‘I found her in such lamentation and heaviness, as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man’s heart in the world, to have looked upon her.’ — Thomas Cranmer
Catherine Howard, Queen of England, poses a historical quandary for me. After reading three biographies telling her life story, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife has me completely baffled. Given her colorful life story and head-scratching major life decisions, she seems to have historians is a state of perpetual disagreement, as well. Was Catherine Howard misguided? Silly? Consensually promiscuous? The repeated victim of sexual abuse? The ultimate pawn of her powerful family? A victim of the “all the king’s men”, each vying for political, and subsequently religious control, of the King’s patronage? Was she stupid or simply misunderstood? Historians spiritedly disagree — the arguments on several sides plausible.
Prior to reading Gareth Russell’s Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII, I was heavily inclined to believe that poor Catherine Howard, like many women who came before and since, was the tragic victim of a male dominating society — in short, a woman, who in lacking the choice to forge her own destiny and with no male protector, was the victim of circumstance, poor childhood mentoring, sexual predators, and political infighting. Ultimately the pawn of her powerful uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, she was used in enticing King Henry VIII away from a marriage he didn’t want in any case to manipulate the fall of Norfolk’s greatest nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, and to gain advantage for the conservative faction. After all, given the political intrigues of King Henry VIII’s court of vipers, this would seem simple common sense, wouldn’t it?
Now I am admittedly confused. Gareth Russell, thorough in his research, convincing in his analysis, and eloquent in his telling of Catherine Howard’s life story, has me questioning my long-held thoughts and opinions. This in itself is no easy accomplishment. Once I have set my mind to an interpretation of history, I am not easily moved from it. Fortunately, this is not a weakness shared by Gareth Russell. His analysis shows plainly that he researched the history of Catherine’s Howard’s life and let the information he uncovered tell the story. In all frankness, with our modernized heightened awareness of historical male dominance and inclination to lay the blame for female historical figures’ freely given decision-making to misogyny, his conclusions would be easier if he “went with the flow”. Instead, Gareth Russell resists the temptation to go an easier road, and in doing so, remains respectful of Catherine Howard’s legacy, as well as the legacy of the other historical figures he explores.
From a literary standpoint, Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII is exquisitely written. Gareth Russell’s writing style simply stated rivals that of Stacy Schiff and David McCullough. Consequently, though the biography covers the very complex ground of 16th-century history and explores extensive historical content, it is an amazingly “easy read”. As a writer, I know just how difficult a task this is to accomplish. Beyond the outstanding historical content, this book provides a wonderful writing lesson in the art of biography composition. I do hope Gareth Russell continues in the genre, moving on to historical figures of longer life and increased complexity.
Write this down and take it to the bank. Gareth Russell is one “big bio” away from joining the world’s elite biographers composing in the English language today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Educated at Oxford University and Queens University, Belfast, Gareth Russell is a historian, novelist, and playwright. He is the author of Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII; The Emperors: How Europe’s Most Powerful Rulers were Destroyed by World War One; and An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors.