13 February 1542 - death of Catherine Howard
On this day, 474 years ago, Catherine Howard was executed. She was Queen of England from 1540 to 1541 as the fifth wife of King Henry VIII and was beheaded after less than two years of marriage to Henry on the grounds of treason for committing adultery while married to the King.
Catherine was a daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper. Her father’s sister, Elizabeth Howard, was the mother of Anne Boleyn. Therefore, Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn were first cousins, and Catherine Howard and Anne’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I), were first-cousins-once-removed. As a granddaughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, Catherine had an aristocratic pedigree, but her father was not wealthy, being a younger son among 21 children and disfavoured in the custom of primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherits all his father’s estate.
When Catherine’s parents married, her mother already had five children from her first husband, Ralph Leigh; she went on to have another six with Catherine’s father, Catherine being about her mother’s tenth child. With little to sustain the family, her father was often reduced to begging for handouts from his more affluent relatives. After Catherine’s mother died in 1528, her father married twice more. In 1531, he was appointed Controller of Calais. He was dismissed from his post in 1539, and died in March 1539. Catherine was the third of Henry VIII’s wives to have been a member of the English nobility or gentry; Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves were of European royalty.
Catherine was born in Lambeth in about 1523; yet the exact date of her birth remains uncertain. Soon after the death of her mother (c.1528), when Catherine was aged about five, Catherine was sent with some of her siblings to live in the care of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The Dowager Duchess presided over large households at Chesworth House in Horsham in Sussex, and Norfolk House in Lambeth where dozens of attendants along with her many wards, usually the children of aristocratic but poor relatives, resided. While sending young children to be educated and trained in aristocratic households other than their own was common for centuries among European nobles, supervision at both Chesworth House and Lambeth was apparently lax. The Dowager Duchess was often at Court and seems to have had little direct involvement in the upbringing of her wards and young female attendants.
As a result of the Dowager Duchess’s lack of discipline, Catherine became influenced by some older girls who candidly allowed men into the sleeping areas at night for entertainment. The girls were rewarded with food and wine and gifts. Catherine was not as well educated as some of Henry’s other wives, although, on its own, her ability to read and write was impressive enough at the time. Her character has often been described as vivacious, giggly, and brisk, but never scholarly or devout. She displayed great interest in her dance lessons, but would often go off track of the lessons and make jokes. She also had a nurturing side for animals, particularly dogs.
In the Duchess’s household at Horsham, in around 1536, Catherine and her music teacher, Henry Manox, began a sexual relationship. Catherine was then aged thirteen. He later gave evidence in the inquiry against her. Mannox and Catherine both confessed during her adultery inquisitions that they had engaged in sexual contact, but not actual coitus. When questioned Catherine was quoted as saying, “At the flattering and fair persuasions of Mannox, being but a young girl, I suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body, which neither became me with honesty to permit nor him to require.”
Her affair with Mannox came to an end in 1538, when Catherine, now aged 15, moved to the Dowager Duchess’s household in Lambeth. There she was pursued by a secretary of the Dowager Duchess Francis Dereham. They became lovers, addressing each other as “husband” and “wife”. Dereham also entrusted Catherine with various wifely duties, such as keeping his money when he was away on business. Many of Catherine’s roommates among the Dowager Duchess’s maids of honour and attendants knew of the relationship, which apparently ended in 1539 when the Dowager Duchess found out. Despite this, Catherine and Dereham may have parted with intentions to marry upon his return from Ireland, agreeing to a precontract of marriage. If indeed they exchanged vows before having sexual intercourse, they would have been considered married in the eyes of the Church.
Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, found her a place at Court in the household of the King’s fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleves. As a young and attractive lady-in-waiting, Catherine quickly caught Henry’s eye. The King had displayed little interest in Anne from the beginning, but on Cromwell’s failure to find a new match, Norfolk saw an opportunity. The Howards may have sought to recreate the influence gained during Queen Anne’s reign. According to Nicholas Sander, the religiously conservative Howard family may have seen Catherine as a figurehead for their fight by expressed determination to restore Roman Catholicism to England. Bishop Gardiner entertained the couple at Winchester Palace with “feastings”.
