Catherine Howard

From Academic Kids

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Miniature portrait of Catherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger

Catherine Howard (1520/1525? - February 13, 1542) was the fifth queen consort of Henry VIII of England 1540-1542, sometimes known as "the rose without a thorn." She was born between 1520 and 1525, maybe 1521, probably in London, the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and granddaughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. She married Henry VIII on July 28, 1540, at Oatlands Palace in Surrey, having caught his eye even before his divorce from Anne of Cleves was arranged.


The Rise and Fall of Catherine Howard

It is hard to say precisely when Catherine was born, although it seems fair to say that it was at some point between 1520 and 1525. She was the niece of the Duke of Norfolk and a first cousin of Anne Boleyn. Catherine's father was Lord Edmund Howard, but he was constantly in debt and begging for handouts. His powerful niece, Anne Boleyn, got him a government job working for the king in Calais in 1531. At this point, young Catherine was sent to live with her step-grandmother, Elizabeth Tilney the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.

The Dowager Duchess ran a large household, and she had numerous female and male attendants. The Dowager was often at Court and took little interest in her wards. Thus, Catherine soon became involved in the numerous romances that existed in the house. At the age of eleven or twelve she began a romance with her music teacher, Henry Mannox. Although the two did not go so far as to become lovers, they did participate in some far-reaching foreplay. This affair came to an end when Catherine fell for a handsome young secretary, Francis Dereham. They did become lovers, and many of Catherine's room-mates knew of the affair. It ended in 1539 when Catherine's uncle found her a place as lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII's new German wife, Queen Anne of Cleves.

As a young and very attractive teenager, Catherine soon caught the eye of Anne's disenchanted husband, King Henry. Henry divorced Anne in July 1540 and married Catherine, who had been his mistress for the last few months. Henry was almost fifty, Catherine was still in her teens.

Henry, old and obese, showered his young bride with wealth, jewels and many more fantastically-expensive gifts. Of course, he was unaware of her past and Catherine was praised throughout court as a young, virtuous queen.

However, despite her wealth and power, Catherine found her marital relations unappealing. She was repulsed by her husband's grotesque body, and sought romantic amusement elsewhere. She embarked upon a light-hearted romance with Henry's favourite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper. Their meetings were arranged by one of Catherine's older ladies-in-waiting, Lady Jane Rochford. It is unclear whether Catherine or Thomas were ever lovers in the full sense of the word, but it is certainly possible.

As Catherine's liaison with Culpeper progressed, she was contacted by people who had lived with her at her grandmother's. In order to buy their silence, she appointed many of them to her household. Most disastrously, she appointed Henry Mannox as one of her musicians and Francis Dereham as her private secretary.

In 1541, rumours began to grow about the queen's conduct. Protestant courtiers who resented her family's power were delighted when one of Catherine's old companions revealed the truth about Francis Dereham. The King refused to believe the charges at first, but there was too much evidence to ignore them.

Catherine was placed under close guard in her chambers, accompanied only by Lady Rochford. She was interrogated by the King's councillors many times. There was talk that she would be divorced and exiled, until someone discovered a love letter she had written to Culpeper. The charge now changed to adultery which, in a queen, meant treason.

Catherine was imprisoned in an abbey in Middlesex through the winter of 1541 and stripped of her title as queen. Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were executed at Tyburn on December 8, 1541. The Queen's case was brought before parliament in January.

She was taken to the Tower of London on 10 February, 1542. The night before her execution, Catherine spent many hours practising how to lay her head upon the block. She died with dignity, but looked pale and terrified. Her speech asked for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. Her death was extremely quick and she was buried in the nearby chapel where her cousin, Anne Boleyn, also lay.

Catherine Howard in artwork

Painters continued to include Jane Seymour in pictures of King Henry VIII years after she was dead, because Henry continued to look back on her with favour as the one wife who gave him a son; most of them copied the portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger because it was the only full-sized picture available. In the opposite situation, after Catherine Howard was executed, even the Howard family removed her picture from their family portrait gallery, because Henry never forgave her for her perfidy. Nobody dared make another portrait of her after she was dead.

