Book Review: Young and Damned and Fair, The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII

There are few dimmer endorsements to be made of the human psyche when we consider the historical figures chosen for repeated examination and thus de facto celebration in biographies, novels, films, plays, and multi-part BBC series. By and large we are drawn to the Bad Guys. Send armies into battle for slaughter, execute the enemies, live in appalling decadence, and abuse women; do any of those in combination with one or two others and your name will live forever. Hitler alone scarcely goes a week without someone or another releasing a new book starring the Nazi. Those black-on-white swastikas do stand out nicely on the shelves; such a shame that their designer, the dentist Dr Freidrich Krohn hadn’t put a copyright on it for his heirs would be swimming in money today.

Of course, every time I make this point that we as a civilisation are as drawn to villainy as vultures to a dead ibex, someone or other always says ‘Wait. What about Jesus?’ After making a mental note as to who not to invite to future cocktail parties my response usually runs along the lines that yes, starting a religion is also good business. After all, churches developed and refined the dubious arts of branding across multi-media and targeting the susceptible centuries, millennia even, before Don Draper and the good folks at Sterling Cooper swizzled their first swizzle stick in crisp, cold martinis.

The allure of the Bad Guy can be proven by your own mind. If I ask you three questions to which you must give your first, reflexive response what would your answers be? Let’s play. I ask you to name:

A French leader before 1900.
A Roman Emperor.
An English King.

I will happily go to the casino and bet large that at worst the following names will come in the top three responses – Napoleon, Nero and Caligula (Julius Caesar likely comes first), and Henry VIII. The prosecution rests.

Henry VIII not only ticks all the boxes, he does so spectacularly, excessively, to a degree of intemperance that would make even Donald Trump blush if one could scrape the orange spray tan off in order to tell. Indeed, even his contemporaries saw the line from which Henry sprang, and I don’t just mean the Tudors. The sixteenth century Cardinal Reginald Pole remarked of the King as ‘comparable in wickedness to Herod, Caligula, and Nero.’ Well, one does need a fourth to make up a bridge table. Mind you, Pole certainly had an axe to grind against Henry as an axe had beheaded both of Pole’s mother and brother. Rather remarkably, Pole himself managed to die of influenza and not the blade despite or perhaps because of being the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury during Queen Mary I’s Counter-reformation.

As I read Young and Damned and Fair by the Northern Irish scholar and playwright Gareth Russell I couldn’t help but think that rather than accepting an invitation to attend Henry VIII’s court it would be preferable to slather one’s naked body in honey before wheeling a barrow of raw meat to a bear’s den. You never know, the bear might be hibernating; Henry never did. If that seems like a flap of hyperbole by an over-excited book reviewer consider this from Russell’s research: ‘(O)f the 126 lords who attended Parliament at the end of the thirteenth century, the direct descendants of only sixteen of them were around to perform similar duties at the start of the sixteenth.’ Furthermore, ‘by 1523 there were only two dukes, one marquess, and thirteen earls in the combined English and Irish peerages.’ In contrast, today in 2017 there are thirty dukes, thirty-four marquesses, and twenty earls. Abolish the monarchy you say? Why, the nobility is practically propagating like mice!

As to Catherine Howard (Russell chooses to use Catherine rather than Katherine, Katharine or any of the other derivatives) featuring as the principal in a history of Henry’s reign, the general reaction would commonly be, Why her? Of Henry’s six wives, Catherine seems the least significant. She bore no future monarch, had no precedent-setting divorce; she came, she lost, she died. To be finicky about it, by one definition technically she was never even really Queen as Catherine was never coronated. There are no surviving portraits that we can be sure are of her visage, scant few letters, no other iconography, heraldry or stained glass windows dedicated to her image. The only real way we know of where her corpse lies, dumped in with various others (including three saints, two beatified Catholic martyrs, three dukes, one marquess, four earls, and two other queens) in the chapel of Saint Peter-ad-vincula is because Queen Victoria took an interest in Catherine’s history. Perhaps Victoria felt some affinity with another young woman thrust into royal limelight, Catherine likely not to have ever seen her twenty-first birthday, but that is speculation. What is fact is that from marriage to death, Catherine Howard lasted only sixteen months. So again, Why her?

This is where I believe Russell’s experience as a playwright and novelist bears favourably on his scholastic work as a historian. Put simply, the audience or reader has to care about the story being told, independent of whether that story is fiction, academic or a combination of both. The easiest way of doing that – and if this is news to you I’ll be shocked – is to place focus on a character just off the central action that the audience or reader can identify with. ‘How am I supposed to feel about all these goings-on? Well this person feels this way about it. If I was in his or her shoes, is that how I would feel?’ A book is not a monologue, it is a conversation. Writers who do not realize this either go unpublished or are bores. Thus there is the importance of Grace Poole in Jane Eyre, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Polonius in Hamlet, or Catherine Howard in Young and Damned and Fair.

Russell does set himself quite the task given the slipperiness of historical detail about Catherine. For the most part what has survived intact to the present day is the testimony of the many witnesses against her and given that Henry through his Privacy Council were not at all adverse to torture in order to get the testimony they wished to hear, there is always a question of reliability. Still, although much has been taken enough remains for this historical biography to be deemed as reliable and valid.

It would be misleading to call Young and Damned and Fair an exciting read. Careful, responsible scholarship is like toll booths on a highway; just as soon as one gets up to speed there’s another bloody stop ahead. Instead of tossing coins into a bucket there are alternative academic assessments to be considered, examined, kept or rejected. The precise lineage of one of Catherine’s chamberers may be of vast interest to someone or other out there, but it ain’t me. Can we please get back to the jousting?

No, the true value of Young and Damned and Fair is within that conversation the reader has with it. Catherine was … oh let’s not beat around the bush, she was not the brightest candle on the altar. That is not her fault, given that education for young women in the Tudor period, even ones born into noble families like the Howards, largely consisted of a bit of music, a fair bit of religion, personal grooming, and affecting an appearance of intense interest when spoken to. Judging from the one letter in her own hand that Russell duplicates in whole, she was certainly not literate as that letter contains a run-on sentence so long, rambling and clunky in grammar as to make James Joyce say ‘Wow!’

Her doom was largely caused, in my judgment, by her not having great expectations. Some day marry the King? Are you totally mad? So instead she did what teenage girls did then as now – she tried on lovers for size. And when she married a corpulent man who evidently was past his best days as a bedroom swordsman, she did what young women did then as now – she took on a lover. Problem was of course, the former rendered her marriage annulled and the latter was treason. Whether or not Thomas Culpepper, her extra-marital lover, and she ever actually had sex was legally immaterial. Thinking about having an affair was a treasonable offence.

So regarding that conversation you as a reader will have with Gareth Russell’s book, from what angle of consideration will you take? One can see Catherine Howard anywhere on a scale from innocent victim to blundering harlot, or her husband anywhere from the highest example of the mores of his time or a vicious thug. Depending on your answers, I’ll bet I can guess how you’ll vote in the next election. Such is one of the many values of reading and deeply considering a work of history. The good part is, even if we disagree neither of us will face the scaffold for our views. Well, let’s hope so anyway.

Gareth Russell (Simon & Schuster 2017, Hardcover) 436 pages, indexed and colour illustrated

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