Did Catherine Howard commit adultery?

The fifth wife of King Henry VIII who was executed in 1542 on charges of treason, Catherine (Katherine) Howard’s reputation has long been tied up with ideas of sexual promiscuity and naivety. Conor Byrne reassesses the facts about Henry VIII’s young Tudor queen, exploring the truth of her relationship with courtier Thomas Culpeper and whether she was really guilty of adultery…

Portrait of a young woman believed to be Henry VIII's fifth wife, Catherine Howard. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Catherine Howard is one of Henry VIII’s lesser-known wives. The most common things known about her are, firstly, that she was beheaded; and secondly (unlike Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn) she was allegedly guilty of the charges for which she died.

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This perception of Catherine’s guilt – as the wife who cheated on Henry and paid for it with her life – has dominated modern interpretations of her brief life. When I examined how Catherine has been written about in the years since her execution, what struck me perhaps most of all was the language that has been used by historians to characterise her. In the last half-century she has been described as a “juvenile delinquent”, “a natural tart”, “an empty-headed wanton”, “a whore”, and “stupid and oversexed”. This demonstrates the two dominant perceptions of her in historical writing: that she was stupid and promiscuous.

Portrait of Catherine Howard (1520-1542), 5th wife of Henry VIII, from painting by Hans Holbein the Younger and engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi. She was beheaded after Thomas Cranmer accused her of adultery.  (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Even Catherine’s most outspoken defenders have defined her by her sexuality. Feminist writer Karen Lindsey praised Catherine in a 1996 account for seeking “admiration” from her lovers, for she was “a woman who enjoyed sex” and “listened to her body’s yearnings”. Joanna Denny, whose 2005 biography of Catherine is extremely sympathetic, wrote that Catherine was a “precocious and knowing girl with an attractive figure”, thus explaining how she attracted Henry Manox and Francis Dereham. Antonia Fraser concluded in 1992 that Catherine was “sexually awakened” by the time she married Henry VIII.

However,the fragmentary evidence indicates that it is problematic to interpret Catherine as “a woman who enjoyed sex”, and even more problematic to view her as an adulteress or as “the wife who cheated on Henry VIII”.

It is problematic to view Catherine Howard as an adulteress or as “the wife who cheated on Henry VIII”, writes Conor Byrne. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
It is problematic to view Catherine Howard as an adulteress or as “the wife who cheated on Henry VIII”, writes Conor Byrne. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Born most likely in the second half of 1523, Catherine was placed in the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, between 1531 and 1536. There she was involved in two pre-marital relationships with Manox and Dereham, both of whom were her social inferiors. Henry Manox was instructed to teach Catherine to learn musical instruments, and the two became sexually involved – although both denied having sexual intercourse. Catherine’s testimony proves that she refused to surrender her virginity to the musician, although she did permit him to fondle her secretly, perhaps after being coerced at the age of 13 or so. As a member of the proud and ambitious Howard family, she was undoubtedly aware that marriage to Manox would have been unthinkable.

Likewise, she could never have considered the possibility of marrying Francis Dereham, although he certainly seemed to assume that Catherine actually was his wife, perhaps because he believed that she had consented to his sexual advances in 1538–9. However, contemporaries believed that both parties had to, firstly, consent to sexual relations and secondly to enjoy the experience – that is, both the male and the female partner had to release seed in order for the woman to conceive a child. If she did not conceive after sexual intercourse, it might be assumed that she had not enjoyed the experience. (For this reason, a woman who was raped and subsequently became pregnant was unlikely to be viewed sympathetically by others.)

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When Catherine’s pre-marital past later came to light in 1541, she denied that she had consented to, or enjoyed Dereham’s sexual advances and for this reason believed that she had never been his lawful wife. The 16th-century church required that both parties freely and voluntarily consent to their marriage. From this perspective, Catherine was, to all intents and purposes, an unmarried woman when she was placed in the household of Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves in 1539. Undoubtedly she had a pre-marital sexual past, but from her perspective it was not necessarily one that she had consented to or welcomed.

Catherine, Henry VIII and Thomas Culpeper

Once placed in the household of Anne of Cleves, Catherine speedily attracted the attention of the amorous king and they married on 28 July 1540, when he was 49 and she was probably 16 or 17. After a relatively successful first few months as queen, in which she effectively adopted the role of intercessor on a number of occasions and also established amicable relations with Henry’s family, Catherine became involved in a secret relationship with Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber.

Culpeper had an undesirable reputation as a rapist and possible murderer, although it is uncertain whether allegations of his criminal past related to himself or to his older brother – confusingly also named Thomas – or whether these allegations were invented. Catherine and Culpeper met on a handful of occasions, beginning in April 1541 and then during the court’s progress to the north of England between June and October of that same year.

