On the 13th of February 1542, Catherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII was executed at the Tower of London. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador claimed that she died on the very spot that just six years earlier her cousin and fellow queen consort Anne Boleyn had met the same fate. Unlike Anne Boleyn however, there was to be no special allowances made on the day - no French expert swordsman who would ensure a swift and clean end to her life, no solemn draping of black cloth around the scaffold as a mark of Catherine's former rank. Anne Boleyn's execution while still a grisly affair, had a certain level of protocol weaved in to the way it was carried out that made her end feel starkly more "regal" - the death of a queen, even one condemned as a traitor carried a certain level of respect with it. The stark difference that greeted Catherine Howard on the scaffold in 1542 has been seen by many as further proof that the possible stab of conscience or pity Henry felt towards Anne Boleyn did not extend to Catherine six years later. This is perhaps compounded by the fact that unlike Anne Boleyn, it would appear Catherine Howard was indeed guilty of the charges brought against her. Portraits of Henry and Catherine Howard can be seen below.
There would be one strange allowance made for Catherine Howard, one made at her own request. It's a most curious story, but upon being told that she would die at 7.00am on Monday 13th February 1542, she requested that the block be brought to her cell to allow her to practice laying her head upon it. She supposedly practiced for several hours, perhaps hoping that doing so would make the experience a few hours later seem less frightening somehow. It is a chilling prospect. She was by most historians reckoning no more than 19 years old at the time of her death, and has gone down in history as nothing more than a bit of a idiotic floosy - made no better by her relatively inaccurate portrayals in film and television, but here she was, acting out a strangely macabre "dress rehearsal" for her own death. This alone suggests a woman of significantly greater depth than we've been led to believe, and someone who was also determined to do her job properly right to the end, she was after all a Howard, easily the most prominent noble family in the country behind the Tudors themselves.
Despite Catherine's heritage, her upbringing could hardly be called glamorous or remotely conventional for someone with the surname of Howard. She had the misfortune of being born to Lord Edmund Howard - the third son of the Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. It would appear that Edmund was something of an ineffectual tertiary figure at the court of Henry VIII, never sharing in the respect and favour that the King bestowed upon his two elder brothers Thomas (would be 3rd Duke of Norfolk) and Edward. With that said, he did at times appear to benefit from his position in the second family of the land, most notably with his appointment of Controller of Calais in 1531. It would not last however. He would be dismissed in 1539 after years of ineffectual leadership, achieving nothing and earning less money than he had gone in with. Herein lied Edmunds big problem - money. Despite being a Howard, he was not the all important heir, or even the spare. He was the spare of the spare. Edmund was forever short of money. This wasn't helped by the fact that he had six children by his wife Joyce Culpepper, who herself had five children by her deceased first husband, which then became Edmunds financial responsibility as well. It would also seem that what little money he did have, he was not remotely sensible with. After utterly burning through Joyce's highly valuable lands in Kent and Hampshire, Edmund was forced to flee to Europe to avoid his creditors, leaving his many children to be brought up by his relatives. Catherine's Uncle Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk is seen below, alongside a portrait said to have been of her fat her Edmund and then a later drawing of her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.
As the fifth child of the third son of the Duke of Norfolk, Catherine Howard's early life was not therefore the glittering mecca you might expect for such a highborn young woman in Tudor England. Likely born in or around 1523, Catherine was sent to live with her step-grandmother Agnes Tilney, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk at her estate in Horsham. Catherine's mother had died in 1528, and as the Dowager Duchess had major households in both London and Sussex, Catherine along with some of her siblings moved in with their step-grandmother, who took in many wards. They were often, like Catherine, the children of aristocratic but poor relations. As Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Agnes was the third highest ranking woman in England, after Henry's queen consort and his sister, Princess Mary.
As such, she was expected to spend the majority of her time away at court, which unfortunately led to the supervision of her young charges being somewhat lax. Soon Catherine was being influenced by older girls in her household who allowed men in to their sleeping quarters at night. It would appear that the young men and woman of the household enjoyed each others company, often drinking wine and eating food stolen from the kitchens. I am inclined to believe that there may have been plenty of flirting and what we might call "heavy petting", but feel it prudent to exercise some caution on the theory that this was an all out sex fest as depicted in Showtime's The Tudors. Consider that this was an age before effective contraception, but more importantly one that placed enormous weight on a woman's virtue, especially high born woman, even ones of impoverished parents. If there was even a whiff of suspicion that a young woman had not been properly chaste then her prospects in high society were practically zero. Catherine would have known this fact.
