On Sunday 12th February 1542, Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, was informed that she should “dispose her soul and prepare for death, for she was to be beheaded next day”.

Clergyman Dr John White, later Bishop of Lincoln then Winchester, visited Catherine to hear her last confession. Catherine “confessed the miscarriages of her former life, before the King married her”, i.e. her behaviour while she was in her step-grandmother’s household and her relationship with Francis Dereham, “but stood absolutely to her denial as to any thing after that.” Gilbert Burnet records in his “The History of the Reformation of the Church of England”:

“she took God and his angels to be her witnesses, upon the salvation of her soul, that she was guiltless of that act of defiling her Sovereign’s bed, for which she was condemned.”

Catherine was adamant that she had been faithful to her husband, the king.

Then, according to Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, she prepared for her execution by requesting the block:

“In the same evening she asked to see the block, pretending that she wanted to know how she was to place her head on it. This was granted, and the block being brought in, she herself tried and placed her head on it by way of experiment.”

It is hard to imagine how it must have felt knowing that you had just hours to live and that your end would be a brutal and public one.

Notes and Sources

  • Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 6 Part 1, 232, Eustace Chapuys to the Emperor.
  • Burnet, Gilbert (1643-1715), ed. Pocock, Nicholas (1814-1897) The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, Volume 1, Clarendon Press, 1865, p. 496.
  • Russell, Gareth (2017) Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII, William Collins.

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13 thoughts on “12 February 1542 – Catherine Howard prepares for her execution”
  1. I know many think it odd that she wanted the block brought to her but I do not. She wanted to be seen in her last moments as brave. She wanted to know what was expected of her. Being as young as she was she may not have ever witnessed an execution and you don’t know how you will react when you see the block and the headsman for the first time. And especially if they are waiting for you.

    1. I agree, years ago I read that she requested this and I felt that had I been in her situation, I may well have done the same, she knew her death was to be a public one and she wanted it to be as proper as it could, bless her to be told she was to die the next day just must have been awful, she was no hardened man but a young woman whose only crime was to have been somewhat immoral in her youth and exceedingly foolish after she married the King, was she abused when young it’s hard to say, some historians have debated this but certainly she had not the proper upbringing a Howard girl should have, really her upbringing was more like a poor country wench or maybe even a gypsy, running wild and free, she had had the training of running a great household and had been educated in reading and writing, so she had not been neglected there, it was the moral side that had let her down, by sharing a dormitory with so many young women who were pretty free in their outlook she picked up their habits, which was to be expected, that was not her fault she should have had a room of her own, the old duchess was unaware such behaviour was going on, there was Manox then Dereham, did Manox exploit the situation it’s hard to say, certainly Catherine liked men and was gay and pleasure loving, she had grown up in their company and quite possibly the meetings with Culpeper at night brought back happy memories of Halycon days spent with the women and men in the dormitory at her grandmother’s house, munching on fruit and sweet meats and drinking wine, when she came to court which was her ambition she revelled in the life there, she was in service to Anne Of Cleves yet caught the eye of the King, did she want to marry him we do not know, she must initially have been flattered like her tragic cousin before her, here was the King paying court to her and showering her with gifts, yet I doubt she found him attractive, he was pretty large and walked with a limp, growing bald yet he never saw the real man when he looked in the mirror, but the love God he once was, Catherine must have been aghast when he asked her to marry him, her family thought it a great honour and a chance for the Howard’s fortunes to rise, she was schooled in what to say to him how to act etc, had they known of her nightly sojourns with Culpeper after she was married they would have been shocked and fearful for her position and theirs, had her uncle known he would have berated her quite harshly and told her to end it, his name only came into the equation after Dereham a right idiot if ever there was, came to court and quite possibly through blackmail gained a post in her household, an arrogant childish man who was openly rude to Catherine on several occasions, probably because she refused to have anything to do with him, he was arrested and interrogated and then out of jealousy mentioned his name, nothing could save Catherine, she had written him a note the contents which can be taken two ways, but it was enough to set her on the road to doom, her confession is poignant because she accepted that she had not acted virtuously in her youth yet swore that she had never been unfaithful to Henry, but it was for her to prove that she had been faithful, this she could not do, the very gravity of her situation lay in the secret meetings between her and the young man in Henrys household, she could swear that all they had done was talk but she could not prove otherwise, today people would smirk at each other if two young people met at secret at night and said they had been discussing their exam results, really? They could do that at Macdonalds, why at night, it was the same in Catherines day, she could say it was impossible to talk during the day because as queen she had other duties to perform but really she was asking the impossible here, when her past came out her meetings innocent though they could have been then looked more sinister, if she could act like that when she was in her grandmother’s house whose to say she had not intended to carry on likewise, a leopard cannot change his spots, Culpeper another idiot like Dereham then really put his foot in it by saying they both intended to go further, which meant they were guilty of treason why he said that we will never know unless he fancied the thought of dying, he condemned both himself and the queen, it also meant that there must have been sexual contact between them, nothing could save Catherine now the King was beside himself with rage, Catherine in her last moments showed courage but she was very weak to, no doubt the sleepless nights the horror of her impending death made her appear calm but it was probably sheer exhaustion to, in just six years England had seen two queens beheaded, after her sad death Lady Rochford was also beheaded her crime was for merely obeying her mistress, this act I feel was not justified but she was seen as aiding the queen in her wicked ways, RIP Queen Catherine and lady Jane Rochford.

