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Authors: Lacey Baldwin Smith

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Catherine Howard

BOOK: Catherine Howard
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This edition first published in Great Britain 2011

Copyright © Lacey Baldwin Smith, 2009, 2010, 2011


This electronic edition published 2011 by Amberley Publishing


Amberley Publishing

The Hill, Stroud



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The truth is that this book is the product of many minds, and of much labour by a number of persons other than the author. I am particularly indebted to my colleagues Wallace Douglas, J. Lyndon Shanley and Frederick Stimson for their careful reading of the text, and to Walter Richardson for his many helpful suggestions. Though it would be inaccurate to describe this biography as being ‘pure Neale’, it does, nevertheless, reflect considerable Nealean influence and a vast amount of hard work by Sir John, who read and criticized the manuscript, for which I am deeply grateful.


Alpha and Omega


on the morning of
13 February, 1542
, a young woman stepped out into the cold of the great courtyard of the
. Slowly she was escorted across the yard and carefully helped up the steps of the wooden scaffold. Only a small group of sightseers had gathered to watch the death of a queen; there was no weeping, no remorse, only chilly curiosity. The axe rose and fell, a life ceased, an episode came to an end, and the little band of privy councillors, ambassadors and citizens dispersed to their several duties.

Such indifference poses a problem: wherein lies the drama and tragedy of Catherine Howard’s death? Is it to be sought for in the picture of vital youth so abruptly and mercilessly concluded? Possibly, but compassion for the unfulfilled promise of youth is dampened by the knowledge that her audience came not to mourn her death but to view it. Is the tragedy to be found in the brutality of an act of state necessity? Hardly, for few could find in the inner reaches of their hearts the conviction that Mistress Catherine Howard was undeserving of her fate. Possibly then the nature of her crime adds meaning to her death. The Queen was accused of having been a woman of ‘abominable carnal desires’ who had craftily and traitorously misled her royal spouse into believing she was ‘chaste and of pure, clean and honest living’. Worse still, she had followed ‘daily her frail and carnal lust’ and had actually ‘conspired, imagined, and encompassed’ the final destruction of the King. Adultery can add zest to a narrative and treason lend stature to a life, but in the case of Catherine Howard the records reveal neither grand passion nor high ideals. Catherine’s life was little more than a series of petty trivialities and wanton acts punctuated by sordid politics. It is, however, exactly here that one senses the ultimate tragedy. It is somehow shocking to our sense of justice to perceive the naked perversity of casual relationships that can transform juvenile delinquency into high treason.

There is a disproportion about Catherine’s career that both repels and fascinates. She was a victim of inconsequentialities which somehow combined to produce a conclusion monstrously disproportionate to the myriad of petty causes. This book is an analysis of a life and a multitude of circumstances that culminated in violent death; a study of how chance and personality, morality and adultery, deliberate malice and good intentions, when operating within the limits set by environment, can create a single act in time – the swift descent of the executioner’s axe.

Catherine’s death is not simply a lesson in Tudor morality. It is an exercise in historical causation and encompasses the entire ‘sink and puddle’ of palace politics and backstairs bickering which throve so abundantly within the
Henry VIII
’s government. It stands as a grim reminder not only of the consequences of inadvertent folly, but also of the fact that all men are in some fashion victims of their age. Catherine’s execution attains the level of grand tragedy only in terms of her milieu – that of the vast Howard dynasty and its ambitions in an age of scarcely veiled ‘despotism’, when men played the risky game of politics with their lives and women were hapless pawns in the complex scheme of dynastic ambitions. Catherine Howard’s lighthearted idiocy was fatal only when fostered and distorted by family greed, royal absolutism, social callousness and violence, and a political theory that stripped the individual of all defence and left him alone and unprotected to face the truth that ‘the King’s wrath is death.’ Only when taken in their entirety do the random events merge into a design, which at no point was ever predetermined or even necessary, but which tempts one to ask of that final tragedy enacted in the courtyard of the
: How else could it have ended?

BOOK: Catherine Howard
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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