Book Review: Katheryn Howard: The Scandalous Queen
Alison Weir’s new novel paints Henry VIII’s fifth wife in a surprisingly positive light.
I have to admit to a bit of trepidation when I saw that noted historian and royal biographer Alison Weir was publishing a series of six novels, each of which would focus on one of Henry VIII’s wives. Was it really necessary, I thought, to have yet another set of books about the Tudors? Looking back on it, I suppose that was a stupid question, since I of all people should know that the Tudors are endlessly fascinating. And, of course, the minute I started reading the first book in the series, I found myself completely swept away. The same thing happened with each subsequent book; I was particularly impressed with the depiction of Anna of Kleve.
Now, we have at last arrived at Katheryn Howard, Henry’s penultimate wife. She’s always been something of an enigma for me, though slightly less so than her immediate predecessor Anna of Kleve. Weir describes most of her short life, beginning with her time with her impoverished and foolish father and then her time with her step-grandmother at Lambeth, where she engages in sexual relations with one Francis Dereham. It then follows her to the moment when, manipulated by her grandmother and the Duke of Norfolk, she is basically thrown into Henry’s bed and thus ascends to the queenship. And, of course, it chronicles her downfall after she falls in treasonous love with Thomas Culpepper, one of the men who wait upon the king. In the end, she steps forth to meet her death with as much grace and dignity as she can muster.
Weir takes great pains to present Katheryn as fundamentally a misguided young woman, swept up in the political ambitions of her avaricious uncle (the Duke of Norfolk) and Bishop Gardiner, prone to giving in to the demands of others. She realizes this at times, and she is given to understand that she is to play a pivotal role in the attempts of the old Catholic order to topple the Reformists and their dominance over the king and the Church of England. At the same time, she also recognizes that she has little power in this world, and that to refuse to do as they ask would be not only pointless but would also jeopardize her chances of moving on in the world.
For the unfortunate reality for Katheryn is that she happens to be the daughter of one of the most foolish members of the Howard family, who cannot seem to get his affairs in order for long enough to keep himself from drowning in debt. Thus, she finds herself rather forgotten and abandoned in the care of her step-grandmother, who runs a rather lax household. It isn’t long before Katheryn finds herself the object of male affections, particularly that of Dereham. Weir shows that Katheryn was likely in love with him, or at least the sort of love that is common among adolescents: passionate, fiery, deeply physical, yes, but also soon abandoned as the consequences of adulthood begin to settle in.
And that’s exactly what happens with Katheryn. Though she starts out as the pawn of her uncle and her family, Weir takes great pains to show us that, beneath all of the frivolity and the fun-loving, Katheryn really did want to be queen. Thus it is that she turns away from Dereham, seduced by the possibility of wearing a crown and all that it entailed. Unfortunately for her, her naïveté — she promises her hand to Dereham in marriage and then has sex with him — will come back to haunt her after she marries Henry.
What genuinely surprised me about the novel was that it depicts Katheryn actually loving Henry. By this point in his life, of course, Henry was obese with diseased legs, and it couldn’t have been easy for any woman to find herself loving him, especially not one who was still very young. Nevertheless, Katheryn finds it in her to have a great deal of affection for him, even managing to take some bit of pleasure in his sexual embraces. And, as it happens, she is also able to conceive, though she unfortunately has a miscarriage.
In the novel, it is Katheryn’s great mistake to be unable to think too deeply about the consequences of her actions. It’s this rather superficial nature that leads her to her doomed affair with Thomas Culpepper. Weir leaves us in no doubt that Katheryn almost certainly loved the dashing young courtier (notwithstanding the fact that he might have been guilty of both rape and murder). However, the two of them don’t completely consummate their affair, much as they both want to.
The brilliance of the novel lies in its ability to make us as readers cheer for Katheryn and want her to find happiness, even as we shake our heads at her foolish actions. We know, even if she doesn’t, that there are great forces of history at work, and that she is a pawn in the games of others. As Weir acknowledges in her commentary at the end of the book, she keeps the perspective firmly limited to Katheryn’s, so that while she is imprisoned in Syon Abbey, she has no idea of what is going to happen to her. Her continued clinging to hope works to make her story particularly heartbreaking, and her glimpse of the heads of Culpepper and Dereham on London Bridge as she makes her way to the Tower is one of the book’s most haunting passages.
Given that the novel is in third person limited, we as readers don’t get a strong sense of the politics of the age, but they are always lurking there, just off-frame. There are mentions of the ill-fated Pilgrimage of Grace, the jockeying for position between the Catholics and the Protestants, and the numerous factions at court that yearn for power and influence. Is it any wonder that Katheryn found herself lost in the maelstrom and ultimately swept away by it?
All in all, I found Weir’s depiction of Katheryn to be a profoundly touching one. It was Katheryn’s misfortune to be beautiful and to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s hard not to think that had had she been a little more circumspect, a little more patient, things might have worked out for her in the end. After all, it was only a few years later that Henry would be dead, and it’s not hard to think that she might have been able to marry Culpepper after all.
Alas, for Katheryn she would go down in history as yet another casualty of Henry VIII’s bloody reign.