Happy International Women’s Day everyone! As more and more people begin to celebrate IWD in small, different ways, it is starting to become one of my favourite days of the year. My social media is filled with declarations of love for womankind. For an entire day, I get to scroll through artwork, poetry, articles and personal posts all dedicated to female friendship and the admiration of women. It is fantastic. Last year I made a post for IWD and it is one of the best things I’ve written on this blog. This year, I wanted to dedicate International Women’s Day to Katherine Howard.
For those who may not know, Katherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII. She was beheaded on treason charges for her ‘intent’ to commit adultery with Thomas Culpeper, and for failing to tell Henry about her ‘relationships’ with Francis Dereham and Henry Mannox that occurred before her marriage. Historians have always been rather cruel to Katherine. She has been portrayed as stupid, immature, lustful and impulsive in books, documentaries and on film – and as a result most people do not remember her fondly. For a recent assignment I decided to investigate Katherine Howard’s life and trial, and unpick her alleged ‘adultery’. Almost immediately, I realised that everything I had been taught about her was false.
The problem with sources regarding women in Early Modern England, is that they are completely affected by the misogynistic views of Tudor society. Women were considered ‘lesser developed versions of men’ and were thought to be more depraved and prone to sin. On top of this their sexuality was heavily policed; whilst any sexual relationships outside of marriage was banned by the church, women were seen as more lustful than men, and so their sex life was held to a much stricter standard than their male counterparts (not much has changed eh). These views on women were accepted by almost everyone in society, and as a result when people (men) were writing about Katherine Howard’s life and trial, they were already biased into condemning her because of their accepted belief about women’s depravity and lustful nature. Katherine Howard was essentially doomed from the start. Unfortunately historians writing in the mid-twentieth century had their own biases about their ‘ideal’ woman, and a women’s sexual freedom. Therefore when they looked at the sources, they accepted much of what had been written about Katherine, as fact rather than biases based on centuries of oppression.
Looking at these sources from a twenty-first century perspective, there is now a clearer picture of Katherine that we can give. Historians such as Rethna Warnicke, Conor Bryne and Jospehine Wilkinson have written wonderful books on Katherine that give a new interpretation of her life. I would like to summarise some of these key points, so that we may tell Katherine’s story properly. It’s important to me that Katherine’s life is remembered properly, that we listen to her testimonies and take what she said seriously. What is so wonderful about gender history is that we are reimagining these women, from a perspective which is not affected by sexist morals and beliefs, one where the woman is respected and her hardships understood. Below are the two key points about Katherine’s fate which everyone should know and understand.
1) She was incredibly young. It is not a secret that Katherine was the youngest of all Henry’s wives, but I think just how young she was is still quite unknown. For a long time, historians believed that this portrait was an image of Katherine. They calculated from the inscription, and year it was painted that Katherine Howard was born in 1520-21, and therefore was approximately 21 when she died. This portrait has since been proved to be another woman (Elizabeth Seymour, Thomas Cromwell’s daughter-in-law), and therefore does not prove Katherine’s age. Whilst still uncertain, most of the evidence points to Katherine being born in late 1523. There are wills from her Grandfather in early 1523 that do not mention Katherine within them, and a will from her Grandmother in 1527 that does, implying she was born sometime between these dates. There is also evidence from the French Ambassador which suggests she was 18 in 1541, this would mean she was born in late 1523. This estimated age is slightly new to historians, and changes how we view Katherines experiences. Rather than being a young woman during many of these encounters with men (including Henry) as we once thought, it is likely Katherine was very much a child. She was 17 when she married Henry, 15 when she was recorded as sleeping with Francis Dereham, and as young as 13 when she was forced into sexual activities with Henry Mannox. Perhaps the tendency of the twentieth-century historians, to view her as older than she was, can help explain why they gave her such a hard time. But historians today, who are more certain of her later-birth date cannot deny that she was incredibly young when all these horrific events occurred.
2) She disclosed several accounts of sexual assault that were ignored. From the beginning of the investigation, Katherine was adamant that Henry Mannox and Francis Dereham had forced themselves on her. Mannox even admitted that Katherine had been ‘reluctant’ to be physical with him but that she eventually gave in. From a modern perspective, this is clearly a worrying encounter. Katherine was 13 when things began with Mannox, a man considerably older than her – the fact she did not consent but eventually ‘gave in’ to his advances is clearly not a story of a consensual relationship but of child abuse. And yet no one during her trial seemed to care, primarily because abuse and childhood were not thought of in the same way as today. Likewise when it came to her relationship with Francis Dereham, though Katherine admitted they had sex, she claimed this was by ‘force and persuasions’ from Dereham. Statements from several witnesses, including Katherine and the men, show that Katherine did not consent to either Mannox or Dereham’s advances. When it came to Culpeper, during her marriage things are a little foggier, but there is still no evidence that Katherine ever slept with him. All that is known about Culpeper and Katherine is that they met in secret together, but Culpeper himself claimed Katherine was ‘jittery’ and scared during these meetings – and servants admitted that Katherine continually asked Culpeper to leave her alone. In the case of every man, Katherine made it clear she had not wanted their attention, and instead they had forced themselves upon her. Alone her statements could be seen as excuses to save her own neck (pun intended), but they are paired with a multitude of other witnesses – including the men themselves – that all admit Katherine did not seek out, nor enjoy the company of these men. It seems shockingly clear to me, that Katherine was a victim and not a villain in this story. And yet in her trial, no one seemed to care about these statements: rape and abuse were not considered at all and the blame was placed firmly at Katherine’s feet. In this time period, the complexities of rape and child abuse were not understood, and they couldn’t comprehend how Katherine could be a victim. It was believed that because Katherine had sex before marriage, and had met with a man who wasn’t her husband, that she was to blame. It was not even considered that the men may be the ones pursuing her because women were seen as more sinful and sex-crazed. She was doomed from the start.
In the twentieth century, historians chose to take the conclusions that men had made from Katherine’s trial and present them as fact. As a result, for the public, Katherine has become known as Henry VIII’s silly, naive, cheating young wife. But she is so much more than that. Being able to look at the records with a new perspective allows us to see Katherine for who she was. An incredibly young girl who was manipulated and abused by men older than her, and then condemned for it. She was educated to a high standard that fit with her rank, she was a sweet and kind Queen during her brief marriage and she clearly found herself in a position she could not control.
Gender history is so important to me, because it means we get to learn the truth about stories that we all thought we knew. I used to hold these same opinions on Katherine, and now I have nothing but empathy and respect for her. I want to dedicate my International Women’s Day to her, and every other woman in history whose stories have been written by a man. Lets make it our mission, to try and recover their stories, to tell their truths and to give them the respect they deserve. I hope you’ve come away from this article with a new found respect for Katherine Howard – and with an open mind that not everything you read in history books about women are strictly true!