February 13, 1542: Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn are Executed
On February 13th, in 1542, at a little after 7 o’clock in the morning, Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn were executed.
When the long night of waiting for their executions finally turned to day, both Katherine and Jane began to prepare themselves to face the world for the last time and their imminent execution in their separate chambers, which were comfortable enough, but in no way comforting. It is doubtful that either woman got any sleep the night before. Both women began to don the clothing that they had painstakingly picked out for their executions. One can only imagine the thoughts that were passing through their minds, but Jane was probably recalling the executions of her husband and sister-in-law less than six years before; Katherine probably thought of it too, and perhaps she thought of Culpeper. Both women knew what to expect, they both came from families that had an intimate knowledge of death by decapitation for treason. And they both knew how to die well, how to die honorably, how to hide the terror they no doubt felt, and how to accept their fate as tradition demanded, in a gruesome ritual that required the victims to willingly go to their deaths, without a fight or some other “unseemly” spectacle.
The four ladies that had accompanied Katherine to the Tower helped her get ready. Her nightgown was removed and replaced with a silk chemise, silk stockings and shoes were put on her tiny feet, and then her underskirts were put on, in order to give her gown the fashionable shape that she liked, followed by a velvet kirtle*, a velvet gown, separate embroidered sleeves, a French hood with gold edging, with leather gloves and a mantle* finishing her ensemble. The mantle was to protect her from the cold and frost of the early February morning, since the Tower Green was located outside, with little-to-no protection from the elements. Jane was also assisted in getting dressed, since as the daughter of Lord Morley, she would expect nothing less, and even though she was a convicted traitor, she was still a Viscountess and could not be treated as an ordinary prisoner. Her black damask nightgown was removed, a chemise was slipped over her head, followed by a kirtle, then plain stockings and leather shoes were put on her feet. Then she was dressed in a black velvet gown, which was what she had normally worn as a lady of the bedchamber, followed by leather gloves. She likely would have been wrapped in a mantle as well.
Sir John Gage, the Constable of the Tower*, was also very busy that morning, since the execution of a Queen was not an everyday occurrence, and there could be no mistakes made. Because it was so important that everything went smoothly, Gage decided that he could not leave the preparations solely to Sir Edmund Walsingham, who would normally have been in charge of the execution preparations. But Gage and Walsingham were fortunate in the fact that they had the precedent of Queen Anne Boleyn’s execution to follow, so there was no need for constant communication with the Council. It also helped that Walsingham had been lieutenant of the Tower at the time of Queen Anne’s execution. The men made sure that the scaffold was properly prepared; it was about three or four feet high, draped in black, and covered with straw to soak up the two women’s life-blood. Upon it rested the block, which Katherine had used the night before to practice how to position herself on it gracefully. The headsman had arrived, with his axe; there would be no expert Calais swordsmen for the two condemned women as there had been for Queen Anne. The Tower guards were prepared; all that needed to be done was for the King’s councilors and the small group of Londoners who were to watch the administering of the King’s justice, to arrive, since the executions could not take place without an audience.
The councilors had spent the night before the executions at Westminster, and when it began to get light out, they boarded the barges that were to take them along the Thames to the Tower, which was about 2 ½ miles downriver. The Duke of Suffolk was not present, since, according to Chapuys, he was ill. The Duke of Norfolk was also not present, although the reason why is not known. Perhaps he was ill too, or pretending to be, so that he did not have to watch yet another niece be executed, perhaps watching Katherine’s execution would have been too difficult, even for him, or perhaps he just wanted to distance himself from the whole sordid affair. But both Norfolk and Suffolk were well enough to attend a council session the next day. As for the other councilors, they had no choice but to attend; although for some, like Sir Richard Rich, overseeing the administration of the King’s justice was simply a job to be done, with little feeling. For others, like Sir John Russell, with whom Jane had stayed for a brief time while she was recovering her sanity, the next few hours would be extremely difficult to witness. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was also present, and it is possible that the executions were difficult for him as well, since Katherine was his cousin.
