Henry VII’s fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, was beheaded in the Tower’s icy courtyard on 13 February 1542.
In spite of her youth, she was said to have made a “most Godly and Christian end”. The former queen had even asked that the headsman’s block be brought to her in her rooms, so that she could practice the correct position for her slaughter in a dignified manner. Thankfully, the young woman (just a girl, really) had a competent executioner and her death was quick.
She died for the treason of having not been a virgin when King Henry VIII wanted her to have been, and for flirting with a young, handsome man when her old, ugly husband wanted her to have eyes only him.
The hypocrisy regarding her ‘crimes’ and her death is stunning to the modern mind.
King 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 …
It is dismaying how many historians, even those who are sympathetic to her, often describe Katheryn Howard 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”.
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, 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 as unfair as it is exaggerated. The perpetually slut shamed Katheryn Howard was executed because 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. Her flirtation as a married woman with Thomas Culpepper was never consummated, so accusations that she was adulterous are accurate only if broadly defined.
Men of her time often sought romance outside of their loveless marriages with impunity, but for Katheryn Howard to do so was shocking, because she was not a man. It is the double-standard writ large on the historical page.
The final insult to her memory is that Henry VIII could have easily saved her life. He could have declared her precontracted to her first lover, and thus his marriage to her would have been invalid. She couldn’t have cheated on a king to whom she was never married; QED she couldn’t have committed treason. She would have been disgraced, but alive. But the sullen old king wanted revenge. He wanted her to die for humiliating him. So instead he pushed the Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 through Parliament, which “made it treason, and punishable by death, for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within twenty days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her. This solved the matter of Catherine’s supposed precontract and made her unequivocally guilty.”
On the surface it seems as though Katheryn Howard died primarily to soothe the king’s abraded ego, but the deeper truth is that she was killed because she usurped the male prerogative of active sexuality. She thought her body was her own, not the patriarchy’s. The young and vibrant and lovely Katherine Howard had tried to live and love with masculine autonomy, and for that she had to die.