Last week I watched the two-part TV series Henry VIII (2003) with Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn (Wife No. 2; decapitated) and Emily Blunt as Anne’s young cousin Katherine Howard (Wife No. 5; decapitated).
In this adaptation, the first time we see Katherine she is making passionate love to a young man (Francis Dereham). Later she is introduced to the king (approx. age 49) with instructions to catch his eye, which she does, and very soon they are married. However, the young, passionate queen is unable to resist the handsome Thomas Culpeper – or she uses him to do what the supposedly impotent king is unable to do – and embarks on an affair that is her undoing.
In this narrative, Henry VIII is clearly a victim of a ‘loose woman’ (the earliest instance of this phrase that I’ve found so far – see here – though in this case not connected to prostitution), a sexually experienced woman who has tricked the king and seduced him out of ambition, only to commit the unpardonable treason of adultery. Alas poor Henry.
Emily Blunt was approx. 20 at the time of filming, and the date of Katherine’s birth is something of a puzzle, but Josephine Wilson (How Old was Katherine Howard? ) argues that Katherine was born in 1525, or possibly late 1524. If so, she was approx. 17 when executed; approx. 15 when she married Henry; and approx. 13 when Francis Dereham was in her bed. And even younger still when pursued and molested by Henry Mannock, her music teacher.
Josephine Wilson’s book, Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen, published 2016, paints a detailed, compassionate and very different picture of Katherine Howard as a young girl abused and abandoned by those who should have protected her, who chanced to catch the eye of the king and – for a year, at least – lived the dream as Queen of England. But she was unable to escape completely the secret truth of her early life; too many knew of her earlier relationship with Francis Dereham and believed it to have been fully consensual (something emphatically denied by Katherine).
Until two weeks ago, I knew nothing about Katherine Howard. So many books have been written, and films made, about Anne Boleyn, a grand story of romance and world-shaking politics, but Katherine Howard is generally reduced to a scandalous afterthought. The true scandal here is how once again the victim has been painted as the villain.