Katherine Howard: Whore or Victim?

The doomed fifth wife of King Henry VIII, has been defined as a foolish good time girl, a woman who risked her own life to gratify her lust. This representation of Katherine is one the media and historians, generally both depict. However, I believe this image of Katherine couldn’t be further from the truth. The true story of her short life is much darker and disturbing than the fun loving teenager we have come to know.

Unlike her cousin Anne Boleyn, Katherine was guilty of adultery, which she paid for in following her cousin to the grave; furthermore she was no virgin when she married the king. It is no surprise then that people come to the quick conclusion that she was just a reckless whore, a woman who brought her harrowing fate down upon herself. However, is this a just evaluation of Katherine’s life and downfall?

Katherine Howard 2
Miniture portrait of Katherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger

Katherine Howard was born into one of the mightiest, noble families in England. Despite this, her father Lord Edmund Howard, was a younger son of many children, therefore he had no great wealth to call his own. Furthermore, her mother Joyce Culpepper died when Katherine was only five years old, leaving her impoverished father with six children to support. As a consequence, Katherine was sent to live at Chesworth House; where she joined the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The Dowager Duchess ran a type of boarding school for young girls of noble families, in many cases whose relatives couldn’t afford to keep them. Here, Katherine was to be educated in court etiquette, reading, writing, music and dancing. However, she also learnt some things that she would have been better off not knowing.

The ladies of the household slept in a dormitory known as ‘The Maidens Chamber’. This room was meant to be locked up at night, to keep the girls safe from the men of the household. However, the Duchess failed in her duty to care for these young girls, as some men managed to get their hands on the key. Katherine, would have been in her early teens or even younger when these men began entering her chamber at night. Two men that we know of were Katherine’s music teacher, Henry Manox, and the Dowager Duchess’ secretary, Francis Dereham.

It is believed that Henry Manox and Katherine engaged in sexual contact, stopping short of sexual intercourse. It was to be Francis Dereham, as Manox lamented, who enjoyed Katherine to the full. These indiscretions had been witnessed by other members of the household, which came back to haunt Katherine once she became Henry’s queen.

Katherine’s rise began when her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, secured her a place at court as a lady in waiting to Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves; and so she arrived in early 1540, still only a teenager. Henry, who was now approaching fifty, soon noticed the young beauty and became infatuated.

The king was deeply unhappy in his marriage to Anne of Cleves, whom he dubbed the ‘Flanders Mare’, on account of his repudiation at her appearance. Henry was unable to consummate their union, which rendered the marriage null and void in the eyes of contemporaries. This was a stain on Henry’s masculine image as rumours circulated that the king was impotent. After all, by this point he was obese, had extremely painful ulcerated legs and was old by Tudor standards. What better way for Henry to regain his masculinity than by marrying a vivacious and attractive young woman, some thirty-two years his junior. There is also a great possibility that Katherine became Henry’s mistress before she became his wife, as the king’s visits to Katherine’s house day and night suggest. Furthermore, there was a sudden urgency to annul the Cleves marriage once rumours circulated that Katherine was pregnant. Either way Henry’s marriage to Anne was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation on 9th July 1540. He married Katherine Howard just over two weeks later, on the same day that Thomas Cromwell was beheaded for treason.

NPG 1119; Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard after Hans Holbein the Younger
Oil on panel portrait of a woman, formerly known as Katherine Howard

It was not long into Katherine’s marriage that the past began to creep up on her. Members of the Dowager Duchess’ household who knew of Katherine’s previous dalliances began to blackmail her, it was no secret that she and Francis Dereham had been lovers. A woman named Joan Bulmer, who had lived with Katherine requested she be brought to court, perhaps in return for her silence. Dereham himself was even made Katherine’s secretary, no doubt in return for his silence also; Dereham was known as a boaster unable to keep silent. Unsurprisingly, couriers began to gossip about the past behaviour of Henry’s ‘rose without a thorn’. What Katherine did next sealed her fate.

In 1541, Henry fell ill and the queen was sent away to avoid contracting the king’s fever. Around this time Katherine took a lover, Thomas Culpepper. Culpepper was young, attractive and Henry’s favourite male courtier; however he was far from pleasant. In 1539, Culpepper was accused of raping a park-keepers wife and murdering a villager, however he was pardoned by the king. Culpepper was also connected to the Dowager Duchess’ household and knew of Katherine’s past. What made matters worse for the queen, was her catholic faith. It was feared by the protestant reformers at court that Katherine and her powerful catholic family could influence the king on matters of religion. These tongues refused to keep silent about the queen’s past and word soon found it’s way to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer was a deeply devout protestant and therefore an opponent of the Howard clan; he must have scarcely believed his luck when Katherine’s dalliances with Manox and Dereham were revealed to him.

