Catherine Howard: The death of innocence

When Henry VIII's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, went to the block at a pitifully young age, she did so not because of her own crimes, argues Josephine Wilkinson, but the failings of older men

A portrait of Catherine Howard. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On the evening of Sunday 12 February 1542, Catherine Howard, queen of England, was told to prepare her soul, for she was to be put to death the following morning. She asked for the block to be brought to her room, saying that “she wanted to know how she was to place her head on it”. Then, having “tried and placed her head on it by way of experiment”, she made her confession. There was nothing to do now except wait as the last hours of her life passed away.

It was still dark when Catherine arose the following morning. Her ladies helped her to dress in a black velvet gown, a French hood, gloves and a furred mantle – it was almost as though this were just any other day. Then the constable of the Tower came and escorted her across the short distance from the queen’s lodgings to the scaffold.

Catherine addressed the crowd who had come to watch her die. She did not protest her innocence, but accepted the verdict of the law. When her ladies had removed her mantle and hood, she knelt in the straw and placed herself on the block that was now so familiar to her. The headsman struck off her head with a single stroke of the axe. Catherine Howard, the fifth wife and queen of Henry VIII, was dead. She was possibly as young as 17.

Catherine was the youngest of Henry’s wives and her reign had been one of the shortest. That she had become queen at all was remarkable. The daughter of a younger brother of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Catherine had few prospects. The best she could hope for was a good marriage with a minor nobleman and a life of domesticity – and she was placed into the household of her step-grandmother, Agnes, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk to be educated with this end in view.

Yet this new position was to prove a poisoned chalice, for, while living with the duchess, Catherine was sexually exploited by two men of the household. The first, Henry Mannock, was her music teacher; the second was the duchess’s gentleman usher, Francis Dereham. Both men took advantage of their position of authority in the household – and Catherine had no means of defending herself.

Redemption seemingly arrived when Catherine was selected to be a maiden of honour to Henry VIII’s new queen, Anne of Cleves. While at court she got to know a cousin, Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber. They quickly became firm friends, and gossip had it that they were to be married. However, Catherine was never to become Mrs Culpeper, for when King Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves broke down, he fell head over heels with her new maiden of honour. Within a matter of weeks – in what was a truly spectacular rise from obscurity to the seat of power – Catherine Howard had become his fifth queen.

Extended honeymoon

Henry adored Catherine, who restored to him the youth and vitality he thought he’d lost. After an extended honeymoon they settled into married life and Catherine showed every sign of becoming a good queen. But her past was about to catch up with her.

In the summer of 1541, the court embarked upon a royal progress to the north country. While they were away a courtier, John Lascelles, took the opportunity of some free time to visit his sister Mary. She had once worked for Duchess Agnes, and Lascelles suggested she apply for a place on Catherine’s staff. Mary, however, was unenthusiastic. She remembered Catherine’s earlier sexual experiences with Henry Mannock and Francis Dereham, but blamed the young girl for what had happened. She concluded that Catherine was “light both in living and conditions”. When asked to elaborate, Mary spoke of Mannock, who had boasted that he knew Catherine’s “privates from all others by a privy mark”, and Dereham, who 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”.

The shocked Lascelles had no choice but to reveal what he had learned – not to do so would leave him open to charges of misprision of treason, which meant imprisonment and forfeiture of his property. He told Archbishop Cranmer, who set down the facts in a letter. When the court returned from progress, Cranmer left the letter in Henry’s pew for him to find.

At first Henry was incredulous, but he was obliged to investigate the claims. He ordered those involved to be interrogated – and so the whole story of Catherine’s past came out.

Their “naughty life”

Henry’s grief that Catherine had not been pure when she came to him was made worse when he discovered that she might never really have been his wife. When Dereham seduced her, he asked her to call him husband, while he called her wife. Catherine agreed and, since their relationship had clearly been consummated, they were technically married according to canon law. Then it was noted that, during the progress, Dereham had asked Catherine for employment and she had given him a position in her household. His job granted him access to her chamber, and this was now made to look as though the two had contrived to continue their “former naughty life”.

