[Review] Young & Damned & Fair – Gareth Russell

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Written with an exciting combination of narrative flair and historical authority, this interpretation of the tragic life of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, breaks new ground in our understanding of the very young woman who became queen at a time of unprecedented social and political tension and whose terrible errors in judgment quickly led her to the executioner’s block.

On the morning of July 28, 1540, as King Henry’s VIII’s former confidante Thomas Cromwell was being led to his execution, a teenager named Catherine Howard began her reign as queen of a country simmering with rebellion and terrifying uncertainty. Sixteen months later, the king’s fifth wife would follow her cousin Anne Boleyn to the scaffold, having been convicted of adultery and high treason.

The broad outlines of Catherine’s career might be familiar, but her story up until now has been incomplete. Unlike previous accounts of her life, which portray her as a naïve victim of an ambitious family, this compelling and authoritative biography will shed new light on Catherine Howard’s rise and downfall by reexamining her motives and showing her in her context, a milieu that goes beyond her family and the influential men of the court to include the aristocrats and, most critically, the servants who surrounded her and who, in the end, conspired against her. By illuminating Catherine’s entwined upstairs/downstairs worlds as well as societal tensions beyond the palace walls, the author offers a fascinating portrayal of court life in the sixteenth century and a fresh analysis of the forces beyond Catherine’s control that led to her execution—from diplomatic pressure and international politics to the long-festering resentments against the queen’s household at court.

Including a forgotten text of Catherine’s confession in her own words, colour illustrations, family tree, map, and extensive notes, Young and Damned and Fair changes our understanding of one of history’s most famous women while telling the compelling and very human story of complex individuals attempting to survive in a dangerous age

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Gareth Russell at an authors event in London so when I found out that he was bringing a book out on Catherine Howard I knew I had to pick it up. And let me tell you – I am SO glad that I did.

It’s not often these days that I will sit down and read much in the way of Tudor history, despite the fact that I have plenty of Tudor books sat on my shelf. I’ll stick my nose in every now and then, sure, but every so often a book pops up that makes me remember just why I like Tudor history so much and pulls me back in. Young & Damned & Fair is one of these books, a diamond in the myriad of Tudor non-fiction that’s out there these days. I’ve heard people say that Tudor history has been done to death but let me tell you, Russell’s book blows that out of the water and offers a new look at one of history’s most tragic Queen’s.

From the moment I picked this up, I couldn’t put it down. Russell’s writing style made me feel less like I was reading a heavy biography and more like I was reading something that had been written for the reader to enjoy. From the first word you find yourself immersed in the world of the Tudor court and that is simply because of the wealth of research that Russell has put into this work. Everything is taken as is. Assumptions are something that just aren’t there in this. Here we see every character of the Tudor court with their flaws written out for all to see – these people come across as human which is incredibly rare in biographies of Catherine Howard. Either Catherine is vilified as a young teenaged whore or those she had dealings with are seen as demons who deserved everything they got. Nothing is black and white in this book. Which is precisely as it would have been.

Having read other biographies on Catherine, and read about her in books on Henry VIII’s six wives, I can one hundred percent tell you all that this book deserves to be seen as the bible on Catherine Howard and her life. It is superbly well researched and excellently written – I can see this book opening up the door to Tudor history for a lot of people, and Gareth Russell deserves some high praise for this wonderful piece of work.

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