Once the Council and “various lords and gentlemen” arrived at the Tower, the executions could proceed. And while the remaining official’s identities are unknown, they would have all been at least acquainted with Queen Katherine and Lady Rochford. And they all no doubt hoped that what they were about to witness would be over quickly. Gage led the men from their barges, through a security cordon, and to the stands that had been erected next to the scaffold, likely the same wooden stands that had been used for Queen Anne’s execution. Around the same time the officials arrived by barge, a group of select Londoners walked to the Tower, where they arrived at the western gate, which, while normally guarded, was open so that witnesses could enter the Tower precincts via the Bulwark Gate, which crossed the wide, deep moat. But the group still had to pass through three more security gates and pass the Bloody Tower before they entered the Inner Ward. From there, they saw the huge, square walls of the White Tower to their right, and the Beauchamp Tower on their left. They walked along the west side of the White Tower, turned the corner, and saw it: their destination, the scaffold that would soon be soaked with the blood of a young Queen and one of her ladies. Allegedly, even more people had come to witness Katherine and Jane’s executions than had for Anne Boleyn’s, probably about 7 to 8,000 people, but that is likely not true. Probably less than 1,000 people were to witness these executions.
Now it was time for Gage to fetch the first of the prisoners, Katherine, who would die first due to her higher rank. Gage headed to the Queen’s lodgings, which were located to the southeast of the White Tower and a few hundred yards away from the scaffold. He entered the palace area through Cole Harbor gate and climbed the stairs to Katherine’s rooms, where he respectfully knocked on the door before entering. Katherine was ready and waiting for him, wrapped in her mantle against the cold. She quietly followed him out the door and down the stairs, followed by her ladies, walked through the gate and around the White Tower, to where the scaffold waited for her. That short walk to the scaffold must have seemed to take a lifetime, and yet, at the same time, no time at all. Katherine looked at the assembled group of witnesses, and steadily climbed the stairs, although it should be noted that some sources say that Katherine was so weak with fear that she needed assistance climbing the stairs and could hardly speak because of her terror. I am inclined to be skeptical of Weir’s claim, since Ottwell Johnson’s eyewitness account says nothing of the sort and he mentions Katherine’s bravery. Before Katherine made her final speech, her executioner knelt before her and asked her forgiveness for what he was about to do, which she gave him with her payment, and then she knelt in prayer. Once she had prayed, she stood and, in a clear voice, addressed the crowd that had gathered to watch the executions.
An eyewitness named Ottwell Johnson, who was a merchant, recorded the following in a letter he wrote on the 15th to his brother about the executions:
“And for the news from hence; know ye, that, even according to my writing on Sunday last, I see the Queen and the lady Retcheford [Rochford] suffer within the Tower, the day following; whose souls (I doubt not) be with God, for they made the most godly and Christians’ end that ever was heard tell of (I think) since the world’s creation, uttering their lively faith in the blood of Christ only, with wonderful patience and constancy to the death, and, with goodly words and steadfast countenance, they desired all Christian people to take regard unto their worthy and just punishment with death, for their offences against God heinously from their youth upward, in breaking of all his commandments, and also against the King’s royal Majesty very dangerously; wherefore they, being justly condemned (as they said) by the Laws of the realm and Parliament, to die, required the people (I say) to take example at them for amendment of their ungodly lives, and gladly obey the King in all things, for whose preservation they did heartily pray, and willed all people to do so, commending their souls to God and earnestly calling for mercy upon Him, whom I beseech to give us grace with such faith, hope, and charity, at out departing out of this miserable world, to come to the fruition of his Godhead in joy everlasting. Amen.”
Marillac, the French Ambassador, gives a much different account of Katherine’s actions at her execution, and he states that the execution took place closer to 9a.m., but since he was not actually present, it is very unlikely that there is any truth in his words. He said that “The Queen was so weak that she could hardly speak, but confessed in few words that she had merited a hundred deaths for so offending the King who had so graciously treated her.”
The Spanish Chronicle also gives yet another contradictory report on the events of the execution, but since that was the Tudor equivalent of the tabloid, it is highly unlikely that it is true. Although it is rather romantic what they have Katherine’s final words being: “I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper.”
Once a pale, but composed Katherine had finished speaking, her ladies stepped forward to remove her mantle and place a linen cap on her head. Then a blindfold was placed over her eyes and she gracefully knelt down at the block, a movement that she had carefully rehearsed the previous night, laid her head on the block, and waited for the executioner to strike. He did so swiftly, and her head was removed with a single blow. One witness report says that the young, teenage girl, who must have been terrified beyond belief, “died well”. The executioner then picked up Katherine’s head and displayed it to the crowd, to show what befell traitors to the King.
