Queen Katherine Howard is a figure shrouded in more myth than mystery. For centuries she has walked a tightrope between romantic heroine and reckless harlot. We can in fact reconcile the two, for both representations of Katherine Howard present a young woman who acted beyond all reason in her singular pursuit of true love. But was Katherine really a desperate ingenue trapped in a loveless marriage? Or was she even really in love with Thomas Culpeper at all?

There may be a bleak truth to Queen Katherine Howard’s story that we have long neglected. Historian Conor Byrne joins us today to discuss his illuminating and thought provoking new biography Katherine Howard: A New History.

What do you think has done the most damage to Katherine Howard’s reputation?

I think Katherine’s sexual past has undoubtedly caused the most damage to her reputation. She became sexually active at a very early age, however willingly or not, and unfortunately the mud has stuck. Even people who know nothing else about her are aware that she ultimately died because of her past and because she was thought to have committed adultery during her marriage.

Why do you think attitudes towards Katherine are still so derisive?

Unfortunately I think it’s because historians continue to write about Katherine in a very negative way, especially in popular histories aimed at the general public. When the general public are reading a factual account of the six wives in which Katherine is described as a whore or loose in morals (which happens very frequently), they often believe it. Popular culture has also played a significant role – think of Tamzin Merchant’s depiction of Katherine in “The Tudors”; it’s bordering on the nymphomaniac. Most people continue to believe Katherine deserved what she got and I believe that’s why attitudes to her remain derisive today.

Portraits thought to be of Katherine Howard examined in Katherine Howard: A New History

Portraits thought to be of Katherine Howard examined in ‘Katherine Howard: A New History’

Can you tell us about your opinion of Katherine’s alleged affair with her music master Henry Mannox?

This affair is shrouded in mystery and we have very little evidence about it. What we do know indicates that it began in 1536. We don’t know how old Manox was. I suggest Katherine was born at the end of 1523, which would have made her twelve or thirteen when she became involved with him. The evidence suggests it was unwilling. Yes, she agreed to his requests to fondle her, but what needs to be borne in mind is that she was a lot younger than him, and he was in a position of control and authority over her: he was her music master. This is often forgotten in analyses of their relationship, which assumes that they were equals.

You’ve examined Francis Dereham’s controlling and manipulative behaviour, can you tell us about his relationship with Katherine?

I agree with Retha Warnicke’s hypothesis that Francis Dereham initially rescued Katherine from Manox in around 1537 or 1538. Again, she was a lot younger than Dereham: we don’t know his age but she was around fourteen or fifteen. Dereham seems to have loved her, but Katherine’s feelings are ambiguous. As Warnicke writes, none of her comments indicate she enjoyed the affair. Dereham seems to have been ambitious and may have been hoping to marry her and accrue greater power and status. His behaviour at court was domineering and aggressive, and very reckless. It placed both of them in a position of grave danger.

How do you think these relationships affected Katherine?

Very negatively. I suggest in my book she may have became averse to sex. This is not an unreasonable conclusion when one considers that, if exposed to sex at a very early age in a negative manner, she may have become ambivalent or even wary of it. Dereham’s relationship affected her more strongly, especially because of his subsequent behaviour at court. His actions there are difficult to reconcile with claims that he loved her.


Katherine’s predecessors – Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves

You think Katherine’s lack of experience at court is misconstrued for a lack of intelligence. Can you tell us more about Katherine’s actual tenure and her role as Queen Consort?

What’s often forgotten in accounts of Katherine is her youth and her inexperience. She’s often compared to Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, but what should be remembered is that both Anne and Jane were in their mid-twenties when Henry VIII began courting them, and both had served queens for a considerable amount of time (including her stay in France: Anne Boleyn for a total of thirteen or fourteen years; Jane Seymour at least seven). Katherine, by contrast, was favoured by the king barely a few months into her arrival at court, and she was around sixteen or seventeen. Despite these drawbacks, evidence indicates she took her responsibilities seriously. She acted as patron, provided for her family and friends, corresponded with Cranmer and was a loving and dutiful wife to Henry. Yes, she may have initially experienced difficult relations with her elder stepdaughter Mary, but evidence shows the two eventually developed a cordial relationship, and Katherine seems to have got on well with Elizabeth. She also maintained friendly relations with her predecessor, Anne of Cleves. This suggests a conscientious attempt on her part to get on well with others.

