The mysterious Catherine Howard…


Portrait of a Young Woman. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

My first thought when I saw the painting is that it must surely be a portrait of Catherine Howard, the unfortunate fifth wife of Henry VIII. It is listed in the collections of the Met Museum, New York as ‘Portrait of a Young Woman in the style of Hans Holbein the Younger’ but a look through the work’s provenance reveals that I am not the only one to wonder if perhaps this is not just a genuine Holbein but also a painting of the elusive Catherine Howard.

The reasons for this tentative identification are the sitter’s age, which is given as seventeen; the richness of her clothes and her auburn prettiness – all of which would fit with Catherine Howard, who probably didn’t live past her twentieth birthday and was said to be a petite, vivacious, pretty redhead with a fondness for costly, lavish garments.

Fashions didn’t change all that rapidly during the reign of Henry VIII, although one can track small changes in the vogue of the time as it would have been worn by the more fashion conscious young courtiers. The girl in the New York portrait is dressed in a style that would have been popular in the early 1540s – shimmering satin, full sleeves and a prettily decorated French hood, which we know was very much favoured by Catherine Howard, who was executed on the 13th February 1542.

Compare the painting with this well known miniature by Holbein, that has been traditionally been identified as a painting of Catherine:

Catherine Howard? Photo: Royal Collection.

The miniature of Catherine Howard has been identified thanks to the lavish jewels that she wears and which are clearly the same as the ones that appear in the Holbein portrait of Jane Seymour and are known to belong to the personal collection of the Queen of England. As one commenter has pointed out, it is more than a little bit creepy that portraits of Henry’s wives are identified by the jewels that they shared but alas, that’s mostly all that we have got to go on.

Detail from Portrait of a Young Woman. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the miniature of Catherine, we have the same clear fondness for gorgeous clothes and jewels, the French hood and a similar auburn prettiness. However, there are differences about the face – a thinner mouth for instance and a rounder face.

Perhaps the miniature is a portrait of Henry’s niece Lady Margaret Douglas, the daughter of his sister Queen Margaret of Scotland. Lady Margaret, who was born in October 1515 lived at the English court and was even romantically involved with Catherine Howard’s half brother, Charles at one point. You can imagine how this went down with her uncle Henry…

There also exists a Holbein sketch that has been very tentatively identified as being of Catherine and which, I think bears even more resemblence to the New York portrait with a similar nose, eyes and arched eyebrows:

Coloured sketch, allegedly of Catherine Howard after Hans Holbein. Photo: National Portrait Gallery.

Of course there are plenty of other young ladies at Henry VIII’s court that this portrait could depict – it may depict one of her two sisters, Margaret or Mary for instance or someone not related to her at all!

It’s all hypothetical of course but I rather like the idea of a new portrait of Catherine Howard coming to light. What do you think? I’ve always thought that miniature portrait, despite the royal fabulousness of the clothes looks too ‘old’ to be pretty Mistress Howard who, if not the idiot that she is popularly portrayed to be (quite the reverse – she was more literate than average for a girl of her age at this time), was a typically flighty and fun loving young girl in her teens.

Portrait formerly identified as Catherine Howard. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Not to mention this much discussed Holbein portrait, which was always traditionally identified as the unfortunate Catherine until suddenly opinion decided that it was actually a painting of Elizabeth Seymour, Jane’s sister and Thomas Cromwell’s daughter in law. Gosh, they liked to keep things complicated and a bit close knit didn’t they but remember what I said on a recent post about there only being less than a hundred female courtiers at Henry’s court amongst all those men? Lately however, David Starkey has decided that actually this IS a painting of Catherine after all because of, you guessed it, the jewellery that she is wearing.

I really don’t like this attribution though – for a start she looks too old to be warm hearted, jolly teen bride Catherine, who probably didn’t even make it to the twenty one years of age that this lady is. However, I don’t know, do you think there is something a bit whimsical, playful even in her eyes? Am I imagining it? No, I think that I must be. She just looks a trifle smug doesn’t she?

