Young and Damned and Fair: The life and tragedy of Catherine Howard at the court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell is a confident, outspoken and direct account of the life and times of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s 5th wife would was beheaded at the tragically young age of somewhere between 19 and 21. It is a brilliantly told story, with all the colour and pageantry of her times as a glittering backdrop, with some bold statements and new analysis, some questionable, but in all a great book well worth the read.
A great storyteller and painstaking researcher
Gareth Russell is a great story teller. You are never left in any doubt that this is a history book; the scholarship is unquestionable and impressive but equally it is certainly designed for a general audience. There are the normal pleas that we know very little about Catherine, and that’s true to a degree, but due to the investigations in 1541 we know more than about many – and the book mines this resource very well. The glories of the book are the narrative style, which keeps hopping along; the author’s talent for spotting a good story and laying it out; and the anecdotes with which Catherine’s world is painted. I found out some great stories; in particular, I was trying to find out about the Countess of Bridgewater at the time – and there in this book was a wealth of information. If you want a picture of the court, and the minutiae of how Catherine lived as a queen and to a degree before she came to court this is the book for you.
[UK customers, you can buy Young and Damned and Fair here.]
Challenging the historiography
I also enjoyed the several (without being intrusive) number of references to and discussions about the way that Catherine story has been told before by historians. He is straightforward and direct about these, without being rude. For example, he balances the accusations of idiocy made against the Howards’ policy to employ many of Catherine’s dormer servants when she was queen, showing that greater care was taken to adopt an approach best for each person. He presents convincing evidence that the Duke of Norfolk very probably had no intention of using Catherine as part of a plot to bring down Cromwell. I found all of these and others interesting and convincing challenges to interpretation.
He also tackles the question of Thomas Culpepper’s character; but is inclined to set aside the accusations that Culpepper was guilty of rape and was pardoned by the king for lack of evidence. And he uses Catherine’s love letter as evidence that Catherine and Thomas genuinely shared their passion, not that Culpepper was a blackmailer.
[US customers, you can buy Young and Damned and Fair here.]
The Character of Catherine
He also paints a well argued, quite convincing picture of Catherine – but also a questionable one. This is maybe the main question of debate about Catherine. Se has traditionally been painted quite nastily as an air-headed, promiscuous, fun seeker. But more recent biographies have been more sympathetic, and in particular have stressed her youth, and painted a picture of sexual abuse as a young teenager.
In terms of sympathy, Russell paints a reasonably positive picture; he stresses how well she performs the role of Queen, grows in confidence despite a frankly terrifying situation, and begins to develop her style in her very short reign. And he has that very same sympathy that almost all writers have had for her – married to a man more than 30 years her senior, and becoming increasingly grotesque; and her death at such a young age.
But he categorically does not accept that Catherine was a victim of sexual abuse. He presents the story convincingly enough, and certainly marshals the evidence, that Catherine was a willing partner, that she had the strength of character to reject Francis Dereham, for example. And of course it’s important to understand the morals and standards of the age, where it was socially acceptable for men to have sex with young girls.
But the interpretation is questionable I think; whatever Tudor England thought, and however therefore you view Francis Dereham and Henry Manox as well, surely the point is that when Henry Manox grabbed Catherine by the privates he was 13 and he was 20 or 21; when she lost her virginity to Dereham she was 14 and he was 10 years her senior. In any age, you have to think that she should have been protected, there is no doubt that Tudor society would have been and was shocked by her conditions of her upbringing and the failure of Agnes Howard to provide a properly managed household. And that this must have affected her judgment and the way she viewed the world, led directly to her execution, and to the wildly risky relationship with Thomas Culpepper.
A great read, heartily recommended
I had a few other tiny quibbles; there’s a very occasional whiff of the curse of judging the past through today’s standards in his descriptions of Henry and phrase like ‘broken society’ (possibly my over sensitivity). But the author is very balanced, and I loved the use of original sources as quotes, sometimes printed in full. A good example is Catherine’s rather heart rending letter to Henry with the very insightful line
I most humbly beseech you to consider the subtle persuasions of young men and the ignorance and frailness of young women
I loved the stories around Catherine. There’s a really good portrayal of the upstairs/downstairs life throughout; there’s a procession of characters that Russell brings in and masterfully describes, some well known others very new to me. The pace of the story is brilliantly handled, and properly completed. So, you might quibble with the odd thing, but I’d be very surprised if you didn’t enjoy it.