Katheryn Howard: In Fact and Fiction

Katheryn has not received the scholarly attention that the other wives of Henry VIII have attracted over the years. Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, in particular, have been frequently written about, and in the last ten years, Katherine Parr has also been subject to a range of new biographies and articles. Nevertheless, Katheryn has not been entirely neglected in either fact or fiction.

Contemporary Accounts

Contemporary information is contained in the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, available through British History Online. There are copious notes from the interrogations that took place in 1541 of Katheryn and her household. Whilst these give huge amounts of detail about Katheryn as a young woman, we need to bear in mind that they are sometimes contradictory, and that they are entirely focused on her sexual activity, putting an emphasis on that element of her life that may not be justified if we consider her in the round. Also, Katheryn’s own testimony changed. Her initial responses to questioning suggest that her relationships with both Manox and Dereham had been voluntary, and, if she tired of them sooner than they did of her, that was their problem. She had no difficulty in telling either of them that the relationship was over. Her later testimony is more problematic – suggesting that Dereham forced himself on her – if not by outright violent rape, by persistence and bullying. Consequently, biographers who are not comfortable with the promiscuity narrative, have reinterpreted her life as a narrative of abuse.

In addition, there are the reports of the Imperial and French ambassadors. The latter, Charles de Marillac, is one of the most important sources for Katheryn as queen. His reports have been transcribed in Jean Kaurek’s Correspondance Politique of MM Castillon et de Marillac whilst those of the former, Eustache Chapuys, are also recorded in British History Online in the Calendar of State Papers, Spain and the Calendar of State Papers, Simancas. Other information can be found in Gilbert Burnett’s History of the Reformation of the Church of England, which contains transcripts of documents later lost – we need to remember that Burnett was writing over a hundred years after Katheryn’s death, and was a committed Protestant.

Modern Individual Biographies

In almost every account of Katheryn’s life, she is portrayed as wanton, as a ‘juvenile delinquent’, an ‘oversexed adolescent’, yet the reality is that she can only be shown to have had two sexual partners – Francis Dereham, who seems genuinely to have believed they were as good as married, and Henry VIII. That she exchanged kisses and caresses with Manox, and seems to have been in love with Thomas Culpepper, perhaps planning to sleep with him, was scandalous for a queen, but we should not infer from that that Katheryn was sexually promiscuous, and nor should we absolve Katheryn of all agency.

The standard biography of Katheryn for many years was Lacey Baldwin Smith’s A Tudor Tragedy. First published in 1961 and reissued in 2009 (with a remarkably silly sub-title – The queen whose adulteries made a fool of Henry VIII), it opens on a negative note. ‘Catherine’s life was little more than a series of petty trivialities and wanton acts, punctuated by sordid politics.’ Baldwin Smith sees Katheryn as no more than a pawn of her Howard family, as ignorant, giddy and with few or no redeeming qualities. Although the book is, of course, thoroughly researched and accurate, it is laden with the misogyny of the 1960s.

Leaping forward forty-five years, there is Joanna Denny’s Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy (2007). Denny, like Baldwin Smith, sees Katheryn as a pawn in the Howard game, but she also introduces the notion of Katheryn as a victim of child sexual abuse – in part because she adheres to the school of thought that has Katheryn born at the end of the possible age range (1521 – 1525), making her about fifteen or sixteen when she became queen, and thus only a child of eleven or so when she and Manox were exchanging kisses. The legal age of consent for girls in the sixteenth century was twelve, but a more usual age for noblewomen to marry was sixteen to eighteen. Child abuse was certainly known of, and attracted punishment, but would be defined differently from nowadays. This is a very different take from the promiscuous Katheryn of earlier works. Whilst a change in perspective is welcome, in my view, this work runs perilously close to fiction in parts, rather than exhibiting a rigorous academic approach.

Somewhat more scholarly is Josephine Wilkinson’s Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen (2016). Wilkinson, too, adheres to a later birth date for Katheryn, citing 1525 as ‘the probable, but not certain’ year, and consequently sees the entanglement with Manox (rendered Mannock by Wilkinson and said by her to be a native of Norfolk, whilst most other accounts have him as gentleman of Kent) as abusive. Overall, in my view, there is too much of a current twenty-first century perspective in this book – the hapless girl coerced by a stream of men. That is not to say that sixteenth century girls were not coerced by men – of course they were, but the whole structure of society was different, and that does not seem to me well reflected here, nor does it satisfactorily answer why Katheryn arranged secret meetings with Culpepper.

The two most recent biographies are Gareth Russell’s Young and Damned and Fair: the tragedy of Catherine Howard at the court of Henry VIII (2017) and Conor Byrne’s Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen (2019).

A full review of Russell’s book can be found here.

Byrne’s work opens with a very useful historiography of Katheryn, looking at the different representations of her, and exploring the two different narratives – Katheryn as shameless sexual predator versus Katheryn as victim of child abuse. His own work is written in the context of gender history – an attempt to understand how sixteenth-century perceptions of gender and the role of women shaped Katheryn’s life. There is also more comparison with Henry’s other queens, to see all of them in the context of the queen’s role as a provider of off-spring.

Modern Joint Biographies

Agnes Strickland’s 1850s Lives of the Queens of England portrays Katheryn as a hapless, neglected child, who was led astray by the members of the dowager-duchess’ household who should have protected her. Whilst Strickland has a Victorian moral view of sex before marriage as inherently wrong, she pities Katheryn as a girl who knew no better.

