Falling: Katheryn Howard Imprisoned at Syon Abbey

  After being interrogated by Cranmer, Katheryn had written a confession of her premarital affairs to the king. She had been fondled as a young girl - possibly as young as twelve or thirteen - by her music teacher and later had a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham.  Henry was in a crying rage that his “rose without a thorn” had been touched by others before their marriage.

   But the investigation into her activities had taken an even more dire turn. There were accusations she had been meeting secretly with one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, Thomas Culpepper.

    Culpepper appears to have been a favorite of Henry’s, making the betrayal even more poignant in the king’s eyes. Culpepper slept in Henry’s bed, a coveted position in the Tudor court. Culpepper is described in various histories of the era as being charming and pleasant, but he may have had a dark side. A man named Thomas Culpepper was pardoned by the king after raping a park keeper’s wife and killing a man who attempted to rescue her. But Culpepper had an older brother also named Thomas Culpepper and it can’t be said for certain which brother was the guilty party.

    It appears that Katheryn’s ex-lover Francis Dereham, was the one who ultimately sealed Katheryn’s doom. When he was questioned about whether his affair with the queen had continued after he came to court, Dereham reportedly said that Thomas Culpepper had succeeded him in Katheryn’s affections. During a search of Culpepper’s belongings, a letter from Katheryn was found.

    One of the queen’s ladies, Margaret Motton, had told the investigators that she thought “my lade off Rochfor the prynsy a casyoun off har ffoley.

    That ”lade of Rochfor“ was Jane Parker, Viscountess Rochford - widow of George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s brother.

    Historians have debated Lady Rochford’s motives in helping Katheryn with the dangerous game she was playing. Some dismiss Lady Rochford as a sly intriguer, in it just for the sheer thrill of sneaking about, but more recently, it’s been proposed that Culpepper was blackmailing Lady Rochford into cooperating. Her financial situation had been somewhat precarious since her late husband’s estate was seized after his conviction.

    Along these lines, some have proposed that Katheryn had promised to find Lady Rochford a new husband if she assisted in setting up the meetings. Lady Rochford may have felt desperate to remarry soon, not only for her financial situation, but also because in her mid to late thirties, she was approaching what the Tudors thought was the end of her childbearing years.

    Or, it’s entirely possible that Lady Rochford simply felt she had no choice but to obey the queen’s commands, and her involvement was exaggerated by those hoping to save their own skins. We’ll never know.

    Katheryn was examined again on the 12th of November and admitted to meeting with Culpepper and giving him small gifts, but that was all. Both Culpepper and Katheryn seem to have tried to throw Lady Rochford beneath the proverbial bus by saying it was Lady Rochford who had instigated and arranged these meetings.

“The Quene saith that my lady Rocheford hath sondry tymez made instans to her to speke with Culpeper declaryng hym to beare her good wyll and favour, wheruppon she did at the last graunte he shuld speke with her, my lady of Rocheford affyrmyng that he desiered nothyng elles but to speke with her and that she durst swere uppon a booke he ment nothyng but honestye.

    Katheryn continued that Lady Rochford induced her again and again to meet with Culpepper, promising she would never reveal the meetings, even if she were ”torn with wild horses.“ If Katheryn sat down far away from Culpepper, or turned her back to him, Lady Rochford would urge her to come closer. She claimed Lady Rochford searched the houses they were staying in for places where Katheryn and Culpepper could meet in secrecy.

    Katheryn claims she tried to end it:

[S]he seyth that lately, but the tyme she remembreth not, my lady Rocheford spake of Culpeper wheronto the quene aunswred ‘alas madam woll this never have ende. I pray yowe, byd hym desier no more to treble me or send to me,’ wher uppon she told me after that she had don my message his aunswer was that he besought me to send hym no such word for he wold take no suche aunswer but styll sent to me as he myght have a messanger at whiche tyme she called hym lytle sweete foole.

    Culpepper, in his interview, said that the meetings were ”contrived“ by Lady Rochford, and that she ”provoked him much“ to love the queen. He confirmed the meetings and the gifts, but said Katheryn would search for hidden rooms and back stairways herself.

    Next, it was Lady Rochford’s turn. She must have been terrified when approached by the investigators. For the second time in her life, Jane Parker found herself being interrogated about a queen’s conduct.

Relative to the above interviews; of which she heard or saw nothing of what passed, for the Queen was at the other end of the room and Culpeper on the stairs, ready to slip down. One night at Lincoln she and the Queen were at the back door waiting for Culpeper, at 11 p.m., when one of the watch came with a light and locked the door. Shortly after Culpeper came in, saying he and his man had picked the lock. Since her trouble the Queen has daily asked for Culpeper, saying that if that matter came not out she feared not. At Lincoln, when the Queen was with Culpeper, she was asleep until the Queen called her to answer Lovekyn. She thinks Culpeper has known the Queen carnally.

   That last line was damning.

