Katherine Howard Controversies

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Katherine HowardHistorical Controversies
about Katherine Howard

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Was Katherine Howard "a wanton" or "common wh*re"?

Tudor Historian
Karen Lindsey has a different interpretation:

"A lot of pity has been wasted on Henry VIII over Kathryn's infidelity--much more than has been accorded Kathryn herself. The chroniclers of her own time treated her with contempt, which is at least understandable in an age when chastity and honour were synonymous when applied to a woman. Less understandable is the determination of 20th century writers to follow suit. Even her sympathetic biographer Lacey Baldwin Smith, in A Tudor Tragedy (1961), repeatedly refers to Kathryn as "wanton" and "promiscuous"; she was "a common wh*re" and "a juvenile delinquent". As late as 1991, Alison Weir described her as "certainly promiscuous".

Her defenders have done her an equal disservice. The Spanish chronicle created a great romance. The 19th century feminist historian Agnes Strickland, trapped in Victorian moral values, denied the affair, as though as only a victim of slander could Kathryn be defended.

Both defenders and detractors miss the point. Kathryn Howard was not a paradigm of chastity, but neither was she promiscuous: any "common wh*re" who lived as Kathryn Howard had would soon have starved to death. Neither wh*re nor martyr to love, she was something far harder for our mythologies to deal with--a woman who enjoyed both sex itself and the admiration she got from the men with whom she had her few sexual adventures. Looking at her life not through the eyes of her contemporaries, for whom the ownership of women by their husbands was a given, but from the perspective of a presumably more enlightened age, we should be able to recognize a kind of courage to her reckless affair with Culpeper. Kathryn Howard was a woman who listened to her body's yearnings, and in spite of all she had been taught, understood that she had a right to answer those longings. She was willing to risk whatever it took to be true to herself.

Her liaisons may have lacked the transcendent glamour of risking all for true love, but do they constitute promiscuity? Judged by the standards of her own age she was a "wanton" as was any woman caught engaging in non marital sex. Judged by the standards of ours, she can only be seen accurately as a woman with a healthy sexual appetite, which she indulged with a fair degree of restraint. No man would be judged sexually excessive, then or now, on the basis of two consummated affairs and some heavy petting. That her image remains so tarnished says more about our failure to accept female sexuality than about Kathryn Howard's morality."

[source: Divorced Beheaded Survived, a Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey]

Was Katherine Howard sexually harassed by Thomas Culpepper?:

Tudor Historian Retha Warnicke discusses the hypothesis:

"Culpeper continued to meet the queen after 30 June when she accompanied Henry on his progress to the northern counties, where rebellion had recently been suppressed and where he hoped to meet James V of Scotland at York. Bad weather delayed their entry into Lincoln until 9 August. Katherine permitted Culpeper access to her chamber there and again at Pontefract Castle, where the court arrived on 23 August. Crucial to all interpretations of their relationship is the letter addressed to 'Master Culpeper', undated but probably dispatched during this progress, perhaps at Liddington or Lincoln, endeavouring to arrange their meetings-Katherine asks that he send a horse for her postman. In this letter (calendared as LP Henry VIII, 16, no. 1134) Katherine sympathizes about Culpeper's illness, hopes that he will 'be as' he had 'promised' her, expresses dismay that they are not together so that they can talk, and wishes that he could see the 'pain' she takes in writing to him-'It makes my heart die to think I cannot be always in your company'. Signing off 'Yours as long as lyffe endures', this message has for many historians served as prima facie evidence for the queen's passion for Culpeper, and by extension for an adulterous affair between them.

It is possible, however, to put a different interpretation upon Katherine's letter, that its emotional tone was fuelled less by sexual ardour than by the desperation of a young woman who was seeking to placate an aggressive, dangerous suitor, one who, moreover, as a member of the privy chamber had close contact with the king. The promise she mentioned could have concerned the Dereham affair. Culpeper, it may be suggested, had established some form of threatening control over the queen's life, and although he-as he admitted-was seeking sexual satisfaction with her, Katherine was trying to ensure his silence through a misguided attempt at appeasement. The letter makes it clear that she wished for his presence, but she never refers to him as her 'lover' or 'darling', and expresses a desire for no more than verbal conversation with him. Far from initiating relationships, Katherine's attitude to Culpeper, as to the other men in her life, the king included, can be seen as essentially passive, reactive to their demands.

Four days after her arrival at Pontefract not only did Katherine meet with Culpeper, she also appointed Dereham her secretary. She later insisted that this appointment was at her grandmother's urging, and was probably intended to silence him, too, about their former relationship. She could reasonably hope for success in this, for Dereham later confessed that on two occasions she bribed him to hold his tongue. All this while the king and queen were publicly moving triumphantly through the north, extravagantly celebrating the majesty of the monarchy. By 16 September they had reached York, where Katherine met Culpeper in Lady Rochford's chambers.

At some point, she could not recall when, Katherine's growing fear of discovery caused her to send word to him through Rochford that she would not meet with him again. She did remember calling him 'little sweet fool' when he refused to accept her decision as final (Bath MSS, 2, 9–10). James V failed to appear at York, and by the end of September the royal party had turned south toward Hampton Court. Unbeknownst to them, as they left Hull on 6 October, trouble was brewing in London."

Lacey Baldwin Smith in his "A Tudor Tragedy" says :

Catherine's death is not simply a lesson in Tudor morality. It is an exercise in historical causation and encompasses the entire sink and puddle of palace politics and backstairs bickering which throve so abundantly within the garden of Henry VIII's government. It stands as a grim reminder not only of the consequences of inadvertent folly, but also of the fact that all men are in some fashion victims of their age. Catherine's execution attains the level of grand tragedy only in terms of her milieu that of the vast Howard dynasty and its ambitions in an age of scarcely veiled despotism , when men played the risky game of politics with their lives and women were hapless pawns in the complex scheme of dynastic ambitions. Catherine Howard s light-hearted idiocy was fatal only when fostered and distorted by family greed, royal absolutism, social callousness and violence, and a political theory that stripped the individual of all defence and left him alone and unprotected to face the truth that the king's wrath is death. Only when taken in their entirety do the random events merge into a design, which at no point was ever predetermined or even necessary, but which tempts one to ask of that final tragedy enacted in the courtyard of the Tower of London : How else could it have ended? "

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - entry by Retha Warnicke
  • Divorce, Beheaded, Survived - by Karen Lindsey
  • A Tudor Tragedy - by Lacey Baldwin Smith