abrupt death in 1502, had never been consummated. The second bride, Anne Boleyn, tenderly dubbed in her own day and characterized ever since as “the strong whore,” stands as a stark warning against taking a Frenchified wife; despite being the mother of one of England’s greatest queens, she is the Jezebel of the pageant. The third bride, demure and faithful Jane Seymour, matches longed-for fecundity, providing Henry with his dream of a healthy male heir, and convenient martyrdom, dying soon enough after childbirth that Henry could forever afterwards uncomplicatedly revere her memory. Anne of Cleves, the fourth bride, presents the audience with their first breath of freedom to snicker at the whole show, since Henry fell in love with the masterpiece portrait by Hans Holbein (as indeed who hasn’t?) and then instantly recoiled once he clapped eyes on the Teutonic reality, annulling the marriage and declaring Anne to be his “Beloved Sister.”
In the usual retellings of these familiar stories, the tragedy that was Anne Boleyn recurred as farce in the person of her cousin, Henry’s fifth bride, a plump and pretty 16-year-old named Catherine Howard, the subject of Gareth Russell’s dense and fascinating new book, Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII. Here Henry’s whining lament about falling afoul of “such ill-conditioned wives” reaches its peak inanity, when a flighty, vivacious daughter of one of the country’s most powerful families, a pawn of the wealthy and influential Duke of Norfolk, spends her entire young girlhood at the Howard stronghold of Lambeth Palace arranging fevered assignations with dashing young men, then weds the King of England, a violent, possessive man three times her age and with the blood of a murdered wife on his hands – and immediately begins arranging fevered assignations with dashing young men. And is quickly ratted out. And is promptly tried. And is even more promptly beheaded on Tower Green. All in only 16 months: the infatuation, whirlwind obsession, disillusionment, and brutal ending, all compressed into less than two years and centered on a vacuous little nitwit.
Russell’s book works in the shadow of the best-known 20th-century work on this slight subject, Lacey Baldwin Smith’s 1961 A Tudor Tragedy: The Life and Times of Catherine Howard, in which Smith characterizes Catherine’s short career as something that “begins and ends with the Howards, a clan whose predatory instincts for self-aggrandizement, sense of pompous conceit, and dangerous meddling in the destinies of state, shaped the course of her tragedy.” Catherine, born around 1523, was the daughter of Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and she was the granddaughter of Elizabeth, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who was also Anne Boleyn’s grandmother. She grew up at Lambeth under the supervision of the Dowager Duchess, and it was at Lambeth and the Howard keep at Horsham in Sussex that she began, as a much later generation would put it, exploring her sexuality.
She was a veritable Magellan about it, as were, it seems, many of the well-born girls who sheltered under the Dowager Duchess’ somewhat distracted care. Lithe young men bearing marzipans and sweet wines were in and out of Lambeth and Horsham like nightjars, and a very young Catherine allowed one of those men, a music teacher named Henry Mannox, to explore her sexuality himself, although both would later swear, when the swearing would do them precious little good, that they’d prudently stopped short of doing everything imaginable.
Two years later, at Lambeth, again while the Dowager Duchess was distracted, Catherine formed a much more explicitly sexual relationship with Francis Dereham, one of her family’s courtiers, which lasted until the girl’s uncle, now the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, succeeded in getting her a place at Court as one of the ladies-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves – the perennial Howard scheming not only to fill Court circles with family members but also to put nubile young Howard girls where they stood a good chance of being noticed by the King.
It worked, as Russell writes:
On several subsequent occasions, the Dowager expressed variations on the remark “that the King’s highness did cast a fantasy [attraction or fancy] to Katharine Howard the first time that ever his Grace saw her.” The Dowager made her claims in conversation with several of the King’s councillors in 1541 and tellingly they did not correct her – they simply wanted to know who had told her. Her recollections suggest that the King’s initial attraction to Catherine was a spontaneous case of lust at first sight.
At first, all seemed blissful. But there quickly unfolded “a story of profligacy necessary to be told, yet too hideous to dwell upon,” as Henry’s biographer J. A. Froude put it a over a century ago, covering the whole thing in exquisite Victorian disdain: “I shall touch upon it but lightly, inasmuch as the entire body of evidence survives in its voluminous offensiveness, and leaves no room for the most charitable incredulity to raise questions or suggest uncertainties.”
Catherine might have been translated to the highest position a woman could hold in Tudor England, but she hadn’t left her own dimwitted lascivious nature behind. As historian J. J. Scarisbrick succinctly puts it, “She had been unchaste before her marriage; she took to adultery soon after it.”
She encountered some sour receptions even before scandal engulfed her. During the first innocent months, when Henry was besotted with her and open-handed in his generosity, she prompted inevitable and unflattering comparisons with the modesty of both Anne of Cleves and Jane Seymour, as Russell relates:
Catherine’s high spirits also encouraged some criticism. What might appear as vivacious loveliness to some can be interpreted as irritating garrulousness by others. A Spanish merchant living in London, who admittedly never let fact stand in the way of a good story, claimed later that “the King had no wife who made him spend so much money in dresses and jewels as she did, who every day had some new caprice.” She certainly liked to have a good time and in her apartments Catherine “did nothing but dance and rejoice.”
