“A vivid re-creation of a Tudor tragedy.”—Kirkus Reviews
In the spring of 1540, Henry VIII is desperate to be rid of his unappealing German queen, Anna of Kleve. A prematurely aged and ailing forty-nine, with an ever-growing waistline, he casts an amorous eye on a pretty nineteen-year-old brunette, Katheryn Howard. Like her cousin Anne Boleyn, Katheryn is a niece of the Duke of Norfolk, England’s premier Catholic peer, who is scheming to replace Anna of Kleve with a good Catholic queen. A flirtatious, eager participant in the life of the royal court, Katheryn readily succumbs to the king’s attentions when she is intentionally pushed into his path by her ambitious family.
Henry quickly becomes besotted and is soon laying siege to Katheryn’s virtue. But as instructed by her relations, she holds out for marriage and the wedding takes place a mere fortnight after the king’s union to Anna is annulled. Henry tells the world his new bride is a rose without a thorn, and extols her beauty and her virtue, while Katheryn delights in the pleasures of being queen and the rich gifts her adoring husband showers upon her: the gorgeous gowns, the exquisite jewels, and the darling lap-dogs. She comes to love the ailing, obese king, enduring his nightly embraces with fortitude and kindness. If she can bear him a son, her triumph will be complete. But Katheryn has a past of which Henry knows nothing, and which comes back increasingly to haunt her—even as she courts danger yet again. What happens next to this naïve and much-wronged girl is one of the saddest chapters in English history.
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Katheryn was seven when her mother died. She would never forget being led by her nurse into the dim, musty bedchamber where Father was kneeling beside the bed, his head in his hands and his shoulders heaving, and the chaplain was saying prayers. It was shocking having to kiss the cold forehead of the still figure lying in the bed, which looked so unlike the mother she knew.
Why had she died? She had been up and about only yesterday. Yet she had heard her mother screaming in the night, and somehow knew that the little stranger lying in the next room had something to do with it.
“You must be brave,” her half-sister Isabel murmured. “Our lady mother is now in Heaven, watching over you.” It was hard to understand that when Mother was clearly lying here.
When Katheryn started wailing, Isabel took her hand and led her out.
“Hush, sweeting,” she said, sounding choked herself. “Let us go and see our new sister.”
Katheryn stared down at the snuffling infant lying in the cradle. Mary had plump pink cheeks and a pouting mouth. She was tightly swaddled and wore a close-fitting bonnet. It would be ages before she was old enough to play with Katheryn.
“You must be a mother to her now,” Isabel said. Katheryn wasn’t sure about that. Babies held little appeal for her; they didn’t do anything. She would far rather be romping with her brothers, Charles, Henry, and George, even though they were much older and did not always want to be encumbered by a needy little girl.
She had even older brothers and sisters, too, Mother’s children by her first husband. In the days after Mother died, they came down from Stockwell to pay their respects, headed by John Leigh, Katheryn’s eldest half-brother, whom she adored. All the Leighs doted on her, especially Isabel. Isabel was lovely: tall, very fair, and still pretty, even though she was thirty-two, which seemed ancient. She was being very kind to Katheryn and had offered to stay on to help Father. It was a mercy that Isabel had been at Lady Hall when Mother died, for Father had now disappeared behind his chamber door, being too sunk in his own grief to heed his children’s misery. It was Isabel who clutched Katheryn to her flat velvet bosom, dried her tears, and came hastening when she woke screaming from a nightmare. Isabel had come to help with the new baby. Katheryn thought Isabel should have babies of her own, since she loved them so much, but Isabel was not yet married.
Katheryn was not now interested in practicalities. All she knew was that Mother was gone and that her world had been shattered. She understood what death was, for the household chaplain had explained that it was like going to sleep, although you never woke up because you had gone to Heaven to be with God, and that was something to rejoice over. But no one seemed to be rejoicing at all, and Katheryn thought that God was very selfish, taking her mother away when she loved her so much.
There came the day when Katheryn was kneeling on the floor of the hall, playing shovelboard with Isabel as her nurse looked on, and Father summoned her to his private closet with its dark paneled walls. To the child, Lord Edmund looked wild-eyed and haggard in the candlelight.
“Come here, Kitty,” he said. It was his pet name for her. “I have something for you.” He held out his hand and there in his palm lay a glittering ruby ring. “Your mother left it to you,” he went on. “She wanted you to have it. You must take great care of it.”
Katheryn picked it up, gazing at it in wonderment. She had never owned such a beautiful object; indeed, she owned barely anything at all, save for her clothes and a few playthings. They were poor; she had grown up knowing it, just as it had been drummed into her that, despite their poverty, she was a Howard and a member of one of the greatest and most noble families in England. The Duke of Norfolk himself was her uncle.
