Monday, 30 January 2017

Katherine Howard - Josephine Wilkinson


Katherine Howard has been the subject of a couple of biographies recently. It is certainly true that she is probably the queen of whom least is known. Anne of Cleves, of course, lived longer, and Jane Seymour has been covered as context to the careers and tangled affairs of her two attention-seeking brothers. Otherwise it's Ann Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon and Kate Parr, very much in that order.

Wilkinson falls into the trap of treating Katherine Howard as one would a contemporary teenaged girl. By the standards of her time, she wasn't. She was fourteen or fifteen when she started having sex (history is vague about her actual age). Many women of her rank were married by that age. Henry VIII's grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, perhaps the most influential of all Tudor women, was married, widowed and a mother at the age of thirteen. If Edmund Tudor wasn't seen as a paedophile, nor should his grandson be.

The fact remains, Henry was old enough to be her father - indeed, he had a daughter older than Katherine. Again, this is nothing new. Henry's problem, I have always maintained, is that he was always in the shadow of his childhood friend Charles Brandon, who was bigger, better looking, a more skillful jouster, who had even more wives than Henry and no problem begetting children, especially sons. Brandon, the duke of Suffolk, has recently married his ward Catherine Willoughby and fathered two strapping sons. This is doubtless what Henry wanted from Katherine Howard.

History has tended to portray Katherine as a brainless tart, so a corrective approach is long overdue. The trouble is, Wilkinson takes it too far. Katherine was demonstrably not stupid; everyone who wrote about her (usually for the advisement of foreign kings) approved of the way she handled her new role as queen. Therefore ignorance cannot excuse her pre-marital promiscuity, having sexual encounters with two of her step-grandmother's servants and setting her cap at a third. Katherine knew what was expected of an eligible bride.  The whole point of being cloistered with the dowager Duchess of Norfolk (who had herself married a man almost fifty years her senior) was to prepare her for married life to some landed gent or other. At best, Katherine was the victim of an overheated puberty.

Her other great quality was honesty. She seems to have immediately admitted her fault, perhaps in the hope of simply being set aside as Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves had both been. After all, she might have been indiscreet and distinctly unwise towards Thomas Culpeper during her marriage to Henry but no one ever claimed she had been unfaithful. Henry, however, went into a sulk and had her head lopped off, a fate she bore with stoicism. Wilkinson provides a nice detail of Katherine practicing with the block the night before her execution.

So, it's a decent account of a sad and ultimately inconsequential life. She didn't put Henry off his marital adventures, she just made him chose better next time. We of course feel sorry for Katherine, but no one made her behave as she did - and even nowadays a young woman with Katherine's sexual antecedents would not be accepted as a potential queen consort by the more ardent royalists. Consider the fate of Sarah, duchess of York.

One thing that really annoyed me, however, was Wilkinson's pretentious habit of fiddling with names. She insists on referring to King Francis of France as Francois I. Yes, he was actually christened Francois, and his subjects would have referred to him as King Francois, but if we're being pedantic then French history calls him Francois premier, and contemporary Frenchmen simply called him le roi Francois, since we only start numbering when there has been more than one. Equally inexcusable is calling Richard Rich Riche; where did that come from? I daresay Wilkinson has found a reference to Riche somewhere, but we all know about Tudor spelling and there are many hundreds of references to plain and simple Richard Rich. He clearly called himself Rich. Blessed with a surname like that, who wouldn't?

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