When I was at a mixed boarding school in the countryside, one of the girls in my house pressed the back-door key into a bar of soap and had a copy made. She and her friends snuck off to drink, smoke and see the boys. They never got caught: where there’s a will – or perhaps just a thrill – there’s a way. I was reminded of this reading Gareth Russell’s biography of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, because she, too, had a spare key cut. It gave favoured young men access to the maidens’ chamber in the house of her father’s stepmother, where she grew up. They brought wine and strawberries and, at the hint of grandmother’s footsteps, squirrelled themselves away in a curtained gallery. This, apparently, was Catherine’s idea. For two years, she was in a relationship with Henry Manox, her music teacher. Then there was Francis Dereham, to whom she lost her virginity. They called each other husband and wife. He took it seriously; she didn’t. In 1539 Catherine, whose uncle was the powerful third Duke of Norfolk, was sent to court and enjoyed a flirtation with Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Then she was spotted by Henry VIII. For the king, limping into his fifth decade, it was, Russell writes, ‘lust at first sight’. He discarded Anne of Cleves, who, among other things, he considered too old and not a virgin, and took Catherine as his trophy. The horror of Catherine’s life, which in this book, we are promised, ‘unfurls as if in real time’, was the slow collision of her two worlds.
Catherine’s sexual history has been raked over many times – this is the fourth biography of her in five years. The details are intimate and crude. We are aware of where Catherine was touched, the marks on her body and the noises that came from her bed. ‘I know her