  2. Hi Christine – you say that Lady Rochford, “was also beheaded her crime was for merely obeying her mistress, this act I feel was not justified but she was seen as aiding the queen in her wicked ways.”
    In the 20th c, Eichmann threw down the gauntlet of culpability, claiming he had to obey orders, without question.” So today we, perhaps, have been asked to examine this difficult question of blame and guilt and seem to (though I am no legal expert here) conclude, that this IS A DEFENCE, in so far as the subject knew or should have known, the illegality of the order or unless the order was manifestly illegal.” see the conditional liability approach.
    However, we are not the Tudors and this isn’t Tudor law. So I wonder if anyone of you knows how it was back then – for surely Lady Rochford knew better than most, personally,
    the dangers apparent and inherent in her actions. Even in her basic loyalty to, love for, her young queen, Lady Jane failed. What do you think? Difficult subject.

    1. It is very difficult and in a sense Jane was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, she was bound by loyalty and obedience to her mistress yet King Henry was the master and Janes duty should have been to inform his ministers of the queens wrongdoing, they then would have informed the King, Cranmer himself did that by leaving a note in the chapel for him to read, yet that would have been a terrifying ordeal for Jane to bring the queens indescretions to light and by doing so, effectively betraying her mistress, understandably she did not want to be the one to do that, I think she hoped that both Catherine and Culpeper would get bored with each other, the tip toeing about at night, the risks it entailed and realise it wasnt worth it, then life would go back to normal, there is one source that claims Catherine tried to end it and as a result, Culpeper blackmailed her into seeing him, we will never know all the facts of the case as we cannot know what Catherine really thought or felt about Culpeper, what we do know is that Culpeper was attracted to her, possibly the fact that she was his queen added zest to the situation, however what happened is that both the queen and Jane started blaming the other, deeply frightened and becoming increasingly hysterical by the consequences of their actions, their only concern was for themselves, here was an eighteen year old immature girl and one of middle age, who was to blame? Jane was not responsible for her mistresse’s actions and even if she was guilty of coercion it was upto the queen who she decided to meet, Jane could not have forced her, she was put in a very difficult situation and she must have found it very distressing, it was a dreadful time with Catherine going hysterical and Cranmer not knowing what to say to her and Jane having a nervous collapse, all the Howard’s were rounded up and interrogated, the whole court must have been a hotbed of frightened whispers and gloom, the spectre of the axe was ever prevalent, the duchess was questioned an old lady who didn’t need the worry and stress at her time of life, and she must have been haunted by Lady Margaret Pole, an elderly woman like herself whom the King had no qualms in sending to the bloke, what was more terrifying was that they all knew how angry the King was and they all knew where that anger could lead, there was no pacifying him, Jane was sent to live in a courtiers house to be nursed back to health, there in the peace and quiet with good food and wine she could rest and sew and pray, the atmosphere seemed to have done her mental health good for she it was observed appeared quite calm afterwards, and Catherine had composed herself enough to try to come to terms with her loss of status as Henrys wife and her imprisonment, and finally when she was informed she was to die.

