10 December 1541 – The executions of Culpeper and Dereham at Tyburn

On this day in history, 10th December 1541, Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of King Henry VIII’s privy chamber, and Francis Dereham, secretary to Queen Catherine Howard, were executed for treason at Tyburn.

Both had been found guilty of high treason for their relationships with the queen at their trial on 1st December 1541 and had been sentenced to a full traitor’s death, i.e. being hanged, drawn and quartered. Culpeper was ‘lucky’ in that his sentence was commuted to beheading, but Dereham was “hanged, membered, bowelled, headed, and quartered” , a truly horrific death.

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Picture: Stone marking the site of the Tyburn Tree, i.e. the gallows, on the traffic island at the junction of Edgware Road, Bayswater Road and Oxford Street (Wikipedia).

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10 thoughts on “10 December 1541 – The executions of Culpeper and Dereham at Tyburn”
  1. Reading about Tudor executions is truly harrowing, even if the people were guilty of the crimes they were accused of or not. Hanging, drawing and quartering was nothing short of painful, slow, terrible torture. There was a macabre reasoning behind this terrible form of execution, to remove the heart which turned against the obedience of the King, the head which thought up the evil deed and the entrails so as you cannot breed and pass on this evil and so on. There were many varieties of this death, but in England it dated back to Henry iii who made it the penalty for causing, planning or thinking up the death of the King, presumably with good reason. It was a terrible sight and had to be agonising. The butchery shown on the Tudors was on the mark.

    It was only the mercy of the King to rescind part of the sentence to beheading, although nobles normally faced the lesser sentence, so Thomas Culpepper was lucky and privileged to have his sentence reduced to beheading. He was a favourite of King Henry, had served him on a personal level for years and it appears Henry almost saw him as a lost son. He was also related to Queen Katherine and of higher status than Francis Dereham, but Dereham had offended Henry in a personal way, one which wasn’t his fault, he had known Katherine first, spoiling her for the King. Henry must have seriously hated Dereham because he was Katherine’s lover before she married him, but that doesn’t justify condemning him to a worse death.

  2. The big question is were Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham guilty of adultery and presumption of treason? Culpepper was certainly in the Queen’s apartment at times when she should have long retired to bed, when he should have been on duty in the King’s apartment after his master went to bed, he received gifts from Katherine of a personal nature, he was with her late into the night, he was intimate with her up to the point of sex, exchanging kisses and intimate talk, he had no business in her apartment unless sent by the King, they met in odd sought out places like naughty schoolchildren, their was a fondness and they admitted that they intended to go further. They admitted to everything but a sexual relationship and there is no solid evidence of one. Did they conspire together? Did Katherine have an eye on him as a potential future husband after Henry died or was she toying with him? She probably didn’t desire a long term relationship but she was fascinated by his attention. She was flattered. I doubt that it was a love affair, even if Katherine does pine for him at one point, possibly as he had been absent due to illness for some time. What feelings Culpepper and the young Queen had can only be speculated at because they didn’t leave us any further evidence to go on. It was a reckless and dangerous relationship, one on which Katherine should never have embarked, no matter how old she was. She knew that she was the Queen and she knew who she was married to. Even if the final few visits she was taken with Thomas Culpepper, she should have stopped. Jane Rochford was blamed for being the main procurator of this affair, finding places to meet and bringing him to the Queen or to her room, but it was most likely Katherine who asked her to arrange for him, after seeing him once or twice. Jane would have no choice but to either obey or report the Queen and may even have begged her to stop. It was foolish and dangerous and it looked like adultery and treason even if no sexual contact happened.

    Francis Dereham was a different matter. Like Katherine Howard, he had lived in her grandmother’s household. He had taken a shine to Katherine in her mid teens and at midnight parties in the maiden dorm, with strawberries and wine, they had on a few occasions had sexual encounters. They had an affair of possibly a few months, although it has been speculated that it was longer. They exchanged gifts, courted and called each other husband and wife. Francis saw more in the relationship than Katherine and he intended to claim her again on his return from Ireland, which is when according to Katherine the relationship ended. When he came back Katherine had come to court and was being courted by Henry.