Henry at this point was fifty and in worsening health, and so worsening temper. He was growing increasingly irritated with his councillors, complaining more and more audibly about having been maneuvered into executing his assiduous servant Thomas Cromwell in the wake of the Anne of Cleves fiasco, and deepening secret negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor to form a league against the power of France, all while conducting duplicitously byzantine diplomacy with his nephew, the King of Scotland. In short, despite what legions of pop-culture historians may have implied over the centuries, the King of England had a good deal more on his plate than a pretty new wife – a fact Russell, like virtually every wife-biographer before him, has some trouble keeping in mind, preferring often in Young and Damned and Fair to assassinate Henry’s character rather than assess it, declaring that he had always been capable of “morally and legally questionable savagery” and telling us, “Henry VIII was a man who had somehow gone rotten without ever being ripe.”
This question of rottenness comes up for Russell because of what happened right away when Catherine became Henry’s wife: during royal progresses, in which the whole household moved in laborious state and pomp from one distant country estate to the next, Catherine began entertaining lovers, foremost among them a hapless courtier
named Thomas Culpeper, in secret meetings arranged by Catherine’s lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochfort, wife of Anne Boleyn’s brother. In short order this became known to Henry’s councillors, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, a stout believer in the Reformed church who relished the chance of attacking the Catholic Howards, informed the King.
At first, Henry didn’t believe it, couldn’t let himself believe it, not only that his new wife was making a cuckold out of him with one of his own courtiers but also that, as came to light, she’d hardly been a sexual innocent all those months ago when he’d first cast a fantasy to her – that Dereham, his friend Robert Damport, Lady Rochfort, and maybe others had all known this the whole time that Henry was courting her and marrying her and lavishing her with newlywed presents. His disbelief thawed readily enough into wrath, and as Russell writes, his own hand then turned the state machinery designed to crush the truth out of a mass of scattered testimony:
At the earlier date, the King wrote to Archbishop Cranmer encouraging “persevering in your diligence to attain knowledge of the truth, by all ways and means” and Henry personally authorized torture to be used on the two friends on December 6. How they were savaged is unknown. The rack seems the most likely, particularly in Dereham’s case, but a story that was still doing the rounds in court circles a decade later had it that Robert Damport had his teeth pulled out one by one until he confessed his crime of knowing his friend had once slept with a girl who went on to become Queen of England.
Catherine flew into hysterics and denials when she was first confronted with the results of all this, but as noted, there was no room for even the most charitable incredulity. The only hint of hope would have been just the kind of legal casuistry Henry loved: if Catherine had actually been contracted somehow to Dereham before she married the King, then the technical crime might be lessened to … then the sentence might be commuted to … but no. As Russell puts it,
Dereham and Culpepper were trapped not by what they had done but what they had planned to do. Their actions – in Culpepper’s case, the covert meetings and in Dereham’s joining Catherine’s household – were taken, not unreasonably, as proof that they both had the goal of seducing the King’s wife.
The men were executed in December of 1541, and the following February Catherine was likewise executed, a scene that brings out the novelist in Russell:
A few women from her suite stood by to perform their last service for Catherine, who sank to the straw and nuzzled her neck, bare and exposed, into the embrace of the block. She had made it familiar. She would leave with dignity. The feared final humiliation was avoided as the axe rose into the air, then descended at rapid speed to slice through Catherine’s neck with one clean and merciful stroke. Blood gushed forth onto the scaffold; the dead woman’s head thudded into the straw; the ladies moved forward with a cloak that they threw over the little body and then lifted it, and the head, over to one side of the scaffold. Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, was brought out to follow her mistress … and knelt down. For her too the end was swift. A whistle in the air, a secondary trauma, and the play was over.
This particular play had no encores and no revivals. The business of the Court fluttered a bit, since scores of minor and major Howards fell from their offices or fled to the country when their second shot at royal favor ended in catastrophe, but the King himself was right away feasting and joking – and scheming about the Scots and the French – as if young Catherine and her rise and fall never crossed his mind. He waited well over a year before marrying for the sixth and final time, and that sixth wife, Katherine Parr, completed the morality play sequence on a grace note, providing Henry with calm and conversation, reconciling him to his daughters, and ruling the country when he was off fighting his last battles on the Continent.
In revisiting Catherine Howard’s story, Russell seeks to shift the emphasis from the personal to the professional, stressing how the households of queens and powerful noblewomen could become focal points for a level of power and influence earlier historians haven’t always fully credited. Throughout his book, although Catherine herself keeps getting in his way, he tries to hit this note about her own role in the larger Tudor story:
Putting her household, and her grandmother’s, at the center of a biography of Catherine makes her story a grand tale of the Henrician court in its twilight, a glittering but pernicious sunset, in which the King’s unstable behavior and his courtiers’ labyrinthine deceptions ensured that fortune’s wheel was moving more rapidly than at any previous point in his vicious but fascinating reign.
But this particular “glittering but pernicious sunset” was still a ways off. Henry waited 16 months before he married again, and Katherine Parr was his queen for four active, engaged years. Putting little Catherine Howard at any kind of sunset gives her a luster she didn’t possess; it makes a signature moment out of just another mark on the sundial. And as for that “vicious but fascinating reign,” we can let the Victorian have the final word:
We judge living men not from single facts, but from a thousand trifles; and sound estimates of historical persons are pieced together from a general study of their actions, their writings, the description of friends and enemies, from those occasional allusions which we find scattered over contemporary correspondence, from materials which, in the instance of Henry VIII, consist of many thousands of documents. Out of so large a mass tolerable evidence would be forthcoming of vicious tendencies if vicious tendencies had existed.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.