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In 1540, King Henry VIII married his fifth wife, Katherine Howard. Less than two years later, the young queen was executed on charges of adultery. Katherine Howard has been much maligned by history, often depicted as foolish, vain, and outrageously promiscuous. Her few defenders often attempt to exonerate Katherine by claiming that she was chaste, innocent of the adultery charges brought against her, or a victim of rape. Both detractors and defenders usually reduce Katherine to her sexuality.
However, the surviving primary sources about Katherine reveal a more complex individual. In fact, examination of conduct books for young women of her time often coincide nicely with Katherine’s behavior, as described by her contemporaries. Thus, Katherine’s sudden fall proved shocking in her own time, and modern historians are still baffled by the woman who likely dared to cuckold a man who had already had one wife executed on adultery charges.
This work examines the life, behavior, and personality of Katherine Howard, arguing that she was a complex woman who should not be reduced to her sexuality. I first examine Katherine’s biography based on primary sources. I then discuss the historiography on her life. Next, I turn to the conduct books describing ideal feminine behavior for young Englishwomen in the sixteenth century, and look at how these books can be linked to Katherine. Finally, I provide a feminist reinterpretation of Katherine Howard, focusing on elements of her life outside of her sexuality to present a generous, compassionate, and likeable woman. Most importantly, I argue that chastity should not be the sole, or even primary, means by which women are judged, and changing the ways we study Katherine can open new ways in which to study all women.
Adviser: Carole Levin