Written with an exciting combination of narrative flair and historical authority, this interpretation of the tragic life of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, breaks new ground in our understanding of the very young woman who became queen at a time of unprecedented social and political tension and whose terrible errors in judgment quickly led her to the executioner’s block.
On the morning of July 28, 1540, as King Henry’s VIII’s former confidante Thomas Cromwell was being led to his execution, a teenager named Catherine Howard began her reign as queen of a country simmering with rebellion and terrifying uncertainty. Sixteen months later, the king’s fifth wife would follow her cousin Anne Boleyn to the scaffold, having been convicted of adultery and high treason.
The broad outlines of Catherine’s career might be familiar, but her story up until now has been incomplete. Unlike previous accounts of her life, which portray her as a naïve victim of an ambitious family, this compelling and authoritative biography will shed new light on Catherine Howard’s rise and downfall by reexamining her motives and showing her in her context, a milieu that goes beyond her family and the influential men of the court to include the aristocrats and, most critically, the servants who surrounded her and who, in the end, conspired against her. By illuminating Catherine’s entwined upstairs/downstairs worlds as well as societal tensions beyond the palace walls, the author offers a fascinating portrayal of court life in the sixteenth century and a fresh analysis of the forces beyond Catherine’s control that led to her execution—from diplomatic pressure and international politics to the long-festering resentments against the queen’s household at court.
Including a forgotten text of Catherine’s confession in her own words, color illustrations, family tree, map, and extensive notes, Young and Damned and Fair changes our understanding of one of history’s most famous women while telling the compelling and very human story of complex individuals attempting to survive in a dangerous age.
I have to admit that I am no fan of Catherine Howard. By the time that Henry married Catherine, he was fat, demented and most importantly (to me), had turned against my book-husband Thomas Cromwell. So I read little about wife number five. The whole Catherine Howard incident is just one big hot mess, and one of the main indicators of how far Henry had already fallen.
King Henry had spent twenty years on the throne as a golden king, praised by all in word and art, so to cement a legacy, but Henry’s third decade showed signs of decay. By the time that Henry had denied Anne of Cleves because of his erectile issues, it was little Catherine Howard who had accidentally wandered into view, as a teenage attendant to Anne. Anne of Cleves was an educated, travelled woman and Henry was more in need of a child who had no thoughts or opinions and could be manipulated by a man who would make a better grandfather than lover.
The English court expected women to be virgins, perfect and untouched in every way. Yet men roamed freely, unguarded in their desires, as if their meddling had no effect on virginity. Catherine Howard was a simple girl, raised away from family and without anyone really caring for her. Catherine makes the perfect victim to be targeted by an old weirdo.
Russell’s book tells the story about how court life would have been in Catherine’s time; the late 1530’s were an awful time all round, with Henry’s leg increasingly pressing upon his sanity, the country in revolt, and Anne of Cleves getting the blame for Henry’s lack of male…. well… just, ew.
Catherine was a victim of her own lifestyle, one she never chose. Without a decent education or people to confide in, she fell for charms of young men liked a pretty face. A sweet girl told whispers of love is easy prey for older men. By the time Catherine was sent to court to wait on the new Queen Anne, she had already become a victim of her own existence.
Henry, a fat, old man with a desire to feel special and young again, laid eyes on a girl, not a seductress or whore as claimed, but an innocent girl who was whisked away in the glamour of being courted by the most powerful man in the land. Henry had been married to Catherine’s cousin, Anne Boleyn, and yet Catherine had not been shown a caution around the king, and soon was caught up with a man who never loved her, rather loved the idea of her instead.
Catherine, covered in gowns and jewels, played the role of token on the king’s arm, only to fall in love – with someone else. A man who worked in Henry’s chamber, a man known to be a disgusting human being in his own right, was happy to let Catherine’s feelings run away with her, thinking she could have romance in her life while playing concubine to an ailing fat man.
