It is a pleasure to host and interview Conor Byrne as he visits several websites this week to discuss his biography Katherine Howard, A New History.
Conor Byrne is an undergraduate student at Exeter University. This brilliant and enlightened young man has an acute interest in late medieval and early modern European history and focuses his research on ruling, women, gender, social history, sexuality and rebellion. Although Conor enjoys a keen interest in the queenships of Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor, he also enjoys the social aspects of history, such as the lives of the common, rebellion and revolt, and the societal dynamics of royal courts.
1. Conor, I understand you are an undergraduate student. What motivated you to take on as aggressive and comprehensive project of writing a biography? Why the choice of Queen Katherine Howard?
I’ve had an intense passion for Tudor history, in particular the history of Tudor women, since I was around eleven. I’ve always been entranced and fascinated by the tragic stories of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. Although both have traditionally been presented negatively, in more recent times Anne has been positively portrayed by historians who have recognised the important role she played in English history. By contrast, her cousin Katherine continues to be characterised negatively and is often presented as promiscuous or immoral. The more I read about her, the less convinced I became of this. It seemed to me that there were gaping holes in this interpretation. Many questions about her had never been considered or, if they had, had not been fully answered.
2. In sharing you research Queen Katherine Howard’s childhood, you speak very powerfully about the plight of girls and women who experience molestation and copulative sexual abuse. What conclusions do you wish to share with QAB members and browsers about pedophilia and sexual abuse of women in the 16th century?
I draw very much on Retha M. Warnicke’s research into what she terms ‘interior consent’. That is, in the sixteenth century, it was believed that even if a woman said no to sexual advances, she really meant yes, which consequently justified rape and sexual assault. Women were characterised as the lustier and more immoral sex and so were seen as particularly prone to sexual misdemeanours. In view of this, they, rather than men, tended to bear the blame for sexual liaisons. It was widely believed that women provoked rape and found pleasure in it. Consequently, when a woman was raped, she found it exceptionally difficult to prove, in view of the legal and social bias against her. I never stated in my book that it could be proven that Katherine was raped or sexually assaulted by her pursuers. Yet the evidence given, when read in light of social customs, suggests that she may well have been. It should not be forgotten that she was 13 when she was involved with Mannox and 15 when Dereham pursued her.
3. Do you believe that Queen Katherine Howard was in any way an effective queen? What were her passions and interests related to her queenship?
I believe in many ways she was effective. I’m not the first to think this – David Starkey has written positively of her start as queen. She maintained good relations with her stepchildren (after an initially frosty beginning with Mary Tudor), was a dutiful and loving wife to Henry VIII, acted as patron, bestowed influence upon her friends and family, and seems to have enjoyed a good relationship with Archbishop Cranmer. It’s recently been suggested that Henry VIII was trying to mould Katherine into the perfect queen, and indeed, had it not been for her murky past, she would have fulfilled this role in many respects. It does remain uncertain however why she could not conceive a child, but that may have been something to do with her husband, rather than her. Katherine did not wield significant influence in a religious or political sense, unlike the king’s first two wives or Katherine Parr. We know very little about her passions and interests, but pieces of evidence tentatively suggest she had a love of clothes.
4. Conor I was impressed how strongly you researched contemporary sources. Can you share with browsers how you accomplished this?
I conducted research in archives and libraries. Luckily many contemporary sources have now been digitised and are available to view online. Often the problem has not been locating new sources, but the ways in which sources relied on by modern historians have been interpreted. A case in point is Katherine’s famous claim that she knew how to meddle with a man. Perhaps this didn’t refer to contraception. It was believed that both the male and female partner should enjoy the sexual act and release seed in order to conceive. If Katherine did not enjoy her sexual experiences, it would be explain why she believed she had not fallen pregnant.
5. I mention in my QAB book review of your wonderful biography that I disagree with your conclusions related to the fall of Thomas Cromwell. It is my strong belief that his fall in great measure resulted from his evangelical vs. conservative power struggles with Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. Your assignment is to convince me otherwise. Go for it!
