Friday, March 15, 2013

Queen Katherine Howard: common and unjust stereotypes

Catherine Howard: a Quick Profile

  • Birth: 1521-1525
  • Death: executed February 13, 1542
  • Place of residence: Lambeth
  • Family: Howard
  • Mother/Father: Joyce Culpeper and Lord Edmund Howard
  • Marital Status: 'pre-contract' to Francis Dereham in c.1539-, and marriage to Henry VIII 28 July 1540-(annulled) 28 November 1541
  • Motto: "No other will but his"
  • Signature: 
    File:Catherine Howard Signature.svg
  • Succeeded by: Catherine Parr 

Firstly, some speculation: to what degree was Catherine Howard even guilty? The only record we have of Catherine's allegedly wild and sexually illicit early life are the testimonies that were stacked against her, most likely by enemies of her faction, the Howards. It started with Archbishop Cranmer sending a letter to the king informing him that one of the maids (Mary Lascelles) whom she had roomed with at Lambeth had told him that Catherine was no virgin and had been pre-contracted to Francis Dereham. Unfortunately, Catherine had nearly been forced by her grandmother to give him a place in her court which made their relationship look desperately suspicious. They probably were at some point young, in love, and secretly betrothed, but that confession could have been artificial and forced from him. Even so, having previously been in love with a man her age was far from adultery -- what really makes Catherine a controversial queen is her alleged affairs with one of her husband's men, Thomas Culpeper. Surviving evidence we have of this is her love letter to him, but we can't know for sure if they even had sexual relationships before her quick and dramatic fall was spurred on. However, assuming that she had been married to Dereham and that she had engaged in sexual relations with Culpeper, here is a list of common misconceptions against her. 
The Catherine Howard Misconception  
  • Catherine Howard was stupid…? I don’t even really know where to start on this. Firstly, next to Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and Katherine Parr, any typical maid-in-waiting would have looked like an utter bimbo. And typical-maid-in-waiting was exactly what Catherine Howard was, but it’s all relative really and there isn’t enough to know how scholarly or foolish Catherine was. She was an orphan of poor parents and she had to live with a step-grandmother who neglected her — how much of an education do you think she got? But we know by the surviving letter she sent Thomas Culpepper that she could write. She was at the court for less than a year when Henry VIII seized her. Barely knowing the flow of court machinations she was suddenly swept up and put on the throne by her uncle’s ambition’s and a king’s lust, probably at around sixteen. She didn’t ever argue with Henry on matters of religion and state, but she was young and a girl and it was no secret what had happened to her predecessors, so this doesn’t mean she was stupid, carefree and opinion-less — I think it means the opposite!
  • Catherine was selfish and frivolous…? As a child she had been poor and neglected, so she was probably delighted when the king began to spoil her. She died the queen of his six wives who had had the biggest wardrobe, the most jewels, but, remember, she had quite a few predecessors to inherit royal goods from. Catherine was a teenager (and God knows, we need our clothes) and I don’t see what’s so disgraceful about having a regal wardrobe when you’re Queen. As for her being selfish, she was, again, a teenager, and becoming less self-centered is a part of entering into adulthood. However, by all accounts she appears to have been generous and loyal, giving positions to the equally neglected and unfortunate girls she had spent her childhood with.
  • Catherine exerted poor control over the maids of her chamber...? First things first, most of the women waiting on her were older than her, so bear in mind how awkward it might have been to tell them to sit down and shut up. Secondly, how on earth was she supposed to know how? As I said, she had been at court for less than a year when tables turned and as no more than a child she was made Queen, hardly with her consent. The dormitory she had grown up in was infamously lacking in manners, which nobody taught her, and at night the rooms she lived in famously ran wild without supervision. It wasn’t her fault, and I do believe she understood the authority held by her position and tried her best.
  • Catherine Howard was a whore…? By the standard held in Tudor times, yes, she died a whore and traitor. But I don’t believe her relationship as a youth with Francis Dereham was twisted or disgusting. Young love happens, and as a neglected orphan I don’t think she ever imagined in her wildest dreams that she would have become queen, so what was wrong with having a bit of fun and romance, actually being cared for by someone? If you expect her to have said when Henry proposed to her, “Sorry, I’m not a virgin so get lost,” then you seriously need to get a clue because her uncle and ambitious family commanded her every move.

    As for her relationship with Thomas Culpepper, I will never, ever call her a whore for it. You’re going to call this a bad excuse for risking their lives, and a very cliche one too, but love makes you seriously reckless. Henry was more like a father/grand-father figure to her and his love grew consistently more sour when she didn’t get pregnant; she needed to take solace some place otherwise the stress and fear of being surrounded by enemies waiting to see her fall would have killed her before the axman got the chance. Bad excuse again? Then just give up reading this because you don’t understand the circumstances. She wasn’t so stupid that she didn’t know the potential, fatal consequences and I really do believe that was a testament to her love for Culpepper, not to how allegedly big of an airhead she was.
  • Catherine died a pathetic, graceless little girl…? Whenever I say how deeply I admire her, people give me strange looks. But I truly believe that going to her death she was brave and graceful beyond her years. On the scaffold her speech was graceful and well-rehearsed and she died a courageous and mature woman. 
  • Speculation: Henry's thought process regarding her execution... If you love Catherine and think the king was a monster for executing her, then good for you, I feel the same way (even Arthur sent Guinevere to a nunnery, right?!). But I understand his reasoning. First, he might be called a tyrant for it now, but Henry never let go of a chance to show his authority and strength, which is understandable. The fact was she committed adultery and at every court in Europe, if he had spared her, then Henry would have been a laughingstock. Secondly, this was a personal blow to him. Catherine Howard was Anne Boleyn’s direct cousin; this brought back so many harsh memories. He had known in his heart, being very fickle, that Anne and the men who had been slaughtered were innocent, but he was still furious, so imagine how angry he must have been when he knew he had been truly cheated on. Being by then old and obese and sickly, he was already insecure: imagine what this did to him. He picked up his sword and said he would kill her himself.

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