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Thoughts On The Fifth Wife

It wasn’t long ago I read The Lady Elizabeth and The Six Wives Of Henry VIII by Alison Weir. Both have been eye-openers.

The first time I read about Katherine Howard, I was eight years old and the information given was scant in detail and basic. It provided only the most hard hitting facts and thus I came to think of her a vile and horrid woman who brought unnecessary shame on her husband’s house. It’s only now, having read copious amounts about her husband, his personality and reign, the Tudor dynasty as a whole, and more in depth information on Katherine herself, that I see the great injustice done.

Katherine’s life was cut brutally short by Henry, which isn’t surprising when you consider how he treated the rest of his family. But what gets me the most is how fearfully young she was, 16 at death, and no matter how much you reason that in those days one was brought up to be older than their years, it’s no less jarring.

Katherine was 15 when she married, her husband was nearing 50. She was a typical teenager who loved dancing and dressing in finery and was very possibly prone to dreaming of true love, for status and protocol could never truly take over the mind. Her husband was past his best: overweight, could no longer do anything that involved walking a fair distance, and omitted a foul smell wherever he went on account of a great sore (possibly a boil) on his leg. To say that they were totally incompatible would be an understatement.

Let’s look at those ages, 15 and 50, and consider with them the fact that Henry was “in love” with Katherine. No matter whether people married young or not the fact remains that even here the age gap was monstrous. Such a man would be labelled worse than a pervert today. The reason Henry gave for beheading Katherine (he didn’t need to divorce her because according to him she wasn’t his wife – he tended to come to that conclusion when they weren’t perfect) has been held as true fact for years. Katherine was unfaithful. But fair dos to her, her husband was an infirm old man and not of her choosing. For some small-minded reason – ok, in truth it was as simple as the purported distinction of men over women, in other words the Tudor period was sexist – it was deemed ok for a man to go about offering himself to all and sundry but forbidden for a woman to do the same, becoming treacherous when it came to royalty.

Much like Lady Jane Grey, the niece of Henry who ruled for nine days, Katherine was used by those who should have protected her. Jane was set up as a puppet queen, Katherine was told to flirt with Henry so that her family would be given riches. Whether Katherine wanted to do what they set her is little known but it would be fine to assume that she was ok with it. The idea of flirting with a king and then becoming the most important woman in the land no doubt appealed to her. At that age she probably wouldn’t have thought much about what would happen if she fell in love with someone else. It’s very unlikely that Katherine felt anything for Henry, like almost all his other wives. The only woman who it could be said definitely loved him was Catherine of Aragon, his first wife who was left widowed after his elder brother died. Would Katherine Howard have cared for him at all, again it’s unlikely.

Katherine, presumably accidentally, made it easy enough for her enemies to find out about her adultery. There is no evidence to suggest she wasn’t guilty of the charges put forth against her. What is obvious as always is her age which should have but of course wasn’t taken into consideration. Does a 15 year old truly know what they are doing? In most cases the answer would be “no” and there is no evidence that Katherine was particularly intelligent. Henry had her sent to the Tower Of London, refused to see her, and had her beheaded while he carried on with his life.

It is therefore safe to say that to his fifth wife Henry VIII was a worse husband than ever before. And that the murder, for I will call it that, of Katherine was wholly unjustified.



November 17, 2010, 4:31 am

Wow, I didn’t realize she was so young! I don’t know nearly as much as I should about Henry and his wives. Really, most of the European kings of yore — they figure so heavily in so much historical fiction. I think I learned more about Katherine from your post than I know about all Henry’s wives combined!

Charlie: For a long time I was under the impression she lived into her twenties, perhaps I’d read about her age but it didn’t stick in my mind because it’s just so awful. I’ve only learned so much now from actively seeking out certain books, because with Aragon, Boleyn, and Seymour, lots of information has always been far easier to obtain as they were around longer.

mary Ann Langan

November 17, 2010, 8:27 pm

Thanks! for sharing, this great review.

Charlie: No review, it’s a summary of my thoughts on Katherine Howard gained from books I’ve read.



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