This post is part of The 6th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!
The 1970 British miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII is quite different from the more recent series on the same subject, The Tudors. ( It’s more historically accurate, for one thing.) To my mind, star Keith Michell is the best Henry VIII on film or television.
The reason I picked the Catherine Howard episode over, say, the Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn episodes (the big, earth-shaking events of this reign) is because I find the Catherine Howard episode to best portray the ruthlessness of families using their daughters/nieces to grab power though marriage with the king.
Catherine Howard (Angela Pleasence) is a teenage girl who has been brought up in her grandmother’s household with little supervision. The episode opens with her bragging to her cousin about a love affair.
To her surprise, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk (Patrick Troughton) arrives in the middle of the night and inspects and questions her closely. The king is about to divorce Anne of Cleeves, his fourth wife. Norfolk is eager to present a Howard girl as a prospective bride, thus giving the Howard family more power and prestige.
Catherine swears she has been chaste. Her uncle reminds her the her cousin Anne Boleyn came to a bad end because she did not listen to advice from her family.
The king, once an impressive athlete, is now a sickly man with an ulcerated leg. Catherine shows herself to be both an efficient nurse and a lovely, cheering presence. Soon she and the king are married.
The wedding night is a disaster. The king is impotent and Catherine has to feign innocence. She weeps on her relation Lady Rochford’s (Sheila Burrrell) shoulders.
Soon, she catches the eye of Thomas Culpepper (Ralph Bates), one of the king’s men. She also is visited by her former lover Francis Dereham (Simon Prebble), who blackmails her into making him her secretary.
Rumors of Catherine’s past reach her uncle. She confesses all, including Henry’s impotence. He advises her she can’t be touched if she gives birth to a son. The implication, of course, is that she should take a lover.
She immediately embarks on an affair with the besotted Culpepper. However, she is not discreet. When she fails to become pregnant within a few months, her uncle decides to–well, there’s no better way to put this–rat her out. Henry is devastated by the news and wishes that he could save her, but her uncle (the rat) tells him she committed treason against the king and must die, along with her lovers.
Catherine faces her death with unexpected dignity. Her uncle escapes to his northern estates, hoping to avoid his own execution. The king is left with his surgeons and his fool.
O.K., I’m not going to sugarcoat how I feel about this: along with some other choice historical baddies, I am absolutely certain the Duke of Norfolk is at this moment burning in hell. Yes, Henry was a monster–which is why Norfolk gambling with the lives of both his kinswomen Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard for his own self-aggrandizement is so appalling. Especially since he was right in the thick of bringing about their downfalls to protect his own life.
Also, don’t shed any tears over Lady Rochford, who goes to the block with Catherine for facilitating the affair. She was married to George Boleyn and out of spite and jealousy accused him of incest with his sister Anne, ending with his execution.
But I do feel a great deal of empathy for Catherine. She was young and completely out of her depth in the deadly game her uncle persuaded her to play.
Of all the portrayals of Catherine Howard, this one captures the tragedy of her life with just the right note. Too often she is portrayed as a dopey vixen (The Tudors, I’m looking at you). Angela Pleasence (daughter of actor Donald Pleasence) is perfection as the ambitious and dreamy Catherine. The teleplay by Beverly Cross is, I feel, the best written of the series. Sometimes the true villains are the ones who use the narcissistic tendencies of a leader to gain power.