Katheryn Howard’s Death

As I said in The Jezebel Effect:

Henry VII’s fifth wife was beheaded February 13, 1542. In spite of her youth, she made a “most Godly and Christian end” (Starkey, 2003:684). Katheryn had asked that the headsman’s block be brought to her in her rooms, so that she could practice the correct position. Thankfully, she had a competent executioner and her death was quick.

Francis I of France, who was one of the most noted and notorious womanizers in the whole of Europe as well as a king, exclaimed without a hint of irony that the queen “hath done wondrous naughty” when told of Katheryn’s transgressions. He wrote Henry a condolence letter about the “lewd and naughty behavior” of the queen and assuring his fellow king that the “lightness of women cannot bend the honor of men”. It seems not to have occurred to either Henry or Francis that their ‘honor’ was much more tainted than Katheryn’s could ever be. Their extramarital sex lives didn’t count. They were men; QED they couldn’t be disgraceful sluts. They would never have to pay for the so-called crime of having had illicit sex.

For Katheryn, however, the butcher’s bill had to be paid in full …

Even those who are sympathetic to Katheryn Howard often describe her in terms that suggest a harlot. For example, David Starkey condescendingly explains that he can write about Katheryn’s “promiscuity without disapproval”, calling her a “woman with a past” but without intention of condemnation because “like many good-time girls, she was also warm, loving and good-natured” (Starkey, 2003:648 and 655). Lacey Baldwin Smith wrote that her life was “little more than a series of petty trivialities and wanton acts, punctuated by sordid politics”, but nevertheless lamented that her life was cut so tragically short due to the backstairs politics that “transformed juvenile delinquency into high treason” (Smith, 2009:10). Both biographers have a genial attitude about the fallen queen, and they obviously view her as having been overly punished and victimized by forces beyond her control. Notwithstanding their sympathy, though, it is also clear they see her primarily as a sweet natured strumpet.

Rarely have historians pointed out that her sexual history was not extreme. The depiction of Katheryn as a trollop is unfair.

Although Katheryn Howard was executed for treason, her real crime was to believe her body and its pleasures were hers to do with as she chose. She had sex with one man, just one, other than the king, and that long before Henry’s interest in her had become even a twinkle in his eye, but she has been denigrated as a “faithless slut” ever since (Smith, 1982:198). The fact that she enjoyed the attentions of a handsome and charming young man when her elderly husband was absent has branded her forever as scheming and adulterous. Men sought romance outside of their loveless marriages with impunity, but for the queen to do so was shocking, because she was not a man. It is the double-standard writ large on the historical page.

 

       

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