Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII, whom she married on 28 July 1540, just three weeks after the king’s brief marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled. But the union between Henry, who was nearly 50 years old, and Catherine, who was probably just a teenager, ended in tragedy: the king discovered Catherine’s illicit sexual past and she was charged with treason. Catherine was executed at the Tower of London on 13 February 1542
How much do you know about Catherine Howard? How did she meet Henry VIII, and is she related to Anne Boleyn? How old was Catherine when she died, and does her ghost really haunt Hampton Court Palace? Here, we bring you the facts…
Catherine Howard’s birth date is unknown
Catherine Howard is thought to have been born sometime between 1518 and 1524, but the exact date is unknown.
Born into an aristocratic family, Catherine Howard was the daughter of a younger brother of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and was first cousin to Anne Boleyn. Little is known about Catherine’s early life, but historian David Starkey describes it as “a scrabbled childhood, with a dominant, providing mother, and a weak debt-ridden and… hen-pecked father”.
Catherine’s mother died when she was a child, so at the age of around 10 or 12 Catherine was sent to live with her step-grandmother, Agnes, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, in the countryside near Horsham in West Sussex. The young Catherine “had few prospects”, says historian Josephine Wilkinson.
Catherine had a chaotic upbringing
Historical novelist Philippa Gregory describes the Dowager Duchess’s household as being “full of her young wards and companions” and says “they received little supervision”. Catherine and her friends were allowed to entertain male admirers in their large shared dormitory – Catherine herself was “young, merry and vivacious” and “was not scholarly or devout”.
The household has been likened by David Starkey to “a slackly run boarding school”.
Catherine Howard had an illicit sexual past
When Catherine was around 13 years old, she had a romantic relationship with her music teacher, Henry Mannock (aka Manox or Mannox), who had been employed to teach her to play the virginals, a keyboard instrument. When later questioned about their relationship (in 1541, when Catherine was charged with treason), both denied ever having had intercourse.
Catherine had a longer, sexual relationship with a young noble, Francis Dereham, who was a secretary in her grandmother’s household, between 1537 and 1539. The pair “almost certainly became lovers, addressing each other as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’; Francis even entrusted her with his money whilst he was travelling,” says Philippa Gregory. But the jealous Mannock informed the Dowager Duchess, who quickly put an end to the relationship.
Was Catherine Howard sexually abused?
Writing for BBC History Magazine in 2016, the academic historian Josephine Wilkinson claimed that Catherine Howard’s relationships with Mannock and Dereham had been non-consensual.
“While living with the duchess [of Norfolk], Catherine was sexually exploited by two men of the household,” she said. “Both men took advantage of their position of authority in the household – and Catherine had no means of defending herself.”
The historian Lucy Worsley echoed Wilkinson’s claims. Writing in The Telegraph, Worsley highlighted the “queasy fact that the girl at the centre of [this] was quite possibly still in her early teens.”
She added: “It’s all very well to describe [Catherine’s] ‘easy charm’ and her ‘abundant store of good nature’, but it is questionable to do so about a girl who, from the age of 11 or 12 onwards, had older men coming into her bedroom. Especially when Mannock was placed in a position of responsibility towards Catherine as her music teacher.”
Catherine Howard might otherwise have been Mrs Culpeper
In late 1539, thanks to the intervention of Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, Catherine Howard was selected to be maid of honour to Anne of Cleves when she became queen. [Henry and Anne married in January 1540, when Anne was 24 and Henry 48. The marriage lasted just six months].
While at court Catherine Howard had a relationship with a Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber, and rumours abounded that the pair were to be married. But it was Henry who secured Catherine’s hand: having fallen in love with Catherine and sent her gifts and love letters, on 28 July 1540 – just three weeks after the king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled – he married Catherine at Oatlands Palace in Surrey, making her his fifth queen. For Catherine it was “a truly spectacular rise from obscurity to the seat of power,” says Josephine Wilkinson.
Henry VIII was at least 30 years older than Catherine Howard
Henry was nearly 50 years old when he married the teenage Catherine, and he was in failing health. “Incapacitated by an ulcerated jousting wound in his leg, Henry’s girth had increased at an alarming rate,” says historian Tracy Borman. “When he became king he had been a trim 32 inches around the waist; by the time he met Anne of Cleves it was closer to 52 inches.”
Catherine Howard was stepmother to Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I
Catherine, who was at least two and possibly even seven years younger than Henry’s elder daughter, Mary, found the role of stepmother difficult.
