The Bill of Attainder of Katheryn Howard

On January 21, 1542  a Bill of Attainder was introduced in English Parliament against Katheryn Howard.

Henry VIII’s fifth queen had already been stripped of her title by the king’s Privy Council on November 22, 1441 because she had led “an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, and vicious life” before marriage and acting “like a common harlot with diverse persons” while falsely “maintaining however the outward appearance of chastity and honesty.”

In sum, Katheryn’s crime was being a ‘slut’ but not looking like a slut. This was, in the Tudor mind, particularly heinous. It put paid to the common myth that men could tell a woman was a virgin at a glance by her innocent demeanour and firm breasts. It made it seems as though sluts were just like any other women. There was no magic slut shaming marker! It reminded Tudor men that sluts could hide in plain sight and that they could ‘trick’ men into marrying them. Sluts were dangerous because they were women who could make men look like idiots.

What egregious behaviour made Katheryn Howard the “common harlot” she was called? No more and no less than that she had two boyfriends before marrying the king, one of whom she slept with, and an unconsummated flirtation with a courtier after she was Henry’s wife. Seriously. That’s the entirety of her so-called harlotry “with diverse persons”.

The Bill of Attainder was finally passed in February, and made it treason for any “unchaste” woman to wed the king. Moreover, if any persons knew that the would-be queen had been unchaste before Henry had wanted her, they too would be put to death.

Henry, after making it perfectly clear he would marry a virgin or heads would roll, chose the twice widowed  and decidedly unvirginal Kateryn Parr for his sixth wife. The king ironically chose to marry a woman with twice as many sexual partners as the woman he had beheaded for her sluttiness. However, because none of Kateryn’s former sexual activity was illicit, she was not a “slut” like Katheryn Howard.

It was the control over a woman’s sexuality – the ability to control when and how and with whom she could be sexual — rather than the sexuality itself that was the heart of the purity cult and men’s honor.

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