Detail from the portrait formerly identified as Catherine Howard. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

The thing is, can you imagine men dying for a kiss (okay it was a bit more than a kiss but this is a family blog) from those thin coyly smiling lips? Can you imagine an elderly King ‘so amorous of her that he cannot treat her well enough and caresses her more than he did the others’? Even allowing for taste, which in Henry’s case I suspect tended towards the more obviously attractive. Can you imagine the woman in this portrait setting men’s hearts aflame with dangerous and reckless lust?

No, me neither. Sorry Portrait Lady, for all I know you could have had more tricks than the Mata Hari but I’m going to have to disbelieve it on physical evidence alone.

The girl in the first portrait though? Hm, maybe…

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34 thoughts on “The mysterious Catherine Howard…

  • Kris

    What a great line of thought!

    They are beautiful paintings and I do think the NY one is very special!

  • Ankaret

    I think there’s some similarity around the eyes and brow, but I’m less sure about the nose and mouth – the portrait has a very distinct full mouth and the sketch looks thinner-lipped to me. Or is it just that only the darkest lines in the sketch are showing up on my monitor?

    • Melanie Post author

      I thought the sketch looked rather pouty too but you are probably right. I think she definitely has the Howard Look though so maybe she is another one of the cousins, possibly one of Katherine’s sisters? :)

      • Ankaret

        Well, it’s not like there was a shortage of Howards. :)

        I’m somewhere between ‘fascinated’ and ‘creeped out’ at successive Henry VIII wives being identified by their jewellery. I bet someone somewhere’s written a YA novel from the perspective of that necklace.

  • autumnchilde

    The lady in the mystery portrait, doesnt she look so like Scarlett Johannssen? Such a beautiful portrait.

  • Conor Byrne

    I feel sure it is Queen Katherine, and indicates that she was born in 1524 or 1525, thus being seventeen or eighteen at the time of her execution.

  • Lucy

    I love the hypothesising! Personally, I can’t make up my mind whether I think it’s her or not but your train of thought about the ages in the other pictures certainly makes sense. Definitely food for thought.

    • Madame Guillotine Post author

      Oh me too – I am probably totally wrong but I adore the sleuthing aspect of history! It’s such fun!

      I think that I basically just want it to be her because it’s a lovely painting and I feel so sorry for poor Catherine and feel that she would have been really happy to be remembered as a pretty girl. I mean, that’s probably a bit shallow in the general scheme of things but I just get a feeling that this would have really mattered to her.

  • cakesandtea

    Would the minature that she is wearing on her chest be of any significance in trying to identify her? If it is Catherine who do you think it is likely to be a portrait of?

    • Madame Guillotine Post author

      I thought this – apparently it’s similar to a design by Holbein, who of course, used to design amazing jewels for the Tudor court as a side line to his painting. I think I need to delve a bit deeper into this though.

      I do know though that the wood panel that the painting is on dates from around 1521. :)

      My guess is that it is someone of authority at court – at the very least one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting. Most of the Usual Suspects like Lady Mary Howard and Lady Margaret Douglas were in their mid twenties in the early 1540s though so we can rule them out. We’re looking for a girl in her late teens at this time – the main candidate being, of course, the Queen herself.

      I have only just started looking at this, but I would expect that Catherine liked to surround herself with women of a similar age to herself so her attendants were probably in their late teens too.

      Lots of investigating to be done! :)

  • Emmy

    Don’t forget that the court artisans usually tried to make their subjects look better (or more in style) than they actually appeared in person which also causes issues when you are trying to identify the subject. (I really liked the sketch)

    I agree with you that the second women looks too self contained and someone who follows every single rule.. I couldn’t imagine men falling at her feet… more like they would marry her for her fortune.

    I didn’t know they used jewels to identify portraits, that seems logical and wearing former princess/queen jewels is a bit creepy… like Lady Diana’s ring on Kate’s finger. I think they should wait a few generations before using it again…

    • Madame Guillotine Post author

      Heh, yes, I know but I generally absolve Holbein of flattery as he seems to have been extremely committed to veracity when painting his sitters. I’d be more wary when looking at a possible work by another artist though – Vigée Lebrun springs to mind here, as she was clearly an arch flatterer of her subjects.