  3. Katherine, no matter what had gone before or not, was determined to die without fear and with dignity. It was rare, but even beheading could be botched and need more than one stroke. I heard on some documentary in which they were talking about the badly botched and horrible beheading of James, Duke of Monmouth that his executioner, Ketch, was a hangman and had only done one previous beheading which was also botched. The axe is also badly designed and is meant for wood, not heads. They didn’t use a special axe and the one on display in the Tower is a fake. It is what a visitor expected to see. In fact the expert went on to say, most of them were hangmen because the normal execution for treason was hanging, drawing and quartering. It was very rare that a specialist was found. In the case of Anne Boleyn a specialist came from France with a sword as an act of mercy, but Jane, Lady Rochford and Katherine Howard had to face the less certain axe.

    We must consider Katherine’s youth. As with Jane Grey in the future, Katherine was young, no more than nineteen. (JG was about 17) Some historians believe Katherine was only seventeen at the most, but I believe she was nineteen. Not that it makes much difference, she was still very young and coming from a sheltered background, her exposure to executions was probably limited. It is hardly likely that she was taken to a public execution, although many children did go for a day out with their parents as these events were the entertainment of the mob. Katherine and Jane would be executed in relative privacy within the walls of the Tower, but several people would still be there. Most of the Council would have to go as official witnesses, invited leading citizens would there and of course, clergy. Katherine was terrified, she didn’t want to show this, wanted to be composed and get it right, with a final dignity. It seems macabre and it is not how I would have spent my final night on earth, but Katherine was merely trying to find some inner strength and this was her way to prepare for the morning. I believe she found it.

    1. I heard about Monmouth’s botched execution too. I also heard that Ketch wrote an account of the incident to try and explain what happened and he blamed the victim for moving too much! He was a real piece of work.

      1. Boy, if you want to talk about botched executions, you need go no further than that of Lady Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Refused to lay her head on the block saying that the block was for traitors and she was no traitor, she set off running with the young executioner in pursuit, hacking away until she was finally and bloodily dispatched. She has been beatified by the Catholic Church, her son being the Archbishop of Canterbury who denied Henry VIII his divorce fron Catherine of Aragon.

