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