Monday, 2 August 2010

Divorce, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded

The court of Henry VIII continues to fascinate because this was the crucible of England, where the king changed the country more than even he realized.

The era is irresistible to historical novelists, probably to the irritation of historians, because the cast of characters widens as research uncovers minor characters and hence novel viewpoints to tell the story from.

Suzannah Dunn in "The Confession of Katherine Howard" returns to this period of which the reading public never tire. This time she writes from the point of view of a character who was listed in the papers as one of Katherine's ladies in waiting, Catherine (Kath.) Tylney.

She is writing in a genre where the giant talents of Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), the audacious Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) , the late "Jean Plaidy" (Eleanor Hibbert, who wrote everything else too) have set a very high bar.

Hibbert, although not a trained historian, was exact enough that her interpretations shine through many modern dramatizations. Recent adaptations have done little more than rip off the Jean Plaidy cover and lightly re-package the characters. Mantel is notoriously detailed in her research. She is on record as taking a dusty view of authors who cheat with the facts by concatenating events or putting impossible people together. In her view, the writer works with the obligation that what they imagine has to fit the historical facts.

Historical fiction - that is the sort which makes a novel out of agreed history - works like popular reconstructions. The facts are there as scaffolds, then the imagineers use what other information they can glean to work out how someone looked, how they might have thought, what their behaviour might have been. It's guess-work, but it should be informed guess-work. By convention, the novelists are allowed to import fictional characters to tell the story from their viewpoint and perhaps to thread in an alternative plot-line but even the fictional character must be plausible and researched. Also by convention, the authors warn the audience which are the fictional characters and where they are taking liberties. Dunn advises that the relationship between Cat Tylney and Francis Dereham has no supporting evidence; it's a plot device to give her a place to write from.

Suzannah Dunn finds something new in Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard. The standard view is of a very sweet but silly girl, ultimately a victim of other people's machinations. Dunn wonders if this can be whole story; Katherine was a Howard girl and therefore deeply political, even when cloistered in Horsham completing what passed for her education, but there was enough about her to attract a king, to make him think she was a pure country lass who somehow had arrived in his debauched court with her own maidenhead intact.

On the other hand, she wasn't so political that she understood that having married a king, she could not allow a breath of scandal any where near her. Expecting a young woman somewhere around eighteen years old to take on board the lessons of the four - count 'em, four - queens ahead of her is still expecting a lot, no matter how well-bred she is. We know this from our own age.

Merely having Katherine's old flame Francis Dereham near her was enough to set tongues wagging with gossip. Henry wanted to believe he had found what he was looking for, the rose without a thorn. Had Dereham stayed away from court the aging man would have discounted any gossip as malicious jealousy aimed at spoiling his own happiness. Katherine's close friendship with Thomas Culpepper, complete with a love letter, though, was asking for trouble. It would still cause an argument today if it turned up on the Jeremy Kyle show.

There are several telling points made in the book which illuminate the history. For example, the standard view is that the secret pre-contract of marriage to Dereham, which would have been a lawful impediment to her marriage to Henry, was what amounted to treason. Well, yes, up to a particular point. It wasn't treason at the point where Henry married Katherine, nor was the fact that she had had sex with Dereham, whether by choice or force. Henry changed the law afterwards, in 1441, to retrospectively make it treason to conceal the sexual history of a monarch's consort for more than 20 days after the wedding. (See also Imaginary Betrayals, Kate Cunningham p. 9)

Dunn points out what Archbishop Cranmer (in charge of the investigation) must have known: if had been accepted that Katherine had secretly pre-contracted marriage with Francis Dereham, then the short marriage to the King could have been swiftly annulled and the whole thing passed off as if it never happened. Henry getting an annulment was not altogether a new thing.

This would have been the kindest thing all round. It would have saved Henry's face and crucially, it would have precluded the separate question of whether the Queen had commit adultery - and therefore treason - with anyone else. This would have kept her head on her shoulders, even if she was packed off to a nunnery or forced to marry Dereham and live in a shed. Henry might never have changed the law on treason to be rid of her. Henry had a great deal of practice at changing the law to suit himself.

Katherine never understood the argument, if it was put to her. Her recorded answers to the enquiry was that Dereham forced her, that there was no pre-contract.