Catherine’s life ended far too soon, scared, alone and never believed in her words and deeds. A young girl who wanted, needed, to be loved, was instead used and abused by everyone, a minor detail in a long story of depravity that was the end of Henry’s reign. It is nice to read about the life and facts of Catherine, instead of whore narratives.
Everyone knows Henry; famous ginger, head chopper, tantrum thrower, binge eater, wife collector. But while writing Frailty of Human Affairs, I found that beyond those few things, people knew less than I expected. So, instead of writing lengthy discussions about his life, here is a brief round-up, plus the obvious and less-obvious facts on King Henry VIII.
NB: you dapper British people probably know everything
Facts you probably know about King Henry VIII
King Henry loved to party. A childhood of relaxation meant he took the throne without any preparation
Of Henry’s six famous queens, three of them were named Catherine. That’s weird
Henry had Anne Boleyn as a queen, Mary Boleyn as a mistress (separately, phew)
Henry took the throne aged only 17, and held on until age 55
Henry had England and Wales and Ireland together, but never secured Scotland
Henry was not a huge fat man his whole life. He was over six feet tall (huge then) and regarded as a handsome, athletic man. (Might be true; people couldn’t write he was ugly, could they). Henry was considered a catch, crown or not
Henry brought the Protestant faith to England, crushing Catholic rule. It would have happened without him, just slower, and maybe less bloody. Religion is a nightmare
Henry had a bastard son, named Henry. The poor boy died as a teenager, much the same way as Henry’s legitimate son, at much the same age. Coincidence?
Henry fell from his horse while jousting in 1536, bursting open his thigh, which never healed, making him in disgusting pain, and probably mad as hell all the time. The same accident likely caused massive brain injuries
Henry got upwards of 180kgs when he died. That’s upwards of 400 pounds for you Americans, upwards of 30 stone for you Brits. Eww
Had diabetes been a thing, Henry would probably have been diagnosed due to his weight issues. The obesity is, in theory, part of the brain injury caused by his famous 1536 jousting accident
Henry loved playing jokes on people, plus dancing and generally goofing around
Henry was great with languages; he spoke English and French, along with Latin, bits of Spanish (obviously) and even some ancient Greek
Facts you probably didn’t know about Henry VIII
Henry was a publisher author, writing on the Catholic faith (his love for it, while it suited him), and also wrote music, and the odd love poem
Henry ruled a spot of Belgium in 1513 when he invaded Tournai. Okay, France owned it then, but still. He gave it back in 1518
Henry loved tennis (as they played it then).
Henry said his fourth wife looked as ugly as a horse. He was no oil painting by that stage himself. Poor Thomas Cromwell got beheaded due to her ‘ugliness’ and Henry’s inability to get an erection
Henry is buried with wife number 3, because she bore a living son, not Katherine his first wife, who he knew since the age of only 10. Dick.
Henry basically created the English navy. They only had five boats when he took power. They had more like 50 ships by the time he died.
Henry and Anne Boleyn were not love at first sight. Anne had been floating around court for a while, trying to win a chosen duke for a husband by the time Henry stopped sleeping with her sister and noticed her
All of Henry’s wives were descendants of King Edward I to some degree. But the nobility was always an inbred lot
Henry beheaded 72,000 people, including two wives and one Thomas Cromwell!
Henry lost one million pounds (today’s figures) on gambling in only three years. But he never played with people who couldn’t afford to lose. Kind of nice, I guess…
Henry’s only descendants are in dispute. Mary Boleyn had two children, rumoured to be his (or at least the daughter, not so much the son). Queen Elizabeth II would be related to Henry if there was a way to prove the link. The facts make a very strong case (it’s hard to hide affairs when babies come out ginger). Current Prince George would be related to Henry on both sides of his family!
Henry had a fear of illness. He moved constantly to avoid plague and sweating sickness. After Prince Arthur died, it probably made Henry paranoid of the Tudors’ losing the crown. Every little thing needed to be checked out for Henry; he would take no risks (can’t blame him; germs were friggin’ everywhere!)