As the King’s interest in Catherine grew, so did their influence. Her youth, prettiness and vivacity were captivating for the middle-aged sovereign, who claimed he had never known “the like to any woman”. Within months of her arrival at court, Henry bestowed gifts of land and expensive cloth upon Catherine. Henry called her his ‘rose without a thorn’ and the 'very jewel of womanhood’. The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, thought her “delightful”. Holbein’s portrait showed a young auburn-haired girl with a characteristically hooked Howard nose; Catherine was said to have a “gentle, earnest face.”
King Henry and Catherine were married by Bishop Bonner of London at Oatlands Palace on 28 July 1540, the same day Cromwell was executed. The marriage was made public on 8 August, and prayers were said in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace. Henry “indulged her every whim” thanks to her “caprice”.
Catherine was young, joyous and carefree; Manox had taught her to play the virginals. She was too young to take part in administrative matters of State. Nevertheless, every night Sir Thomas Heneage, Groom of the Stool came to her chamber to report on the King’s well-being. No plans were made for a coronation, yet she still travelled down river in the royal barge into the City of London to a gun salute and some acclamation. She was settled by jointure at Baynard Castle: little changed at court, other than the arrival of many Howards. Every day she dressed with new clothes in the French fashion bedecked with precious jewels. With ominous foresight the motto adopted read Non autre volonte que la sienne (No other wish but his), decorated in gold around her sleeves.
The Queen escaped plague-ridden London in August 1540 when on progress. The royal couple’s entourage travelled on honeymoon through Reading and Buckingham. On 29th the Duke of Grafton arrived for a Council meeting. After the Queen’s Chamberlain got drunk and misbehaved, the King was in a bad mood when they moved on to Woking, when his health improved. At Whitehall the King embarked on a lavish spending spree to celebrate his marriage: extensive refurbishments and developments. This was followed by more expensive gifts for Christmas at Hampton Court. That winter the King’s bad moods deepened and grew more furious. Undoubtedly the pain from his ulcerous legs was agony, but did not make relations any easier at court. He accused councillors of being “lying time-servers”, and began to regret losing Cromwell. After a dark depressed March, his mood lifted at Easter.
It was alleged that, in spring 1541, Catherine had embarked upon a romance with Henry’s favourite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper, a young man who “had succeeded [him] in the Queen’s affections”, according to Dereham’s testimony, and whom Catherine called my “little, sweet fool” had considered marrying during her time as a maid-of-honour to Anne of Cleves. But all their fates were sealed, when a terrified Lady Rochford was tortured under interrogation and agreed to tell all. She had watched for Catherine backstairs as Culpeper had made his escapes from the Queen’s room. The couple’s meetings were arranged by one of Catherine’s older ladies-in-waiting, Lady Rochford, the widow of Catherine’s cousin, George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s brother. Catherine’s famous love letter was signed “Yours as long as the life endures”.
Preparations were in place for any signs of pregnancy, reported by Marillac on 15 April, that “if it be found true, to have her crowned at Whitsuntide.” At the same time Henry wanted the last of the Yorkists found out. During this time, however, a crisis began to loom over Catherine’s conduct during the autumn progress. People who had witnessed her indiscretions at Lambeth began to contact her for favours in return for their silence, and many of them were appointed to her household. Most disastrously, Catherine appointed Francis Dereham as her personal secretary, at the urging of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. This miscalculation led to the charges of treason and adultery against her.
On All Saints Day, 1 November 1541, the King was to be found in the Chapel Royal, praying as usual for this “jewel of womanhood”. He received there a warrant of the queen’s arrest that described her crimes. A jealous Norfolk Chamber servant, Mary Lascelles had been excluded from her mistress’s household told her reformist brother John Lascelles that she had private information on Catherine’s previous illicit sexual relations. The reformer Archbishop Cranmer immediately took up the case to be made to topple his rivals the conservative Norfolks. A critical Council meeting was held at Winchester Palace, Southwark, during which the poor Queen broke down in tears and sobbed. She was told it was “no more the time to dance”.