    Francis followed Katherine to court while the court was on progress and arrived with a letter of recommendation from the Dowager Duchess to seek employment in her household. Katherine appeared to be reluctant and some historians believe that he may have bribed her over his knowledge of her past, not necessarily with money but service. She found him a place, although his role is vague. He was not her Secretary, as she already had two female Secretaries. He did make some effort to wind his way into her affections but Katherine again put him off and wasn’t interested. According to Dereham the reason she didn’t want to resume her relationship with Dereham was because he had been replaced by Culpepper.

    Francis Dereham’s behaviour in her household was terrible. He boasted about how he knew Katherine and her life and was crude and insulting, cursed in the presence of her ladies, talked about his knowledge of Katherine and insulted her. He had a fight with another gentleman, who told him to stop insulting the Queen and he almost gave her away. It was under interrogation that he raised the question of Thomas Culpepper and he also stated that he regarded Katherine as his intended. Katherine denied any contract. This was a flaw because it could have saved her life. However, it is unlikely that he and Katherine had any relationship after her marriage to the King.

    Henry and his Council didn’t accept Dereham’s version and believed he intended to carry on an affair with Katherine which is why he followed her to court. He was really executed because he had been Katherine’s lover before she married Henry and so spoilt her life with the King and the bliss Henry claimed to have found with his young wife. It was assumed that Katherine and Dereham had also plotted to bring down the King and to place any child from their union on the throne. This was a normal presumption because if the Queen took a lover and became pregnant she could pass the child of as a royal heir which was treason if they came to the throne as a legitimate child. The same presumption was made of Katherine and Thomas Culpepper, that they had consented to have sex, that they intended to have an adulterous relationship and commit treason by plotting the King’s death. The admission by Culpepper that he did indeed intend to go further if he was able, didn’t help his cause.

    Did these three people deserve to die? Well, according to the law, yes, because that was the penalty for treason and conspiracy to kill the King, but this case is complicated by he said she said. Katherine and Culpepper blamed each other and Jane Rochford who had a mental breakdown. There is little evidence which confirmed accusations of adultery and Dereham, cad as he was, may only have been guilty of knowing Katherine intimately before marriage. Their relationship was over long before Katherine married the King. If Culpepper and Katherine did commit adultery, as far as I know this was still not a crime. However, if a case could be made for conspiracy and plotting against Henry, then the charge is treason. Of they intended to do the former, it is presumption of treason, based on their intentions and still punishable by death. By our standards and based on the assessment of the evidence then no, they didn’t deserve this terrible end but they were judged guilty because they looked guilty and just how do you explain a man in your apartment all night to your husband? Once Culpepper came up as a suspect in reality he didn’t stand a chance and the Queen was not even accorded a trial. When the two men were found guilty, Katherine was also by extension. She and Jane Rochford were declared guilty of leading a base life and procurement of the men and so on in an Act of Attainment before Parliament in January 1542.

    Could the King spare Katherine Howard? At first this is what he intended but then she wasn’t accused of adultery but it became clear that he was too hurt and insulted and humiliated by Katherine and a young man he had trusted to let her go. Henry didn’t want another embarrassing public trial like he had with Anne Boleyn and he chose to have the legal process of charges being presented to Parliament and then a declaration of guilt instead. Parliament sent the Bill back, asking for the Queen to come and address them on the charges or that the council may speak to her instead. Henry agreed but changed his mind and they addressed Katherine on the morning of her arrest to inform her of the charges against her. An argument for leniency can be made due to her age, also because of the dubious legality of her marriage, but it was unlikely and unrealistic that Henry could spare her. If there was enough “evidence” or testimony to make a good case then it is very likely that Henry believed her guilty. I know some people will argue that he didn’t need to have Katherine executed and that is true, imprisonment or banishment or divorce were possible but the most realistic outcome was going to be her execution.