Details of Catherine’s pre-contract with Dereham – which could have served as her defence – were suppressed. Catherine persistently denied it had ever existed because, as she explained, “all that Dereham did unto her, was importunate [persistent] forcement, and, in a manner, violence, rather than of her free consent and will”. And because she had not consented, she thought that any contract or marriage between them was invalid.

Before this point could be debated, another factor emerged which superseded everything. Under intense interrogation, and possibly torture, Dereham blurted out that he and Catherine had not continued their relationship because he had been replaced in her affections by Thomas Culpeper.

Blind youth

Culpeper tried to exonerate himself by blaming Catherine and Jane Lady Rochford, her chief lady in waiting. He claimed Lady Rochford had “provoked him much to love the queen”, adding that “she said also to him how much the queen loved him by which means he was tricked and brought into the snare which blind youth hath no grace to foresee”.

Culpeper added that Catherine had given him gifts and they had met secretly at night during the progress on several occasions.

Though it soon became obvious that his friendship with Catherine “had not passed beyond words”, his closing remark would seal the fate of them both: “He intended and meant to do ill with the queen and that in like wise, the queen so minded to do with him.” This brought them within the range of the 1534 Treason Act, under which anyone could be judged a traitor. It was immaterial whether or not Catherine and Culpeper had actually had sex because malicious intent was enough – and when it came to the safety of the king and the succession, anything could be deemed malicious.

Everyone who had lived at the duchess’s house was interrogated about Catherine’s past and their stories agreed. Lady Rochford was questioned about Catherine’s relationship with Culpeper. She confirmed that they had met several times, adding that she thought “Culpeper hath known the queen carnally considering all things that this deponent hath heard and seen between them”. But she also asserted that Catherine and Culpeper had “talked so secretly that she heard not their conversations” and that she was “never the privier” about what went on between them.

Catherine, too, had said that Lady Rochford “would many times, being ever by, sit somewhat far off or turn her back and she [Catherine] would say to her: ‘For God’s sake madam even near us.’”

Lady Jane and the other deponents were simply telling the interrogators what they wanted to hear. In the end, it did not matter – the queen’s fate was already sealed. Catherine’s household was broken up, while she was removed as queen and exiled to Syon House with only a small staff to attend her.

Shortly afterwards Culpeper and Dereham were tried and, their guilt being predicated on the presumption of Catherine’s, they were condemned to death for treason. Those who had known Catherine in her youth were found guilty of misprision. Catherine would not face trial, but instead would be condemned to death by an Act of Attainder, signed by her own husband’s hand.

Queen Catherine Howard went to the scaffold because it was thought she had intended to commit adultery with Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper. In other words, though she was innocent of any actual crime, the terms of the 1534 Treasons Act allowed Henry to condemn her for presumptive treason. While he could have annulled their marriage – on the grounds that Catherine had really been Dereham’s wife – he chose not to. Instead, angry that Catherine had not been of “pure and honest condition” when he married her, and that he had been “deceived concerning her”, he wanted to destroy the “jewel for womanhood”, whom he had once loved so dearly.

How old was Catherine when she died?

Catherine Howard’s death is made all the more tragic by the fact that she was younger than most historians have traditionally had us believe. Received opinion – inspired by the guesswork of the French ambassador Charles de Marillac – has it that she was born in 1521, and so was 21 when she went to the block. 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.

A birthdate of 1525 is consistent with Catherine’s career as a maiden of honour. She did not serve Anne Boleyn when Anne became queen in 1533 because she was too young. The age requirement for the position of maiden was at least 12 years but, if she was born in 1525, Catherine would only have been eight in 1533.

In 1536, Catherine received music lessons, which were intended to “polish” her in readiness to join Queen Anne’s court. Sadly, by the time Catherine was old enough to serve at court, Anne was dead. Catherine was still too young to serve Jane Seymour (who became queen in 1536), and so had to wait until Anne of Cleves married Henry before she could take her place at court. The new queen’s maidens were selected in late 1539, by which time – assuming the Spanish Chronicle was correct – Catherine was 14.

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Josephine Wilkinson is an academic historian who specialises in a wide range of periods, including 16th-century England