What is your opinion on the true nature of her relationship with Thomas Culpeper?

I agree with the majority of historians that it was not a love match. This is a later romantic construction that has little to no evidence. The two certainly knew one another because they were relatives. In the spring of 1541, the queen began meeting with Culpeper at his request. Her husband had fallen gravely ill (his life was despaired of) and Francis Dereham had arrived back at court. It therefore seems too much of a coincidence that she began meeting with Culpeper then. It has been convincingly argued that he had discovered details of her past and began blackmailing her, as Dereham and others (including maybe Joan Bulmer) also did. In return for his silence, she gave him audiences and gifts. Hardly an innocent love affair.


Katherine’s alleged love letter

Much of our perception on Katherine’s relationship with Culpeper is based on her surviving letter to him, can you tell us why you think it’s not a true indication of her feelings for him?

Firstly, we don’t know when the letter was written. Baldwin Smith thinks spring 1541 but the National Archives suggested August 1541, when the court was on progress. Interestingly enough, James Gairdner in the nineteenth century believed it was written before Katherine married the king. Secondly, we don’t know who wrote it. Was Katherine even literate? There are no other examples of her writing with which to compare, and as Elisabeth Wheeler points out, the writing changes in the course of the letter. Thirdly, the letter was never mentioned in the criminal proceedings, which is suspicious in itself. So there are numerous obstacles in the way of even beginning to interpret it. It does not seem to read as a love letter once letter conventions and Tudor phrases are taken into consideration. The closing phrase, ‘yours as long as life endures’, is often seen as proof of romance, but as Warnicke shows, it was customary to close letters with phrases like this, it was not indicative of true feeling. All the letter really suggests is that the queen wanted to meet with Culpeper to discuss something – nothing more.

Why do you think Katherine’s affair with Culpeper has been romanticised by many?

People love a good romance and it’s much nicer to believe that Culpeper was noble and ardently loved Katherine in a pure manner, and that she was a much wronged heroine who had wanted to marry him but was cruelly prevented from doing so by her scheming family. The Spanish Chronicle, a contemporary account, put forward a story to this effect, and many have wanted to believe it’s true. Put simply, it is much nicer and lovelier than the truth, which is much less straightforward and a great deal nastier.

What do you hope people will learn about Katherine from your book?

I hope they come away with a more realistic understanding of her life. She wasn’t the unbridled nymphomaniac of “The Tudors”, neither was she a dim-witted and idle airhead (think “The Boleyn Inheritance”). The Katherine I came across in sources was a hardworking, good-natured, caring young woman who sought to be a good wife, there is plenty of evidence of that. She’s often judged solely in terms of her sexuality which I believe is very unfair and just speaks volumes about gender stereotypes. Rather than focusing on her sexual past, historians should pay more attention to her queenship and her good character. The worst that can be said about her was that she was naive, foolish and easily manipulated, but even these aren’t heinous faults. Finally, we cannot imagine the difficulties her youth, her inexperience and the circumstances she found herself in placed her in. People should refrain from judging her and consider how difficult the situation actually was for her.

Katherine Howard Blog Tour and Book Giveaways!

Join Conor on his blog tour for Katherine Howard: A New History. There’s a chance to win a book every day so make sure you check out all the stops!

27th OctThe Anne Boleyn Files – Guest article on Katherine the Royal Stepmother

29th OctAnne Boleyn: From Queen to History – Guest article on Katherine and her family

30th OctQueenAnneBoleyn.com – Beth von Staats interviews Conor

31st OctOn the Tudor Trail – Guest article on Katherine’s relationships

We have a copy of Katherine Howard: A New History to give away courtesy of MadeGlobal Publishing! Just leave a comment telling us why you want to read Conor’s book. Entries close midnight 2nd November.

katherine_howard_conor_byrneKatherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne, published by MadeGlobal Publishing 2014.

