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.