The ring gleamed at her, then its image blurred as tears welled at the memory of her mother wearing it. She would treasure it; it was all she had left of her.
“Give it to Isabel to keep safely for you until you are older,” Father said. “You will be going away soon; this house is no place for children.”
“Going away? Where, Father?” Katheryn asked, alarmed. She did not want to leave Lady Hall.
“Your Aunt Margaret Cotton has gladly agreed to take you. Your brothers will go to the Duke to be trained for knighthood, and Mary will live with her wet nurse in the village. You will leave for Oxon Hoath on Monday.” Monday was just three days hence.
The tears spilled over. “Are you coming, too?” Katheryn whispered.
Lord Edmund laid his hand on her head and sighed. “No, Kitty. Isabel will go with you. I have to stay here and attend to my affairs. God only knows what the future holds, for there is no money left. Be grateful that your aunt is a woman of true Christian charity and is willing to look after you.”
Katheryn did not think she had ever met Aunt Margaret Cotton, and did not wish to do so now. “I want to stay here with you,” she said.
“Alas, Kitty, I am not fitted to rearing children,” Father said. “It is better you grow up in comfort than starve with me.”
“Are you going to starve?” Katheryn asked.
“Well, probably not,” her father said. “But I cannot give you the life you deserve, and Aunt Margaret can.”
Katheryn cried again at that. She had not dreamed that losing Mother would mean losing Father as well. He had never loomed large in her life, yet he was part of that familiar world that was now crumbling. He patted her head again and called for Isabel. It was she who comforted the child, shaking her head in sorrow at the nurse.
Katheryn sat in the litter, wrapped in blankets against the November chill, with Isabel beside her. She was sunk in misery as she watched her father waving farewell and Lady Hall vanishing in the distance, and craned her head through the window for a last glimpse of it, until Isabel told her to sit back and pulled down the blind.
“It’s freezing, sweeting,” she said.
Katheryn sat there trying to remember her mother’s face. It was horrible knowing that she would never see it again. She might never again play with her boisterous brothers in the field that lay between Lady Hall and the church at Moreton. Her head was full of memories: the Christmas gatherings at Lambeth, receiving a cloth doll made by Mother at New Year, getting her brothers to carry her pig-a-back and Father reprimanding them for being too rough with her, and her nurse grumbling because there was no money for new clothes. But her most cherished memories were those of her mother. Mother sewing by the fire, or making cordial in the still room, Mother teaching her how to make daisy chains, Mother kissing her good night, her gentle hand stroking her hair. Tears welled.
“You’ve not met your Culpeper kinsfolk, have you, sweeting?” Isabel said. “They are my family, too. Our mother was a Culpeper before she married. Aunt Margaret is her sister. You will come to love her, I am sure.”
They jolted through Epping Forest, passing through the villages of Chipping Ongar and Kelvedon Hatch. Presently, Katheryn fell asleep, and only woke up when Isabel shook her shoulder at Tilbury. Here they were to catch the ferry across the Thames to Gravesend. Down by the jetty there was a man selling hot pies, and Isabel bought three, one each for her and Katheryn and one for the groom, and some hot spiced ale.
It was a short journey by boat to the Kent coast. Isabel folded Katheryn in her cloak as they stood on deck and watched Gravesend looming near.
“Is it far to Oxon Hoath?” Katheryn asked as the vessel rocked on the tide.
“About sixteen miles. We’ll break our journey and stay overnight at Meopham. That’s about five miles from Gravesend.”
But they found nowhere suitable to stay at Meopham and had to ride on a further six miles until they arrived, exhausted, at the Bull Inn at Wrotham, which looked inviting. Isabel paid for a private chamber and asked for food to be brought up to them. They had the daily ordinary, a bowl of rich beef stew and slices of apple pie. Then Isabel put Katheryn to bed and sat sewing in a chair by the fire. It all seemed so strange, after the known and the familiar, and Katheryn started crying into her pillow. Instantly, Isabel was there, holding her in her arms.
“I know, I know, sweeting. She was my mother, too, and I miss her dreadfully.” Clutching each other, they wept together until Katheryn fell asleep.
Aunt Margaret Cotton was waiting for them at the door of a big old house with uneven walls and stout timbers. She was a plump matron in her forties with ruddy cheeks and a brisk manner, but Katheryn could see warmth and sympathy in her eyes.
“Oh, the poor mite!” she pronounced. “I’m glad you brought her to me, Isabel.”
“So am I, dear aunt,” said Isabel, and the women embraced each other.
“William!” Aunt Margaret called, and a kindly looking man appeared. He greeted Isabel with a kiss and patted Katheryn’s head.
“You’re a pretty little thing,” he told her. “I hope we’re going to be friends.” Katheryn ventured a tentative smile.