February 13, 2008

February 13 | Catherine Howard

1523? 1525? - February 13, 1542: Age between 17 and 19

Catherine Howard was another of those poor misplaced characters. Pretty, sexy, romantic, full of vitality, she might have had a happy life as a middle-class householder. She was, however, a pawn of a ruthlessly ambitious family, and made some pretty foolish choices. But then what teenager doesn't?

Her mother died when she was very young, and she was cared for by a step-grandmother, who paid little attention to her. She hung out with the other unmarried women of grandma's household, who all slept together in a kind of dormitory. It seems the sexual education available in that dorm was rich and extensive, and by the time Catherine was 12 she was enjoying the pleasures of womanhood with at least two male household employees.

If she was unlucky in losing her mother so young, her next bit of bad luck came when she attracted the attention of the King. Her family had obtained for her a position in the household of Anne of Cleves, then (briefly) Queen of England. Anne's marriage with the King was clearly not going to last, and the entire court was in the throes of the familiar game of "Who Can Get a Woman in the King's Bed Fastest?" Her family, the Howards, won.

Catherine was foolish, but the King should have known better. He was nearly 50 years old had already been married four times, and had slept with countless other women. However he was in the grip of an elaborate fantasy about his "English rose without a thorn", and despite all evidence to the contrary (including the fact that Catherine slept with him before the annulment of his marriage) he was convinced that she was a pure and chaste as she appeared. It was rumoured that she was pregnant when they married, but that proved untrue.

Once married, Catherine discovered she was unable to keep up the pretense of being attracted to her new husband. He weighed about 300 pounds and had a smelly festering sore on one of his thighs, and in fact his wily previous wife had convinced him to annul their marriage on the grounds of non-consummation (pretending of course that she was too ugly for him). With her appetite for sex, her eye began to wander, and she began an affair with one of the courtiers.

This was not as stupid as it appears. Despite many marriages and pregnancies, the King had only one living male heir; it was imperative that a "spare" be produced. The King himself had been a "spare"; it was his older brother who had been brought up to rule, but he died before their father. Tongues were already wagging about Catherine's licentious past; the cost of bribes to keep them still was escalating and the Howards were aware that their position was getting fragile. If Catherine could become pregnant and produce a son, she (and the family) would be safe from any gossip.

By 1541 she had not become pregnant, and the truth about her conduct was known to everyone in the realm except her husband. He was finally informed, delicately, that Catherine had be "precontracted" to someone else before her marriage to him; this would invalidate the marriage legally, and she could safely be removed from court with minimal loss of face all round. All she needed to do was confirm the precontract.

She was arrested in November. Upon her arrest she pulled away from her guards and rushed to the church where the King was taking Mass. She pounded on the doors and screamed his name, but was ignored, and the guards caught up to her and dragged her away.

At this point she completely lost it. She became continuously incoherent and hysterical, steadfastly denying the precontract, desperately trying to hang on to her position as Queen. Repeated gentle questioning, hints, and outright stern advice didn't move her... her family, who should have supported and helped her, completely abandoned her at this point, feigning shock and outrage at her "deception" and otherwise trying to lie low and not be noticed. (It didn't help most of them, so many of them were arrested the Tower became overcrowded.) This brought about the unpleasant necessity of proving she had committed adultery after her marriage. Her two lovers confessed under torture and were executed for treason.

She was summarily convicted of intent to commit treason (Parliament had to be hastily summoned to pass a law making this a capital offence) and sentenced to death. On the night before her execution, the poor kid spent hours practising how to lay her head up on the block with dignity. When she approached the scaffold, pale and terrified, she had to be helped up the steps. There she gave a little prepared speech about her "worthy and just punishment" and begged for mercy for her family (who hardly deserved it). Her head came off with one stroke.

And I have reached the end of this story without once mentioning the fat bastard's name.

Sources: Wikipedia, Catherine Howard

1 comment:

daap said...

"And I have reached the end of this story without once mentioning the fat bastard's name." - Brilliant