The Tudors period is probably one of the most recognisable parts of British history. Recognised all the world around due to the sensationalism of dramas, literature and historical intrigue. However, with this over saturation it gives way to an almost formulaic knowledge that stagnates further consideration of the figures and events. It’s not hard to see where the mass interest comes from. The Tudor dynasty reads like a soap opera with plenty of ground-breaking moments for a history buff to sink their teeth into.

I readily admit the life of Henry VIII and his children where one of the starting points of my love of History and I was as guilty as anyone for having followed a traditional narrative, falling into some of the cliched viewpoints of the era. This is particularly relevant when Henry VIII’s wives are concerned. They became figures almost like characters, their life stories only relevant for those years they were involved with king and court. Although efforts have been made in the last few years to redeem Anne Boleyn from her image as scheming temptress, I feel a that another Wife has been horribly misinterpreted by many and is regularly portrayed in manner that is almost derogatory. Well, I believe we should reevaluate how we perceive Katherine Howard, wife number five. She was only 16/17 when she married the 49-year-old Henry VIII. So many have designed her as a ‘good time girl’ and a shameless flirt. At worst she is portrayed as spoilt, immature and bratty. The latter of which makes me uncomfortable, almost insulting. Katherine was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard, who although a member of the Norfolk dukedom, was eclipsed by the power of is siblings. He was one of 21 children (His father married twice) and therefore inherited very little due to the primogeniture custom. Meaning that the eldest siblings received the rights to any estates or titles. His elder brothers became prominent courtiers whilst he maintained a minor role. His role in his children’s lives was a minimal one as he spent a great deal of time away from home or abroad. Having become controller of Calais in 1530-39, a position he would lose due to inefficiency, he died the same year. His children where brought up in the houses of their relatives. Katherine herself was sent to live with her step-grandmother Agnes Howard, Dowager duchess of Norfolk. The Duchesses households where busy, as the grandmother to many aristocrats the duty to care for the children of the poor lesser members of the family fell to her. Therefore, Katherine had a unique upbringing with many relatives with varied age gaps. Katherine spent more time in the company of the fellow wards of the house than a direct authority figure. David Starkey described it as a ‘poorly run boarding school’.
In such a large household Katherine’s education was somewhat lesser than that of some of the other Noble families where now allowing their daughters. Without a father or mother, the expectations for her and her potential future had been lowered.  She was still taught well for her time, being literate and taught the social arts of music and dance that would be favorable should she be a lady-in-waiting to a noble household.

Katherine Howard c.1541
Hans Holbein

In these formative years Katherine was known for her charm, spirit and ability to stand out in a crowd, which is not hard to imagine when she was trying to stand out in a packed household. She was only 12-13 when the problems that would seal her fate later in life began. Katherine and the other female wards of the house shared a large ‘maidens’ dormitory’. According to testimony gathered for Katherine’s trial the chambers where locked on a night, but the older girls would pass their keys to various men. They were rewarded with gifts and wine. At this time, she began taking music lessons with the 36-year-old Henry Mannox. This older man set up the precedent for the rest of her life. According to Katherine’s confession in 1541 she stated that “being but a young girl, I suffered him a sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty to permit, nor him to require.” The affair was brought to a halt when discovered by the Duchess, who punished Katherine by smacking her and making a strict rule that they should be never left alone together. Mannox therefore retained his employment and she remained a student. Katherine’s own words present her as a victim who was taken advantage of by Mannox, but by the standard of the time little mind was payed to it. Katherine may have not seen herself as a victim but compliant. She dose not state she denied him. Rather that it “neither became me with honesty to permit, nor him to require.” She repeats the sentiment, that she was in some way guilty for allowing it to happen. She mentions Mannox in her adultery confessions as these acts outside marriage, regardless to the coerced nature, she was viewed as having lost her ‘innocence’ to a man who hadn’t the potential or the intention of becoming her husband.

Katherine’s next romance was equally doomed and uncomfortable. Francis Dereham was the secretary to the Duchess; he was between 28-32 during whilst Katherine was 15. Their relationship presented more of a problem for her later trial. The pair where involved for at perhaps a year, y their own personal admission and testimony of others in the household the relationship was more serious and indeed sexual. In her confession Katherine states “Francis Dereham by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose, and obtained first to lie upon my bed with his doublet and hose, and after within the bed, and finally he lay with me naked, and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife, many and sundry times”. Again this, when looked at with a modern eye looks like grooming. Furthermore, the fact that the other women of the house where aware the relationship speaks for a lack of care or a desensitized view of the behavior as other ladies in the house in turn engaged in relationships. They had regularly met late at night in her chambers to share wine and fruit, they flirted and kissed openly. No one questioned it, although the nightly meetings where a secret to the Duchess.
What really brought this relationship against her in trial was the argument that could be made that they were ‘Married’, making Katherine a bigamist. Now, whilst they were not married in a traditional sense, the grounds for this came from the unclear marriage laws of the time. To be married in the Tudor era did not require a church ceremony, witnesses or priest. A marriage was as simple as a exchange of vows and consummation. By Katherine’s admission and many witnesses, Dereham and herself called each other ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’. Furthermore, they teased the idea of their commitment, Dereham dangling the promise of their marriage in the future, if indeed they made this promise mutually during their sexual relationship this was enough to constitute a marriage by law.