This portrait of Anne of Cleves, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1539, delighted Henry VIII. Unfortunately, the king was far less impressed with his new bride when he met her in the flesh. (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

It is typically assumed that they were involved in a sexual relationship, or that they were at least in love – but actually very little is known about the nature of their conversations during the spring and summer of 1541. It is difficult to characterise their meetings with each other, but very little evidence supports the popular assumption that theirs was a passionate love affair, as depicted in the television series The Tudors. Catherine’s attitude to Culpeper was essentially dismissive, as when, for example, she instructed Lady Rochford (who arranged the meetings) to inform Culpeper – described by the queen as “a little sweet fool” – that she would not meet with him again. Previously, she had insisted that Lady Rochford chaperone the meetings by standing close by.

An alternative interpretation of their relationship, which places it in a broader dynastic and political context, suggests that Culpeper had learned of Catherine’s pre-marital sexual past. “Unfitting” rumours had circulated a year before, in the summer of 1540, questioning Catherine’s “moral integrity”, and when Dereham arrived at court in the summer of 1541 – and persuaded the queen to grant him a position in her household – he began openly boasting of their former relationship. Dereham’s reckless behaviour endangered both himself and Catherine, especially when he proclaimed that “and he [Henry VIII] were dead, I am sure I might marry her [Catherine]”. Speaking of the king’s death was treason, as defined in the 1534 Treasons Act.

A 19th-century depiction of the first meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In this environment, Culpeper easily could have learned of Catherine’s sexual history before marriage. An ambitious and apparently unscrupulous courtier, he may well have pressured the queen to grant him favours and attention in reward for maintaining silence about her affair with Dereham. Catherine certainly gave him gifts and her letter to him, most likely written in the summer of 1541, repeatedly asks that he will be as he had “promised” her. The letter, which is essentially ambiguous in tone, has very little to recommend it as a love letter, for the ending “yours as long as life endures” was a variation of a standard phrase utilised by other 16th-century correspondents.

Resident ambassadors at court –including the French ambassador Marillac and the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys – documented the queen’s disgrace in late 1541 and early 1542, but their reports do not suggest that Catherine was guilty of adultery. However, it was assumed by Henry’s government that she had intended to commit adultery, while she was also accused of having concealed her pre-marital sexual past from the king. Marillac, for example, noted that Catherine was condemned on the basis of “what she had done with Durans [Dereham] before marriage”, and for her conversations with Culpeper. Interestingly, he did not specify what the queen and Culpeper had discussed in their private meetings – but he did record that Culpeper “had not passed beyond words” (although he may have intended to go further than conversation).

Writing in the following century, John Weever suggested that “neither this Queen Katherine [Howard], nor Queen Anne [Boleyn], were any way guilty of the breach of matrimony, whereof they were accused”. Indeed, Henry VIII “did cut them off upon false suggestions”. Clearly, it remained uncertain in the immediate decades after her death whether Catherine actually was guilty of adultery.

A portrait of Anne Boleyn. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Despite the caution of some early modern authors, including Weever, modern historians have overwhelmingly concluded that Catherine was guilty of adultery during her brief marriage to Henry VIII. Although some early historians such as Agnes Strickland voiced doubts about whether Catherine was an adulteress, only in the last 15 years have more authors questioned whether she really was “the wife who cheated on Henry VIII”. Usually biographers such as David Starkey, who have doubted Catherine’s label as an adulteress, have still maintained that she was in love with Culpeper.

It is time for the still-widespread perception of Catherine as an adulteress to be challenged. No convincing evidence proves without a doubt that she had a sexual relationship with Culpeper, and indeed, much of the evidence cited to prove her love for him does not indicate that she was infatuated or romantically involved with him.

Catherine was sexually involved with both Manox and Dereham, but neither liaison was a love affair and she evidently attempted to distance herself from Dereham, especially when he arrived at court and openly boasted of his former relationship with her. Then, surely to the surprise of her family, Catherine caught the king’s eye in the spring of 1540 and was presented with the glittering prospect of becoming queen of England. With the benefit of hindsight, she should have confessed her pre-marital past to Henry VIII, for she was later condemned for concealing it from him on the advice of her family. The ambitious Culpeper may well have learned of this dubious past and used it to obtain favour from the insecure queen, who was ultimately unable to silence those who knew of her past. Henry VIII never forgave her for keeping her past a secret from him – and it was this alleged deceit on Catherine’s part, and not her supposed adultery with Culpeper, that led to her execution in 1542.

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Conor Byrne is a historian of late medieval and early modern English queenship and the author of Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen (The History Press, 2019).