Meet the Wives Handbook: Catherine Howard

Cheerful, light-hearted and gay, Catherine made the aging and ailing king feel young again. But empty-headed Catherine, ignorant of the ways of the court, continued to have love affairs that eventually broke Henry's heart and led to her downfall.

Background: Overview

Henry, no longer active and nearly 50, fell for the youthful and carefree 15-year-old Catherine Howard in the last days of his failed marriage to Anne of Cleves. This maid-of-honor to the queen was everything Henry VIII ever wanted in a wife -- obedient, pretty, fertile, and chaste. Or so he thought.

Background: Looks and Personality

Catherine's sunny personality coupled with her good looks instantly entranced the king, who, at the time of his first encounter with Catherine in 1540, was married to the strait-laced Anne of Cleves. In contrast to Queen Anne, Catherine, according to French ambassador Charles de Marillac, was "a young lady of extraordinary beauty" and of "superlative grace." Small and slender, auburn-haired Catherine, then 15, most certainly had sexappeal. Contemporaries describe her as kind-hearted, good-natured, but empty-headed and frivolous -- all she cared for was dancing and merry-making.

Background: Education

At an early age, Catherine was sent by her father, Lord Edmund Howard, to live with her step-grandmother, Agnes, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The Duchess of Norfolk, had been a prominent court figure in her day and many parents, in hopes of advancing their children's chances in court, placed their children under her care. At her houses at Lambeth in Norfolk and Horsham in Surrey, the Duchess offered a comfortable home. She did not, however, provide strict supervision of her wards and allowed her granddaughter Catherine to run wild -- a fact that would later have dire consequences. The young girl's education was largely neglected, though she did learn to read and write. She also enjoyed her music lessons along with the attentions of her teacher, Henry Manox (see Trouble Alert).

Background: Religion

Though Catherine was raised Catholic, she was not pious like Catherine of Aragon. Yet this teen-ager represented the Catholic conservative faction's best hope for influencing the king to restore the Catholic faith to its pre-Reformation prominence. It was at the house of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, a devotee of the Catholic cause, that Henry VIII would first meet Catherine Howard. When it was clear that the king was captivated by Catherine, the duke of Norfolk, leader of the Catholic faction and Catherine's uncle, took advantage of the situation and hatched a plan. A bubbly flirt, Catherine was meant to distract the king from religious reformers like Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Background: Family Ties

Edmund Howard, Catherine's father, was a younger son of the Duke of Norfolk, one of the most powerful peers in the realm. Howard's inheritance was small and he was constantly in debt. Yet though Catherine grew up poor, her ties to the powerful Howard family would serve her well. In the spring of 1540, Catherine's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk arranged for her to go to court as a maid-of-honor to Anne of Cleves. A leader of the faction of conservative Catholic nobles, Norfolk, who had already seen one niece become queen (Anne Boleyn), hoped Catherine's marriage to the king would advance his faction's interests and lead to and his own rise in power. Norfolk would have no qualms about using his niece, nor abandoning her once she fell from grace.

Background: Trouble Alert

Catherine attracted many men from an early age and, under her grandmother's lax supervision, would have two sordid affairs. Catherine's music teacher, Henry Manox, taught her the virginal and the flute and also tried to seduce his young pupil. As she later would confess: "at the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox being but a young girl I suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body...." Catherine's sexual education continued with Francis Dereham, a gentleman in the service of the duchess. At night Dereham would creep up to share Catherine's bed in the girls' dormitory. A maid who shared the room refused to sleep nearby because of all the "puffing and blowing" that came from Catherine's bed. Their relationship would eventually wane, but not before they had a pre-contract for marriage or an engagement -- viewed as legally binding as marriage.

Thirteen/WNET PBS