In this new full-length biography of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Conor Byrne reconsiders Katherine’s brief reign and the circumstances of her life, striping away the complex layers of myths and misconceptions to reveal a credible portrait of this tragic queen.
By reinterpreting her life in the context of cultural customs and expectations surrounding sexuality, fertility and family honour, Byrne exposes the limitations of conceptualising Katherine as either ‘whore’ or ‘victim’. His more rounded view of the circumstances in which she found herself and the expectations of her society allows the historical Katherine to emerge.
Katherine has long been condemned by historians for being a promiscuous and frivolous consort who partied away her days and revelled in male attention, but Byrne’s reassessment conveys the mature and thoughtful ways in which Katherine approached her queenship. It was a tragedy that her life was controlled by predators seeking to advance themselves at her expense, whatever the cost.

Katherine Howard: A New History Kindle Edition

Katherine Howard: A New History Paperback


Visit Conor’s Blog.

Conor Byrne, author of “Katherine Howard: A New History” is a British undergraduate studying History at the University of Exeter.
Conor has been fascinated by the Tudors, medieval and early modern history from the age of eleven, particularly the lives of European kings and queens. His research into Katherine Howard, fifth consort of Henry VIII of England, began in 2011-12, and his first extended essay on her, related to the subject of her downfall in 1541-2, was written for an Oxford University competition. Since then Conor has embarked on a full-length study of qyeen Katharine’s career, encompassing original research and drawing on extended reading into sixteenth-century gender, sexuality and honour. Some of the conclusions reached are controversial and likely to spark considerable debate, but Conor hopes for a thorough reassessment of Katherine Howard’s life.
Conor runs a historical blog which explores a diverse range of historical topics and issues. He is also interested in modern European, Russian, and African history, and, more broadly,researches the lives of medieval queens, including current research into the defamed ‘she-wolf ’ bride of Edward II, Isabella of France.

50 Responses

  1. Alicia

    It is so fascinating to read a different side to Katherine Howard. I admit, I am one that has been taken in by The Tudors depiction of her, or at the very least it’s the one that comes first to mind when I hear her name mentioned. I would love to read Conor’s book and see a different side to Katherine!

  2. Debbie Warila

    I’d love to read this book because I know so little about Katherine Howard, other than she was very young and ended up on the chopping block. I’d love to learn more about her!

  3. catherine

    Id like to learn more about Katherine Howard. I have a interest with the tudor era, from the historical people to their fashion and places. I have quite a few books on Henry’s wives, mostly on Anne Boleyn as i find her fasinating but id like to find out more and i think this book will be an amazingly perfect start (:

  4. Ellie Snyman

    I would love to read this book – it’s a new perspective on the life of Katherine Howard. From reading through the questions and answers above, it will prove to be fascinating

  5. BDRogers

    We just finished watching “The Tudors” series, and our family trees show some possible royal ancestry.

  6. Penney Thorne

    I would like to know more about Katherine to learn how she was just another woman to be used for a misogynistic society…and yet there had to be more to her. Very interested to see her in a light that isn’t dimmed to her sexuality and seemingly vapid personality.

  7. Ellen

    I would love to read this book to learn more about Katherine Howard. This book would provide the indepth look I am interested in.

  8. donna

    I don’t know that much about Katherine so would love to win this book an find out more about her. xxxxxxx

  9. Sammy

    This book offers a new view of Katherine Howard and I am very excited to read about all the evidence the author has examined to dispute the existing view of Katherine as a silly irresponsible teenager

  10. Aimee C

    I am utterly dying to read this, dying I tell you! I LOVE reading about King Henry Vlll and his wives and this is one I definitely have to get my hands on!

  11. Tammy

    Katherine Howard and Anne of Cleves have always fascinated me. I have always thought of Henry’s wives they seemed the most interesting and yet there is so little written about either of them. I have always thought of Katherine as basically being the victim of the same kind of mentality that dives tabloid sales and your article seems to concur with that. Whether I win your book or end up buying it I will read it!