It’s claimed Henry had syphilis, but he never displayed symptoms, nor the side effects of syphilis treatment. He was no ladies man; he had his favourites
Henry was neat and tidy, not the food guzzling pig imagined. He liked to eat in private and was a fastidious hand washer at meal times
It’s theorised that Henry had Kell positive blood, a blood type that, if passed to a child, it would abort the fetus. That would explain so many dead children, especially for Queen Katherine
Henry’s beloved sister Mary married his best friend, Charles Brandon, secretly in France. Henry was livid – Charles was only there to collect Mary because her husband of three months, the King of France, had dropped dead
Henry, before he favoured beheading
Little Henry was born 28 June, 1491, at the Palace of Placentia (now demolished) in Greenwich. He was baby number three, the second son of his father Henry VII, the first Tudor king. His mother, Elizabeth, was the great white rose of York, the marriage ending the War of the Roses and civil war in England. He had a comfy childhood as he was not to be king, as his older brother Arthur was groomed for the role. Henry grew up with his mother, older sister Margaret and younger sister Mary. His younger brother Edmund and youngest sister Katherine did not survive infancy.
Childhood was a lavish affair, with many titles given to him and a top-notch education, the spoiled little boy in a household of women. At age ten, Henry was part of his brother Arthur’s wedding to the legendary Princess Katherine of Aragon. Then everything changed for little ginger Henry.
On 2 April, 1502, just twenty weeks into marriage, Prince Arthur died of sweating sickness at Ludlow Castle in Wales. Suddenly Henry was next in line to be king. His parents Henry and Elizabeth had adored Arthur and trained him well, and now were terrified to lose their only son, and possibly peace in their country if Henry didn’t ascend the throne. But Henry took on no royal duties, and while he was elevated in status, he could never go anywhere.
Queen Consort Elizabeth could do only one thing to help her country; have another son, in case something happened to Henry. She fell pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, who died after birth. Sadly, Henry then lost his precious mother to childbirth fever. But the kingdom couldn’t wait; within months Henry was betrothed to his brother’s widow, and his sister Margaret was sold off to be Queen of Scotland. Henry and his sister Mary, three years younger than himself, became even closer in a world which hid them away in preparation for the future, he as King of England, her as Queen of France.
As Henry aged, he disliked the idea of marrying Katherine of Aragon, and called off the arrangement, leaving Katherine in poverty in London, as her Spanish king father would not take her back and her powerful mother died.
Henry VII died on 21 April 1509, which left 17-year-old Henry as the King. He buried his father and decided to marry the 23-year-old Spanish princess after all, his father’s dying wish (maybe; sounded good, right?). They had a small wedding but had a dual and incredible coronation at Westminster. Henry and Katherine were a happy couple, lucky considering arranged marriages.
Henry, the young, prudish, king ready to take power
It was time to start beheadings. Men Henry disliked, or were found guilty of crimes, were quickly dispatched; men disliked by Henry VII were pardoned or released and Henry VIII’s enemies were chopped. But as Henry found his way, his first daughter was stillborn in early 1510. New Year’s Day 1511 brought a precious boy named Henry, who died a few weeks into his short but celebrated life. More stillborn sons in 1514 and 1515 brought strain to the happy couple, before Princess Mary was born healthy in early 1516. Katherine again bore a stillborn daughter in 1518, bringing an end to the royal offspring.
Henry had a few mistresses, as was custom when a woman was pregnant (which was a lot). He kept Anne Hastings early in his marriage, and then Elizabeth Blount from 1516. Blount gave birth to a bastard son named Henry in 1519, and he was made a duke, despite being illegitimate. A king’s manhood needed soothing after all, and a son did that greatly.
It wasn’t all sleeping around. Henry invaded France in 1513 while pregnant Katherine invaded Scotland and killed their King, who was married to Henry’s sister Margaret. War in France went badly, but Henry’s beloved sister Mary was made the French Queen for a few months and then peace reigned. With young kings in England, France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was unusually calm. England and France had the famous Field of Cloth and Gold in 1520, a lavish peace treaty signing, and Henry was named Defender of the Faith by the Pope in 1521, as Henry was a jovial king, but also a well-read and religious man.
