Thursday, 18 June 2015

A 'New History' of Katherine Howard

Writers must always be prepared for the fact that not all readers will enjoy their books, or agree with the conclusions that have been reached. While this can sometimes be difficult to accept, it is in fact inevitable. Historians, in particular, must reconcile this with the fact that history is a contentious discipline. The further one goes back, the more difficult it becomes to ascertain what really happened. It becomes more challenging to discover the truth of the times about which one is writing. Facts are often few and far between, meaning that opinion more than anything else mostly holds sway. 

My full length study of Queen Katherine Howard was published in the summer of 2014 and has proved to be controversial. Reviews of it thus far have been decidedly mixed. Detractors often questioned the appropriateness of the book's title: A New History. What was it about this book, they wondered, that rendered it a new history of Katherine Howard? How could it purport to be original, or innovative, or different? What new conclusions did it reach about this queen, and how did it challenge current thinking about her? Did it unsettle received opinion about her, as it had in fact hoped to do? 

I believe that the title A New History is an accurate one and I would like to set out my reasoning for this. Firstly, the biography is the first full-length biography of Katherine Howard that challenges the assumption that she was an adulterous queen, that is, guilty of the charges for which she was executed in 1542. The majority of modern historians have accepted that she embarked on an adulterous relationship with Thomas Culpeper during her reign as the king's consort. Even writers who questioned whether she was technically guilty of the charges, including David Starkey and Antonia Fraser, eventually concluded that she certainly possessed intent to commit what amounted to treason, in the eyes of the law. In modern times, Professor Retha Warnicke is the only scholar to have challenged this notion, in her recent study of notorious women in Tudor England. Elisabeth Wheeler's study of ambitious male courtiers at the court of Henry VIII argued that neither Anne Boleyn nor Katherine Howard were guilty of adultery, although her work has not marketed itself as a biography of either queen. Biographies published by Lacey Baldwin Smith, Joanna Denny and David Loades have all concluded that the queen was guilty of the crimes for which she died.

Secondly, my study questioned prevailing notions about Katherine's portraiture. It should be noted that I now doubt the accuracy of my belief that the above portrait (painted circa 1540) is not of Katherine, as expressed in the biography. I raised the possibility (thus giving credence to Susan James' theory) that the portrait might depict Lady Margaret Douglas rather than Queen Katherine. Since the biography was published, however, I have rethought this idea and concluded that the miniature probably is of the queen rather than her niece-by-marriage. The portrait of an unknown woman housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which features on the front cover of Katherine Howard: A New History, might portray Katherine during her queenship, but I recognise that this is only a possibility. Indeed, on her website Alison Weir noted that the portrait might date to as early as 1522, which would definitively rule out Katherine as the sitter. 

Thirdly, I challenged traditional beliefs about Katherine's actual character and achievements as queen. I dispelled the misleading theory that she was an empty-headed, promiscuous delinquent, and put forward evidence to suggest that she was rather more responsible, level-headed and intelligent than previously thought. However, she was young (especially given that Henry's other wives were, by the standards of the day, mature when they became queen), and might more fairly be considered to have been naive and inexperienced, rather than stupid or lacking in wit. I also indicated that her relationship with her stepdaughter Mary Tudor might have been less fraught than previously thought. Certainly, it cannot now be doubted that Katherine was an effective intercessor and sought to act as patron to her ambitious and large family. 

As suggested in this blog post, there are aspects of the biography that I now disagree with. But that is the point of working in the field of history: it is constantly open to reinterpretation and historians are happy to reconsider conclusions that they previously reached. I appreciate reviews and feedback on my work. I hope, in this blog post, to have put forward a compelling argument for why I believe my biography deserves its title of A New History. In the end, the most potent reason for this is because the traditional notion of Katherine Howard as an adulterous wife must now be challenged and, at the very least, doubted. As John Weever noted in his work of 1631, like her cousin and predecessor Anne Boleyn, Katherine was most likely a victim of 'false suggestions' that reached the ears of her suspicious husband Henry VIII, who was known to have been 'unconstant in his affections'. 

1 comment:

  1. I think your biography of Katherine Howard is extremely important as both a Tudor history and a cultural critique. I look forward to your future work.