By late 1541, the Northern Progress of England had ended, and Catherine’s indiscretions had become known to John Lascelles, a Protestant reformer whose sister, Mary Hall, had been a member of the Dowager Duchess’s household; Mary had seen a letter to Culpeper in Catherine’s distinctive handwriting, which is the only letter of hers that still survives, other than her confession. However, there is considerable doubt as to the story’s authenticity, since Catherine was not fully aware of the charges against her until the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and a delegation of councillors were sent to question her on 7 November 1541. Even the staunch Cranmer found Catherine’s frantic, incoherent state pitiable, saying, “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.” He ordered the guards to remove any objects that she might use to commit suicide. Establishing the existence of a precontract between Catherine and Dereham would have had the effect of terminating Catherine’s royal union, but it also would have allowed Henry to annul their marriage and banish her from Court. Catherine would have been disgraced, impoverished, and exiled, but, ultimately, she would have been spared execution. Yet still she steadfastly denied any precontract, maintaining that Dereham had raped her. Her situation was made more complicated by the revelation of her adulterous affair with Culpeper.
Catherine was stripped of her title as queen on 23 November 1541, and imprisoned in the new Syon Abbey, Middlesex, formerly a convent, where she remained throughout the winter of 1541. She was forced by a Privy Councillor to return Anne of Cleves’ ring that the King had given her; it was a symbol of her regal and lawful rights. The King would be at Hampton Court, but she would not see him again.
Culpeper and Dereham were arraigned at Guildhall on 1 December 1541 for High Treason. They were executed at Tyburn on 10 December 1541, Culpeper being beheaded and Dereham being hanged, drawn, and quartered. According to custom, their heads were placed on spikes atop of London Bridge. Many of Catherine’s relatives were also detained in the Tower with the exception of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who had sufficiently distanced himself from the scandal by retreating to Kenninghall to write a grovelling letter of apology. Yet his son Henry Howard, the poet, Earl of Surrey remained a favourite of the King, the duke knew his family had fallen from grace, wrote an apology on 14 December to the King, excusing himself and laying all the blame on his niece and stepmother. All of the Howard prisoners were tried, found guilty of concealing treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of goods. In time, however, they were released with their goods restored. The King sank into morbidity and indulged his appetite for food.
Catherine herself remained in limbo until Parliament introduced a bill on 29 January 1542, which passed the act on 7 February 1542. 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 solved the matter of Catherine’s supposed precontract and made her unequivocally guilty. When the Lords of the Council came for her, she panicked and screamed aloud, as they manhandled her into the waiting barge that would escort her to the Tower on Friday 10 February 1542, her flotilla passing under London Bridge where the heads of Culpeper and Dereham were impaled (and remained until 1546). Entering through the Traitors’ Gate she was led to her prison cell. The next day, the bill of attainder received Royal Assent, and Catherine’s execution was scheduled for 7 am on Monday, 13 February 1542. Arrangements for the execution were supervised by Sir John Gage in his role as Constable of the Tower.
The night before her execution, Catherine is believed to have spent many hours practising how to lay her head upon the block, which had been brought to her at her request. She died with relative composure, but looked pale and terrified, she required assistance to climb the scaffold. She made a speech describing her punishment as “worthy and just” and asked for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. Catherine was beheaded with a single stroke of the executioner’s axe. Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, was executed immediately thereafter on Tower Green. Both their bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in the nearby chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, where the bodies of Catherine’s cousins, Anne and George Boleyn, also lay. Other cousins were also in the crowd, including the Earl of Surrey. Henry did not attend. Catherine’s body was not one of those identified during restorations of the chapel during Queen Victoria’s reign. She is commemorated on a plaque on the west wall dedicated to all those who died in the Tower. Upon hearing news of Catherine’s execution, Francis I of France wrote a letter to Henry, regretting the “lewd and naughty [evil] behaviour of the Queen” and advising him that “the lightness of women cannot bend the honour of men”.