Look at her. She once had a name, until historians took that name away, and she merely became 'An Unknown Lady'. Now I have just read that her name has been restored to her. This – finally – is the serious, oddly demure portrait of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII's friskiest, stupidest wife.
This painting is like a letter from home, assuring the teacher that the student had behaved well during her absence. Her hands fold like a solemn promise. Her lids are heavy – subduing eyes that once dazzled and dared. Now those eyes obediently stare into intermediate space, non-committal, haughty and bored.
Her features are thick: if you could run your hands over her face they would encounter broad plains, unsubtle angles, sudden heights and buried orbits of bone. The strap of her French Hood is buried in her soft, fleshy chin. Even though she was a Howard, an ancient name mired in wars, acreages, castles and the pride that came from a history of avarice, her face is more like that of a knowing peasant girl.
And yet she was a queen when this portrait was painted. Her face looks detached from her black gown; an unsettling example of painterly premonition. Streams of gold embroidery run in thick currents down her sleeves, ending in a white froth of starched cuffs. Though Henry gave all the jewels he had to his 'rose without a thorn', she only wears a few ornaments – a golden cord around her neck, chips of rubies shining like spots of blood. The neck of the bodice is nothing but a quiet, modest declaration of femininity.
It is a humble costume for a woman who has perhaps sensed her demise.
No one is quite sure when she was born – the years vary, from 1520 to 1525. She spent her childhood at Lambeth Palace, red-bricked and stolid, shrouded by the fumes of Lambeth Marsh. Her upbringing was casual, offering no bridle or punishment for a girl who, by all accounts, was a libertine before her fifteenth birthday. She had an affair with her music teacher in 1536, when she was between the ages of eleven and fifteen. Two years later she and the household secretary became lovers.
But by 1540 she was at court, a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, the poor hausfrau whose idea of marriage was a kiss in the morning and one more at night. The court openly mocked this queen with her clumsy gowns and awkward innocence.
The marriage was dissolved, and in two weeks Catherine was queen. In two years she was dead, the blood from her gaping neck seeping into the grass of Tower Green, joining the blood of her cousin, Anne Boleyn, long dried and linked with the earth.
Catherine had come to the king claiming to be chaste. She had committed adultery with Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry's courtiers (her scrawled love letter to him was discovered in her chambers). She had brought the lovers of her youth to work in her royal household, an act of stupid bravado, possibly to order and torment these takers of her young body, these men who had corrupted her childhood. (Though she was more than willing.) They were all arrested on charges of treasonable acts.
Culpepper, as a gentleman, was permitted to die as one, and was beheaded. The two others, a mere teacher and secretary, were reminded of their low birth by the executioner's axe, wielded like a butcher's knife, as it disembowled, slashed and then divided their bodies into quarters. Before death silenced them, they might have found the breath to curse themselves, to curse the king and to curse the girl who had tempted them. Their streaming remains were displayed throughout the city, turning London into a human abbatoir.
Some say she still lives – that her ghost can be heard screaming in the halls of Hampton Court, that her gray, clammy hands still beat on the doors, still trying to beg her husband's forgiveness. A shadow that claws at freedom, that shatters its fingernails as it tries to hold onto the precipice, that dislocates limbs and splinters tendons before it is forced to let go and fall into despair.
A song from earlier in Henry's reign – some say it was written by him – reminds me of Catherine: bold, spirited, long hair separating like rivers in the wind as she danced the galliard, cloth of gold glinting in the candlelight, being passed from partner to partner:
"And I was a maydyn
As many one is
For all the golde in Englalnd
I wold not do amysse
When I was a wanton wench of
Twelve yere of age,
These courtiers with there amours
They kindled my courage
When I was come to
The age of fifteen yere
In all this land, neither free nor bond,
Methought I had no peer"