Instead, Henry was put in the position of possibly wearing the cuckold's horns - again - and this time he was an old and ailing man who could not regard himself as a victim of witchcraft. Under interrogation, Francis Dereham named Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry's own favoured associates, as the Queen's lover. It was only too painfully apparent that there's no fool like an old fool. If they had saved Henry's face, they might have saved her neck.

Something close to a face-saving effort may have been launched, but it hasn't been noticed by the wider public and I doubt it was at the time. Dunn carefully notes it in her briefing to readers. Francis Dereham admitted to having a sexual relationship with the Queen before her marriage, but not adultery. Thomas Culpepper never admitted adultery.

Their eventual conviction, despite an ambiguously-worded letter from Katherine and the possibly malicious testimony of other ladies, and Dereham's own accusation of Culpepper, was on a charge of presumptive treason, i.e. that they intended to have illicit relations with the Queen and thereby committed treason against the King's person. Since the inquisitors had torture available to them, they ought have been able to get the youths to admit to shooting the arrow at King Harold. What they confessed to, I would argue, was precisely what they were required to confess to and no more, thank you very much.

Katherine herself was never put on trial. Whatever she confessed to for the purposes of the investigators showing they had done a thorough job, the prosecutors were less keen to have her admitting it where a clerk would write it down and file it in the court papers. Henry could, if he chose, view it as the disgraceful behaviour of a manipulative young woman and not adultery. In essence, that's what he did, only that still left the problem of him being married.

With adultery not acceptable to Henry as grounds for divorce and Katherine refusing to admit pre-contract, there was only one other method for ending a marriage. Henry made it clear in a speech on February 6 that she was certainly guilty of failing to disclose her sexual past, and that was to be defined as treason when the deception was practiced against a King "esteeming her pure cleane maide". Everyone was now clear what Henry had decided and would not be accused later of acting precipitately.

Four days later, on Friday, 10 February 1542, Katherine was taken from Syon House to the Tower, and on Monday 13 February, at around 7am, the girl who was about 20 - her age is disputed, she could have been as young as 17 - was executed.

Dunn therefore has to grapple with the difficulty that her main characters are all young females who don't get out much. She has to describe a convoluted political age from the point of view of a handful of pampered, ill-educated, poorly-informed idiots. The author faces this challenge and delivers an insight:

"To see us there, no one would ever have guessed that we were barely free of a decade of deconstruction: the stripping of the churches and dismantling of monasteries, the chaining of monks to walls to die, the smash of a sword-blade into a queen's bared neck. None of it had actually happened to us, though; it'd passed us by as we'd sat embroidering alongside our housekeeper. Our parish church had been whitewashed, the local priory sold to a rich man, and we'd celebrated fewer saints' days, but that, for us, had been the extent of it. "

That has the ring of truth about it. There had been dissent, even the Pilgrimage of Grace, but for most people the underlying shift of power might not be apparent. After all, Henry insisted he was a Catholic, but just one who had supplanted the authority of the Pope - not of God. A young queen, little more than a child, would simply not appreciate how profound was Henry's, and the country's, need for peace and reassurance at that moment.

The state documents from the trial of Dereham and Culpepper are in the National Archives. A search on her name returns, amongst other things, these catalogue entries

"Letters and Papers ... of Henry VIII, vol. XVI: 1541 Aug 22-Nov 18.
The undated letter from Katherine Howard to Thomas Culpeper (LP, XVI, no 1134: SP 1/167 p 14) was placed in this volume at the end of August, although the editors later considered that it should have been placed in early August"

"The Kings Bench records
special oyer and terminer roll and file Principal Defendants and Charges: Lord William Howard and others, concealment of the criminal conduct of Queen Katherine Howard."

The giant 246 volume compendium of Henry's state papers are described thus:

"The collection is particularly full in the late 1520s and 1530s with the marriages of Henry VIII with Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, and the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the Pilgrimage of Grace."

The entry explains, with what sounds like an ancient sniff of reproach, that Sir Thomas More destroyed his papers, so it has to make do with the archives of only Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. As an after-thought it adds:

"It also covers wars and alliances with the rest of Europe".