Despite her position as a Howard, Catherine was not well educated although her ability to read and write was certainly considered impressive for the time. She was described as vivacious and giggly, but never serious or scholarly. She was reported as being an accomplished dancer, but was easily distracted and appears to have been rather frivolous, I would highlight however that at this time she was probably only 13-14 years old. By 1536, Catherine had begun music lessons with a man called Henry Mannox. Unfortunately very little is known about how Mannox came to be in the Dowager Duchesses household, but what is certainly accepted by historians is that soon a relationship between Mannox and Catherine became more than merely teacher and student. Conor Byrne, author of two superb autobiographies about Catherine has put forward the theory that their relationship was abusive, with Mannox preying upon Catherine and encouraging her to lose her virginity to him. Mannox soon began gossiping about his apparent conquest of Catherine, which greatly angered her. It does appear however to have been mere gossip, as Mannox himself would admit years later during Catherine's investigation that they had engaged in sexual contact, but had not gone the "whole way". Catherine's own testimony would mirror Mannox's. By 1539, Catherine sufficiently distanced herself from Mannox and began to be pursued by one, Francis Dereham. Catherine and Dereham soon became lovers and began addressing each other, perhaps playfully, as "husband" and "wife". When Dereham was away, he entrusted Catherine to manage his finances, which not only highlights that Catherine was more highly educated than we've been led to believe if she could manage a budget, but also the fact that Catherine and Dereham did appear to be acting like a genuine couple.
Catherine's life would change beyond all recognition when her uncle the Duke of Norfolk secured a position for her in the household of Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Perhaps sensing the end of Thomas Cromwell via the absolute disaster that was the Cleve's marriage, Norfolk began to move against him. He saw an opportunity to elevate the Howards back to the enormous influence they had enjoyed under Anne Boleyn, who via her mother was a niece of the Duke of Norfolk and thus first cousin of Catherine Howard. Catherine soon caught the Kings eye and within months of her arrival at court, she would be bestowed great gifts of land, expensive cloth, furs and jewellery. On the 28th July 1540, Catherine and Henry were married, the very same day that Cromwell would lose his head on the scaffold. At the time of their marriage, Catherine may have been as young as just 16, although it is more probable she was nearer 18. Either way, by now the King was 49 and grossly obese. Plagued with ill health and an ulcer in his leg that never healed and reportedly smelt dreadful, it's not hard to imagine that Catherine would have felt a certain amount of horror at what she had married, even if it had propelled her to the very top of Tudor society. A portrait by Holbein said to have been of Catherine Howard during her time as Queen can be seen below.
Contrary to popular belief, it would appear that Catherine was a dutiful queen who fulfilled her ceremonial role with aplomb. The theory that she was an airhead with little care for duty or the sanctity of her role as queen consort has zero contemporary basis. Perhaps driven by her depictions in film and television and the fact that her relative youth at the time of her death makes her an easy target, she is often seen as nothing more than a stupid tart. When one looks more closely though, there is simply no evidence to back up this assessment. I think it's undeniable that she was naïve and completely out of her depth, but it seems unfair to label her as anything more than that without irrefutable proof to say otherwise.
Unfortunately for Catherine, she could not truly escape her past in Horsham. It is believed that people from her time there, no doubt intent on riding on her queenly coattails, began to pressure Catherine in to providing favour to them in exchange for their silence on her past. The beginning of the end for Catherine occurred when her fellow childhood ward, Mary Lascelles, refused her brother John's request to secure him a position in the Queens household. Mary had claimed that she had bore witness to Catherine's loose living during their time in Horsham, and upon hearing this John reported his findings to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Under interrogation from Cranmer, Mary confessed that Catherine had had sexual relationships in her past, which included the promise of marriage, thus nullifying her marriage to the King. In Tudor England simply expressing the wish to be married was enough to constitute a binding marriage pact in the eyes of god. No doubt spotting an opportunity to greatly discredit the ardently Catholic Howards, Cranmer (an equally fervent Protestant) took charge of the case now beginning to build around the queen. At this stage however, Catherine's actions were enough to remove her from the position of queen and nullify her marriage, but would not have resulted in her death. She would be banished in disgrace but would at least remain alive. That was until the interrogation of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford - widow of George Boleyn, brother of Queen Anne Boleyn. Under questioning, Lady Rochford confessed to assisting in a adulterous relationship between Queen Catherine and Thomas Culpepper, a courtier and close friend of Henry VIII. This changed everything. It was one thing to lie about your past, but another entirely to actively engage in an adulterous relationship with a member of the Kings household. Perhaps fearing the outcome of taking this news to the King directly, Cranmer orchestrated a letter to be placed on the pew from which King Henry was praying in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace, detailing the accusations against the queen.
On November 7th, Cranmer moved against the queen questioning her alongside a delegation of councillors at Winchester Palace, just south of London. Cranmer found the queen in a pitiful state, commenting that "I found her in such lamentation and heaviness as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man's heart to have looked upon her". Such was his concern for her mental wellbeing that he ordered the guards to remove any objects that she might use to commit suicide. Despite the fact that it might have spared her life, Catherine denied any precontract with Francis Dereham, instead insisting that she had been repeatedly raped by him during their time together in Horsham. By November 23rd, Catherine was stripped of her title as queen and just eight days later both Culpepper and Dereham were on trial for High Treason, Mannox somehow managing to sufficiently distance himself from the proceedings. The verdict of guilty was a foregone conclusion, and both were sentenced to a traitors death of hanging, drawing and quartering. Despite Dereham being arguably the less guilty party, it was he who would suffer this truly horrific form of execution. Culpepper through his affinity to King Henry VIII had his sentence commuted to the swifter method of decapitation.
