Cather­ine Howard

We should feel only pity for this tragic vic­tim of un­scrupu­lous older men

BBC Earth (Asia) - - History -

Of all Henry VIII’s wives, it is Cather­ine Howard who has un­der­gone the biggest trans­for­ma­tion of im­age in re­cent years. Cather­ine used to be thought of as a silly lit­tle girl, and she has been de­scribed even by highly re­spectable his­to­ri­ans as an “empty-headed wan­ton”, or even as a “ju­ve­nile delin­quent”.

Cather­ine’s down­fall in 1541 came about when ev­i­dence that she had a sex­ual past was brought to her hus­band’s at­ten­tion. In­ves­ti­ga­tions re­vealed that while grow­ing up in the house­hold of her step-grand­mother, the Duchess of Nor­folk, Cather­ine had had phys­i­cal re­la­tion­ships with two ser­vants. These were mu­sic teacher Henry Manox, and Fran­cis Dere­ham, who ad­mit­ted hav­ing had “car­nal knowl­edge” of the fu­ture queen. But to­day these il­licit li­aisons be­tween older men and a young girl look to us very much like child abuse. It was com­mon knowl­edge in the duchess’s house­hold that it was pos­si­ble to ob­tain the key to the dor­mi­tory where the house­hold’s maid­ens slept to­gether, sup­pos­edly for safety. It looks like Cather­ine, who went to the block in 1542, was a dam­aged sur­vivor.

What about the ap­par­ently damn­ing ev­i­dence of her ‘love let­ter’ to Thomas Culpep­per, writ­ten af­ter she mar­ried Henry, and when she was cer­tainly old enough to know bet­ter? Well, her state­ments of af­fec­tion cer­tainly can be read as pla­cat­ing a man who’d pre­vi­ously been ac­cused of rape and murder, who knew her back­ground, and who was us­ing it against her.

There’s been no more strik­ing ex­am­ple than Cather­ine Howard of how chang­ing at­ti­tudes to women have changed our in­ter­pre­ta­tion of one of Henry’s wives.

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