But there was no legitimate son and heir. Henry was still young, and in 1525, was sleeping with Mary Boleyn, who was rumoured to have birthed two ginger children (Catherine and Henry; pick new names, people!), but were officially considered her husband’s children. But by 1526, Henry was deeply in love (lust? womb envy?) with Mary’s sister, Anne.
Henry needed to find a way out of a marriage nearly twenty years old.
Then we move to the part of Henry’s life people know.
When the Pope refused to annul his marriage to Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey, King’s closest friend and advisor, couldn’t help him (and then died on the way to his trial and execution!), Henry got Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s secretary, to change the laws of England and crush the Catholic Church’s power in England, creating the Church of England and Protestant reform. Henry married Anne in 1533 and Katherine, the perfect wife for over twenty years, was stuck out in the countryside in poverty.
But Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, and had two miscarriages. Henry’s cut off Anne’s head on fake charges of adultery in 1536. He married Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, ten days later and she bore a son in 1537, only to die weeks later. Henry then married a German Protestant noble Anne of Cleves, to help fend off Catholic enemies domestically (the country was half of fire over the religious changes as monasteries were ruined) and abroad, only to find Anne ugly. Henry annulled Anne of Cleves, cut off Thomas Cromwell’s head as punishment for the idea, married Catherine Howard, an English teenager only one-third of his age, but cut her head off 18 months later for adultery. So Henry married another Catherine, Catherine Parr, then bankrupted the country losing in a war against France, and then died fat, old, cranky and possibly mentally ill. But he had his precious male heir (who died as a teenager, but that is another story).
The Henry I write of in Thomas Cromwell’s life is from 1529 onwards, a man touching 40 and desperate to gain a son. It is all before his brain injury, his changes and his rampant tantrums, though they will make their presence felt! What kind of man was Henry before he became old and bitter? That I have been able to create for myself.
Thomas Cromwell – lawyer, politician, religious reformer, mercenary, charmer, merchant, party thrower, country changer, money-lender, queenmaker. When people hear the name Cromwell, they think of Oliver Cromwell. Wrong century. Thomas Cromwell is the only man in English history you need to know. He managed to destroy the Catholic Church’s hold in England and their greatest queen all at once, and became a common man who took over England, and the nobility couldn’t do a thing about it. Here is a short and simple introduction.
Cromwell’s birth is not recorded, but thought around 1485, in Putney, to mother Katherine and father Walter, a blacksmith, merchant and brewery owner. He was simply another common baby born, along with two sisters, around Putney Hill. In his own words, he was a ruffian as a child. At some stage, Cromwell left home and travelled to France, became be a mercenary in the French army, marched into Italy, and fought as a soldier in the battle of Garigliano in December 1503, all by about 18 years old.
Then Cromwell’s life turned around. Starving and homeless, Cromwell found himself in Florence, where he met a banker named Francesco Frescobaldi, an English-speaking merchant who took him into his household, giving him a home and a job. Working as a merchant on Frescobaldi’s behalf, it is believed Cromwell worked successfully in Florence and the Low Countries (what is now parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). He created his own network of merchants in English, Italian and Flemish, though very little is known of this empire-building part of his life. But he is recorded as a patient in a Roman hospital in June 1514, and Cromwell pops up in Vatican archives as an agent for the Archbishop of York and working for the Roman Rota (like a Catholic Church court system).
Cromwell doesn’t appear anywhere until his name appears back in England, when he married Elizabeth Wyckes in 1515, a girl who also grew up in Putney, but was a widow after her first husband, a Yeoman of the Guard, passed away. Three children came into Cromwell’s life – Gregory in about 1520, Anne and then Grace soon after.
Cromwell found himself a job in the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. England’s most powerful man, a favourite of King Henry. Henry was inclined to leave the heavy lifting in the kingdom to Wolsey. With his knowledge as a lawyer (yes, that happened somewhere along the way), in 1517 Cromwell returned to Rome to visit Pope Leo X on Wolsey’s behalf, where he was said to have charmed the Pope into seeing him and granted the papal bull (like a decree or patent) he required for his master. He returned a year later to again see the Pope, such was Wolsey’s trust in Cromwell.
