Monday, July 10, 2017

Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII

Of all the royalty that have ever lived, it seems to me that the Tudor dynasty of England is among the most popular, particularly Henry VIII and his wives. Each year sees new works of biography and fiction about one of Henry's wives or children. One of the best current writers on the Tudors is Gareth Russell. A playwright and a novelist as well as an Oxford-educated historian, Gareth brings  his gifts of description and of character analysis, in addition to a scrupulous historicity, into what I think is the best Tudor biography I have yet read. The author visited the main sites where Catherine's tragedy was played out, giving rich details in addition to discussing the extant sources and art works. Like all of Gareth's books and plays, Young and Damned and Fair is a most entertaining read for its color and wit but most of all for the way Catherine Howard and her world are brought to life.

Catherine tends to be overshadowed by Henry's other wives, except for Anne of Cleves, of course, whom she supplanted. Her marriage and queenship were short and relatively uneventful, until the disastrous ending. Gareth shows that many of the common beliefs about Catherine are untrue. Although she was the impoverished daughter of a ne'er-do-well younger son of the great Howard family, she was by no means an unsophisticated waif. Brought up by her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Catherine lived in one of the grandest households in England, where she learned outward decorum and polished manners. In fact, throughout her brief time as a royal consort, Catherine's conduct in her royal duties was admirable, characterized by charm, charity, and regal grace. The defect in her upbringing was that in the large household, and among the many young ladies with whom she was being brought up, Catherine was not guarded carefully enough. A petite striking beauty whose vivacity heightened her allure, she was preyed upon by at least two household retainers that we know of, one of whom, Francis Dereham, she promised to marry. But it is a myth that Catherine's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, connived to obtain Catherine a place at court. Norfolk himself had relatively little to do with Catherine's rise or her fall, contrary to popular rumor.

Catherine caught the king's eye when she was chosen to be a lady-in-waiting to his fourth queen, Anne of Cleves. She was chosen because she was a Howard and therefore had connections, not because the Howards saw her as a potential bride of Henry. In fact, when it became clear that the King had his eye upon her it brought panic, and Catherine's grandmother and her aunt tried their best to cover up all evidence of her dalliance with Francis Dereham. For Catherine herself, winning the love of Henry VIII brought clothes, jewels and material benefits which she has often been deprived of. She nevertheless lived in constant dread of disappointing a known tyrant, who had executed her cousin, the glamorous and clever Anne Boleyn. In her undisciplined youth, Catherine sought an outlet for her anxiety by doing what she knew how to do best, which was flirt with young men. Her flirtation with the courtier Thomas Culpepper would be her doom.

Catherine was not executed for adultery, however. There was no evidence that actual adultery had ever occurred. The queen was accused of merely contemplating adultery; hers was a thought crime rather than an actual deed. What really spelled her demise was Catherine's previous promise to marry Francis Dereham, which according to church law would invalidate her marriage to the king. Catherine insisted the promise was a joke and that she had never been formally betrothed to Dereham. But knowledge of her past dalliances combined with her current flirtation made Henry determined that she would die for humiliating him. That Catherine had appeared to be the perfect spouse in the eyes of the ailing and crazed monarch perhaps accentuated his rage towards her. When she was publicly beheaded on February 13, 1542, Catherine displayed courage and calm. She was probably not yet twenty years old. Most of the portraits thought to be of her are not; thus she left the world with hardly a trace of herself, for one raised so high. In spite of the sad finale, I hated for the book to end. I hope Gareth writes books about the other five queens of Henry VIII, too.

(The book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.)

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1 comment:

Helen Davis said...

I have seen so many people hate on the wives, especially Anne Boleyn, but it was all Henry.

Wouldn't it be something to see what she looked like?