Tag Archives: Katherine Howard

“There Was Never Such a Whore”: The Downfalls of Queens Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard

Above: The Tudors – glamorised, modernised and hyper-sexualised – depicts both Anne Boleyn (left) and Katherine Howard (right) as experienced seductresses.

Above: The Tudors – glamorised, modernised and hyper-sexualised – depicts both Anne Boleyn (left) and Katherine Howard (right) as experienced seductresses.

Conor Byrne is a history student at the University of Exeter whose research interests include gender, cultural, and social history. His excellent blog focuses on historical issues but also touches upon contemporary political and social events.

None of the six wives of Henry VIII – with the possible exception of wife number four Anne of Cleves, who escaped her disastrous marriage with a lavish settlement and, more importantly, with her life – had enviable fates. But, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, wives number two and five respectively, came off worst by a long shot. Both were disgraced, shamed, and beheaded in the prime of youth. Anne was at most thirty-five (according to some writers, perhaps only in her late twenties), while Katherine probably never saw her eighteenth birthday.

It was Henry, an all-powerful, enigmatic and authoritative king, who was responsible for ordering the deaths of two women he had once passionately adored. It was Henry who personally signed Anne’s death warrant and, in the case of Katherine, consigned her to death using a Bill of Attainder – unlike her older cousin, she was never granted a public trial, an injustice that few people are aware about. It was Henry, therefore, both as a king and as a husband, who was responsible for the executions of two wives – even if he did not personally murder them.

Despite this, a prevailing view assumes that both women were, in varying degrees, to blame for their violent and untimely deaths. And, perhaps more shockingly, this is not a view that is limited to the popular imagination. Serious academic historians hold this view. Generally, historians believe that Anne Boleyn, although opining that she was a flirtatious woman who encouraged seductions in her chambers, was innocent of the crimes she died for, admitting that she was probably framed in what was a murderous and vicious court conspiracy, but they, by and large, contend that Katherine Howard was a silly flirt who actually did sleep around even after she’d married the king.

Take as an example the late Lacey Baldwin Smith, who wrote studies of both women. He appeared sympathetic to Anne Boleyn, admitting that she was ‘dispatched with callous disregard’, but his biography of Katherine Howard is littered with dismissive, contemptuous and curt phrases concerning the fifth queen. Katherine is frequently described by him as being ‘a common whore’, or a ‘juvenile delinquent’. Alison Weir, a bestselling popular historian, has argued in three books that Anne was innocent of sexual crimes and died as a result of Cromwell’s manoeuvres, but in her same works, Weir argues that Katherine was ‘certainly promiscuous’ and ‘incredibly stupid’. Suzannah Lipscomb has argued passionately for Anne Boleyn’s innocence, but is dismissive and patronising towards her younger cousin, depicting Katherine as ‘a stupid girl’ who, basically, deserved her fate. Even Joanna Denny, who wrote sympathetic biographies of both queens, alleged that Katherine committed sexual intercourse with Thomas Culpeper in a doomed attempt to pass off her lover’s bastard as the impotent king’s legitimate son. Only Retha M. Warnicke, a foremost Tudor scholar, has provided convincing arguments in favour of both women’s innocence, a view I subscribe to.

This article contends that Katherine is deserving of the same reassessment her more famous cousin has enjoyed over recent years. It is an interesting issue: why have scholars been ready to rehabilitate Anne Boleyn’s reputation and stress her innocence, but they have not rethought traditional – negative – assumptions about Katherine Howard? It is important to note here that some historians still perpetuate negative assessments of Anne. Alison Weir has defended the queen’s innocence and admires her courage, but she still paints a black picture of a manipulative, power-hungry shrew that was probably no virgin when she married the king. In popular culture, of course, The Other Boleyn Girl and company stress Anne’s supposed seductive and promiscuous nature. But, by and large, it’d be fair to say that the majority of modern historians have rethought traditional scholarship surrounding her.

Perhaps, however, the fundamental reason why Katherine has not received the same reassessment is because she admitted to flouting the gender rules of the time, as Warnicke suggests, pointing out that Katherine admitted to meeting with Culpeper after she married the king – a dangerous and suspicious activity for any married woman in the early modern period, especially a royal wife. Anne, of course, did not admit to any such activity, and only one of the five men accused with her did, perhaps because he was tortured. Another reason might be because Anne’s innocence has been, for most people (with the exception of some historians such as G. W. Bernard) patently obvious, in no small part, I feel, because of the incredible impact she made at her trial just four days before her execution. For many people, the powerful, evocative and most importantly, convincing, defence offered by Queen Anne at her trial in May 1536 has stood the test of time, and has effectively proven to most people that she was innocent. Contemporary observers themselves were swayed by the power behind her words and the conviction in her voice. They changed their opinions and voiced their suspicions that she was being done away with for ignominious reasons that the official charges were only a cover for. But Katherine was never granted this opportunity. Holed away in Syon Abbey, with rumours that she was contemplating suicide and suffering a mental breakdown, she left it only to make the short journey to the Tower, where she was quickly dispatched days later.

Consider the images presented here of Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Tamzin Merchant as Katherine Howard from the TV series The Tudors. Both women are presented as scheming and experienced seductresses who flirtatiously ensnare the king, although, of course, Anne’s character becomes much more complex, multifaceted and admirable over the course of the series as we are exposed to her religious role, political involvement, and humanist interests (in no small part because of Natalie Dormer’s conviction that Anne needed to be portrayed in a more two-dimensional light). Merchant’s Katherine, however, is dim, spoiled and unpopular, although her beauty captivates both the king and Culpeper. This depiction of these women as promiscuous, however, is not limited to The Tudors: consider, for example, a scheming and jealous Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl who openly seduces the king in a barely believable scene before the whole of his court or a naked and sensual Katherine Howard in the BBC TV series Henry VIII (2003) who receives Thomas Culpeper while bathing.