  12. Tara

    It would be great to read this book. I would love to learn more about this doomed queen.

  13. Underdogge

    It’s true Katherine Howard was “but a lass” when she was involved with King Henry. It’s strange that in the 21st century there is still a perception that a woman who has lots of sexual partners (and before anybody says anything I am actually rather a staid old thing) is often construed as being wanton but when a man does the same thing he is “a bit of a lad”. There have been history books at times which claim to shine a new light on events and personalities from the past and not all live up to the hype; I guess it would be a case of “suck it and see” – I would have to read Mr Byrne’s book and judge for myself.

  14. Michael Leaver

    I would enjoy reading Conor’s book as I’m always search for the truth. History is fascinating enough we don’t need shows like Tudors to led us a stray we need books like this to shed light on the truth.

  15. Nancy L Smith

    I would love to read Conor’s book of Katherine Howard because I’d like to find out more about her. Most of the histories about her have her as being a sexually promiscuous airhead, and I’d like to read about another side to her.

  16. Michele L

    Until recently, I always thought Katherine Howard was young and ridiculous. I’ve come to think of her as the most tragic of Henry VII’s wives. Not only was she young but seems to have been WAY out of her league at court. I’m looking forward to this book.

  17. Brett Markham

    I’ve never read a book on Katherine! I would love to read this book and begin learning more about her from a fresh new perspective!

  18. catherine

    I am glad that this book exists! As a 50 year+ student of Tudor times, I have never believed that Katherine ‘ s story had been truly told- now it has!

  19. Courtney Snyder

    I’d love to read this book because I have yet to read one on Katherine Howard. I hate the way she has been depicted, especially in the Tudors & would like to know the truth. She was so annoying in The Tudors …I mean she really got on my nerves! I’d like to read about who she really was to get that annoyance out of my head!

  20. Angela

    I’d love to read this book because I’ve also found portrayals of Katherine Howard to be problematic – taking in the beliefs of the time that a young girl who was molested must be “highly sexual” or have desired the sexual attention.

  21. nanci

    Finally! Am looking forward to reading an unbiased book on Katherine! It would be great to see her more as she actually was, rather than the naive nympho she is usually said to have been. Henry did marry her, he didn’t do that with all his lady loves, so she must have had some special redeeming qualities.

  22. Sarah

    I have always been so passionate about Katherine because I have connected with her on an emotional level that I hadn’t with any other queen of England. I have been fascinated with her since high school and have sought out every book I could on her…it would be so fascinating to read another more reaslistic view of my hero

  23. Ludmila Gonzalez

    Hi!, I´m from Argentina and I would love to win a copy of this book. Nowadays it is really difficult to find this kind of good books to read here. I´m a Pharmacist. but since I was a child my Mother encourage me to read, She is a History teacher, and we both love the Tudor period. Thanks for giving us the chance!

  24. Joan

    As someone who only recently became interested in history through Richard III, I find myself drawn to those historically vilified and slandered. I feel that Katherine Howard is one such victim and want to learn more about her.

  25. Annette Parry

    Katherine’s story is one of pure child abuse. She wasn’t an adult when she began her “affaIrs” and tried her best for her family under awful circumstances that older and more savvy people failed in too. Love to read it, his research sounds brilliant.

  26. JaNea R.

    I am currently reading the “The Boleyn Inheritance” and am seeing that Katherine Howard is not as idiotic as history would claim. She was young but not dumb. I would love to read your book and know more about Katherine Howard.
    Happy book sales!!

  27. Paula Jackson

    I, too, love history. The author looks so young, and here in America, history seems to be lacking. I am an Army brat, that lived in Germany for 3+ years, and loved going to all the different castles in Europe. QKH, is such a tragic figure. I would love to read about how her life really was.

  28. Jenny

    I am a Tudor fanatic and it is very disappointing that Catherine has so few books dedicated to her. And it is even more disappointing that those that are created to tell her story paint her as frivolous, silly and promiscuous. I would desperately love to read your book and observe a refreshing new outlook on Catherine, that of a young girl thrown into a tumultuous and dangerous world. This book seems to put her in a more sympathetic and indeed human light.