One hundred and fifty years later, Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser both published books called The Six Wives of Henry VIII, in 1991 and 1992 respectively. Once again, the interpretations of Katheryn reflect the sexual mores of the day – less censorious than the Victorians or the mid-twentieth century, and more positive about female sexuality. Nevertheless, Weir’s Katheryn is a ‘frivolous, empty-headed girl’ who cared for nothing but dancing and fine clothes. Given that at least three of Henry’s other wives were intelligent, educated, and forceful women, it is surprising that he should have been attracted to such a character. There were plenty of girls at Henry’s court who would have loved dancing and clothes – she must have had something more to attract him. Fraser is unconvinced of Katheryn’s adamant statement that she and Culpepper had not committed adultery, noting that Katheryn ‘indubitably lied in sexual matters’. The portrait is of a foolish, indiscreet girl who put her sexual gratification above her duty.

In 2003, David Starkey, considered an expert in Henry VIII, waded in on the queens, with Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. He informs us in the opening of his chapters on Katheryn that she ‘knew how to attract a man with a skill beyond her teenage years’. He seems to be suggesting we believe that a forty-nine-year-old king was being shamelessly sexually exploited by a predatory girl of about sixteen. I, for one, can’t agree.

Finally, in the joint biographies, there is David Loades’ 2009 Tudor Queens of England. This is a work that I have previously mentioned as wildly misogynistic, and, sadly, his treatment of Katheryn is the essence of a self-righteous condemnation more suited to 1909 than 2009. The very chapter dedicated to her is entitled The Queen as Whore and we are informed that she ‘behaved like a whore both before and after her marriage’. As noted above, one physical flirtation with Manox, a relationship with Dereham when both were unmarried, and definite misconduct, if not total adultery with Culpepper, hardly add up to whoredom. I find this book so exasperating I can say no more.


Not surprisingly, Katheryn has been the subject of numerous fictional accounts – here are a few.

The earliest fictional account of Katheryn’s life is the trilogy, The Fifth Queen, by Ford Madox Ford, one of the most prominent writers of the early twentieth century. The trilogy, published 1906-1908, is very unlike later works in that it portrays Katheryn as a deeply religious girl, of great learning, who becomes unwillingly involved in the maelstrom of Tudor politics. The style was very much admired at the time – what we might now almost call magical realism. It has been considered a great work of literature, but is not to my taste, and is certainly not very historically accurate.

There is the 1960s classic by Jean Plaidy Murder Most Royal – a joint tale with Anne Boleyn, reprinted in 2009. It is well-written in many ways, but some of the characters are a little two-dimensional.

Of a similar time-period (1971) is Maureen Peters’ Katheryn the Wanton Queen. I loved this when I read it as a teenager – and it certainly portrays Katheryn as an engaging girl having agency and control in her life, even if it ends badly for her and all who love her.

Suzannah Dunn’s Confession of Katherine Howard, is told from the perspective of her companion, Katherine Tilney. Like all Dunn’s historical novels, it is written in a very modern idiom, that you either love or hate.

Gemma Lawrence has a two-parter – 1. The Shadow of Persephone, about Katheryn’s childhood, and 2. No More Time to Dance, which takes us through her two years from joining the court to her death.

One account of the progress north during which Katheryn met Culpepper in secret is Sovereign, the third in the brilliant series by C J Sansom. In this instalment, Shardlake and his side-kick, Barak, are forced to travel to York to investigate a potential treason plot. They become aware of the queen’s night-time assignations and are forced into a kind of complicity with Lady Rochford. For fans of really well researched historical fiction, the Shardlake series is hard to beat.

Finally, there is Alison Weir’s latest novel in her Six Queens series – Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen, reviewed in full here.



Burnet, Gilbert, The History of the Reformation of the Church of England (Oxford : University Press, 1829) <http://archive.org/details/historyofreforma12> [accessed 4 August 2020]

Byrne, Conor, Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen, (The History Press 2019)

Kaulek, Jean Baptiste Louis, Louis Farges, Germain Lefèvre-Pontalis, Louis de Perreau Castillon, and Charles de Marillac, Correspondance politique de mm. de Castillon et de Marillac, ambassadeurs de France en Angleterre (1537-1542); pub. sous les auspices de la Commission des archives diplomatiques (Paris F. Alcan, 1885) <http://archive.org/details/correspondancepo00kauluoft> [accessed 4 August 2020]

Russell, Gareth, Young & Damned & Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII (London: William Collins, 2017)

Smith, Lacey Baldwin, Catherine Howard: The Queen Whose Adulteries Made a Fool of Henry VIII (Stroud: Amberley, 2009)

Starkey, David, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, 1st U.S. ed (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003)

Wilkinson, Josephine, Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen, 2016 <https://archive.org/details/katherinehowardt0000wilk> [accessed 4 August 2020]


Dunn, Suzannah, The Confession of Katherine Howard (London: Harper, 2010)

Ford, Ford Madox, The Fifth Queen, Twentieth-Century Classics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)

Lawrence, G, No More Time to Dance (Independent, 2019)

———, The Shadow of Persephone (Independent, 2019)

Peters, Maureen, Katheryn, the Wanton Queen (London: Fontana, 1971)

Plaidy, Jean, Murder Most Royal (Place of publication not identified: Arrow, 2006)

Sansom, C. J, Sovereign (Pan 2015)

Weir, Alison, Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen, 2020