      The miniature just doesn’t scream ‘Catherine Howard’ to me – it’s pretty much accepted to be of her now, but I just don’t see it. Yes, the jewels and clothes add up but the face doesn’t for me. It looks like a smug, plump girl in her twenties to me not a vivacious young Queen.

      It’s grim isn’t it about the jewels but makes sense. However, fashion was fairly static at this time so I suspect everyone had pretty much the same trinkets on as well, not to mention the sharing of particularly costly pieces within the family.

  • Conor Byrne

    I strongly believe it is Katherine Howard. The portrait identified by David Starkey as being Queen Katherine is not her, I believe, I think it’s more likely to be Mary Tudor – who was 21 in 1537, when Jane Seymour died, so is it not possible Mary was dressed in mourning clothes to mourn her stepmother’s death?? – or Margaret Douglas, perhaps. Furthermore, I don’t think Katherine was born anywhere near as early as 1520-21 and was in fact more likely born around 1524.. which this portrait would seem to justify.

    • Madame Guillotine Post author

      Actually there is a look of Mary about the girl in the black dress isn’t there? That’s really interesting as I hadn’t considered her as a possible sitter for that particular portrait.

  • Kcara

    I do think this could be Katherine Howard as far as her looks. The one in the black dress I have never thought it could be her the sitter is old looking and matronly. Since Henry viii favored Thomas culpepper as well, wonder if there were ever a painting done of him as he was reportedly dashing? I do think only 1 painting was done of Katherine though because like Jane Seymour who only had one done she was only Queen like 18 months of that on progress too and several months isolated on a honeymoon. No portrait would be done before her marriage. Also Anne Bassett was much favored by the King or what about Bessie Blount? The sketch looks like a similar sketch that was claimed to be Anne Boleyn during pregnancy. The one that everyone says is Katherine Howard wearing the sane jewels to me looks like Thomas Howard with the large nose. She is not attractive to me tho and looks older. The one with the auburn hair is quite pretty and young and what I always believed Katherine to look more like. However what is the brooch she’s wearing? It looks like a young man and not the King?

  • Raven

    Wouldn’t it make more sense for the lady in the portrait to be Katherine Parr? Considering her age, matronly appearance, time frame and the mourning clothes, this would lead me to believe it’s Henry’s 6th wife especially since the jewellery is from the queens collection.

    • Conor Byrne

      Since your post I have conducted research into the portraiture of Katherine Howard, since I have also researched both her probable birth date and her fall in 1541-2.

      It seems to me that the likely birth date of this queen was not 1520-21, which was based on a misinterpretation of the French ambassador’s comments in 1541 and a belief that the Toledo portrait of a woman aged 21 actually represented Queen Katherine. There are three sources which suggest a later birthdate of 1523 – an accurate reading of Ambassador Marillac’s dispatches, which suggest the queen was initially abused at thirteen (we know her affair with Manox began in 1536-7), the comments of an unknown Spaniard, and this portrait.

      The portrait of a woman aged 21 (which is known in some versions as the Toledo portrait) could have been one of several royal women. There are several reasons why it is highly unlikely that it depicts Katherine. Firstly, as has been suggested, the dress belongs to an earlier period – the mid 1530s, rather than the early 1540s. Secondly, this portrait was found in the collection of the Cromwell family, it is therefore absurd to argue that they would have treasured a portrait of the queen who, inadvertently, led to Thomas Cromwell’s execution on the day she married Henry VIII in 1540.
      There are several other candidates: Princess Mary Tudor (aged 21 in 1537), Frances Brandon (21 in 1538), Eleanor Brandon (21 in 1540) and Margaret Douglas (21 in 1536-7). Of the four, I think the sitter is most likely Frances Brandon. Margaret was in disgrace during this period so she seems the least likely of the three.

