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Ask the author: Conor Byrne on Katherine Howard

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Henry VIII’s fifth and youngest queen, Katherine Howard, has long been the victim of assumption. While the guilt of her predecessor and cousin, Anne Boleyn, continues to be debated, Katherine has been labelled as a silly girl who should have known better. Unsatisfied with this summary of her character, historian Conor Byrne set out to dive deeper into Katherine’s story in his book Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen to uncover the woman behind all that Tudor gossip.

What drew you to Katherine Howard’s story?

I have been fascinated by Tudor history for well over a decade and this began with Henry VIII and his six wives. I have always felt that Katherine, an ultimately tragic figure, has traditionally been judged harshly for her actions during her short life. I did not believe that her life had been fairly represented in modern accounts, which drove me to discover whether there was more to her than these accounts suggested.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Katherine?

That she was stupid. It is astonishing how frequently she is slandered as stupid, empty-headed or even a ‘bimbo’ in academic and popular works of history. There is actually no evidence for her intellectual ability, but it does seem unfair to regard her as stupid in comparison to some of Henry VIII’s other wives. I think it would be fairer to describe her as less well-educated and certainly naïve.

What did you find most rewarding and most difficult about the research process?

The most rewarding aspect is reading about aspects of the sixteenth-century that don’t always find their way into most books. I would also say that reading accounts of what these people actually said – or allegedly said – is also fascinating, because we feel that we are accessing their voices from hundreds of years ago. The most difficult aspect is gaps in the source material. Frustratingly, there are many aspects of Katherine’s life, for example, that are unrecorded, such as her date of birth.

Do you believe Katherine was guilty of adultery?

It depends how adultery is defined, because so often it is interpreted from a sexual perspective. I do not believe she had sexual relations with Thomas Culpeper, as my book indicates, but neither do I believe she had romantic feelings for him. So no, I don’t believe she was an adulterous queen.

If she had lived longer, would Katherine have made a good queen?

Every piece of surviving evidence we have indicates that, contrary to traditional perceptions, Katherine was a conscientious queen who fulfilled her ceremonial duties aptly. I argue in my book that Katherine’s style of queenship may have been directly shaped by Henry VIII’s changing expectations about the queen’s role. Too often it is assumed that she was uninterested in fulfilling her royal duties, but it is barely ever considered that perhaps her husband had a direct say in the way that Katherine responded to her role. Had Katherine given birth to a male heir and had the king never discovered her pre-marital past, then I do believe she would have been regarded as a very successful queen consort.

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