On All Souls Day in 1541, Cranmer left a letter for the king containing the details of Katherine’s past relationships, he was too scared to inform Henry himself for fear of his reaction. At first the king refused to believe the allegations, but nonetheless ordered Cranmer to investigate. Both Manox and Dereham were arrested and confessed to having a prior relationship with the queen, quite possibly under torture. Dereham, also revealed Katherine’s affair with Culpepper. Consequently, Culpepper’s rooms were searched and sure enough a letter from Katherine was found. In it she laments ‘it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company.’ She signs off, ‘Yours as long as life endures, Katheryn.’ It was as good as signing her own death warrant.

Francis Dereham was hung, drawn and quartered, Thomas Culpepper was beheaded, and surprisingly Henry Manox managed to get away with it. Katherine herself, was beheaded with a single blow from the axe on the 13th February 1542. Unlike her cousin Anne Boleyn, she was not shown the mercy of a beheading by sword, after all Henry had wanted to kill her himself.

Execution of Katherine Howard
Execution of Katherine Howard

Katherine Howard has been largely overlooked by historians as she had no great impact on England’s history. Furthermore, they have preferred to revel in the details of Katherine’s interrogation under Thomas Cranmer, in which she describes her sexual relations with Manox and Dereham. What seems to have been chiefly ignored here, is the fact that Katherine was just a child when this happened. Katherine herself laments this and confessed that the choice to sleep with Dereham was not hers; however she was not believed by Cranmer. These men, most significantly Manox, who was her teacher, were in a position of trust that they abused. That’s why I believe it’s hugely unjust that Katherine has been labelled a sexual predator, looking back on this with a modern perspective we would call her an abused child.

But what of Thomas Culpepper? Was she genuinely in love with him or was her desire for sex so great that she was prepared to risk her life? Personally, I believe Culpepper was a very devious and manipulative man, who simply used Katherine for his own gains. Henry was old and sick by 1542, therefore as the king’s favourite, Culpepper must have been thinking about his career after Henry’s death. If the king were to die, Katherine would have become the Queen Dowager and held considerable influence at court. Culpepper would then have been able to keep hold of his position as a royal favourite and further his career. Moreover, Culpepper had known of Katherine’s past and could easily have blackmailed her; as many others from the Dowager Duchess’ household did. I see Culpepper as the predator in this relationship, who saw how vulnerable Katherine was and took advantage of her as Manox and Dereham had done before him.

But then again what of Katherine’s love letter to Culpepper? This can either be seen as proof of Katherine’s love or as a subtle precaution to keep Culpepper quiet about her past. If we imagine Culpepper blackmailing Katherine, it is not difficult to picture a frightened teenager attempting to appease her aggressor; as she had done with Joan Bulmer and Francis Dereham. Frustratingly, we will never know the true nature of Katherine and Culpepper’s relationship, it is a matter of public opinion. However, when it comes to Manox and Dereham, it is fair to condemn them as men who took advantage of a vulnerable, juvenile, young girl.

Throughout Katherine’s short life, she was shrouded in vulnerability and trapped in a world where men were free to take advantage of her; and in time use her for their own enjoyment or advancement. Nonetheless, Katherine was not without her faults. She was perhaps ignorant and ditzy, too materialistic and fun-loving; however she was only a teenager when she married the king and had no great experience of court life like her predecessors. The reputation that has been moulded for Katherine over the centuries, I believe is deeply unfair. Katherine Howard is perhaps one of history’s greatest, misjudged women, and holds the most tragic story out of all Henry’s queens.

If we take to this view of Katherine, let us think again of her desperate attempt to reach Henry at Hampton Court, screaming for mercy. Let us think again of the hysterical and suicidal teenager imprisoned at Syon Abbey. Let us think again of the girl in the tower who asked for the block to be brought to her so that she could practice positioning her head. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for Katherine, despite the view we believe is correct.

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7 thoughts on “Katherine Howard: Whore or Victim?

  1. Very interesting perspective! I have always been fascinated by this time in history and enjoyed your take on it.

  2. That was most possible. Sexual harassment by a person of higher authority, a teacher at that, she was a victim of so many men. Women had no voice then and as a child, all the actions of the men may have seemed to her of love and care. Definitely, it will not be fair to judge her as a whore. If virginity was vital to the throne, why then did not Henry VIII have her background checked first. Her so called relationships happened prior to her marriage anyway. Perhaps again, manipulated by a man for sex using love, nobody taught her discernment. Thank you for this very open view of poor Katherine.

  3. Katherine Howard, as is Ann Boleyn, my 1st cousin x 10 generations. Henry VIII was also my first cousin making QEI my double 2nd cousin. I have always been fascinating with all of these ladies and have read many books and “papers” written about them with compassion and empathy. I have royal grandmothers from the middle ages that were married at younger than 12 and had children at 13. I believe Henry VII mother gave birth to him at age 13. These women were used like pawns on the royal chessboard and made to fulfill the duties of women twice their age. I am sure wth their immature, childlike thoughts and ideas, they were very easy to take advantage of with pretty word and jewels. We cannot look at these children with the eyes and mind of adults in the 21st century.

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