His Rose Without a Thorn: Henry VIII & Katherine Howard


In February I wrote a post laying out the case for why some believe Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, might not have been guilty of every charge leveled at her in 1542. It included detail on her upbringing, her inclusion in Anne of Cleves’s household and her relationships with the men with whom she was believed to have had relationships with, save one. Notably lacking in the post was any real information on the actual royal marriage that brought Katherine infamy.

Perhaps that’s because I find it a bit repugnant – it’s hard to lend much earnest analysis to a marriage between an old man (by Tudor standards, at least) and a teenage girl. And while not uncommon back in the day, there’s a bit of difference between a foreign alliance and one in which a man like Henry VIII took a girl younger than his eldest daughter, with no education or life experience, and put a crown on her head.

I don’t like Henry VIII. I think he was an abusive husband and father; I think he was an overrated king whose real claim to fame is his marital history. I’m not terribly interested in setting  him up like a Don Draper-like figure whose pathos are meant to inspire sympathy and I love that his wives have become more famous than him – all of them, not just the ones who he willingly acknowledged. Even so, I am forced to admit that it’s necessary to attempt to understand Henry’s emotional makeup to the extent that it’s possible because, well, it’s important.

His life touched countless of other critical historical figures and his reign changed the course of European history. And, of course, he gave England Elizabeth I…with a little help from Anne Boleyn.

As discussed in the February post, it’s only been recently that Katherine Howard has been given a fair shake – and even then everything is speculative. It’s applying a different lens to the same facts, but it’s opinion and guess work all the same. But a good rule to live by if you’re going to take a look at historical women is to always raise an eyebrow when one is blithely branded a whore.

Those of you who read British history are likely familiar with the historian and writer David Starkey. His area of expertise is without a doubt the Tudor era, Henry VIII in particular. He is perhaps best known for his comprehensive history of Henry’s six wives, which I call out only because I can’t read more than a few pages of it without flying into a blind rage. Starkey has done an excellent job over the course of his career in getting at least a finger into Henry’s mind, but his insights into the women he studied rarely go beyond defining them merely as to what reaction they prompted from Henry.

In Katherine’s case, she is not specifically called a slut, but she is in fact called “easy.” She’s described as a good time gal. Fun. Great for a laugh. A “sensuous” teenager … since when is that a thing? Jesus Christ. Anyway, yes, she’s called a girl with a whole lot of experience and Henry, poor bloke, was so wrapped up in lust it never occurred to him to  wonder where she picked up that skill. I wish that I was exaggerating here, but in fact I am paraphrasing direct passages from non-fiction I can’t bring myself to quote.

Katherine’s gotten a raw deal and a big part of that is because history is written by “winners,” yes, but also because it has predominantly been written by men. In that, Katherine certainly isn’t alone – she’s in good company, even if just among countless other queen consorts from England’s history. But her story is particularly poignant given her age and violent death.

Henry VIII

But I digress, because today we are going to do the thing that I don’t want to do, which is attempt to incorporate Henry’s mindset into this.

Henry married Katherine on July 28, 1540 at Oatlands Palace in Surrey, the same day Thomas Cromwell was executed. The groom 49 and the bride between 15 and 20, the marriage came on the heels of Henry’s disastrous union with Anne of Cleves who Katherine had served as a lady-in-waiting. It’s not clear when or how Henry and Katherine first came across one another, whether it was in the weeks leading up to Anne’s arrival in England or after their marriage, but the clip at which everything went down indicates it was at least a superficial relationship.

There is a question mark as to when Henry and Katherine first began sleeping together, because of course there is. Some speculate that Katherine became his mistress in the weeks Henry sought his divorce from Anne, but I’m not terribly inclined to believe that. If Henry truly just wanted to sleep with Katherine, then he would have simply done so and left it at that. Henry was a romantic (God help us all) and, more to the point, he also had a crippling Madonna/whore complex. Henry didn’t marry his mistresses, so long as you accept the party line that he and Anne Boleyn hadn’t been sleeping together prior to their marriage.

Instead, he put his wives on pedestals and grew to hate them when they fell. His wives were meant to save him, like innocent angels of female virtue and my guess is that Henry emphatically didn’t sleep with Katherine – instead she was the bright light at the end of the tunnel that was his Cleves alliance.

His fifth marriage, however, was unique. Most critically, Henry already had a son and there would be none of the same month-to-month anxiety-laden speculation as the court waited to hear if the queen was pregnant. Yes, a “spare” was desirable, but certainly it was an easier situation with Prince Edward safely thriving in the Tudor nursery.

Secondly, there was little fight in the lead up to marrying Katherine. Henry had gone through seven years of hell to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn for love. He had had to execute Anne Boleyn in order to pave the way for Jane Seymour. Anne of Cleves had been the result of several months of negotiation following a few embarrassing “thanks, but no thanks” from other princesses abroad. Katherine, on the other hand, was…there. Anne of Cleves didn’t contest the divorce and Katherine was a seemingly kind, young, pretty teenage girl who didn’t exhaust Henry’s tired mind by arguing with him, inserting herself into politics or causing problems.

Our view of Katherine as queen is very much tinged by her downfall, but in reality her 15 months on the throne looked a bit like Jane Seymour’s. She had a family behind her, the Howards in this case, with men who stood to benefit from her rise. She stayed in her domestic lane, occupying herself with her household and accompanying Henry when she was told to. And she didn’t really cause any problems, except for the fact that she was a Howard, of course, and there were many who had little love for the  clan’s patriarch, the Duke of Norfolk.