  3. One thing I want to add separately is the oft pointed out part of her testimony, for which we have to devise much of her early life and relationship with Dereham. Out of fear, out of desperation or out of anxiety to tell the truth, Katherine made what we would today call an outcry statement. She began to describe in detail her sexual encounters with Francis, which are described as consensual and regular, but then she says she was “constrained to it” and he “procured her to his devious purpose” . A statement today would mean the end of any such interrogation of the woman and the man would be brought in and interrogated about her accusations. In the sixteenth century this of course was not how people saw things. Accusations of rape were taken seriously and rape had nasty consequences, but there was always the question of had the woman done anything to cause or stop the rape. In the case of Katherine she was living in a locked dormatory and the girls let the men in. This put their behaviour in a poor light as they were kept separate to guard their virtue. The girls and young men then had parties and these sexual encounters went on afterwards. The household was strictly regulated and supervision did exist. The question would be if Dereham forced Katherine, did she report him? Unfortunately for Katherine the answer to this would be no and that would have placed her accusations in the light of her not guarding her own virtue. Women and girls had to be virtuous and any sexual contact before marriage was seen as a grave sin and the female partner as a temptress. It was her duty to scream if a man tried anything and to report such things. It was her duty to take every precaution not to be alone and in a situation that Katherine described. For this reason Cranmer who was teasing this confession out of Katherine may have nodded with feigned sympathy but it is obvious that he didn’t believe her.

    The problem with her accusations are that they are contradictory and not born out by the rest of the confession and other testimony. The other women in her dormitory were questioned and they testified to consensual and noisy sex, which suggests enjoyment. Nobody supported any suggestions of rape or procurement and it appears it was a rather remarked upon relationship. Katherine also described a courtship with gifts and returned affection. In fact both Katherine and Dereham were behaving like a common law married couple. The confession of Katherine was also badly contradicted by Dereham who was believed.

    Should we believe Katherine or be suspicious of her motivation now to try and save herself? Katherine was naturally frightened because Cranmer had told her to answer as if she would on the Day of Judgement and because she now realised that she had been found out and mist answer to her husband, the King. She must have known Henry had dealt harshly with her cousin, Anne Boleyn, who was tried and beheaded on what we know as trumped up charges and that he had a reputation for terrible retribution, even if he had been a good husband to her. She had obviously been encouraged to hide her past relationship and had hoped it would never surface but now faced the real consequences that it had. Cranmer found her in such terror that he had to assure her of mercy and leave her to recover before he could speak with her. Gradually we have her testimony.

    Did Katherine say she was raped out of fear of those consequences or was she being truthful as she feared for her soul? We have no way of knowing for certain but Katherine may have thought there was some truth in what she said or she may have acted to gain sympathy. Whatever her motivation, her testimony simply does not stand up to scrutiny and the rest of her confession is completely different. It was a common belief that anything cried out in a moment of extreme stress, such as under torture, were from the heart and so truthful, which is why confession under torture was accepted as true. It was, of course even better if such a confession was achieved voluntarily. Katherine made her outcry voluntarily but also after some mental trauma. Henry was distracted at this time because he had moved from the palace but he was actually calm and determined to investigate thoroughly before acting. Nobody knew about Culpepper. He was inclined to mercy as everything was unclear and had happened before marriage. He actually didn’t believe the story told to him until Katherine admitted everything. Cranner could offer mercy but he also wanted the truth. Was her accusation part of the mind game being played out and was she manipulating Cranmer having been found wanting as a Queen and a woman in order gain his pity? We really don’t know but what is certain is Cranmer was no fool and he was used to interrogation and getting the truth, so he was not persuaded to believe her. Nor did he believe that she didn’t consider the promise between herself and Dereham a contract, again because he said it first and with conviction. A statement which could havd saved her Katherine laughed at, probably because she saw Dereham as a passing fancy. Anyway, her rape accusations were not believed and personally I don’t accept them because Katherine was capable of manipulation and the rest of her testimony does not support her claim. I believe she found herself in a puppy love relationship with a mature man who flattered her and made her feel special. The sexual side of the relationship was described as consensual and they became lovers who exchanged gifts and promised to be husband and wife, which in canon law made them married but Katherine knew she had a bigger destiny, as a lady frim a grand old family and couldn’t marry him. When he left for Ireland Katherine moved on, Dereham didn’t and her marriage to Henry meant a break from her past. Now that past came to life and Katherine and Dereham were in a right royal pickle.

