I love the Tudors. A new dynasty rising from the brutality of a bitter war with the joining of two houses. The desperation to provide heirs to provide a continuous line of Tudors that, in the second generation of Tudors, created turmoil for so many. The pressure was on six women in particular: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. Of these, I would venture to say that Anne Boleyn was the most renown. But of these, I would like to suggest that it was Catherine Howard that was most badly used and done by.
No-one even knows for sure when Catherine Howard was. Various researchers estimate her being born somewhere between 1518 and 1524. While she came from a powerful family (her father was the granddaughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, while her uncle was the 3rd Duke of Norfolk), her father Edmund had no money. Catherine was also one of ten children.
Her domineering mother died when she was young, so she was sent to live with her step grandmother, Agnes, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. There appears to be a consensus of opinion about the lack of supervision received by not only the young Catherine but the other young women in the household of the Dowager Duchess. Indeed, the household was generally considered to be permissive. So, the young Catherine grew up surrounded by young , flirtatious women – and the men that came with that. It has also been suggested that Catherine was not scholarly or devout, but rather, vivacious and flirty. She was young, motherless and unsupervised.
In this inappropriate atmosphere, she had relationships with her music tutor, Henry Maddox and her grandmother’s secretary Francis Dereham. There has been much speculation as to whether those relationships were sexual and/or with or without consent. In my mind, however, it doesn’t matter. It is generally accepted that she was about thirteen years old during her relationship with Maddox and, at the most, twenty with Dereham. And while the relationship with Dereham particularly would been seen as acceptable in terms of her age, not so in terms of the balance of power. Both men were in positions of authority in her life and, therefore, her willing agreement would have to be questioned. Historian Josephine Wilkinson has suggested that neither relationship was consensual and I tend to agree.
Catherine’s father died in 1539. In 1540, she found herself as a maid in waiting to the new queen, Anne of Cleves – and as the subject of interest and affection to King Henry VIII.
But Henry had competition. Thomas Culpeper, who was a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber, was younger than the king and Catherine was equally as keen. In another world, Catherine would have married Thomas and her life would have been different – and longer.
Three weeks after the annulment of the marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves was annulled, Catherine Howard became Queen Catherine. At this stage, Henry was nearly 50 and Catherine would have been 21 at most, but likely younger. She found herself stepmother to the princesses Mary and Elizabeth. Mary was at least two, but possibly as much as seven years older than her. Evidence suggests that her relationship with Mary was strained, which, under the circumstances, is understandable. Catherine got on far better with Elizabeth – who was the daughter of her cousin, Anne Boleyn. Regardless, it was a strange situation for a young woman to find herself in.
Catherine reportedly had an affair with Culpeper after had her marriage to the king. Surprisingly, however, it is reportedly her relationships before her marriage, which may not even have been entered willingly, that had her charged with treason. Thomas Cranmer made sure that Henry found out about her previous relationships. A Bill of Attainder was enacted on 11th February, 1542, which made it illegal for a woman who was not chaste to marry the king. Catherine was beheaded two days later on 13th February, 1542. She would have been aged somewhere between seventeen and twenty-one years old.