I certainly agree that a power struggle between evangelicals and conservatives played a significant role in Cromwell’s fall. However, I believe it was more complex than that. As Warnicke suggests, there is very little evidence that Norfolk and Gardiner were ‘allies’ in a faction. I believe there was more at play, including the dissatisfaction with the Cleves marriage on the king’s behalf and rumours of Cromwell’s support of heretics. Certainly the king probably played a much more significant role than this factional argument allows. There is no evidence, in particular, to suggest that Norfolk and Gardiner worked to groom Katherine, in a sense, for queenship.
6. I believe fiction writers, history writers and historians who write about the Tudor Era have a historian or two that most influences how they view the topics and historical figures they are passionate about. For example, I know that Eric Ives profoundly influenced both Claire Ridgway and Leanda de Lisle, while Diarmaid MacCulloch most influences my work. Who are the historians who most feed your passions? Why?
Retha M. Warnicke strongly influenced my work on Katherine. I may not agree with some of her conclusions regarding Anne Boleyn, but her ideas about Katherine Howard are very close to my own. I don’t necessarily agree with the theories put forward by other historians who have studied Katherine, such as Lacey Baldwin Smith and Joanna Denny, but reading their works has helped me to consider new questions and approaches in relation to the topic. Denny was right to consider that Katherine’s experiences may have been coerced.
7. I am asking this question on behalf of the members and browsers, several who raise this topic endlessly. Please share your thoughts about Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford. Was this woman infamous, insane or misunderstood? Why?
It’s impossible to know the truth about Jane Parker. I don’t personally believe that she was insane. Most historians now doubt that she played an important role in her sister-in-law and her husband’s downfall, which calls into question interpretations of her as a vengeful, jealous woman. As with Katherine, we lack evidence about her character and her motivations, so she remains a shadowy figure at best. Who knows why she became involved with Katherine? There is no evidence that they were particularly close. As I suggest in my book, I believe Culpeper approached Jane first, because he knew that she was Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber and so in a prime position to help him to meet with the queen. Katherine’s ladies later testified that Lady Rochford instigated the whole thing, however true that is.
8. I was very interested to read in biographical information you provide about yourself that you have highly varied interests. Please share them with QAB’s members and browsers. I am certainly they will find your interests very intriguing.
In terms of history, I’m interested in most areas of it from ancient to modern times. I am fascinated by medieval queens and the ways in which they are represented: Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou are two notorious examples. I’m interested in the ways gender constructed these negative portrayals. I am also fascinated by, in particular, the High and Late Middle Ages, the Victorian period, the French Revolution, and the twentieth century. I am also very passionate about art, art history, literature, fashion, and writing more generally.
9. Conor, on a related note, where do you see yourself in 10 years? Are you interested in becoming a Ph. D Level historian? Or do your passions lay elsewhere?
I am strongly considering it. I intend to continue researching history and I have already got one or two ideas about my next book which fans might be pleased to hear could well be six-wives related!
10. Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share with QAB members and browsers?
Slightly related to the last question, I am considering writing a study of the portrayal of Henry VIII’s six wives in popular culture. I’m very much influenced by Susan Bordo’s astonishing and beautiful book “The Creation of Anne Boleyn” in this regard. I’d like to look at how each queen has been represented in forms of popular culture that include television, film, and literature. But that’s a project that might take some time!
Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers recently reviewed Katherine Howard, A New History, by Conor Byrne. To read our thoughts about Conor’s research, go here:
Conor Byrne and MadeGlobal Publishing are graciously offering a complimentary copy of Katherine Howard, A New History to one lucky QAB member or browser. If you are interested in being included in a drawing for a chance of winning this wonderful book, send the administrator a message via the website’s contact form. To complete the contact form, click here –> CONTACT US! We will draw a random winner on November 6, 2014. Good Luck!!!
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