By 1520 Cromwell was doing well, in both legal and merchants circles in England. He continued his work for Wolsey, but also earned money as a lawyer and cloth merchant, and in 1523, won a seat in parliament (the where’s and how’s are not firmly established). But parliament was dissolved (Henry and Wolsey disliked people making decisions for them), and Cromwell was accepted to Gray’s Inn (like passing the bar for lawyers) in 1524.
Cromwell took on more work and started to become more powerful under Wolsey at this time. In 1525 he did Wolsey’s dirty work and closed corrupt monasteries, to redirect their money into building The King’s School, Ipswich (now Ipswich School) and Cardinal College in Oxford (now Christ Church, part of Oxford University). Cromwell was one of Wolsey’s council members by 1526 and his secretary in 1529. Then things took their dramatic turn.
Around 1528-1529, Cromwell’s wife and two daughters all died of sweating sickness (a bit like the plague without the boils). King Henry was trying to divorce Queen Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey and another Cardinal, Lorenzo Campeggio from Rome, sat in legatine court to decide on whether the King could gain an annulment. When the court folded, Henry turned on his well-known rage, and Wolsey was fired, banished and humiliated. Cromwell was determined not to suffer the fate of his master and friend.
Anne Boleyn hated Wolsey with a passion, and Cromwell moved out of the Cardinal’s shadow and charmed his way into working directly for King Henry. In late 1530, Wolsey died on his way to execution (you couldn’t make this up) and Cromwell set to making Anne Boleyn queen, and also breaking the stranglehold of the Catholic faith in England. Countries like Germany (or the areas that make up modern Germany) were reforming, creating the Protestant faith, freeing Catholics from the Latin scriptures and suffocating nature of the Church. Cromwell found that reforming the Church was the way to ensure Anne Boleyn could be queen. Cromwell got himself into a prime role beside the king, and got himself back into parliament, and completed a series of law changes which stripped the Church’s power and made annulment possible (I’m massively over-simplifying here). Anne Boleyn gained her crown in June 1533, and Princess Elizabeth was born three months later. The Pope had not annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, but by now the Church of England existed and Henry was the leader, not the Pope. Cromwell was a hero in Henry’s eyes, and hated by pretty much everyone else.
In 1534, Cromwell was King Henry’s chief minister, plus in parliament, and running the royal treasury, the royal jewel house, the steward of Westminster and many other titles. With the chance to continue reforming religion, Cromwell had Henry’s blessing to continue with destroying the Catholic Church, interrogating and killing clergymen, weeding out corruption, and famously had everyone in England swear an oath stating Henry ruled the Church, not the Pope. When famous haters of reform, and Queen Katherine supporters, Sir Thomas More (now Saint Thomas More) and Bishop John Fisher (now also a saint) refused to take the oath, Cromwell had them both beheaded in June 1535. The King appointed Cromwell Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General of England, and Cromwell conducted an extensive census, so he could start taxing monasteries around the nation (the monasteries had money pouring from every gap, powerful in their communities and known for corruption). By now, Cromwell was unpopular with most, but loved by King Henry ever more. Cromwell had total power over the Church in England, which made him as powerful as Henry himself.
Viceregent Cromwell passed a law suppressing lesser monasteries in England, so their funds could be directed to Henry’s accounts. Queen Anne did not like this, and turned on her precious Cromwell, forgetting he was the power that made her Queen. She had her chaplain preach against him before the royal court, making him an enemy. Anne wanted the monastery money sent to the people for education and charity, while Cromwell followed Henry’s orders and gave it to the royal accounts. Already Anne Boleyn had failed in giving Henry a son that she promised, and now she had Cromwell, England’s real power, against her.
With Jane Seymour, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting, catching Henry’s eye, Anne became unpopular with the King (the only person who liked her). So when Henry wanted a new queen, a pretty blonde girl was ready, and Cromwell was more than ready to destroy the queen had made only a few years earlier. He had his power and the dissolution of religious control. Anne Boleyn had to die.
