I am thrilled to welcome British historian and writer Gareth Russell to On the Tudor Trail. Gareth, author of Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII, joins us today with a guest post about Queen Catherine Howard’s visit to York in 1541.
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Catherine Howard’s arrival in York: following the Queen in the silver dress
While researching my biography of Queen Catherine Howard, I decided to re-trace the route of her famous journey through the north of England. The court’s progress to the north in the summer of 1541 was part of Henry VIII’s agenda to pacify the region in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising in 1536 and the Wakefield conspiracy, a minor anti-reformation intrigue that had been uncovered at Easter 1541. Catherine’s trip was marred by bad weather, including torrential downpours so bad that, at one point, they actually affected her health. Mine, in contrast, during the summer of 2015, took place against a backdrop of idyllic weather that eventually tipped into a heat-wave.
One of the few books I brought with me after I set off from another research trip in wonderful Oxford was In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, so it is a special happiness to be able to share an extract from Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII on Natalie’s blog. As readers of Natalie and Sarah’s book will know, being able to stand in the places where one’s subject once stood, prayed or visited is a magical experience. It changes one’s perceptions and thus writing.
Apart from In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn and Kevin Shape’s Selling the Tudor Monarchy (Yale University Press, 2009), I went armed with my translation notes and a small, hardback journal, a thoughtful gift from my cousin Elaine. In that, I wrote down my thoughts and observations on every place I visited, as I made my way north from London, eventually reaching York.
To pick a favourite spot would be difficult. Standing in the ruins of Pontefract Castle was a chilling experience; Lincoln was achingly beautiful, with its cathedral where Catherine prayed wearing a dress of silver in August 1541. That minster was perhaps one of the most stunningly lovely buildings I’ve ever stood in.
In the spirit of travel and history, I wanted to share a short extract from Young and Damned and Fair’s eighteenth chapter, Waiting for the King of Scots. This excerpt narrates Catherine’s ceremonial arrival into York, England’s “second city” in 1541.
Henry, Catherine, and their courtiers listened as York’s reception committee praised the “inspiration of the Holy Ghost replete with mercy and pity as evidently hath been shewed by your grace to your Subjects later offenders in these North parts.” In the distance, they could see the spires of York Minster, a cathedral dedicated to the patronage of Saint Peter, “Prince of the Apostles,” a project that had taken thousands of hands 242 years to build. The white-and-gold vaulted ceiling soared above Catherine’s head as ecclesiastical procession welcomed her when she and Henry arrived there. Shafts of royal purple and blue light shone on the floor, alongside a green so dark it was almost emerald. Catherine and her husband passed a statue of King John, participant in the most famous English royal quarrel with the papacy before Henry VIII, on their left, and his reverent son Henry III on their right. The Plantagenet monarchs formed part of a set that fanned out from the entrance screen and showed every king of England in chronological order from William the Conqueror on the far left to Henry VI on the opposite right. After his murder in 1471, the latter had been venerated as a martyr by many of his former subjects. Suspicious of populist cults, Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners had ordered Henry VI’s image to be removed from the carved lineup at York Minster. If Catherine had had time to really examine the twelfth plinth, she might therefore have noticed that poor Henry VI’s statue was wooden, a rushed job in comparison to his stone-and-gold ancestors. Henry VI was Henry VIII’s great-uncle, and his posthumous popularity had been an early plank of Tudor justifications for seizing the throne from the House of York. On Henry VIII’s orders, the image of the last Lancastrian king had been put back where he belonged. The stand-in would suffice until a new statue could be carved or, as events outmaneuvered human plans, until Protestants gained the upper hand again in the next decade and had “Saint” Henry VI scattered on a rubbish heap for a second time.
Following the service, Henry and Catherine rode the two or three minutes from the minster down to Petergate, one of the five gateways, and over to the closed Benedictine abbey of St. Mary, where the dismissed abbot’s red brick mansion would serve as their home while they stayed in York. The street from the minster to Petergate was one of the most prosperous parts of the city, home to skilled craftsmen, many of whom worked for the archdiocese. On their way into York, even any last-minute attempts to spruce up the ramshackle collection of timber houses and unpaved roads could not have hidden the narrow quarters and filthy streets. York’s collective memory looked back on the century preceding the Wars of the Roses as their “golden age,” after which the city had slipped into decline. Richard III had blamed trouble from the Scots for retarding the area’s prosperity; Henry VII suspected incompetence in the mayor and his officials. Numerous plague outbreaks, frequent and virulent in the first decade of the sixteenth century, had accelerated the city’s deterioration. The York aldermen encountered by Henry VII in 1487 may have been inept, but there were signs that the degeneration was happening across the north. Both Hull and Lincoln had informed the King in 1541 that they were facing similar problems. The half-sung requiem for York turned out to be obsequies over an empty bier—its fortunes revived significantly under Elizabeth I—though when Catherine alighted at a gutted St. Mary’s, halfway on its own road to ruin, she and the Yorkers accompanying her could have been forgiven for thinking that the rot was terminal and that King Henry did not necessarily regard that as a negative development.
From © Young and Damned and Fair by Gareth Russell, a new biography of Queen Catherine Howard. Published by Simon & Schuster in the US and Canada on April 4th 2017 and HarperCollins UK in the UK, Ireland, and most of the Commonwealth on January 12th, 2017.