On several subsequent occasions, the Dowager expressed variations on the remark “that the King's highness did cast a fantasy [attraction or fancy] to Katharine Howard the first time that ever his Grace saw her.” The Dowager made her claims in conversation with several of the King's councillors in 1541 and tellingly they did not correct her – they simply wanted to know who had told her. Her recollections suggest that the King’s initial attraction to Catherine was a spontaneous case of lust at first sight.
At first, all seemed blissful. But there quickly unfolded “a story of profligacy necessary to be told, yet too hideous to dwell upon,” as Henry's biographer J. A. Froude put it a over a century ago, covering the whole thing in exquisite Victorian disdain: “I shall touch upon it but lightly, inasmuch as the entire body of evidence survives in its voluminous offensiveness, and leaves no room for the most charitable incredulity to raise questions or suggest uncertainties.”Catherine might have been translated to the highest position a woman could hold in Tudor England, but she hadn't left her own dimwitted lascivious nature behind. As historian J. J. Scarisbrick succinctly puts it, “She had been unchaste before her marriage; she took to adultery soon after it.”She encountered some sour receptions even before scandal engulfed her. During the first innocent months, when Henry was besotted with her and open-handed in his generosity, she prompted inevitable and unflattering comparisons with the modesty of both Anne of Cleves and Jane Seymour, as Russell relates:
Catherine's high spirits also encouraged some criticism. What might appear as vivacious loveliness to some can be interpreted as irritating garrulousness by others. A Spanish merchant living in London, who admittedly never let fact stand in the way of a good story, claimed later that “the King had no wife who made him spend so much money in dresses and jewels as she did, who every day had some new caprice.” She certainly liked to have a good time and in her apartments Catherine “did nothing but dance and rejoice.”
Henry at this point was fifty and in worsening health, and so worsening temper. He was growing increasingly irritated with his councillors, complaining more and more audibly about having been maneuvered into executing his assiduous servant Thomas Cromwell in the wake of the Anne of Cleves fiasco, and deepening secret negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor to form a league against the power of France, all while conducting duplicitously byzantine diplomacy with his nephew, the King of Scotland. In short, despite what legions of pop-culture historians may have implied over the centuries, the King of England had a good deal more on his plate than a pretty new wife – a fact Russell, like virtually every wife-biographer before him, has some trouble keeping in mind, preferring often in Young and Damned and Fair to assassinate Henry's character rather than assess it, declaring that he had always been capable of “morally and legally questionable savagery” and telling us, “Henry VIII was a man who had somehow gone rotten without ever being ripe.”This question of rottenness comes up for Russell because of what happened right away when Catherine became Henry's wife: during royal progresses, in which the whole household moved in laborious state and pomp from one distant country estate to the next, Catherine began entertaining lovers, foremost among them a hapless courtiernamed Thomas Culpeper, in secret meetings arranged by Catherine's lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochfort, wife of Anne Boleyn's brother. In short order this became known to Henry's councillors, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, a stout believer in the Reformed church who relished the chance of attacking the Catholic Howards, informed the King.At first, Henry didn't believe it, couldn't let himself believe it, not only that his new wife was making a cuckold out of him with one of his own courtiers but also that, as came to light, she'd hardly been a sexual innocent all those months ago when he'd first cast a fantasy to her – that Dereham, his friend Robert Damport, Lady Rochfort, and maybe others had all known this the whole time that Henry was courting her and marrying her and lavishing her with newlywed presents. His disbelief thawed readily enough into wrath, and as Russell writes, his own hand then turned the state machinery designed to crush the truth out of a mass of scattered testimony:
At the earlier date, the King wrote to Archbishop Cranmer encouraging “persevering in your diligence to attain knowledge of the truth, by all ways and means” and Henry personally authorized torture to be used on the two friends on December 6. How they were savaged is unknown. The rack seems the most likely, particularly in Dereham's case, but a story that was still doing the rounds in court circles a decade later had it that Robert Damport had his teeth pulled out one by one until he confessed his crime of knowing his friend had once slept with a girl who went on to become Queen of England.
Catherine flew into hysterics and denials when she was first confronted with the results of all this, but as noted, there was no room for even the most charitable incredulity. The only hint of hope would have been just the kind of legal casuistry Henry loved: if Catherine had actually been contracted somehow to Dereham before she married the King, then the technical crime might be lessened to … then the sentence might be commuted to … but no. As Russell puts it,
Dereham and Culpepper were trapped not by what they had done but what they had planned to do. Their actions – in Culpepper's case, the covert meetings and in Dereham's joining Catherine's household – were taken, not unreasonably, as proof that they both had the goal of seducing the King's wife.
The men were executed in December of 1541, and the following February Catherine was likewise executed, a scene that brings out the novelist in Russell:
A few women from her suite stood by to perform their last service for Catherine, who sank to the straw and nuzzled her neck, bare and exposed, into the embrace of the block. She had made it familiar. She would leave with dignity. The feared final humiliation was avoided as the axe rose into the air, then descended at rapid speed to slice through Catherine's neck with one clean and merciful stroke. Blood gushed forth onto the scaffold; the dead woman's head thudded into the straw; the ladies moved forward with a cloak that they threw over the little body and then lifted it, and the head, over to one side of the scaffold. Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, was brought out to follow her mistress … and knelt down. For her too the end was swift. A whistle in the air, a secondary trauma, and the play was over.
This particular play had no encores and no revivals. The business of the Court fluttered a bit, since scores of minor and major Howards fell from their offices or fled to the country when their second shot at royal favor ended in catastrophe, but the King himself was right away feasting and joking – and scheming about the Scots and the French – as if young Catherine and her rise and fall never crossed his mind. He waited well over a year before marrying for the sixth and final time, and that sixth wife, Katherine Parr, completed the morality play sequence on a grace note, providing Henry with calm and conversation, reconciling him to his daughters, and ruling the country when he was off fighting his last battles on the Continent.In revisiting Catherine Howard's story, Russell seeks to shift the emphasis from the personal to the professional, stressing how the households of queens and powerful noblewomen could become focal points for a level of power and influence earlier historians haven't always fully credited. Throughout his book, although Catherine herself keeps getting in his way, he tries to hit this note about her own role in the larger Tudor story:
Putting her household, and her grandmother's, at the center of a biography of Catherine makes her story a grand tale of the Henrician court in its twilight, a glittering but pernicious sunset, in which the King's unstable behavior and his courtiers' labyrinthine deceptions ensured that fortune's wheel was moving more rapidly than at any previous point in his vicious but fascinating reign.
But this particular “glittering but pernicious sunset” was still a ways off. Henry waited 16 months before he married again, and Katherine Parr was his queen for four active, engaged years. Putting little Catherine Howard at any kind of sunset gives her a luster she didn't possess; it makes a signature moment out of just another mark on the sundial. And as for that “vicious but fascinating reign,” we can let the Victorian have the final word:
We judge living men not from single facts, but from a thousand trifles; and sound estimates of historical persons are pieced together from a general study of their actions, their writings, the description of friends and enemies, from those occasional allusions which we find scattered over contemporary correspondence, from materials which, in the instance of Henry VIII, consist of many thousands of documents. Out of so large a mass tolerable evidence would be forthcoming of vicious tendencies if vicious tendencies had existed.
____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.