Remembering Catherine Howard: Henry VIII’s ‘Slut’ Wife

A closer look at the sad story behind Henry's often overlooked fifth wife.

Catherine Howard

Saying Henry VIII was a womanizer is a bit of an understatement.

After all, he changed his wives as easily as one would nowadays change their underwear – something Henry most likely didn’t do. Each one of them has gone down in history for different reasons.

Katherine of Aragon was the suffering first wife; Anne Boleyn was the manipulative lover; Jane Seymour, the one Henry didn’t get to hate because she was gone too soon; Anne of Cleves, the ugly foreigner, and Catherine Howard was the slutty one, simply because, at age 20, she had had more than one sexual partner and had committed the ‘indecency’ of getting herself a healthy lover her own age while being married to an irascible, morbidly obese 50-year-old man with an ulcerous leg that smelled worse than a rotting corpse. I mean, how dare she?

So for 500 years, Catherine has been one of six footnotes in Henry’s love life. Born in Lambeth somewhere between 1521 and 1523, she had always stood out as a lively and attractive girl, which explains why she quickly caught the king’s attention when she joined the court as Anne of Cleves’s lady-in-waiting.

As a young teenager who loved life, Catherine had been engaged in a relationship with Francis Dereham before meeting the king, and when she became queen herself in 1540, she made the mistake of appointing him as her personal secretary. After all, there is nothing more vindictive than a jealous man.

Catherine Howard
Catherine Howard Henry VIII's forgotten wife.

Catherine started another relationship with Thomas Culpeper, a handsome man who probably disgusted her far less than the king, and it all went downhill. Henry was informed of the affair, and even though he didn’t want to believe it at first, he eventually agreed to give way to one of his favourite pastimes: beheading his wife.

So Catherine’s life ended in 1542, when she was no more than 20 years old, merely because she didn’t resign herself to being a meek doll behind a dominant, albeit powerful, man.

Nowadays (thankfully), we don’t resort to beheading, but there are plenty of women who still get shamed whenever they publicly acknowledge that they have an interesting love and sex life.

They are called sluts, they are insulted for wanting to achieve the sexual freedom that a man in their position would be worshiped for. And even when women go the opposite way and remain free of sexual partners, they are insulted as well and called ‘frigid’. Well, it seems like no matter what we do, we can’t keep anyone happy.

Henry VIII
Henry VIII Back in the day

Catherine’s ultimate step that led to her death was to deny that there had been a marriage contract between her and Dereham, which would have annulled her marriage to Henry and would have set her free. But she decided to stand up and admit that she was the king’s wife and she’d had sex with other men while being both a single and a married woman. And then she was killed for wanting to live a little.

Society in First World countries nowadays may not cut women’s heads off anymore, but there are other ways of chopping down a woman’s freedom.

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