But the paradox is: while popular culture often depicts Anne as a scheming seducer, by and large the general public are now coming around to the view that, in reality, it was a lot more complicated, in no small part to the efforts of both academic and popular historians. So even though Anne may still be presented as promiscuous in pop cultural texts, the majority of informed viewers know that the real woman was very different. But it is not the same with Katherine Howard: because so few historians have sought to rehabilitate her reputation, the prevailing image of her in popular culture, by and large, reflects the opinions of many serious historians, and is not consciously challenged by viewers in the same way that, for example, a negative depiction of Anne would be.

I conclude this article, therefore, with a plea for Katherine to be reassessed. We have now recognised, over the course of time, that Anne Boleyn was a complex, talented, multifaceted individual and we are able to dismiss the traditional caricature of her as whore, witch or home wrecker. I hope that, one day, the same will be achieved for her tragic and younger cousin.


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

The Creation of Katherine Howard

Image credit: Wikipedia

Image credit: Wikipedia

The following post is written by Conor Byrne, a British university student interested in cultural, gender and social history, focusing in particular on English history 1450-1600 in relation to aspects of gender, society, and culture.

Tudor history enthusiasts will be excited to discover that a very interesting book has just been published, written by Susan Bordo: The Creation of Anne Boleyn. This is not a historical biography, but instead, Bordo explores how Anne has been ‘created’ throughout history by different people, according to their prejudices, beliefs and culture, through a variety of mediums including film, theatre and novels. As someone who has been researching the life of her tragic, but much less famous, cousin and fellow queen Katherine Howard, I thought it would be interesting to explore how Katherine herself has been ‘created’ over the years according to different beliefs and prejudices.

Image credit: CBC

Image credit: CBC

From the time of her execution in 1542 until the nineteenth century, unlike Anne (who enjoyed long-lasting fame due to her status as the mother of the Protestant queen Elizabeth I), Katherine was a non-entity, ignored and forgotten by almost everyone; even her own family had rapidly disowned her at the time of her death. However, with the rise of the study of history in the Victorian period, writers began to pay much greater attention to the reigns of Henry VIII’s queens, lamented by Jane Austen.

The austere moral values and the condemnation of ‘fallen women’ in contemporary Victorian society, unsurprisingly, influenced understandings of Katherine’s story as a lesson in morality, as something to be learned from. In relation to Katherine herself, Victorian historians were either hostile, or viewed her with pity – Agnes Strickland, perhaps the greatest female biographer of the age, characterised her as ‘a sheep being led to the slaughter’, but shied away from her shocking career, due to her stifling moral values.

In film, Katherine first appeared in the successful 1933 Oscar-winning The Private Life of Henry VIII, with Binnie Barnes presenting her opposite Charles Laughton as Henry VIII. The film centred around the relationship between the king and his fifth wife, marginalising his affairs with his other queens. The result was that Katherine was presented as a more influential and, in a sense, important wife to the detriment of the others than she had ever been in reality. This Katherine was worldly-wise, sophisticated, and incredibly beautiful, but her charm and qualities seemed far more nuanced than the real Katherine’s probably were.

The publication of the only academic biography of Katherine, written in 1961 by Lacey Baldwin Smith at a time of the beginning of rebellious feminist politics and swiftly changing views of women, was heavily critical of Katherine, condemning her as ‘a juvenile delinquent’ and a ‘common whore’ who was childish, rash and given to fits of hysteria. Again, we see how the context of the times shaped this interpretation – heavy moral values and the actual imprisonment of juvenile delinquents at the time for crime influenced this historian’s understanding of a queen executed for adultery.

Baldwin Smith’s interpretation was very influential in the next portrayal of Katherine in film/TV, in the television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970), where she was played by Angela Pleasance. This series was very unsympathetic to Katherine, where she is depicted as a violent, manipulative, hedonistic teenager who threatens her cousin with poison and physical violence and acts in a cruel manner to her ex-lovers.

Two years later, however, the most accurate presentation of Katherine emerged in the film of the same name, where the young queen was played by 18-year old Lynne Frederick (tragic in itself, since Frederick died at a very young age). The film perhaps represented growing sympathy to Katherine within England, in highlighting her youth, innocence and naivety, and her hysteria when imprisoned. Indeed, this can be seen as the beginnings of the ‘creation’ of Katherine’s status as victim, continuing into our own day. In David Starkey’s television series (2001), all six wives are presented with a label at the beginning of the program – Katherine’s is ‘victim’.

It’s not hard to see why this has happened. The rise of women’s history, feminist politics, and a greater awareness of domestic violence has shaped the creation of Katherine in modern times. Historians have suggested that she was a victim of sexual violence from ruthless predators at court. Her status as victim was exemplified in the British TV movie Henry VIII (2003), where Emily Blunt gives a poignant depiction of a sobbing and screaming Katherine on the scaffold – but again presents her as selfish and driven by her own pleasures.

Most recently, in the successful Showtime series The Tudors, Tamzin Merchant gives a very modern portrayal of Katherine as a girl who just wants to have fun. We are encouraged to sympathise with her, but the series presents what people see as a problem in contemporary society – promiscuous girls who think of nothing but their own pleasures. This has shaped people’s views of Katherine. One person I know, who adores The Tudors and Anne Boleyn, once told other people that Katherine was the only ‘slutty’ wife, while defending Anne at every cost. But is this an accurate depiction of the real woman, or merely a view of how she has been presented in film and TV?


Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers