In Defence of Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Most Misunderstood Wife

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TW: Mentions of sexual assault and violence against women

Almost 500 years ago, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, aged only 18 or 19, was executed at the Tower of London on charges of treason for adultery. Due to her relationships before and during marriage, many have written her off as a stupid slut with descriptions used by historians including: “good-time girl”, “empty-headed” and the lovely, “common whore”. All of Henry’s wives have often been reduced to archetypes and overlooked as individuals but popular portrayals of Katherine, from my view, are particularly unfair due to often being almost entirely negative and sexist- after all, I’ve never seen any of the men involved being slut shamed in the same way. However, more recently, sympathetic interpretations have emerged which shed light on the often-overlooked evidence she was sexually abused and contradictory to being stupid, actually had political skills and was successful as queen, presenting a new story that challenges the misogyny that have surrounded discussions of her for far too long.

Firstly, an important thing regarding Katherine Howard is that she was never expected to be queen. Although the Howards were a noble family, her father was a younger son meaning he had little access to inheritance and was not particularly well off. She is thought to have been born around 1523AD, but the exact date is unknown, neither is the exact number of siblings she had, but her mother is thought to have had 10-11 children. Her mother died when she was very young and afterwards she was sent to live in the household of her step-grandmother, Agnes Howard with other young nobles. It was here that Katherine was known to have two relationships, the discovery of which led to the exposure of her affair while married and ultimately her downfall. 

The first was with a man called Henry Mannox, disturbingly, this is thought to have begun when Katherine was as young as 12/13 and Mannox was in his 20s or 30s and in a position of power as her music teacher. It is clear that if we came across an adult music teacher using his position in this way today, the majority would agree with Lucy Worsley’s statement that Katherine was an  “abused child.” Others disagree that Katherine was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Mannox, because this is not how it was interpreted at the time and instances of child marriage were a lot more common.

I have to disagree, as something being legal or socially acceptable has never automatically meant that it’s moral. One of the counters to the argument above that I love was from one of my favourite niche history youtubers: Dr Kat (readingthepast). She has a wonderful video on Katherine where she argues that regardless of how the relationship between Mannox and Katherine was viewed by wider society, the effect of trauma caused by it on Katherine was likely to have been much the same as it would be today, even without the proper words to express it.

The second relationship was with a man called Francis Dereham who was also an adult when he began his relationship with Katherine while she was still in her early to mid teens, and like Mannox, he was in a position of power from his employment in her step-grandmother’s household. But he was also higher in status than Mannox, which possibly influenced this relationship becoming more serious. Agnes Howard was notably neglectful in her role as the guardian of the girls under her care which led to men, including Dereham, being able to enter their dormitories at night. Unlike her relationship with Mannox, Katherine’s relationship with Dereham does appear to have been fully consummated. They were also said to have referred to each other as “husband”  and “wife”, suggesting there may have been an agreement of marriage. But the affair soon ended when Agnes discovered it and banished Dereham. 

Katherine’s own account of the relationship, such as her assertion that Dereham: “by man persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose” suggest this relationship was neither consensual or enjoyable for her. But none of this was taken seriously or sympathised by her interrogators. More important was the embarrassment of Henry VIII (a man with four previous wives and several mistresses) finding out his new wife wasn’t a virgin prior to marriage. 

When Katherine arrived in Henry’s court in 1540, it was as a lady-in-waiting to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. This had never been a happy marriage and he quickly became interested in Katherine, when he divorced Anne to marry her, she was still likely in her late teens and he was over 30 years older. It’s therefore commonly been suggested that her affair with a younger courtier, Thomas Culpepper was out of love. However, from the little that we do know about Culpepper, none of it is heartening. Extremely disturbingly, he had previously raped a park-keeper’s wife and murdered a man who confronted him, yet was pardoned for this due to his position as a favourite of Henry’s.

A popular story which would seem to support the idea that Katherine did love Culpepper is her proclaiming: “I die a queen but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper” during her execution speech. But this is highly unlikely to have happened, firstly it originates from a source called The Spanish Chronicle which includes a number of blatant inaccuracies including that she was interrogated by Thomas Cromwell, who at this point had been dead for a year. Furthermore this claim was not supported by eyewitnesses. In this time period, nobles would normally be extremely apologetic in their execution speeches in attempts to make the monarch more sympathetic to the family they left behind. A defiant statement such as this would have been extremely unusual and something eyewitnesses would have definitely commented on. Yet it continues to be a common myth spread about Katherine, so common it was even repeated to me as if it was true when I visited the Tower of London.

A “love” letter found written by Katherine to Thomas, was key evidence used against her but recently interesting theories have emerged, arguing that this was instead an attempt to appease a possibly aggressive Culpepper. Retha M. Warnicke notes although she clearly wants his presence she never refers to him as “lover” or “darling” and phrases such as “Yours as long as lyffe endures” were common for the time, not necessarily signalling her love for him.

Francis Dereham, along with other figures from Katherine’s past had, at that point, been given positions in court, very possibly in exchange for them staying quiet. But it’s possible that Culpepper found out about her past and was blackmailing her. As Henry was ill and old he may have thought his relationship with Katherine would be advantageous after Henry died. It’s unlikely, however, that we’ll ever know the true nature of the relationship between Culpepper and Katherine, but based on what is known about his character I find it unlikely that it was the forbidden romance it’s been portrayed as.

The disturbing side to these relationships and her suffering due to them have too often been ignored, instead the suggestion that she was promiscuous has been used to make her seem unsympathetic. Because the double standard that promiscuity is acceptable for men but never for women remains just as relevant in our own time as it was in Katherine’s and she has been vilified more than the older men who took advantage of her. 

Popular interpretations are also too busy defining Katherine in relation to men to acknowledge her achievements as queen. She has been credited for blending two of the most successful elements of two of Henry’s former wives: the tactical submissiveness of Jane Seymour and the style of Anne Boleyn. Despite having less formal education and much less court experience than Henry’s previous wives she clearly had political awareness and knew how to conduct herself at court, demonstrated by positive ambassador reports. 

Katherine managed to use her position to successfully intervene on behalf of several individuals, which must have taken political skill. She also formed a good relationship with the former queen, Anne of Cleves and with her step-children from Henry’s former marriages. Despite initial tensions with Mary (the future Mary I), which was probably hard to avoid considering Mary was both her step daughter and around 7 years older than her, they later reconciled. She is also recorded as particularly getting on well with a young Elizabeth I. Josephine Wilkinson said that she “showed every sign of becoming a good queen.”

I’ve seen Katherine be considered one of the least admirable of Henry’s wives but in my opinion there is much to admire, aged around 17, she was put into an extremely difficult position she was never expected to hold and managed to thrive regardless. She deserves a lot more understanding and sympathy for what she went through at such a young age, as well as a lot more credit for her successes and simply to be recognised, as all Henry’s wives do, for more than her relationships with men.

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Kat Dewar is a second year historian at QMUL with a notable passion for women in history.

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