For centuries, a picture by Hans Holbein was believed to be of Catherine, and some authorities said it is the only portrait of her that exists. Some historians now doubt that the woman in the picture is Catherine. Recently historian Antonia Fraser has persuasively argued that the above portrait is one of Jane Seymour's sister, Elizabeth Cromwell. The woman bears a remarkable resemblance to Jane (especially around the chin) and she is wearing the clothes of a widow, which Catherine never had occasion to wear but Elizabeth Seymour-Cromwell did. Furthemore, the age of the sitter is given as twenty-one. However, Catherine never reached her twenty-first birthday. Even if we accept the earliest possible date for her birth 1520/1521, Catherine would not have turned twenty-one until late 1541 or 1542 by which time she was either imprisoned or dead. If we accept the more likely date for her birth as being 1525 then its possible that Catherine did not even reach her seventeenth birthday. There is therefore no possibility that the portrait of the lady in blue is Queen Catherine Howard.

There is another picture of Catherine, a water-colour miniature (below, right); it has been dated (from details about how she is dressed and how the miniature is made) to the short period when Catherine was queen.

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This miniature watercolor is now believed by some historians to be a true portrait of Catherine Howard. Her manner of dress and jewelry suggest her identity.

In it she is wearing the jewels remarkably similar to those Jane Seymour was wearing in her official portrait; these were jewels the records show belonged to the crown, not to any queen personally, and there is no record of their having been removed from the treasury and given to anyone else. The only other possibility is that the portrait shows Henry's Scottish niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, the mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots. So, whilst it is almost certain that the above portrait is not Catherine Howard, but rather Henry's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Seymour-Cromwell, the miniature shown above right is (possibly) Henry's unlucky fifth queen.

In film

Catherine first appeared on the silver screen in 1926, in the silent film Hampton Court Palace, in which she was played by Gabrielle Morton. In 1933, in The Private Life of Henry VIII, she was played by sultry British dancer Binnie Barnes. In this comedy of manners, Catherine chooses to abandon love and ambitiously sets out to seduce the king. Her tragedy comes upon falling in love with the debonair and devoted Thomas Culpeper. This inaccurate telling of Catherine's story dominates the film - which began with the execution of Anne Boleyn (played by Merle Oberon) and ended with Henry's marriage to Catherine Parr (played by Evelyn Gregg.)

American actress Dawn Addams made a 10-second appearance as the doomed queen in the 1952 romantic film Young Bess, with Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, Stewart Granger as Thomas Seymour and Jean Simmons as Elizabeth I.

In 1970, Angela Pleasance gave a melodramatic performance in a 90-minute BBC television drama Catherine Howard opposite Keith Michell as Henry VIII, Patrick Troughton as the duke of Norfolk and Sheila Burrell as Lady Rochford. In this version of events a shrill, indulgent, cruel, hedonistic Catherine uses the nave Culpeper to try and get herself pregnant in order to secure her position. The characterisations and plot-lines were very inaccurate - unusually, since the other 5 dramas in this series were widely praised in historical circles.

Catherine Howard made a cameo appearance, played by Monika Dietrich, in the 1971 slapstick British comedy Carry on Henry, with Sid James as Henry VIII. Two years later, Lynne Fredericks portrayed Queen Catherine in Henry VIII and His Six Wives opposite Keith Michell as Henry VIII.

In 2001, Michelle Abrahams played Catherine in Dr. David Starkey's television documentary on Henry's queens. In 2003, Emily Blunt, potrayed a more sympathetic portrayal of Catherine in the television drama Henry VIII which chose to focus almost entirely on Catherine's sexual escapades. Once again, her adultery was explained by her relatives' desire for her to get pregnant. Ray Winstone appeared as Henry VIII.


Victorian writer, Agnes Strickland, argued that Catherine had been innocent of all charges laid against her. Others, namely American historican Lacey Baldwin Smith, described her life as one of "hedonism" and Catherine as a "juvenile delinquent." Alison Weir, in 1991, described her as "an empty-headed wanton."

Others are more sympathetic--particularly Dr. David Starkey, who offered revolutionary theories on Catherine's adultery, and feminist activist, Karen Lindsey, who was sympathetic but realistic in her assessment of Catherine Howard's personality.

External links

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