According to historian Anna Whitelock, relations between the two “were initially fraught”. In her 2010 book Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen, Whitelock details how, on 5 December 1540, Eustace Chapuys [Spanish ambassador to Henry VIII’s court from 1529 to 1545] told the emperor Charles V’s sister that the young queen Catherine “had tried to remove two of Mary’s attendants because she believed that the princess was showing less respect to her than to her predecessors.”
Meanwhile, Catherine found herself a fan in her younger stepdaughter, the Princess Elizabeth, who is thought to have been seven years old when Catherine married Henry VIII. Related by blood (Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was Catherine’s first cousin), the pair are said to have enjoyed one another’s company during the few occasions on which they met.
Catherine had an extramarital affair
Catherine Howard’s biggest mistake, many have argued, was continuing her affair with Thomas Culpeper after she had married Henry VIII. It is thought that Catherine’s maid – Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, (who had previously testified against her husband, George Boleyn, and her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn) – helped Catherine to meet Culpeper in secret while the king was away from court.
But it was Catherine’s earlier liaisons that ultimately sealed her fate. In the summer of 1541, as Henry’s court embarked upon a royal progress to the north country, “rumours of Catherine’s previous indiscretions continued to haunt her and she was forced to give favours and positions in return for silence,” says Philippa Gregory.
News of Catherine’s indiscretions eventually reached Thomas Cranmer – Archbishop of Canterbury and close friend of Henry VIII. Cranmer was told that Catherine’s music teacher, Henry Mannock, had boasted that he knew Catherine’s “privates from all others by a privy mark”, while Francis Dereham was so familiar with Catherine “afore her marriage to the king that he did lie with her a hundred nights in the year in his doublet and hose abed between the sheets.”
Catherine’s relationship with Francis Dereham, whom she had supposedly called ‘husband’ and had sex with, would have invalidated her marriage to the king, because Catherine and Francis would technically have been married according to the canon law enforced by the church.
Knowing this, Cranmer detailed the allegations in a letter addressed to Henry. It is thought that when the court returned from progress, Cranmer left the letter in Henry’s pew in the Chapel Royal for him to find.
Investigations into Catherine’s past quickly followed: Dereham, who was arrested and tortured, confessed and named Culpeper, who was also arrested and confessed under torture, says Philippa Gregory. Mannock, meanwhile, was released.
Catherine – who always denied a pre-contract of marriage with Dereham – was charged with treason and was exiled to Syon House (formerly Syon Abbey), which is now in West London (then, it was within the parish of Isleworth, in the county of Middlesex). The former lovers found themselves accused of malicious intent under the 1534 Treason Act, “under which anyone could be judged a traitor”, says Josephine Wilkinson. “It was thought Catherine had intended to commit adultery with Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper – so while she was innocent of any actual crime, the terms of the 1534 Treasons Act allowed Henry to condemn her for presumptive treason.”
Both Dereham and Culpeper were tried and, their guilt being predicated on the presumption of Catherine’s, they were condemned to death for treason. Dereham was hung, drawn and quartered, while Culpeper was beheaded. The heads of both men were displayed on pikes on London Bridge.
Catherine, meanwhile, would not face trial, but instead would be “condemned to death by an Act of Attainder, signed by her own husband’s hand,” says Wilkinson. Catherine was beheaded at the Tower of London at 9am on Monday 13 February 1542 along with Lady Jane Rochford. Catherine had been queen for just 18 months.
Catherine Howard may have been just 17 when she was executed
“Received opinion – inspired by the guesswork of the French ambassador Charles de Marillac – has it that [Catherine] was born in 1521, and so was 21 when she went to the block,” says Josephine Wilkinson.
“While it isn’t possible to pinpoint Catherine’s exact age, the wills of two of her relatives place her year of birth between 1523 and 1527, suggesting that she was significantly younger than 21. The Spanish Chronicle goes further, asserting that Catherine was born in 1525, which would have made her no more than 17 when she died.”
Catherine Howard is buried in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula at the Tower of London.
Catherine’s ghost is said to haunt Hampton Court Palace
When Catherine Howard was arrested at Hampton Court Palace in November 1541, it is thought she broke free from her guards and ran, screaming, down the corridor to the private Chapel Royal, where Henry was believed to be at Mass. “She screamed to the king for mercy, to no avail,” says the Historic Royal Palaces website.
Today it is said that Catherine’s ghost can be seen – and heard – running and screaming along what is now known as the ‘Haunted Gallery’. The palace’s chief curator, Lucy Worsley, says: “I have never see the ‘ghost’, but there genuinely is one peculiar spot at the turn in the gallery where, with no obvious explanation, you can feel the temperature drop.”
Emma Mason is the Digital Editor at HistoryExtra.com
To find out more about Henry VIII and his six wives, click here.