A Review of ‘Young and Damned and Fair’ by Gareth Russell

Young and Damned and Fair

Guest Review by Wendy J. Dunn

Something is not right, rife with errors from top to bottom, leading to suspicion of motive. If the authorities knew about the problems and chose not to prevent them, then clearly something is rotten in the state of Denmark ~ Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act I

I confess to not liking Henry VIII. Reading Gareth Russell’s Young & Damned & Fair, my view of Henry Tudor has not changed, but only been reinforced. Whilst it can be argued that all political power involves difficult and painful decisions for the greater good, Henry VIII’s reign is one awash in the blood of tragedies – too many of them avoidable and, in my mind, unforgivable. One of these unforgivable tragedies is the subject of this brilliant, insightful and satisfying biography. Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII. She was Henry’s youngest wife – a teenage girl who had the great misfortune to catch Henry’s eye when she was given a position as one of the women attending Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s rejected fourth wife.

Tudor history paints for us the image Henry VIII desired to present to his world: a king of great magnificence; a king of glory and might. A king who could do no wrong. Russell shows that you only have to dig a little into the story of Henry’s reign to find the corruption and evil brought by the absolute power of kingship in the hands of a man, as Russell so aptly says, “who had somehow gone rotten without ever being ripe”. It is not only Russell who speaks so bluntly about this particular Tudor King, but also voices from the past, like the voice of Cardinal Pole, the son of the king’s close kinswoman, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, butchered by one of Henry VIII’s executioners. After his family is virtually destroyed by his royal cousin, he spoke of Henry “as comparable in wickedness to Herod, Caligula, and Nero’ (Russell 2017, p.240).

Catherine’s heartbreaking story, as told by Russell, provides more evidence of Henry’s wickedness. With his meticulous research correcting a number of Catherine Howard legends in the pages of this work, Russell brings Catherine vividly and empathetically to life.

On the surface, Catherine lived in a time that expected a well-born girl to be a virgin on her wedding day. Reading Russell’s biography turned me to the words of Eustace Chapuys, who said of Jane Seymour, “You may imagine whether, being an Englishwoman, and having been so long at court, she would not hold it a sin to be still a maid” (Baldwin Smith 1961, p.56). Catherine’s story reveals the truth of Chapuys’ keen observation. While the morality of this time claimed one thing, it often hid a darker reality. Poor Catherine. She thought herself free to follow her own desires – as long as she wasn’t caught. Alas, she was – and it cost her her life.

With all the power of a skilful storyteller, Russell draws the reader into a time long gone. Young & Damned & Fair is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written work – rich in details, colour and pageantry, opening the door to the court of Henry VIII, Catherine’s world and stage for the brief and final years of her life. It also does not flinch from the savagery known in this period. Reading the work, I was reminded why I remain fascinated by the Tudor age.

Young & Damned & Fair offers to the reader a fresh and perceptive account of a well-known Tudor tragedy. By the end, l was left grieving for a girl who never had the chance to learn the wisdom of true maturity; a girl damned by her own youth, sexual appeal to men, and also by her marriage to a man who had already proven he was willing to murder his wives. As the wife of Henry VIII and cousin of Anne Boleyn, Catherine should have known better to play with fire by engaging in love games with a man she seemed to have truly loved. But she seemed to have believed she was clever enough to follow her heart, and escape unscathed. Instead she learned what happens when you fall foul of Henry VIII.

For me, a biography is only good when the subject of the work steps out of its pages as a person of flesh and blood. A rich and rewarding feast for the lover of this period, this biography is more than simply good – it is a multilayered work that brilliantly juxtapositions the cause and effect of events and deepens your understanding of not only Catherine Howard, but the time in which she lived.

Works cited

Baldwin Smith, L. 1967, A Tudor Tragedy

Russsel, G. 2017, Young & Damned & Fair

Author Biography

Educated at Oxford University and Queens University, Belfast, Gareth Russell is a historian, novelist, and playwright. He is the author of Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIIIThe Emperors: How Europe’s Most Powerful Rulers were Destroyed by World War One; and An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors. He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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  1. Lisa DeWilde Tyler says:

    I just finished this, and Gareth is right on the money. I wanted to learn more about Henry VIII’s fifth wife as she is such a short chapter in the saga of Tudor matrimony. One can only feel pity toward this child, and since so much of her short life is undocumented, and since history always buries so much in gossip and innuendo it has been hard to find much about the true Catherine Howard. Gareth Russell has done much to clear the air about this young woman’s short time on this earth. I very much enjoyed this work, the author has an extremely readable style. I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended.

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