Queen for merely sixteen months before rumours of her sordid childhood emerged, Katherine Howard’s appearance, like her birth date and affair with Thomas Culpeper, are shrouded in mystery, leaving scholars with very little sense of what Henry VIII’s fifth consort looked like. Historians differ in their receptions to this queen’s beauty. David Starkey, in his 2004 biography of the queens of Henry VIII, stated that Katherine had ‘auburn hair, pale skin, dark eyes and brows, the rather fetching beginnings of a double skin…’, basing this conclusion on the now-accepted portrait of the queen painted most likely in the winter of 1540, or during the early months of 1541. Other scholars cite the French ambassador Marillac’s comments that she was not of spectacular, but rather moderate, beauty, while being of a graceful disposition. The above portrait, while never formally identified as being of Queen Katherine, is likely to depict the Queen, recognised by Susan E. James who suggests that it belongs to the period 1540-42 and may have been painted in the English court. Starkey, in identifying a different portrait miniature, stresses that for a teenager to be painted, she had to have been of very high rank. Since ladies-of-waiting were not usually painted unless they were of noble birth or married to high-status courtiers, the above portrait is unlikely to be of a lady of lesser status than a noblewoman, and is very likely that of the queen, whose birthdate has been pinpointed to around 1523-4 and would therefore have been seventeen in 1540-1.
Understandings of gender relations in the early modern period allow us to consider how women’s beauty was perceived, and why Katherine might therefore have been considered exceptional in her physical appearance, since three other observers, including the French ambassador, somewhat confusingly, emphasised her physical charms emphatically. Warnicke has documented that women were expected to have small breasts with a flat chest, while contemporary ideals held that a woman should be petite, pale-skinned, fair-haired, meek and submissive, rather like the king’s third consort Jane Seymour. Katherine, during her rise to power, was referred to by the Spanish author of ‘The Chronicle of Henry VIII’, written some years after the events, as being the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, while the French ambassador initially described her as being a young woman of ‘extraordinary’, or ‘great’, beauty. Another courtier suggested that she was very ‘beautiful’. According to contemporary ideals, therefore, it seems likely that Katherine was at least fair in order to merit such descriptions, for women who were dark-haired were often perceived as being inferior in their physical appearances. Sceptical comments about Anne Boleyn, a notorious brunette, reinforce this. By contrast, the auburn-haired Katherine of Aragon was believed to be beautiful in her youth, while even Katherine Parr, in her mid-thirties when the king sought a relationship with her, was believed to be pretty – she too was auburn-haired.
Katherine’s portraiture is highly controversial. It is possible that, as in the case of Anne Boleyn, her portraits were destroyed in the wake of her fall. The above portrait, explored in my article about Katherine Howard’s birth date and youth, is highly likely to be the queen, especially because of its similarities to a sketch made after Holbein. In these images, the queen is depicted with auburn, or brown-blonde, hair, a pale complexion, blue-grey eyes, expressive lips, and a petite frame, which conforms to contemporary remarks that she was ‘slender’, even ‘diminutive’. Since the average woman’s height in the Tudor period was around 5’2 or 5’3 – the corpse of Anne Boleyn measured 5’3, and Anne was described as ‘middling’ in her height – it is likely that Katherine was less than five foot tall. Other portraits are almost certainly not of the queen, particularly because they portray a larger, taller woman who seems to be more advanced in her years. The confirmed portrait of Katherine, confirmed by Starkey, depicts a slightly different-looking woman, who is plump, curvaceous and has brown hair, rather than the auburn or dark blonde hair in the other two images. Some scholars have actually suggested that this portrait is of Lady Margaret Douglas, niece to Henry VIII. This is entirely possible; however, the fact that this sitter wears jewels belonging to English queens must render this doubtful. There was no queen in the period 1538-40, on account of Jane’s death in childbed, but it is more likely that Mary Tudor, the king’s daughter, would have adorned this jewels rather than his niece.
To conclude, while Katherine’s exact appearance must remain a matter of some contention, reliable portraits cautiously indicate that she was tiny in appearance, slender, auburn or light-brown haired, blue-grey eyed, with a pale complexion and a pleasing charm. She was certainly superbly dressed during her reign, as the French ambassador approvingly noted – she enjoyed wearing French fashions, followed by her ladies. Since dark-haired women were viewed suspiciously by contemporaries, it is unlikely that Katherine was dark-haired, as some portraits imply, because she received near universal praise surrounding her physical appearance. Rather more likely is that she was much fairer, although whether her hair colour was red, auburn, light brown or even blonde is unknown. However, these reliable portraits conform to the view that the new queen in 1540 was a woman of remarkable beauty, of tender years, who was expected confidently to soon bear her husband the king a second male heir.
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