Now it was time for Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford’s, turn to be executed for committing high treason by helping Katherine allegedly commit adultery. Before she was brought out, the scaffold was washed down with some water and covered with fresh straw, so that Jane would not slip on the blood. Gage then walked back to the royal apartments to fetch Jane, who was most likely lodged in the King’s or Queen’s apartments, due to the shortage of suitable accommodations for the sudden influx of illustrious prisoners, mostly ones who had been caught up in the Katherine/Culpeper affair. Jane had not been able to see the execution from her chambers, but she must have heard the spectator’s cries and gasps when Katherine’s head was cut off and held up. Undoubtedly, the wait for Gage to come fetch her, while in reality only took a few moments, must have seemed like forever. Gage knocked on Jane’s door, brought her out, led her down the stairs, and past the White Tower to where her fate waited. Gage treated her with civility and compassion while he escorted her, and by the time they reached the scaffold, there was very little evidence of what had just occurred. Katherine’s head had been carefully wrapped in a white cloth, and her body had been lain in a black cloak, before her bloody remains where carried to the chapel. Jane then calmly climbed up onto the scaffold, forgave the executioner, and turned to face the crowd, which would have contained several faces that she knew. According to Chapuys:
“Then Lady Rochford was brought, who had shown symptoms of madness till they told her she must die. Neither she nor the Queen spoke much on the scaffold; they only confessed their guilt and prayed for the King’s welfare.”
But Marillac reported that, “The lady of Rochefort said as much in a long discourse of several faults which she had committed in her life.”
Ottwell Johnson wrote of how Jane faced her death with composure, bravery, and dignity. Julia Fox , writes of how there is no transcript of Jane Boleyn’s speech, but says that Johnson record’s give us enough information to reconstruct it. According to Fox, Jane said the following:
“She began by declaring her complete faith and trust in God. ‘I have,’ she said, ‘committed many sins against God from my youth upwards and have offended the king’s royal Majesty very dangerously, so my punishment is just and deserved. I am justly condemned by the laws of this realm and by Parliament. All of you who watch me die should learn from my example and change your own lives. You must gladly obey the king in all things, for he us a just and godly prince. I pray for his preservation and beseech you all to do the same. I now entrust my soul to God and pray for his mercy.’”
But Jane, Lady Rochford, never once confessed to giving false testimony against her sister-in-law, Queen Anne Boleyn, or her husband, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, nor did she speak of the offenses for which she was being executed. The eyewitness accounts of Chapuys and Ottwell Johnson do not mention any such confession, and you can be sure that that would not be something they would have left out. The source behind the myth that Jane made these confessions is most likely Gregorio Leti, a man who was famous for making up stories and inventing false sources to support his stories.
Once Jane had made her short, final speech, she removed her cloak, had her hair bound up out of the way, prayed, was blindfolded, and then she knelt and placed her head on the blood-soaked block that had held Katherine’s head moments before, and her head was taken off with one swift blow of the axe. Both women made good and dignified ends.
After the Executions
Once both women had been executed, the spectators dispersed; they had acted as witnesses and seen the King’s justice performed. Gage and Walsingham were left to supervise the cleaning up. They had the scaffold washed down again, and then dismantled. They made sure that the executioner was given his fee and the victim’s outer clothes as payment, then sent him on his way. The guards were dismissed to their quarters.
After Katherine and Jane’s executions, their bodies were stripped and wrapped in cere-cloth, then their bodies and heads were buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, which was located within the Tower. Katherine was laid to rest next to her cousin, Anne Boleyn, as was Jane, who was finally reunited with her husband, George Boleyn. And ordinary life resumed for everyone but the dead: a young Queen who, while guilty of making mistakes and loving the wrong person, did not deserve death, and her older, more experienced lady-in-waiting, whose legacy would be one of jealousy, foolishness, shrewish behavior, complicity in the murder of her husband and sister-in-law, and as “that bawd, the Lady Rochford.” Neither deserved to die, and Jane’s legacy is one that is completely undeserved, at least according to Julia Fox , whose book, Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford, is one that I highly recommend reading.
*Kirtle – A long gown or dress worn by women.
*Mantle –A loose, sleeveless garment worn over other clothes; a cloak or cape.
*Constable of the Tower – Gage’s offices of constable were more of an honorary position rather than one of carrying out every day responsibilities. Those were the job of the lieutenant, Sir Edmund Walsingham. At Queen Anne’s execution, however, Kingston, the then constable, was very much involved, so it is likely that Gage was with Katherine and Jane’s executions.