  29. Roberta DeCenzo

    As a descendent from the Boleyn family I have always been fascinated by Anne and her cousin! I would love a chance to learn more about my cousin’s (so many times removed-Anne Boleyn’s) Cousin!

  30. Eliza

    I’d love to read this book to understand better Katherine Howard’s personality and learn more about her early years. She made some bad decisions and I would like to know why.

  31. Kitty

    Katherine Howard is probably the most interesting of Henry’s wives. At least to me she is. I can’t wait to read more about her

  32. melanye

    I would love to read a different take on Katherine she is my favourite of the six wives. It would be nice to hear an unbiased account of her life.

  33. Jennifer U.

    I somewhat identify with Katherine Howard – I don’t think I would be all about Henry either but would also know a sense of duty…however, it is terribly hard to say no to a pretty face and Thomas Culepepper was said to have had one of those.

  34. Denise Duvall

    Conor Byrne shows in his interview, that there is more to Katherine Howard, than we have been previously told. I would like to learn more about this much maligned queen. She appears very young and beautiful in the portrait on the book’s cover.I don’t think, that I have seen this portrait of her before. Thank you for the giveaway.

  35. Lisa

    I would like very much to learn more about Queen Katherine, as I am sure that previous sources may have been quite biased, acting in the King’s favor. An historical perspective would be greatly appreciated.

  36. Susan Lutz

    I have always been interested in the Tudors, but up until now I have known very little of Katherine Howard. She seems to have been given very short shrift in the history books, and has come across as very one-dimentional. I know there has to have been more to her than has previously been published, and I hope to win the book and get a whole new and more illuminating perspective. Thank you, Conor Byrne.

  37. Jessica

    I would love to read this book. I have biographies of all but two of Henry VIII ‘ S wives and they are fascinating.

  38. Robin M. Woods

    I am a woman “of a certain age” who has always felt that this Queen was the least known & saddest of Henry’s wives, ever since I saw “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” many years ago. I will jump at the chance to learn more about her in Mr. Byrne’s book whether or not I am the receipient of it here.

  39. Gail Marie

    I agree with other comments about Katherine seeming so one dimensional; it will be interesting to read Conor’s book and find out more about her life and what kind of queen she really was.

  40. Jane

    I would absolutely love to know more about Katherine.I’ve always thought she was rather interesting but a lot of authors seem to be very unwilling to discuss much of her character.I’m very pleased someone is finally willing to shine a little light her.I can’t wait to read it.

  41. Dawn

    Another article well written which gave another ‘new’ insight to the young Queen who has been treated un-sympathetically in the past. I like Conor’s fresh perception of Katherine, and it would be revelation to read the whole book.

  42. Monika

    I would like to find out more about Katherine, but from some fresh point of view. There is some similarity to Anne from her side, she doesn’t seem as clever or deep like her, but I believe there are still strong links between them. I also think the potrayels of her in TV and movies don’t do justice to her, she is either not very interesting – simply boring – or spoilt girl with her only love being French fashion and dancing. I want to know something more, not just her fashion sense or that she was good dancer, those are basic things, but what her relationships? Her childhood? Her own thoughts? Her beliefs? I want to able to prove some real knowledge about her, just like I am able about Anne Boleyn. Katherine might not be as mysterious as her cousin, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn more about her. I think this is what real Katherine Howard would like us to do – see someone more than just a pretty girl in pretty dress.

  43. jasmine

    An interesting article. I think Katherine Howard has tended to be dismissed as a brainless tart, and less interesting than other wives of Henry VIII. It will be good to read a book which tries to rescue her from that fate.

    It certainly seems from the usual details given of her life that she was not able to think clearly or consider the consequences of her actions. This may have been due to a ‘search for love’ brought on by a loveless childhood. It may equally be due to an inability to understand the implications of her own behaviour. So I reserve judgement until I have read Conor’s book.


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