Through the winter of 1541 and early 1542, Catherine was imprisoned at Syon Abbey. Many of Catherine's relatives were imprisoned in the Tower with the exception of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who had sufficiently distanced himself from the whole affair. Catherine herself remained in a weird state of limbo, not knowing how the court would move again her. The Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 made it treason, and punishable by death, for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within twenty days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her. This was the straw that broke the camels back. She was guilty as charged. No trial would be necessary. Lady Rochford had also become complicit in her actions to facilitate Culpepper and the queens meetings, and was therefore sentenced to death alongside the queen. A portrait once named as Catherine Howard (historians have always debated the identity of the sitter) alongside a possible drawing of Lady Rochford can be seen below.
As I reference at the start of this post, the night before her execution Catherine spent a lot of time practising how to lay her head on the block. She was said to die with relative composure, but looked pale and terrified, being barely able to speak. Her scaffold speech stuck to the custom of the day, acknowledging her faults and describing her punishment as "worthy and just". The belief that she said "I die a Queen, but would have rather died the wife of Culpepper" has zero contemporary source to back it up. Mercifully, her execution was swift, she was beheaded with a single blow. Lady Rochford followed directly afterwards. Both women were buried inside the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. During the restoration work done on the chapel during the reign of Queen Victoria, the space where Catherine was said to be buried was dug up, but no remains were found. It is believed that the limestone used to inter her simply turned her bones to dust, having not sufficiently hardened with age prior to her death.
The question however is was Catherine truly guilty? Did she genuinely sleep with these men without a thought for the wider repercussions of her actions? To understand this properly, one has to separate our own views on sexuality and contemporary gender behaviour, to remember that England in the 1540s was an incredibly different place, on practically every level. In November 1541, Katherine confessed to her sexual relations with Francis Dereham, testifying that Dereham "by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose". We have scant records of Catherine's feelings and actions, but not once do we have anything to suggest that she enjoyed the affair with Dereham or Mannox. I reiterate again, Catherine was a member of one of the important noble families in the kingdom, in which family members were married off to other noble families to strengthen times between them. It does not seem likely therefore that Catherine would enter into sexual relationships with no consideration of her future, or the reputation of her family.
We also need to consider that as Tudor England was built around severe patriarchy. The actions of men carried greater weight in testimony, with woman often being viewed as weak, sexually voracious characters who would seek the means to belittle and bring down their male counterparts. Male testimony counted for a LOT more. Men had a natural advantage in Tudor England, with the default assumption that Dereham was speaking the truth whilst Catherine had lied. Crucially, the act of remaining silent under questioning led to a belief that the woman in question could not be trusted, and because Catherine remained silent about her past sexual experiences, she was naturally viewed with suspicion by her investigators. What is seldom touched on but Byrne makes clear is that she was clearly really suffering at this time - she would say to Cranmer "the sorrow of my offences was ever before my eyes".
Although the queen confessed to unsavoury communication with Mannox and Dereham and to meeting Culpeper, she refused to state that she was guilty of adultery. Looking through a 2020 lens, we simply cannot apply our own outlook on female sexuality against that of 16th century England. When studying Catherine, we have to ensure we review contemporary gender codes of behaviour through the beliefs of the time and not our own world view. Our predisposition to blame the female has to stop, but must instead be viewed from both side of the argument. Not doing so lands us in the trap of writing Catherine off as nothing more than an empty headed harlot. To me it appears that she was a victim of early modern notions of sexual coercion, and blame, in which her male counterparts were privileged and female victims viewed with distrust. Historians should look to reassess their own findings on Catherine, and try to step outside our own modern day perspective to try and apply the societal norms of the day and just how much this defined Catherine Howard's story.
Catherine Howard was queen for just eighteen months. Her relatively short reign and generally minimal impact on British history has undoubtedly contributed to her being one of King Henry's more forgettable queens. The centuries of name calling towards her - airhead, tart, floosy etc. have however in the past few years began to soften. Whilst I have always found her to be one of Henry's most fascinating queens, her overall life, reign and downfall has been irrevocably changed by the aforementioned Conor Byrne and his staggering biographies of the queen. I heartily recommend anyone interested in story to read his most recent edition - "Henry VIII's slandered Queen".
Catherine may be less well known than some of her contemporaries, but as far as I am concerned, behind Anne Boleyn she has easily the most fascinating story!
Written by Adam Pennington
10th November 2020