    Francis Dereham got out of his pickle by pushing the blame onto Katherine and he insisted on their relationship being serious, a contract existed and that he had hoped for more from Katherine. He was, however, questioned further and mentioned he had not followed her to start up his relationship again because he had been replaced by another, Thomas Culpepper, the King’s intimate man from the privy chamber. He was questioned several times and may have been tortured, which led to further investigation and Katherine and her ladies and Jane Rochford and Culpepper were now asked about events after their marriage.

    The testimony of several other girls had supported the claim that his relationship with Katherine was an active one and this completely dismissed any accusations of rape. Even today, no jury today would agree with a rape claim with everyone else saying it was to the contrary or if the woman continued that relationship afterwards. Katherine could have ended her relationship but she didn’t and continued to accept gifts and to welcome him at night with wine and strawberries. On this basis I have to conclude their relationship was an affectionate, consensual love affair. I don’t believe Katherine was constrained in any way and was making an outcry out of fear and desperation. She was also foolish not to grab the get out of jail card dangling in front of her and go along with the contract idea. This may be because she was afraid further for Dereham or because she despised him now after his terrible behaviour. It showed her to be immature. Another reason may be that she hoped for reconciliation with the King. After all, Henry was reaching out at this stage with mercy. Throwing Dereham to the wolves might even see her restored to Queen, whereas agreement of a pre contract would see her marriage annulled and her sent home in disgrace. Things only went downhill when Culpepper was mentioned.

  4. IMO, what happened to Dereham reveals why Mark Smeaton both confessed and never retracted it, even though he was seen walking normally toward his execution (which would have been impossible if he had been racked). As a lowborn commoner, he would have faced the same horrific death as Dereham, — I think that he got beheaded as a “reward” for his confession, and was too afraid of losing this “privilege” to retract.

    1. Yes, I think the same. People often don’t realise the true horrors of being hanged, drawn and quartered and can’t see the difference between being executed by beheading and by that method. Yes, Mark was going to die either way, but he could die quickly or he could die slowly and painfully. It was certainly an incentive.

      1. l completely agree. 24 hours of brow beating from Cromwell and the promise of a quicker death made poor Mark Smeaton say what lies he put into his head and the sheer terror of the full weight of the law falling on him and the terrible penalties that he faced if he was found guilty, all made him accept that he had slept with Queen Anne Boleyn and never retract anything. He must have been absolutely terrified, but better the mercy of a beheading than the slow torture of hanging, drawing and quartering. Francis Dereham may have been a bit of a cad, not the nicest person on the planet, thought Katherine was his, boasting about their earlier life, but the most reliable evidence, that she was no longer interested and married, is a strong suggestion that he didn’t have an affair with Katherine as Queen. He was adamant in this and still suffered this terrible fate. It was a no win situation for both of these men, a quick death the only reward if you confessed. We cannot begin to imagine how horrible the full legal penalties for treason were, unless the King or rank granted you the mercy of beheading, which also didn’t always go to plan.

    2. I don’t think I’ve ever read a description of Smeaton’s walk to his execution or your assumption which is very reasonable. Thank you.