      To me, this portrait in the Metropolitan Museum of Art seems surely to portray the queen. There were no other royal women aged sixteen or seventeen in the early 1540s (although it may have been executed as late as 1550) and as Starkey pointed out, for a woman this young to have painted, she must have been very important indeed.

  • Paola

    I know I’m way late on this, but I was trawling round the Internet one day, saw this and the thought occurs, could the small round Holbein miniature actually be Anne of Cleves?

    To my eye it she looks similar to the famous Holbein portrait (and would explain why Holbein painted her face on in that one to disguise a rather large nose and weak chin). And she is wearing the jewels belonging to Henry’s queens.

  • Marie

    I think the traditional Holbein miniature and the detail of the “Portrait Of A Young Woman” accurately depict Catherine Howard. I’m not so sure of the coloured sketch, since the facial features are too sharp to be Catherine’s, and the colour of the eyes is wrong; the girl in this sketch has blue eyes – but Catherine Howard’s eyes were hazel/brown. And the woman in the black dress really does seem to be the sister of Jane Seymour.

    • Susan A

      I think there is actually a strong resemblance between the Holbein miniature and pictures of the older Margaret Douglas (look at the nose and mouth)

  • Sue B

    Ok, Madame G, I am putting in a opinion here. I believe that Young Lady #1, from the Met, and Young Lady #2 (traditional Catherine) ARE the same young lady–maybe a few years later. Different artist quite possibly despite the attribution to Holbein, but the same girl–same nose from a different angle (look at the little bump at the bottom of it) same eyebrow arch definitely.

    You are right about the mouth—looks different, but then who was it (Hockney,maybe?) who defined a portrait as a painting of someone with something wrong with the mouth? Ask any painter—the mouth is the hardest part to get right.

    The sketch is out. It’s a beautiful sketch but a different person. Similar nose though I will grant you.

    The last portrait of the woman in black—well, you are right. She doesn’t doesn’t seem to have it in her to be a sensational flirt. Notwithstanding the fact that she is too old and I believe her to be a different person. (Seymour or not.)

    That is my two cents worth of opinion, as we say in the States. Great blog–thank you!

  • Paul

    Poor Kitty Howard, she is too silly to even learn from the example of her cousin Anne Boleyn, but I remember when I was 17 and foolish. She was just being a kid, but too bad for her that she couldn’t afford to make any mistakes of teenagers are used to. And she paid for her errors with her life…

  • Caroline

    I’m like you in that I WANT this lovely portrait to be Catherine Howard because the sitter is so pretty nd naughty-looking in a manner that seems all too likely to have been Cayherine’s. The other Catherine Howard portraits have always looked most UNlikely -too matter-of fact, too middle-aged, too capable.
    But whether it is Catherine or not, it is a truly lovely picture. Thank you for posting it

  • kay

    I v to agree with paola that the miniature looks like anne of cleeves,, the eye are hers n the mouth thinner than possible portraits of Kathryn,more like annes!

  • Charlene C.

    The NY portrait definitely looks like it could be a 17 year old – the Portrait Gallery one looks older than that. It’s a shame nothing definitive exists…..

  • Elizabeth Cowan

    I think you are right about the last portrait. If memory serves, I believe it was dated 1543 which would rule out Katheryn as the sitter She was confined to Syon Abbey in November or early December of 1542 and executed in February of 1543. I have always loved the first portrait, but I have never been convinced it is Katheryn. I lean more toward the miniature due to the extravagance being the Queen and the Holbein sketch being authentic, but possibly prior to her marriage to Henry VIII. I think there are enough similarities in these two portraits to say they are likely the same person, just in different poses. In particular, the mouth and the eyes are very similar.

    • Kay

      Although I can see why so many people wanted the first painting to be Catherine Howard, when I compare it to the miniature I’m sure it isn’t the same woman. The miniature – painted from an interesting angle – I believe is meant to make the sitter look older than her years. This makes sense although I don’t find her attractive but it was a different age. The drawing could, unfortunately, be anyone.

      However, I did wonder if the last picture could be Kate Parr since she is wearing the Queen’s jewels. Also dates have been known to be incorrect. Note KP was of a serious turn of mind.

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