Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn

The executions of Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, from the television series The Tudors

On this date in 1542 Catherine Howard, the 17 year old fifth wife of Henry VIII, and her lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn, were executed for Howard’s adultery with courtier Thomas Culpeper.

Frye in A Natural Perspective on Shakespeare’s depiction of the world of Henry VIII as a tragic one associated with the wheel of fortune:

The wheel of fortune is a tragic conception: it is never genuinely a comic one, though a history play may achieve a technically comic conclusion by stopping the wheel turning half way.  Thus, Henry V ends with triumphant conquest and a royal marriage, though, as the epilogue reminds us, King Henry died almost immediately and sixty years of unbroken disaster followed.  In Henry VIII there are three great falls, those of Buckingham, Wolsey, and Queen Catherine, and three corresponding rises, those of Cromwell, Cranmer, and Anne Boleyn.  The play ends with the triumph of the last three, leaving the audience to remember that the wheel went on turning and brought them down too.  Henry VIII turns the wheel himself, and is not turned by it, like Richard II, but history never can end as comedy does, except for the polite fiction, found in Cranmer’s prophecy at the end of the play, that the reigning monarch is a Messianic ruler.

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