    2. Yes beheading was the death preserved for the nobility and as we have seen in Henrys case, his two queens, it was considered the most merciful death, hanging was for those of the lower orders, but the dreadful hanging drawing and quartering was for those foolish souls who had committed treason, noble or not, beheading was not however as Bq states always a quick death because it did depend on the skill of the headsman, Cromwell himself had a botched execution and Mary Queen Of Scots, the headsman missed her neck or just nicked it I read and she was heard to whisper ‘sweet Jesus’, it took three strokes to release the poor neck from the body, although of course mercifully she was dead by then, Anne Boleyn was extremely lucky she had an expert swordsman, it was no doubt her husband’s way of apologising to her for having to kill her, ‘I know your innocent Nan but do not fear iv got the swordsman from France for you’, the pain she would have felt was fierce but gone in a second, but for those who had to face the headsman the anxiety they felt was very real for it was normal for executions to go wrong, look at Lady Margaret Poles, there are differing accounts of her sad end, one says she refused to lay her head on the block saying she was no traitor, the headsman then chased her round the scaffold and swung at his axe so she was hideously injured, the other account says she had an inexperienced lad who was overcome at the thought of having to execute such a lady of high blood and hopelessly botched it, it was a day out and in fact executions were considered entertainment for centuries after, but I think you had to be pretty tough to witness one and not be moved afterwards, young Henry Fitzroy attended Anne Boleyns with the Duke Of Suffolk but he fainted with the horror of it all, it was said looking on Annes face unnerved the swordsman, Lady Jane Greys head was despatched with one stroke and it was observed the torrent of blood that spouted from her neck was excessive for so slight a body, my book 18th c London, it was said at her family home in Bradgate the gardeners felled the oaks in silent tribute, the condemned would wear their finery as if going to their wedding, there would be cheering as well as booing and hissing from the crowds, souvenirs would be sold with the muffin man and the gingerbread man with his wares, there is one account where one man was about to be hanged and he pulled the executioner down with him, they were both swinging around together in space which does sound comical, it was the French who really came up trumps with that marvellous invention the gillutine,( not sure iv spelt it right) it cut the head off with one clean swipe, the hangings were awful to, with the condemned slowly choking to death which could take upto five to ten minutes, the invention of the trapdoor which severed the spinal cord with one pull of the lever meant that hangings became more humane, poor Catherine and Jane must have just prayed that their end would be quick, so much life and exuberance cut short, a young queen who danced so gaily and laughed so merrily amongst the colourful atmosphere of the court, once sparkling in jewels and feasting at the banquet now walked sombrely to her death, a slight little figure in dark hands clasped in prayer all merriment gone on a misty February morning, I think the scene afterwards where their bodies were put in a cart and trundled over to the little church of St.Peter covered in cloth epitomises the horror of those days, Catherine died first due to her high office then her lady in waiting, Lady Jane Viscountess Rochford was next, she who had witnessed the rise and fall of her husband’s family now was laid to rest near her husband and sister in law for eternity, we do not not know how old Jane was when she died, maybe she had been around her husband’s age which would make her about thirty eight at the time of her execution, at her death it was said she was calm and was able to make the usual speech, maybe she was unaware of what was really happening as she had recently suffered from a mental aberration, the usual myths about what she said have arose since then, that she believed she was dying as a penance for making a false accusation about Queen Anne and Catherine too is said to have uttered the words she died a queen but she would rather die the wife of Culpeper, to insult her husband the King on the scaffold is one thing Catherine never did, no condemned person ever dared do such a thing, it meant dire consequences for their family and Culpeper had died a traitor, no doubt it arose out of a wish to romantise her death, all condemned people said the same thing more or less, they deserved to die they wished the people to pray for them etc, to do so questioned the morality and judgement of the King, the executions over the crowd dispersed and the scaffold was scrubbed clean of the blood, the mood of the court was sombre and yet life had to go on, Henry it was noted was more depressed and sullen and bad tempered then ever, he ate more and drank more and became even fatter, it would be a year before he decided he would take another wife.

      1. Made a mistake there I meant in my book 18th c London the condemned would wear their finery, it got mixed up with Jane grey, apologies to those who were confused.

  4. “Just following orders” didn’t work at Nuremberg and it didn’t work in Tudor England. Katherine could have been forgiven for her youth, but Jane had already seen Henry’s murderous rage in action. She was mind-blowingly stupid.

    1. In don’t see why it couldn’t work in Tudor England when you are a servant and your mistress is the queen. A lady-in-waiting’s job was to wait on the queen and do her bidding. We can’t know whether Jane ever advised Catherine not to go ahead or whether she enjoyed helping her mistress, we just don’t have that information.

      1. A lady in waiting served the queen but was no servant, herself being a member of the nobility, her first loyalty was due to the king and if aware of wrongdoing had a duty to report it or she was, herself, guilty of treason.

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