      1. I can’t recall where I read the description of Smeaton’s walk. I have read that people who have been racked needed assistance (Anne Askew, for example, had to be carried to the stake); that when assistance was needed, there is some record of it (as when Lady Jane Grey, after being blindfolded, needed someone to guide her to the block); and there is no record of Smeaton needing assistance.

        1. In a few films he was shown being helped but there is no evidence that he needed any that has been recorded. Anne Askew was dreadfully racked, beyond much of what was allowed and quite possibly illegally. The members of the Council were after bigger fish, they wanted the Queen and the Earl of Hereford and his wife. Anne Askew would not implicate anyone, it was all very brutal and personal and went too far, to the point that her joints came out of their sockets. The poor woman was so bad that she had to be carried to her execution in a chair. The chair was fixed to the stake. There is no record of Mark Smeaton being helped or Francis Dereham for that matter but because in at least one of the latter’s interrogations the term extreme is used Greg Walker and Gareth Russell believe he may have been tortured. Torture did not usually include the rack as it began with thumb screws, some other form of restrictions and shackled to the ceiling or uncomfortable device, it went up in degrees and the rack was the last resort. A prisoner was shown the torture things first and many gave information before even being tortured. It was only really disciplined people who didn’t, because it was painful and terrifying and caused physical and mental harm. Guy Fawlkes was tortured for four days, ironically without revealing anything. Other intelligence named his co conspirators. John Gerrard gave nothing away the first time after two weeks of various tortuous periods, then escaped the Tower. He was never recaptured despite efforts in 1605 and 1606 and eventually wrote an account in before his death in 1634, which is still in print. Jane Grey is famous yes, for being blindfolded and not being able to find the block. That must have been frightening in itself. I think it was Father Freckenham who helped her. There are contradictory reports about Anne Boleyn being blindfolded, so perhaps it was optional, but then Anne had the extraordinary mercy of a sword, a royal death, so no block. (I am finding using the term mercy to describe a quicker form of execution very disconcerting but I apologise as I can’t think of another way to put it). The fact that we don’t have any solid information about these three men needing help does not mean they didn’t experience any form of mental or physical distress while being questioned. One far from reliable story had Mark Smeaton with crundle and ropes about his eyes or head by Cromwell’s henchmen, but there is no better source to back this up, although George Constantine, the servant of Sir Henry Norris wrote that he heard it was so. The legal system in England was not observed if he was as torture or extreme restraint was only allowed on a warrant by the King or Constable of the Tower. Now MS wasn’t held at the Tower when he was questioned, but he was officially a dinner guest at Cromwell’s house. Cromwell may have had leave to question MS at his home, but he wouldn’t have had permission to torture him. However, MS was a lower status member of the Royal household. He received clothes as payment for his music and singing, quite normal for this service. Some of these gifts were rich, but again quite normal, but used to trick a frightened man into confession. He may have been deluded about how Anne saw him and fantasy came into his answers. He was questioned for almost 24 hours, over and over, possibly with little to eat or drink. We know now that this leads to the mind playing tricks, the senses act up, you see things, you are receptive to suggestions. Cromwell was good at persuading people to believe what he wanted them to and of making threats. If he added a threat of torture or reward for the confession, then poor MS gave up and confessed, without the need for torture, naming others in the process. Perhaps he was asked: Who is it? Henry Norris, yes, that’s right, isn’t it? You know, names suggested over and over, until he cracked. He doesn’t back down, because he was facing the full horrors of hanging, drawing and quartering. The axe must have seemed a welcome end after all this. I think I may have an article on this somewhere. It looks at the use of torture in these treason trials and how realistic it was. Most conclusions from historical studies show that it’s use is far less than we imagine. You would only use it to get names and in most cases, not even that was necessary. I think FD may have experienced some moderate torture, but spoke before it went to the next stage, but I don’t think MS was tortured.

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