The most gossipy item from her brief moment in the sun is rumor that she and her eldest stepdaughter, Mary, didn’t get along. And really, who can blame Mary? She was nearly a decade older than her new stepmother and forced to bend a knee to yet another woman who she likely didn’t believe deserved to sit where her mother had once been. In that she was enormously correct and the usual spin put on the whole thing is that Katherine comes out looking petty – that she had the gall to be offended a princess of the blood didn’t fall all over herself to respect her position. The problem is, the evidence is a bit limp, to say the least.

Henry VIII and his son, Prince Edward, alongside a posthumous Jane Seymour. They are flanked by Mary and Elizabeth Tudor.

The two women may not have gotten along, but they also both had the common sense to put it to bed quickly if there really was a rift – a fact which at least speaks well of their priorities. Katherine also went out of her way to show kindness to her younger stepdaughter, Elizabeth, who was very much not in her father’s good graces, reminding him too much of her mother and lacking Mary’s familial ties to the Hapsburgs. And while it is usually Katherine Parr who is given credit for normalizing the dysfunctional Tudors, the truth of the matter is that it was Katherine Howard who first gave it a go and the wheels she put in motion ended up making her successor’s job significantly easier.

In some ways, Katherine gave Henry his first taste of domestic bliss in years. Not since the early years of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon had he been able to enjoy a certain amount of normalcy, his personal life usually interrupted either by infertility, pregnancies or him desperately trying to maneuver his way out of marriages. With Katherine Henry was happy – he called her his rose without a thorn, but it’s worth considering why.

Well, at first blush there is of course the physical attraction that he felt for her – an attraction which cannot possibly have been shared. There is also the fact there was less pressure put on the marriage thanks to the survival of Prince Edward. And finally, there is the simple fact that Katherine was too young to challenge him and too unimportant to make him consider her as anything other than a person who existed to serve. If you consider, then, that this marriage wasn’t Katherine’s choice and she likely had little say in whether or not she accepted his hand, it’s hard not to distill the relationship down to glorified child abuse.

Katherine’s saving grace, meanwhile, was that she likely didn’t see it as such. We have no idea what she really thought of Henry – whether she feared him, grew fond of him or was hoping against hope for his early death. With any luck his lust for her kept him kind and she wasn’t privy to the blackness of his moods. And perhaps, too, her youth was a benefit – she didn’t have enough context to fully comprehend the downfalls of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, having been a child during that drama, and his treatment of Anne of Cleves failed to serve as a warning since it meant her own rising stock.

But we really don’t know.

Henry during his  marriage to Katherine

What we do know is that when it was all over, Henry would believe himself to have been the victim. He was hoodwinked by a wanton woman who used him poorly, lying about her virginity and taking a man in his employ as her lover. He had been humiliated by his trophy wife – his age, infirmity and corpulence shown to him as the very factors that ensured his own glorious youth was long over.

I find it interesting that it took Henry so long to believe Katherine guilty of the charges brought against her – that his first instinct was denial. Noteworthy only in the sense that he had already executed a wife for adultery. If he had truly believed Anne Boleyn had taken scores of her lovers during their marriage, you would think that perhaps he would have been quicker to lose trust in Katherine. It begs the question of what he truly believed Anne guilty – somewhere in his actions and reactions, can we glean that he knew Anne had been wrongfully accused?

Perhaps, but I always have trouble giving Henry credit for self-awareness. Instead, it more likely speaks to his complete delusion. Anne Boleyn was an adulteress because he decided she was a witch and a whore; Katherine could not possibly be an adulteress because he still loved her.

Katherine was beheaded on February 13, 1542 at the Tower of London. Tellingly, Henry waited 17 months before marrying again.

One thought on “His Rose Without a Thorn: Henry VIII & Katherine Howard

  1. Roxana

    I’ve often thought that if Catherine Howard had deliberately set out to avenge her cousin Anne she couldn’t have destroyed Henry any more thoroughly than she did.
    Catherine was no wanton whore anymore than she was a pure virgin. She was a sixteenth century girl who knew her only hope was a decent marriage and that she had damn little chance of one. She was a Howard yes, but the daughter of an unsuccessful younger son and penniless blue bloods are a drag on the marriage market. She had little hope of her relations arranging a match so she set out to find one for herself. Henry Mannox was slime but little Catherine was equal to him. She got what she wanted out of him, experience? An understanding of how to play men? And cut him off. Dereham was different. He was a gentleman. He had a future. He was a potential husband, maybe the best she could hope to do. And he was serious about her. They were contracted in his eyes. He left what money he had, about a hundred pounds in Catherine’s hands when he went off to seek his fortune. He knew he had to have more money than that for the Howard’s to acknowledge the marriage.
    Then Catherine had an incredible bit of luck, she was sent to court. Suddenly her standards soared. She knew she could do better than Dereham at court. She certainly didn’t expect to get the brass ring though! She had a gentleman attendant in mind not the king himself! But of course she didn’t say no!
    Catherine certainly had sexual experience, she learned from Mannox and Dereham and the other women in her grandmother’s household. Her body was the only weapon she had and she learned to use it. It’s possible that she only slept with two men in her short life and was married, after a fashion, to both. She may never have had full intercourse with Culpeper but if all she wanted to do was talk they could have done that in broad daylight under the eyes of her ladies.
    So, not a wanton. Just a girl with very little going for her, looking for a main chance and capturing him the only way she could.

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