    Why did Lady Rochford say it? Both Katheryn and Culpepper insisted they had never committed adultery, though Culpepper admitted he would ”do ill“ with the queen if he had the opportunity. It would have been almost impossible to conceal a sexual affair which leaves physical evidence. (Katheryn’s old laundress had been questioned about her affair with Dereham for this reason.) A few stolen moments here or there for a furtive conversation would be all they could manage. 

    From the records, we can’t know if Lady Rochford offered the statement voluntarily, or if she broke down under a brutal interrogation and simply agreed to what the investigators wanted to hear. Lady Rochford knew better than anyone that once the king had decided to prosecute a queen, all the court could do was cooperate and hope the shadow of the axe passed them by. She may have thought they only wanted information that could help condemn the queen - none of Anne Boleyn’s ladies had been charged with helping her (though she could not have committed her supposed adulteries without the assistance of her servants.) Lady Rochford may have thought Katheryn was doomed, but cooperation would save her life, and possibly keep her family from further disgrace.

    She was wrong.

    The next item in the Letters and Papers is an inventory of Lady Rochford’s property, a very grim sign of where things were headed.

    The French ambassador spoke to the Duke of Norfolk a couple of days later. It’s interesting to speculate about what Norfolk knew of his niece’s sexual history when she came to court. Surely his mother, the Dowager Duchess, told him about the difficulties she’d had with her ward. Did Norfolk decide it was best just to pretend none of it had never happened in the interest of finding Katheryn a husband? Of course, he never imagined that Katheryn’s husband would be the king. Did he panic at the thought of how the king might react when he discovered his bride wasn’t a virgin? The ambassador reported:

[Katheryn] thought that after her free confession they would not enquire further; but, finding the contrary, refuses to drink or eat and weeps and cries like a madwoman, so that they must take away things by which she might hasten her death—which will not be long if the last point which is yet in presumption is proved.


[Norfolk] had since learnt, what was much worse, that at this journey in the North she made acquaintance with a young gentleman of the King’s chamber named Colpepre, who had been with her five or six times in secret and suspect places, among others at Lincoln, where they were closetted (enserrez) together five or six hours, and considering the words, signs, and messages between them it was held for certain that they had “passé oultre.” ["Passed out” was a euphemism for orgasm.] He added that the King was so grieved that he proposed never to take another wife, and prayed Marillac to write all he had said to [King] Francis, as he will do, at leisure.

    Norfolk was eager to disavow this second niece who had married the king and fallen from favor. Chapuys says that Norfolk told him he’d liked to see Katheryn burned at the stake, and in his next letter the French ambassador writes,

Norfolk says she shall die, and specially because the King could not marry again while she lives. 

    On November 11, the king decreed that Katheryn was to be imprisoned at Syon Abbey, near Richmond. (The note in the Letters and Papers says “Syon House” but the extant house by that name had not yet been built in Katheryn’s day. “House of religion,” was the contemporary term for a nunnery, as Syon was until 1539.You can see a digital reconstruction of the abbey and its floorplan here.)

    Henry commanded that she was to be lodged “moderately,” but was allowed to have four gentlewomen and two chamberers of her choice, a mercy Henry did not extend to Anne Boleyn during her imprisonment. At least Katheryn was to have the comfort of friendly faces around her during her darkest hours.

    The orders were that Katheryn’s chambers were to be furnished with “mean stuff,” and she was to have no cloth of estate - the royal tapestries that hung over the seat of the queen at her dining table. Her clothing was to have no jewels sewn to the fabric, though gold trim was permitted. Katheryn was provided with six French hoods, six pairs of sleeves, six gowns, and six kirtles.

    Henry also decreed that Katheryn’s behaviour should be announced to the court, with emphasis on his own “careful proceeding in it." Apparently, the king was concerned people would think he was merely disposing of an inconvenient wife again, as he had with Anne Boleyn.

    Ultimately, Katheryn was guilty of nothing but having sexual experience before she married the king. Adultery was never proven, only the possibility of intent. Katheryn was being punished because her husband was heartbroken that his "perfect jewel of womanhood” had been touched by others before him.

    Through the centuries, historians have not treated poor Katheryn kindly. She’s often dismissed with a shrug as “probably guilty,” of being the wife who deserved her execution. She’s portrayed as frivolous, greedy, or childish - her charitable works and efforts to urge her husband to merciful treatment of prisoners are forgotten. (It should be noted that one of the biggest expenses on her tailor’s bills was the purchase of warm clothing for poor Margaret Pole.) Henry treated Katheryn as a trophy wife, and historians have often followed suit.

    Katheryn wasn’t queen long enough to make a delible mark. She wasn’t a passionate advocate for education like Katharine of Aragon, nor a religious reformer like Anne Boleyn, but it appears she took her role seriously and attempted to be a good queen to her people. But her sexual experiences cast a large enough shadow to blot out the good she had done, and history would dismiss her as an empty-headed slut who deserved what she got.