Cromwell had Anne Boleyn arrested and tried in May 1536 of adultery, with her brother George, Henry’s close friends and staff Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and court musician Mark Smeaton. Also tried was Thomas Wyatt, court poet and diplomat, but he was a friend of Cromwell, and was spared. In court, Cromwell had the judges find Anne and the men all guilty of adultery and sentenced to death, all with the King’s blessing. All the heads quickly rolled and Henry married Jane Seymour ten days later.
Now Baron Cromwell and Lord Privy Seal, Cromwell enjoyed total control, passing more laws destroying anything Catholic related, and even great monasteries in England were pulled down. The Church was pulled from the people and Protestant changes were forced upon everyone. Henry got his beloved son from Jane Seymour, only to have her die in childbirth in July 1537. But Cromwell had his own troubles as the commoners were marching in their tens of thousands, calling for his head over the changes being made to their country. The famous Pilgrimage of Grace against Cromwell failed, and English Bibles turned out over England while Catholic relics were gathered and destroyed. By mid 1539, the Catholic Church was more or less wiped out thanks to Cromwell’s extensive law changes. But Henry was sick of the changes, unhappy with the unrest in England, and in need of wife number 4.
The famous sole surviving painting of Thomas Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It is said it was hidden to protect it from being destroyed – but by whom?
Queenmaker Cromwell found Anne of Cleves, a German noblewoman, from a Protestant nation (Cleves was tiny country/province now in Germany), but Henry, now a fat old man, said his new German bride was too ugly for him (again, this is massively over-simplifying). Cromwell took the blame for Henry marrying a German girl he wouldn’t (or many say couldn’t) bed. Like Henry’s libido, Cromwell’s favour had run out.
But in April 1540, Henry made Cromwell an earl and named him Lord Chamberlain. Trouble was, Cromwell’s huge list of enemies had pushed teenager Catherine Howard forward as a new bride. Cromwell was the man who married Henry to an ‘ugly’ woman, and his enemies had fresh meat for him to defile. Henry turned on Cromwell, having him arrested on heresy and treason charges, but mostly because Anne of Cleves wasn’t pretty enough. A serious of false charges were thrown at Cromwell, tossed in the Tower, and he was beheaded, in what is mentioned as the worst beheading ever (as in, the executioner needed to butcher him to get the head off) on 28 July 1540. Henry married Catherine Howard the same day, only to cut off her head less than two years later (Anne of Cleves got an annulment, kept her virginity, and lived happily in England for all her days).
Henry soon regretted losing Cromwell, and a replacement never took Cromwell’s place beside Henry. The vast amounts of money Cromwell made for Henry was squandered in a petty French war in 1545, and all Cromwell had done was lost. His son Gregory (who had married Jane Seymour’s sister) died in 1551 of sweating sickness, and there was a rumour of a bastard daughter named Jane, though none of that has been proven (you shall have to read my book for that).
Cromwell’s Protestant England caused countless deaths, with Henry’s son being a Protestant king, his daughter Mary a Catholic queen and then Queen Elizabeth back to Protestant. Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s only child, made the country firmly Protestant and the changes to law and government made by Cromwell were built on to help shape what England has become.
Cromwell disappeared from history, only one portrait of him surviving, his paperwork all destroyed during his trial. In 1953, Geoffrey Elton wrote of Cromwell, studying and discovering, while Henry was a mastermind and despot, it was Cromwell who held the real power of the era. Cromwell brought government from the medieval times to the modern age and was portrayed as the bad guy, until the last decade, where tv and books have tried to show Cromwell in a more positive light.
My first Cromwell book will focus on his creation of Anne Boleyn, the second about the creation of Jane Seymour, and finally the creation of Anne of Cleves, all books covering his creation of Protestant England. Thomas Cromwell is no longer a forgotten genius.
Check back for very regular updates on posts about all the character of Frailty of Human Affairs, out September 1.