It’s a toss-up between which of Henry the Eight’s two beheaded queens have been the most blackened by history, though I’m inclined to believe Katherine Howard has copped it worse than her cousin Anne Boleyn. Josephine Wilkinson’s biography of the tragic girl-who-was-barely-a-woman goes a long way towards rehabilitating Howard’s reputation as silly and promiscuous.

Rather than painting her as a silly teenager who had no idea the consequences of her actions, Wilkinson’s interpretation of Howard is that of a woman who had a strong sense of obligation and could have made a great queen, has she been given the time to establish herself – or at least a great wife and mother, had circumstances been a little kinder to her. Wilkinson is in no doubt that her ‘relationship’ with Francis Dereham was one of ongoing abuse, a man who believed ‘yes means yes and no means yes’ and that women were flighty, indecisive creatures who drove men to sexual misconduct. She hypothesised that such sexual abuse at such a young age caused damage to her body, either by physically being crushed or disease, that left her unable to conceive during her marriage to Henry.

Wilkinson also vindicates her friendship with Thomas Culpepper, portraying him to be something akin to a stalker who Howard attempted to discourage. Seriously, what kind of nitwit harrasses the king’s wife, especially when the king in question in Henry VIII? Her research suggests Howard had a reasonably friendly relationship with Henry’s oldest daughter Mary – all the more impressive that Mary was actually older – and that she was largely brought down because of her and her family’s Catholic faith. This was an era when political winds turned on a dime, and a teenage girl had little to protect herself from what we would now call ‘career politicians’ willing to use any form of slander or doubt they could get their hands on to destroy those in power and elevate their own positions.

To be fair, none of Wilkinson’s ideas are especially new, although this is the first time I’ve seen such an extensive argument against the way Howard has been portrayed by history. Usually her story is told via someone else’s.

I said recently that I was fascinated in seeing where Alison Weir took her series on Henry’s wives, since so many of their stories overlapped with one another’s, and reading this fascinating biography of a much-maligned young woman has shored up that interest. I can’t wait to see what she makes of Katherine Howard, and hope she uses Wilkinson as one of her sources.


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