This relationship of course dissolved. The Duchess found out about the affairs true nature and banished him from her home, he ended up retreating to Ireland. Katherine’s arrival in court was under the pretense of serving as a Lady-in-waiting for Anne of Cleves. This position was one of so much promise, it was secured by her uncle, respected courtier Thomas Howard, Duke of Nolfolk. Many Historians theorize that Norfolk was trying to mimic the rise of Anne Boleyn (Her cousin none the less) once Katherine attracted The Kings attention.  He showered her with gifts and called her affectionate terms such as “The Very jewel of womanhood.” Or “A rose without a thorn.” Although the latter of the two is likely a myth from later writers to make her ‘infidelity” a harsher blow to the king. Only 20 days after the annulment of his last marriage, Henry Married Katherine. Her motto became chillingly foretelling to her whole life. “No other wish but his”. At this time she was 16/17, which was actually young for marriage at this time. The average age for marriage had risen to 21-25 and large age gaps where less common. Arranged marriages of royals where and exception as some married in their teens. This was to secure alliances rather than rushing to married life. In many cases the married teens die not even live together or consummate the union until a later date.

The marriage was of course to unravel, and the outcome would be the worst outcome for all involved. Before we touch on Katherine’s final love affair, I’d like to consider her mindset.  Although we must be careful when we look on historical figures with our modern eyes, I think it is fair to consider how Katherine’s past shaped her later life. As established, she was exposed to sexual behavior at a young age, given attention by these men when she was one of many wards living in a house where she was treated like an obligation over a family member. In modern studies into the effects of such abuse often do become likely to be victimised in the future as they feel unable to fight or imagine how to. Katherine may well have seen her sexuality to escape her lot in life or a chance to be happy with someone she believed could take her away from her current life. By the treatment of the men around her she found that her sexuality was a ‘norm’ to have controlled as they lulled her into a false security. This is the very reason I wince at the idea of Katherine as a ‘whore’ or ‘Good time girl”. The acclaimed drama ‘The Tudors’ even goes as far as to portray Katherine as having become frustrated by Henry not being able to keep up with her sex drive, pursuing Thomas Culpeper as a lover for this reason.

Katherine became close to a favourite of Henry, this closeness bloomed into more in the pattern of her other relationships. During times Henry was away or she was alone for long periods of time they spent time alone together, even late at night in secretive meetings. Being a member of Henry’s inner circle, he had access to Katherine and with the help of one of her ladies in waiting, Jane Rochford, it was seamlessly hidden for a few months. Katherine fell for Culpeper in haste, writing to him she claimed, “when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company.” However, despite these secret meetings it would appear by many accounts that the relationship was not sexual. It was undeniably a strongly emotional affair but I’m sure that they would not have risked going further. Both Katherine and Culpeper knew the dangers if they were found out and likely thought it easier to hide or excuse if they did not go further. Furthermore, we can consider religious and moral obligations to their positions as a wife and servant acting as a barrier. Culpeper may not have had the feelings for Katherine that she believed, forgive my lack of romanticism but given Katherine’s past and how she had been slowly wooed in the past, it’s not hard to assume Culpeper used her kind and naive nature to his benefit. From his point of view Katherine was young and out of place in a court full of powerful nobles. He may have seen a chance for advancing his career by bonding to Katherine and becoming a ‘favourite’. With Henry growing old and Edward being young he could have held more influence over the next king and council. This is supported by the fact that Katherine’s conviction was not based on the affair with Culpeper alone but her past relationships as supplement. In her own plea to the Henry she makes it clear that her past was what that brought guilt on her.
“I most humbly beseech you to consider the subtle persuasions of young men and the ignorance and frailness of young women. I was so desirous to be taken unto your Grace’s favour, and so blinded by with the desire of worldly glory that I could not, nor had grace to consider how great a fault it was to conceal my former faults from your Majesty, considering that I intended ever during my life to be faithful and true unto your Majesty ever after.”


With all of these factors considered I cannot personally see Katherine as a fickle, careless and  flirtatious woman as she is so often portrayed by many narratives. More accurately she appears as a victim of those around her with more power or maturity to gain something from her. The case against her is based on past affairs that can be read with frightening implications. Thomas Cranmer had never approved of Henry’s marriage to Katherine. So, when the rumors of her past came to him from his sister (A maid in the Duchess’s house) he saw it as confirming his suspicions. These allegations where quickly gathered due to her relations with Mannox and Dereham being open secrets in her former household. Once these allegations were brought to Henry he was in disbelief, however Katherine’s horror and remorse where instant as soon as she was questioned and confined. It’s of little wonder why, Katherine’s own cousin Anne Boleyn had been executed on grounds of adultery and the treasonous/Religious implications loomed heavily over society. Katherine was likely terrified for her mortal life and immortal soul. Katherine was sent to her deaths for Henry’s pride and a world that was unsympathetic to her plight.

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