Saturday, June 25, 2011

Contestant #5

Catherine Howard, the fifth and and second saddest wife of Henry VIII.

A small biography, by me. Someday I will publish a six-volume series entitled "Lives of the Wives" in which I pass modern judgment upon but ultimately feel sorry for all of the women who had the misfortune to know Henry Tudor 8.

Catherine had not planned on being Queen of England. Raised in negligence by an absentee step-grandmother, the young girl was only half-educated and wholly undisciplined. She did know how to read and write, but she did not appear to utilize these skills and her studies progressed no farther than becoming literate. By all accounts, she was a silly person, highly emotive and prone to frivolity, who loved to dance.  It's worth noting that she was probably sixteen years old when Henry picked her up.  Owing to a total lack of supervision and the generally licentious nature of the large household of her step-grandmother, a duchess, she had several affairs at an early age before going to court to wait on Anne of Cleves, Henry's Queen #4.

Things weren't working out between Henry and Anne (another story) and he had their marriage annulled soon after meeting Catherine. Once again, stupid Henry falls for a wound-up, vivacious woman (or in this case, girl) who would prove an exciting flirtation and a disappointing life partner. They were married soon after the annulment was finalized.

Things went well until Catherine became tired of her husband, who was well into his "old and gross" phase. She began an affair with Henry's personal groom, Thomas Culpeper. Imagine that, a teenaged girl chooses a lover of her own age (Henry is 50, there is an age disparity of approx. 33 years) and station instead of someone who not only acts but is interpreted as a living god, and who is nearly the size of one at 300 pounds. And don't forget the festering, stinking, open wound on his leg, which he had been unable to get rid of for some years. I have read that he was slightly insecure that she could smell it in their bed.  Total babe, right?

Catherine was too airy and ridiculous to live long in the dangerous and predatory Tudor court. Being young, stupid and invincible, she was capricious and wanton with her affair, and it was a very sloppily kept secret. Still, Henry was unaware, and spent his time picking out presents for her and telling everyone that she was his "rose without a thorn". Finally a wife who is all fun and no trouble!

Obviously, despite coming from a powerful and aristocratic Catholic family, Catherine was not interested in the politics of religion. That's why it's somewhat ironic that her passionate affair was outed by a concerned Protestant faction who did not want her family anywhere near Henry, lest they entice him back to Rome somehow. Or that's my interpretation of why. I highly doubt he would have. I think the Protestants simply didn't like seeing the Howards that high up the royal chain of command. As he had done with his other wives, Henry handed out positions of power and influence to Catherine's family members.

So, a letter was passed to Henry telling of Catherine's promiscuous past, and, though he felt it was only jealous rumor-mongering, he had it investigated. After it was uncovered that she had been sleeping around before coming to Court and meeting Henry, he had guards posted at her rooms. After he found out she was sleeping with Culpeper, she went to the Tower. Culpeper and a former lover from the Duchess' household were already there, where they received interrogation and torture. The teen lover was hanged, drawn and quartered, and Culpeper (because he had a fancier pedigree) was merely beheaded. Those sentences should have been swapped. Culpeper was a scumbag who had on his record the brutal rape of a rural woman he had found on a ride, and the murder of a man who tried to come to her aid. Somehow, likely because of his status, the crimes went unpunished.

The heads of Catherine's lovers were placed on pikes, where they remained displayed for 5 years. Henry didn't get over insults very quickly. He was very bitter, though; only recently, he had publicly given solemn thanks to god for the good fortune of his happiness with Catherine. So Catherine was beheaded shortly thereafter and tossed in an unmarked grave at St. Peter ad Vincula, near her cousins, Anne and George Boleyn. Yep; she and AB were cousins.

The Howard/Tudor marriage had lasted a year and a half.

Catherine had no idea what kind of trouble she was going to get herself into when she met Henry. Although her family name was an aristocratic one, her father was a second son and had no money. After her anonymous and uncelebrated early days as a charity case, she was dazzled by the spectacle, riches and decorum that came with her new station in life as the highest lady in the land. She was so young and dizzy, and had not been cultivated for the politics of life at court. Even though Anne Boleyn was her cousin, and had only been executed 5 years ago, she was still so dumbly confident that no one would find out about her trifles. She is a tragic portrait of a naive girl who frolicked into a bear trap. Even Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and unlucky sucker dispatched to wrangle Henry's errant girl, said that it was pitiful. At the time, given Henry's black rage at finding himself a cuckolded husband, Cranmer could not help but share the possibly treasonous remark (everything was treason then if H8 was pissed off) that he found the imprisoned Catherine "In such lamentation and heaviness, as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man's heart in the world to have looked upon her." 

Weirdly, the night before she was to be executed, Catherine asked to have the chopping block brought to her. She wanted to orientate herself to it so she would know how to place her neck when the time came. A morbid concern, to worry about being awkward on the scaffold, but who can venture to know what it feels like in the hours before a scheduled death.

Sidebar, Tudor melodrama seems to have become a thing with me, as I keep returning to them. I didn't think I cared about them that much, I mean I don't have personal feelings the way I might for other eminent figures. Or perhaps I'm beginning to develop them. Here is a post in which I review the Tudors series, and I talk about Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour here (and recycle my story about Anne's death).

Since Catherine Howard's death, some alleged ghostly activity at Hampton Court and at the Tower has been attributed to her. The most tragic "sighting" is supposed to be a re-enactment of a particularly desperate moment after her first confinement to her rooms at Hampton Court. Desperate to plead her case with Henry, she bolted through the posted guards at her room and ran shrieking to the chapel where Henry was at prayer. She banged on the doors, screaming hysterically, and was then dragged writhing and crying back to her rooms. This passage is now called "the Haunted Gallery," and "it is said" that screams are heard to emanate from there. Also, according to some sourceless website about England's ghosts, women pass out in that corridor a lot. I'm sure that's totally legit.

After reading the ghostly legends also told about Anne Boleyn, I began to feel faintly suspicious of the veracity of those accounts as well. Take this dark story, re-told in my words, for example:

Annually upon Anne's death date, she is said to arrive at several past residences (avoid Blickling Hall and Hever Castle on 19 May) in a carriage pulled at a furious pace by...four headless horses! Anne sits inside the carriage, dressed in white with her head in the crook of her arm. The headless spirit then descends from the carriage, which disappears (invisible carriage house) as she enters the structures and commences upon a night of wandering from room to room, head still tucked in her arm, still dripping with blood. I'm glad I didn't read about this as a kid; it has all the distinctions of a tale that would freak me out (female ghosts, bloody heads, fast-running horses). I was hardly able to pass a darkened bathroom for fear of Bloody Mary, so the Anne thing would definitely have been an issue. 

19th century "ghost photo" alleged to be the much grieved Catherine wailing out her bad fortune, which is sold as a postcard in the Hampton Court gift shop. 

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