If you enjoy historical fiction Dunn delivers a top-quality re-working of an episode. The writing is fast and smooth and does not sentimentalize the characters merely because they were teenagers. As Katherine's marriage to Henry lasted under two years, the story is a shorter than the giant arc which Mantel is attempting, making it more suitable for a couple of days on the beach - except if you insist on a happy ending in holiday fiction.

The Confession of Katherine Howard
by Suzannah Dunn
Harper Press 2010

Quiz Time:
Which wife of Henry the Eighth are you?


Richard said...

An interesting review - thanks. I have never been very keen on historical fiction, but this makes me want to read some. There's a copy of Wolf Hall floating about here somewhere. I shall dust it off and give it a go.

And by the way - seawater is toxic in the quantities you would need to survive. Better the alternative :)

lilith said...

thank you for the review... will give it a look...Wolf Hall got me so curious about the Kings and Queens of England that I have got myself terribly confused, what with everyone being called Henry or Edward and marrying Margaret or Anne or Catherine and being cousins and all :-)

Henry had such young subjects, and Elizabeth 1st reigned so long not so many people could remember being what it was to be a Catholic nation.

JuliaM said...

I love historicval fiction, and this looks like another good one (Yes, Richard, 'Wolf Hall' is worth persevering with).

Not so sure about the quiz, though. I seem to be Ann of Cleves! *gulp*

Woman on a Raft said...

Hello Richard. Yes, Wolf Hall is worth persevering with, but it is a whopper. Mantel has an unusual technique. She keeps a neutral point of view, the 'camera', just above Cromwell's shoulder, except when she pulls it back for wider shots. "He sees the room, the dust on the edge of the shelf"

The result is a great many words because it is a visual novel, but if you intended to film it you would find that she had described the story board, the script, and all the production notes.

A novelist who everyone agrees is smashing and appeals right across the board is Julian Rathbone. His working of the Norman Invasion is "The Last English King" which tells the story from the point of view of a surivor of the battle.

This allows Rathbone to run a separate fictional plot for entertainment, interleafing it with scenes of what might have led up to the rout when there should have been a very good chance of defeating a relatively small enemy.

After reading it you think "Yes, I can see how that might be an explanation". It contrasts grisly humour with profoundly moving passages about the loss of a country.

Woman on a Raft said...

You are right, Lilith, about the youth of Henry's subjects. One estimate I saw said that by the end of his reign, plague not withstanding, the birth rate meant that half of his subjects were eighteen years old and under.

Woman on a Raft said...

It was an interesting little quiz, JuliaM. I came out as Katherine of Aragon. I suddenly realized that in spite of her nastiness, duplicity, willingness to hold grudges and general no-goodness, I was dissappointed to not come out as Anne Boleyn.

Simon Schama said that Boleyn still annoys historians. She's that joker, the card which changes everything even though she doesn't fit the political and economic explanations which normally drive events. I think it is because there is something appallingly attractive in the ruthless way she set out to change the world once Henry expressed an interest. Her chance came and she grabbed it.

Yes, Protestantism was sweeping Europe and Cranmer and his chi-chi intellectuals were discussing it in Cambridge, but without determined little Anne they might never have achieved the political will necessary to break with Rome. Not that they showed much gratitude or loyalty when it turned out that Anne couldn't pop-out male heirs to order.

lilith said...

Calfy got Katherine Howard and I got Catherine Parr :-)

Anne was as switched on as Cromwell in some ways. An eye for the main chance.

Dick the Prick said...

Cheers Mrs WoaR. Don't really read novels but would really like to start now that i've got some (hopefully, not that long) time on my hands. They do call politics the game that never ends & the dirtiest business around and that is certainly timeless. Many thanks, again.

Richard said...

I'll certainly give Wolf Hall a try. And persist with it! As an English graduate and ex-teacher, I am appalling with novels - if they haven't grabbed me within 20 pages I tend to give up. I much prefer drama and poetry (more bang for your buck, or something). However, I do like novels that are highly visual or cinematographic; Hardy, especially Tess, and Of Mice And Men come to mind, the latter being an almost exact prose rendition of the stage play. I'd also be very interested in The Last English King, as this is a period of history that really interests me. Thanks Julia and WoaR for the info.