Katheryn Howard (that’s how she signed her name), the fifth wife of Henry VIII, spent the second week of November 1541 being interrogated by special investigators – lead by no less a personage than Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – to determine the extent of her tawdry sinfulness and lewd shenanigans. Katheryn, though barely in her twenties at the time (if that) has ever afterwards been maligned as a scarlet woman by most laymen and historians. What, for the love of heaven and in defense of chastity, did she do to gain the reputation as such a filthy harlot?
No more and no less than that she had two boyfriends before marrying Henry VIII, one of whom she slept with, and an unconsummated flirtation with a courtier after she had wed the king. Seriously. That’s the entirety of her so-called sordid behavior.
As I explain in my book The Jezebel Effect, Katheryn’s main crime seems to have been that she was desirable. This set her up for “failure” as a devotee to chastity, and it cost the generous, frivolous, unthinking, and sweet young woman her life.
Katheryn, although a member of the nobility, was more or less an institutionalized orphan with all the attendant loneliness and craving for affection that engenders. She was one of many children born to the obscure and scrounging younger brother of the Duke of Norfolk, Edmund Howard, and his first wife, Jocasta Culpepper. Her mother died when Katheryn was young and the little girl was then offloaded by her deadbeat dad onto her step-grandmother, Agnes Howard, the dowager duchess of Norfolk and the second wife of the duke of Norfolk’s father. Agnes Howard had a large household, and many of the major and minor noble families sent the younger daughters there to act as ladies-in-waiting in order to fine tune their social skills. There were so many young women and girls in the household that there was actually a dormitory, called the Maidens’ Chamber, where they all slept. Needless to say, Katheryn wouldn’t have gotten much individual attention or maternal care. The only advantage she had was that she was pretty, and even this blessing came with it’s own problems.
Katheryn had been largely neglected in her childhood, but in post-pubescence she found that she — like her cousin Anne Boleyn — possessed an allure that rendered her especially desirable to men. Women who are imbued with this inherent sensuousness are usually blamed for the attention they attract. Garnering too much male notice marks a woman as a doxy who is no better than she should be.
Even in modern times women are considered the gatekeepers of morality, but it was a much stronger responsibility in Katheryn’s day. Inasmuch as women are the ones required to have self-control and keep suitors at bay, women who “give in” to wooing males are ergo bad women. They have failed in their gender-based duty to keep male sexuality in check. Women who either encourage or enjoy the sexual attention of men are still frequently conceptualized as jezebels out to lure men to their moral doom. For Katheryn, the rewards must have outweighed the moral censure. Doubtlessly starved for affection and attention, Katheryn discovered that she could gain both endearments and pleasure by being flirtatious and indulging in some physical romance with her swains. She has been consistently depicted as a slattern and a whore for her choices.
Katheryn’s first boyfriend was her music teacher, Henry Manox. Manox was an adult male of undetermined age, whereas Katheryn was somewhere between 10 and 15 years old. Thus, to the modern reader, it is more reasonable to describe Katheryn’s first “boyfriend” as a sexual predator and pedophile. However, the understanding of the age of consent and adulthood was different in the 16th century; if Katheryn were 15 years old – which is the most likely date – then Manox would have considered her grownup enough to woo.
Their semi-romance ended abruptly when Agnes Howard caught Manox and Katheryn canoodling. Agnes was irked more than scandalized, and struck Katheryn for being foolish enough to risk her reputation with a nobody like Manox. The dowager duchess also forbade them to ever be alone together again. The loss of Manox didn’t seem to have any lasting effect on Katheryn. She moved on, and did not look back.
Katheryn soon caught the attention of Francis Dereham. He was a more respectable suitor, and although he wasn’t wealthy he was gentleman of reasonable means. Like Manox, Dereham appears to have fallen in love with Katheryn. Witnesses would later report that Dereham had repeatedly begged her to marry him, but Katheryn was unwilling to commit. She liked him, but thought she could do better in the long run. Although she wasn’t madly in love with Dereham, she fancied him enough to have sex with him. Moreover, her enthusiasm for continuing their liaison indicates she found sex to be pleasurable. Imagine! A woman having sex for fun rather than True Love! Katheryn didn’t seem to worry that an unexpected pregnancy would force her to the altar, since she would later claim that she knew how to “meddle with a man and yet conceive no child”. She wanted to have sex, but not marriage or babies from it.
Katheryn was far from alone in her notions. Several of the ‘maidens’ in the Maidens’ Chamber enjoyed having lovers. The young women who shared the dormitory bribed the dowager’s maid to bring them the key to their door. With a copy of the purloined key, they opened their door at night and allowed their suitors to visit. The various boyfriends would bring alcoholic beverages, “strawberries, apples and other things to make good cheer” with, and would “commonly banquet and be merry there till two or three of the clock in the morning”.
Katheryn apparently enjoyed her affair with Dereham during its duration, but she left him without a qualm when she had a chance to get to court in the winter of 1539. When her lovesick beau tried to remind her they were as good as engaged, having called each other husband and wife, Katheryn let him know that for her part she never considered them contracted to wed. She was thrilled to leave the Dowager’s household and become one of ladies in waiting for the new queen, Anna of Cleves. When questioned later, Katheryn declared that she had never promised to marry Dereham and that everyone “that knew me, and kept my company, know how glad and desirous I was to come to the court”.
At court, Katheryn caught the eye of King Henry VIII and like every other suitor he fell in love with her. This suitor, however, was one Katheryn was happy to marry. Now the once overlooked orphan was the most important woman in the realm – she was QUEEN.
Although the new queen had no personal enemies, her powerful uncle had multitudes who wanted to discredit her to get to him. They discovered she had previously had sex with Francis Dereham. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote Henry a letter detailing the shocking allegations against the queen and left it in a pew for the king to find. Henry was initially incensed at the allegations, insisting Katheryn was maligned and that the rumors were “rather a forged matter than of truth”. Cranmer and the others were now strongly motivated to prove Katheryn’s guilt; their lives may have depended on ending hers.
Happily for Katheryn’s accusers and unhappily for Katheryn herself, evidence in the form of sworn statements from all parties was not hard to obtain. Katheryn’s former boyfriends, her current amour (with whom she had not had sex; just flirtation), and her supposed friend Lady Rochford all turned on her like jackals.
By 8 November the young queen learned that her past was not only discovered, but that it could be considered treason and punishable by death to have married the king without a maidenhead and then flirted too markedly with one of the courtiers.
Although Katheryn was smart, or at least smarter than she is given credit for, she was ignorant of the law and how she could use her implied precontract with Dereham to save herself. Her better educated friends and relatives, all of whom had been happy to use her connections to benefit themselves, of course rushed to her aid to give her advice and counsel to repay her for her kindness to them.
The pack of sniveling courtiers and sycophants that had flattered her and enjoyed the luxuries and advancements she had s generously bestowed upon them couldn’t be bothered to help her. They wanted as much distance between Katheryn and themselves as possible, lest Henry’s ax throw a shadow on their necks as well.
Katheryn remained at Hampton Court, isolated and friendless and afraid, waiting to hear what would happen to her.