Katherine Howard: A New History

Katherine Howard: A New History, by Conor Byrne

The world of the Plantagenets and Tudors has been enriched by a new, young author, Conor Byrne. In this his first book, Katherine Howard: A New History, he looks at the life and short royal career of the fifth wife of Henry VIII. As a 16-year-old, Katherine married the 49-year-old king in July 1540. Less than two years later, accused of adultery with Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpepper, she was executed on Henry’s orders.

Byrne looks at this sad story through the lens of gender politics. Using 16th century views of female sexuality, influence and power, he paints a picture of Katherine strikingly at odds with that portrayed by many historians.

The early chapters, admittedly, could have benefitted greatly from a rigorous editor. The author is all too susceptible to proving much that does not need to be proven. Many of his remarks will not come as a revelation to the thoughtful Tudor enthusiast (or even to those who simply viewed “The Tudors”). Phrases such as “… it is likely Norfolk counselled his niece [Anne Boleyn] on the necessity of bearing Henry VIII a male heir,” are far too simplistic. Anne Boleyn certainly didn’t need her uncle’s advice to understand the necessity of providing Henry with a son.

Byrne is also prone to “over interpreting” historical documents. He makes, for instance, a compelling case that Katherine’s sexual relationship with Francis Dereham, well before her marriage to Henry VIII, was not a love affair but the predatory harassment and victimization of a vulnerable young girl by an older man. When, however, an anonymous warning of her misbehavior is sent to Katherine’s guardian, her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, telling the Duchess that she should visit her gentlewomen’s chamber where “you shall see that which shall displease you,” Byrne strays. Surely, the Duchess would have been displeased enough to find Katherine entangled (literally) with a man without additional speculation that the warning also implied imaginative and unacceptable sexual positions.

The overriding question of Katherine Howard’s life is, of course, just what did she think she was doing, married to Henry VIII but entangling herself with Thomas Culpepper? Byrne’s answer is that Katherine was engaged in the game of courtly love so prevalent at the Tudor court. Well-regulated and often non-physical, and thus seemingly “safe,” this stylized form of romance may indeed have been attractive to a woman traumatized by her earlier coercive experiences. While Byrne’s analysis of Katherine’s supposed “love letter” to Culpepper is masterful, the question nevertheless remains. Between Henry’s marital history and her own unhappy experiences with men, it is difficult to fathom how any woman could have opened herself up to such danger.

Byrne presents a vivid picture of Katherine as a Queen, totally unprepared for her role, who nevertheless strove to fulfill her responsibilities – not just to bear children, but to intercede, provide patronage, and manage her household. She did not, of course, succeed. Her failure, however, as Byrne clearly shows, was not that she was a giddy, greedy, air-headed, licentious girl who reaped what she had sown. Rather, Katherine was a victim – and not only of Henry and every other man in her life, but of her own grandmother, who neglected to provide the most basic of needs, a safe environment for a growing girl.

Byrne also posits an interesting solution to one minor historical mystery. Both Culpepper and Dereham were convicted of adultery with Queen Katherine, although Dereham’s contact was before her marriage. While Culpepper was given the relatively clean death of decapitation, however, Dereham suffered a lengthy and brutal execution. Byrne raises the possibility that Dereham’s fate was Henry VIII’s (unstated) retribution for Dereham’s violation of an underage girl. If so, it could only be that Henry was taking vengeance on account of his own sense of betrayal.

There is nothing in the entire tragic saga of this young queen’s life and death that indicates that Henry (or any of the other men involved) ever actually cared for Katherine’s well being.

Three and a half stars for an interesting first book, raised to four stars in expectation of yet more original analyses of Tudor and Plantagenet queens. (I understand Isabella of France is now under consideration!)