Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived. For those who study Tudor history, we have heard this unimaginative rhyme to refer to the wives of Henry VIII for the longest time. We all know the stories of the queens, especially Anne Boleyn, but the fifth wife and the second one to be beheaded tend to be cast aside for some of the more intriguing tales. Her name was Catherine Howard, Henry’s youngest bride. Her story is full of rumors and myths, just like her cousin Anne Boleyn. Most know of her romantic dalliances that, in the end, led to her demise, but what was her reign like as queen? What was the court of Henry VIII like during his fifth marriage as his health was failing? In Gareth Russell’s brilliant biography, “Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII”, he dives deep into the archives to shine a light on the life of this tragic and young queen.
I would like to thank everyone who has recommended that I read this biography for years now. I have heard the praises about this book and I have enjoyed reading posts by Gareth Russell so I decided that it was about time that I read the book that put him on the map for so many Tudor history fans.
Russell begins his exploration into Catherine’s life with an execution and a wedding. The person being executed on July 28, 1540, was Henry VIII’s former right-hand man Thomas Cromwell and the bride is Catherine Howard. The duality of this first chapter is stunning, showing how favor in Henry VIII’s court was like a wheel constantly turning. A person’s fate was always in the hands of the king. To understand how Catherine caught the roving eye of the ailing king, Russell takes his readers on a journey into her past to show how this young lady made it into the glamorous Tudor court. We all have an idea of what life must have been like for Catherine in her grandmother’s, Agnes Tilney dowager Duchess of Norfolk, household. However, as Russell explains, Catherine’s life and her early romances with Henry Manox and Francis Dereham were not like how it has been portrayed in novels about her life.
Catherine’s life took a dramatic turn when she is chosen to be one of the ladies in waiting for Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. This relationship does not last long and Henry casts his eyes upon Catherine and she becomes his fifth wife. However, while at court, Catherine falls in love with the charming Thomas Culpepper. Russell goes further than any other author has in the past to explore the different aspects of Catherine’s reign as queen consort. He explores her household, how she viewed religious issues and political issues that impacted Tudor England during this time. Finally, Russell explores the downfall, the trial, and the execution of Catherine Howard and how her foolish decisions cost her everything.
The way Russell combined his easy to read style of writing with scrupulous attention to detail to create such a vivid account of Catherine Howard’s tragic life is magnificent. It felt as if you could visualize the events as they happened in the Henrician court. Before I read this account, I felt no sympathy for Catherine’s demise, but this beautiful biography changed my view on her life. If you want a hauntingly beautiful biography about the life of Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard, you must read, “Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII” by Gareth Russell.