The Influence of Henry VIII's Wives on Tudor Fashion Ideals

Chapter 6 : Katheryn Howard

Katheryn Howard The Sitter In This Portrait By Holbein Is Uncertain – It May Be Katheryn Howard Anne Of Cleves Elizabeth Seymour Or Lady Margaret Douglas © Royal Collection Trust
The sitter in this portrait by Holbein is uncertain – it may be Katheryn Howard, Anne of Cleves, Elizabeth Seymour or Lady Margaret Douglas © Royal Collection Trust

When Henry was still married to Anne of Cleves, the French ambassador wrote that the “courtiers first observed that he was much taken with another young lady,” and described her as “a young lady of moderate beauty but superlative grace. In stature she is small and slender…she is dressed after the French fashion like all the other ladies of this court.” This young woman was Katheryn Howard, a cousin of Anne Boleyn and maid of honour to Anne of Cleves. It is unclear exactly how old Kathryn was at the time, but historians estimate she was between fifteen and eighteen years old when she married Henry in July 1540.

All contemporary accounts agree that Henry was madly in love with his young bride. The chronicler Hume wrote “The King had no wife who made him spend so much money in dresses and jewels as she did, who every day had some fresh caprice…she was the handsomest of his wives, and also the most giddy.”

But Katheryn was only married to the king for eighteen months before her execution for adultery on 13 February, 1542. As with Anne Boleyn, most of her portraits were destroyed, so it is difficult for historians to know exactly what she looked like. A miniature by Holbein, now in the Royal Collection, is believed by some to be Katheryn, because the jewellery worn in the portrait matches that given to her by Henry. Lynn writes, “he gave her an upper biliment (the decorative trim at the top of her French hood) of ‘goldsmith work enamelled and garnished with 7 fair diamonds, 7 fair rubies and 7 fair pearls’, together with a gold pendant set with ‘a very fair table diamond and a very fair ruby with a long pearl hanging at the same’, and a necklace ‘containing 28 rubies and 29 clusters of pearls being 4 pearls in every cluster.’” In this portrait, the sitter’s hair is medium brown, the eyes are hazel and the brows are dark. Norton argues that this miniature is not Katheryn Howard, but is more likely Anne of Cleves. She cites Fanny Moyle, who asserts that the portrait is Anne, and not Kathryn, in her biography of Hans Holbein the Younger. Although the sitter is wearing Jane Seymour’s necklace, Anne of Cleves also had possession of the queen’s jewels. Furthermore, the heavily lidded eyes, expression and dark brows in the miniature match the portrait by Holbein of Anne of Cleves in 1539. The subject in the miniature also appears to have larger breasts, which it has been suggested was the case for Anne of Cleves, but not the diminutive Katheryn Howard.

Another possible depiction of Katheryn Howard can be found in the stained glass windows of King’s College in Cambridge. King Henry VIII is depicted as King Solomon, with the Queen of Sheba kneeling before him. It was first suggested by Antonia Fraser that the woman could be the likeness of Katheryn Howard. The window was completed during their marriage, and Henry and Katheryn’s initials are located in the Great East Window. In the window, the lady is blonde and pale, and Norton believes Katheryn was likely fair, with blonde or red hair, fair and blue eyes.