Young and Damned and Fair by Gareth Russell

Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII Book Cover Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII
Gareth Russell
William Collins
January 2017

Born into nobility and married into the royal family, Catherine Howard was attended every waking hour – secrets were impossible to keep. In this thrilling reappraisal of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Gareth Russell’s history unfurls as if in real time to explain how the queen’s career ended with one of the great scandals of Henry’s reign. This is a grand tale of the Henrician court in its twilight, a glittering but pernicious sunset during which the king’s unstable behaviour and his courtiers’ labyrinthine deceptions proved fatal to many, not just to Catherine Howard.

"This fascinating and ultimately heartbreaking account of Henry VIII's doomed fifth wife brings to life the cruel, gossip-fueled, backstabbing world of the court in which Catherine Howard rose and fell. The uncommonly talented Gareth Russell has produced a masterly work of Tudor history that is engrossing, sympathetic, suspenseful, and illuminating." (Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws, winner off the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography )

"Securely rooted in the sources and mercifully devoid of sentiment, this is the most fully rounded, best written biography of Catherine Howard we have so far." (Julia Fox, author of Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford )

"In Young and Damned and Fair Gareth Russell marries slick storytelling with a great wealth of learning about sixteenth-century personalities and politics. The result is a book that leads us deep into the nightmarish final years of Henry VIII's reign, wrenching open the intrigues of a poisonous court in a realm seething with discontent. At the heart of it all is the fragile, tragic figure of Catherine Howard, whose awful fate is almost unbearable to watch as it unfolds.  This is authoritative Tudor history written with a novelist's lightness of touch. A terrific achievement." (Dan Jones, author of The Plantagenets and The Hollow Crown )

"Scholarly yet highly readable...fresh and compelling...a stunning achievement...Catherine is given a makeover so complete that she is virtually unrecognizeable from the hopelessly naive girl of traditional history books." (The Sunday Times)

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.

4 thoughts on “Young and Damned and Fair by Gareth Russell

  1. I recently bought this box but haven’t started reading it yet. I’m glad to have read your review—thanks. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    As always, thank you for your wide-ranging and thorough material!

  2. I just finished the book. I really liked it—very engaging indeed. The author is a good storyteller, and the book is exhaustively researched. Like you, I disagree with the author on his conclusion that Catherine wasn’t sexually abused. As you said, even taking into account the different morals of the Tudor age the age differences between Catherine and Dereham and Catherine and Manox are extreme, not to mention the shocking way the young orphaned Catherine was essentially left to her own devices when she joined her step-grandmother’s household. Putting that disagreement aside, I can highly recommend this book. I’ve read a lot of Tudor biographies, and this is one of the best. Thanks for recommending it.

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