Friday, April 28, 2017

Gareth Russell on Henry VIII's Fifth Wife

The publisher sent me a copy of this book for my honest opinion about it. I should also mention that the author Gareth Russell asks me to write for The Tudor Times occasionally and that he lists me as one of those who assisted--in a very small way--in the writing of this book (we consulted on the identity of one man). According to Simon and Schuster:

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 na├»ve 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.

The emphasis on her household includes first Catherine's life at home and then with her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney Howard, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk in Chesworth House and Norfork House. Russell thus introduces us to the powerful Howard family and particularly to Catherine's father, Lord Edmund Howard, who escaped to Calais to avoid his creditors. Edmund's first wife and Catherine's mother, Joyce Culpepper had been married before and had children from that union too. The family tree for the Howard family could have been a little more detailed or there could have been an additional family tree for Lord Edmund's family to clarify all these relationships. Because all these relationships are very important to any story in Tudor England! The connections between families engendered by marriages and offspring create the webs that have to be unwoven and rewoven with every crisis. For Russell's discussion of possible portraits of Catherine Howard in chapter 12, I wish that the publisher had included figure numbers on the illustration inserts and that the text included those figure numbers when referencing the different portrait candidates.

Russell delves into Catherine's life in the Dowager Duchess's household carefully, because this is the source of Catherine's eventual downfall. The lines between what Catherine thought was harmless dalliance and what constituted premarital sex or a contract of marriage will become very important in just a few years. Russell describes her relationships with Henry Manox and Francis Dereham carefully, attentive to Catherine's views of how far was too far and what commitments she had made to them. He also notes that a couple of the other girls tried to warn Catherine of the danger she was in: remember the name of Mary Lascelles . . .

The next household Catherine moves into is that serving Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (and that household will soon become Catherine's household). Russell clears up some of the myth regarding Anne of Cleves, the so-called "Flander's Mare" and begins to hone in on the real problem with that marriage: Henry VIII. As Russell's portrayal of Henry continues, it's clear that this monarch was supremely selfish. He seems to have wanted all the perquisites of being the king without the responsibilities, especially if those responsibilities discomfited him. Russell notes that while Henry VIII was looking for a fourth wife, the royal households of Europe were offended by his need to evaluate their eligible women. Thomas Cromwell would suffer for his insistence that the king needed to marry in furtherance of national interests (and Henry's own status in Europe). As Russell tells the story, Anne of Cleves wasn't the ugly, awkward woman of Tudor mythology at all. Henry VIII wanted to marry for love, not policy. Cromwell, as Russell notes, forgot this one time to let Henry have his way.

And so he set in motion his divorce/annulment from Anne of Cleves, generously rewarding her for her cooperation, and then had Thomas Cromwell beheaded on the same day he married Catherine Howard, July 28, 1540. Russell then describes the household Catherine took over, how it served the queen, who was in her household and the different ranks and responsibilities, and how she behaved within that household. With the example of the Dowager Duchess's laxness in supervision, Catherine did not, Russell points out, fulfill her responsibilities to her ladies very well--part of her duty was to find the unmarried good husbands and thus she needed to make sure their virtue was intact. The difficulty was that Catherine wasn't sure what that meant.

On the other hand, Russell makes it clear that Catherine excelled in all her public roles: she was attractive, graceful, careful to comport herself well. She visited Henry's three children: Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. (Russell makes an uncharacteristic error on page 201 when he refers to Elizabeth as "the youngest, least loved, and most ignored of Henry's children." Obviously, Edward was the youngest child.) Catherine and Mary did not get along very well and Russell notes a characteristic of Catherine's: once she took umbrage, she would get her way. 

Russell describes the Royal Progress to the North, when Henry VIII visited parts of his kingdom he had never seen before, as an effort to heal the divisions caused by the Pilgrimage of Grace. As Russell recounts Henry's negotiations with the Irish Parliament and with James V of Scotland in 1541, he notes again that Henry's counselors had a hard time getting the king to see statesmanship in distinction to his personal honor. At the same time as Henry was negotiating these matters, Queen Catherine and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, were negotiating the hidden stairways and entrances of the palaces and castles the Court stayed in during the progress, so that Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry VIII's favorites, could be alone with Catherine.

Once John Lascelles, Mary Lascelles Hall's brother, tells the Archbishop of Canterbury about what Mary knows about the Queen, the pace of the narrative in this book picks up. The king has to be told that his wife might have had a precontract of marriage with another man, and then Henry wants to know everything. His officials begin interviewing Catherine, Dereham, Manox, Lady Rochford, other ladies at Court, the Dowager Duchess and other Howard family members. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, separated himself--as Catherine had from him previously--from the matter immediately and he was not included in the round-up of Howards that would follow.

Catherine exhibited another great character flaw: she immediately started blaming others for what had happened. Initially, she admitted that she and Francis Dereham could have had an understanding or precontract. In that case, her marriage to Henry VIII would be annulled and she would have been sent off in disgrace and there would have been some repercussions to the family. Since there weren't any nunneries anymore, she probably would been held under house arrest fair away from Court. But then, she accused Francis Dereham of raping her before she came to Court and mentioned the name Thomas Culpepper. So then the interrogations of all the involved began again and those interrogations included the repeated torture of Dereham, Culpepper and another unfortunate man, Robert Damport. When confronted with reports of her adultery against the king with Thomas Culpepper, Catherine again blamed somebody else: Lady Rochford.

Russell tells this part of the story particularly well, noting again the web of relationship and opportunity as the government this time made information public about what had been discovered. The Privy Council was more open about these matters than it had been about the fall of Anne Boleyn or the last bloodletting of the Yorkists in the White Rose affair. This time, they made it known why the queen had to be executed and why the Howard family had to suffer for not disclosing her past.

In the last chapter, however, when Russell sums up Catherine's character, I cannot agree with him that "Her faults were obvious, but usually trivial." She was unfaithful and disloyal. Anachronistically speaking, she was too ready to "throw people under the bus". Those are not trivial faults and Russell does not finally acknowledge her selfishness as cogently as he identifies Henry VIII's (who never did anything for the good of his people!).

I have some quibbles with some of Russell's choices in earlier chapters. He tells about Thomas Wyatt's arrest and imprisonment in 1540, but never mentions that he was involved in the Anne Boleyn affair before in 1536. I also wondered why he never mentions the name of Anne Askew, the evangelical woman burned alive at the stake during Henry's reign when he brings her up twice. In Church tradition, St. Joachim is identified as the Blessed Virgin Mary's father, not St. Jerome (p. 189). Russell obviously is conversant with the standard Tudor bibliography and he steers a clear path through the sea of religious confusion during Henry VIII's reign. Very well-written with some really elegant turns of phrase ("Henry VIII was a man who had somehow gone rotten without ever being ripe." p. 134), this is a biographical study that will appeal to Tudor fans and would be of benefit to those wanting to know the story of Henry VIII's penultimate wife.

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