Thursday, August 11, 2011

Catherine Howard

Author: Lacey Baldwin Smith
Publication Date: First published in 1961; newest edition is 2010
Cost: A handful of new books are left on Amazon at $14.96, but used ones are also available there for around $10.00. There is no Kindle edition
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in a Waterstones in London. Since I have never seen this in a US bookstore, I purchased it (couldn't go wrong for 9.99 GBP).

The Backstory

Catherine Howard is best known as Henry VIII's fifth wife and, unfortunately, nothing more. Catherine wasn't a particularly notable character in the context of her family or her family's relationship to the King. She counted the very powerful Duke of Norfolk as her uncle, as Anne Boleyn had before her. In many ways, Catherine and Anne were alike far beyond their having blossomed on the same family tree (albeit on branches rather far apart). Both of them came from families that were connected, loosely, to the higher-level peers in the realm. Both of them truly needed to find more wealthy, more well-established partners if they were ever to live in a state of financial stability. If there is a difference, it is that Anne was a few steps above Catherine on the scale of Tudor era wealth and connections. Anne's family were peers with a connection to the royal family, although they could count tradespeople and merchants in their bloodline as well, and they had the means to send Anne to the Continent to be educated in two foreign courts before she made an appearance on the English scene. Catherine was the daughter of a minor peer with very little influence, even less money, and a large family to feed.

No one actually knows when Catherine was born, although the latest date of 1527 is extremely unlikely as she would have only been around 13 years old when Henry was serious about marrying her. The year 1525 seems to be the latest possible date, based on descriptions of her, that she could have possibly been born. Possibly because of her father's small means and large family, Catherine joined the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk (step-mother of the then Duke of Norfolk) where she was raised with a number of other young peers from minor families like her own. Catherine had two notable "flirtations" while in the Duchess's household--Henry Mannox, her music teacher, and Francis Dereham, a young man who had a position there. Unfortunately, these seemingly innocent adolescent relationships would come back to haunt Catherine later.

In January 1540, an aging Henry VIII wed for the fourth time to Anne of Cleves, and clearly from the beginning, this was not a match that would last long. Although Anne was at least somewhat unaware, Henry, who was used to at least convincing himself he was attracted to and in love with his mates, was not at all pleased by Anne. However, for a man well-known to be ruthless and selfish, he didn't blame Anne. Six months later, he had the marriage annulled, but he granted Anne a generous settlement and continued to foster a positive, if platonic, relationship with her. During Anne's brief tenure as Queen Consort, the Duke of Norfolk gained Catherine Howard a position in Anne's household as one of her ladies in waiting. It is thought that during this time, Henry met and grew infatuated with Catherine, showering her with the same deluge of gifts that were placed before Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn. There were rumors that Catherine was pregnant by the time Henry ended his marriage to Anne of Cleves, so Henry married Catherine, quietly and hastily, about three weeks later.

Henry's "rose without a thorn" was only queen for a fleeting year and a half. At first, Henry's ardor continued unabated. Catherine was fun and full of life, if not as educated as her predecessors. What possessed Catherine to indiscretion is a mystery to this day, but it is clear that she harbored some intention (at the very least) to begin a romantic relationship with Thomas Culpepper, a servant in the king's household. She also hired the same Francis Dereham she was previously involved with to work in her own household. Allegations of Catherine's indiscreet behavior, primarily in the Duchess's house, was brought to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who brought it to Henry. Henry didn't believe it at first, but confessions from Culpepper and Dereham and a letter written to Culpepper by Catherine sealed her fate. Culpepper and Dereham were executed in December 1541. Catherine would end her life on the scaffold in February 1542, and Henry would never quite be the same again.

What About the Book?

This is one of the only biographical accounts of Catherine Howard out there for readers who may be interested in examining the short-lived queen outside of the many novels that have been written about her, especially in the recent past. There is another biography by Joanna Denny available, but, since I did not have a very positive opinion about her biography of Anne Boleyn, I am very tentative to read it.

This book proves why there aren't more accounts of Catherine Howard's life. The available resources are so few and far between and no new leads have ever emerged to sharpen the fuzzy edges of Catherine's life and character. The majority of the details of Catherine's life only become clear when she and her suspected accomplices were examined by the authorities when Catherine was accused of adultery. Catherine's date of birth has never definitively been known, and neither have the reasons why she was moved in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk's household. This is mainly because Catherine would have led a pretty unnotable life if she hadn't caught Henry's eye at just the right time. She was never particularly highly educated. In all probability, one of what would have inevitably become a string of available suitors would have succeeded in gaining her hand in marriage at some later point. Catherine is probably the greatest beneficiary and, subsequently victim, of circumstance of any of Henry VIII's wives.

The lack of information is what truly plagues this book. Smith is very enlightening when it comes to Catherine's family lineage, including her own immediate family. Unfortunately, at least one very lengthy chapter, focusing on London and the Court, could have been entirely done away with without a loss to the book's subject, but I assume this was added to at least get 200 pages into the text.

Smith's work also suffers from a lack of interesting commentary and assessment. It is very much a report, and a report that gives too much of what we already know and not enough of what we can only imagine. If she examined sources, she doesn't evaluate them. As a result, there is nothing new, and one can only wonder what may have been missed in the process. David Starkey does offer a fair amount of assessment and commentary about Catherine Howard in his (unfortunately short) section about her in his Six Wives, and I feel that is superior to this biography with Catherine as its only subject.

Rating: A 5. If this is the first book you have read that mentions Catherine, this is as good a start as any, but if you've read other accounts of her by other authors, you'll find this account seriously lacking.
Buy It or Borrow It: Sadly, I am not sure this is widely available to borrow in the US. I am sure it is available in most libraries in the UK, and it may be worth a read if borrowing is an option for you. If your only option is to buy it, skip this in favor of Starkey's Six Wives.


An unconfirmed, but often referenced, possible likeness of Catherine Howard, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-1541

Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540

An unconfirmed possible likeness of Catherine Howard, probably the most popular, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1541


Anonymous said...

At the time of its original publication more than 50 years ago this book must have been very much welcomed. I still prefer it over the recent work of David Loades

Are you aware that Lacey Baldwin Smith is a man - now more than 90 years old?

pilgrimchick said...

I learn something new every day! Thank you for your comment. This book illustrates just how challenging it is to cover certain historical subjects regardless of how popular they may be--if the sources are lacking, conjecture is as much as any good historian can do. I do like, however, Starkey's coverage of Katherine Howard in his "Six Wives."