13 February 1542 – Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, What they Did and Didn’t Say

Posted By on February 13, 2014

Jane Boleyn and Catherine HowardToday marks the anniversary of the executions of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, one of Catherine’s ladies. The two women had been found guilty of treason by bill of attainder, Catherine for not having a “pure and honest living before her marriage” and wanting “to return to her old abominable life” with Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper, and Lady Rochford for helping “to bring her vicious and abominable purpose to pass with Thos. Culpeper”.1 They were both sentenced to death.

“The Tudors” series would have us believe that Catherine Howard defied convention and gave a rather spirited scaffold speech:

“I have come here to die. I die a queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper.”2

Now, before anyone tells me that this was just a TV series and so shouldn’t be taken as fact, I’d just like to point out that these words were actually based on a primary source. “The Chronicle of King Henry VIII”, or “The Spanish Chronicle” as it’s more commonly known, has Catherine making the following speech:

“Brothers, by the journey upon which I am bound I have not wronged the King, but it is true that long before the King took me I loved Culpeper, and I wish to God I had done as he wished me, for at the time the King wanted to take me he urged me to say that I was pledged to him. If I had done as he advised me I should not die this death, nor would he. I would rather have him for a husband than be mistress of the world, but sin blinded me and greed of grandeur, and since mine is the fault mine also is the suffering, and my great sorrow is that Culpeper should have to die through me.”

After forgiving the executioner for what he was about to do, Catherine then allegedly said:

“I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper. God have mercy on my soul. Good people, I beg you pray for me.”3

She was then beheaded. The account goes on to record the execution of Thomas Culpeper “the next day” and that shows that we cannot trust this account because in reality Culpeper was already dead, having been executed on 10th December 1541. The Spanish Chronicle also has Thomas Cromwell interrogating Catherine, when he was already dead by this time, and then going on to arrange the marriage of the King with Anne of Cleves after Catherine’s death, which is obviously wrong when Henry VIII was actually married to Anne of Cleves before Catherine.

When it comes to Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, “The Tudors” has a rather mad Jane simply saying:

“I ask forgiveness for my sins from his gracious majesty, from God and from all of you.”

Which is probably close to the truth, although she would have been executed after her mistress rather than before. It is often thought that Jane made a speech in which she confessed to giving a false statement against her husband, George Boleyn, and her sister-in-law, Queen Anne Boleyn. On the scaffold, she is alleged to have said:

“God has permitted me to suffer this shameful doom as punishment for having contributed to my husband’s death. I falsely accused him of loving, in an incestuous manner, his sister, Queen Anne Boleyn> For this I deserve to die. But I am guilty of no other crime.”4

However, as historian John Guy pointed out, this speech is a forgery “the much later work of Gregorio Leti who (says historian Patrick Collinson after investigating many such stories) “invented some of his sources and made things up”.”5

We have one eye witness account of the executions of Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. The account is in a letter from Ottwell Johnson, a London merchant who was a “clothier and victualler whose customers had included many members of the queen’s household”, to his brother. Here is what he said about the executions:

“I see the Queen and the Lady Rochford suffer within the Tower, the day following, whose souls (I doubt not) be with God, for they made the most Godly and Christian’s end, that ever was heard tell of (I think) since the world’s creation; uttering their lively faith in the blood of Christ only, and with goodly words and steadfast countenances they desired all Christian people to take regard unto their worthy and just punishment with death for their offences, and against God heinously from their youth upward, in breaking all his commandments, and also against the King’s royal Majesty very dangerously: wherefore they being justly condemned (as they said) by the Laws of the Realm and Parliament, to die, required the people (I say) to take example at them, for amendment of their ungodly lives, and gladly to obey the King in all things, for whose preservation they did heartily pray; and willed all people so to do: commending their souls to God, and earnestly calling for mercy upon him: whom I beseech to give us grace, with such faith, hope, and charity at our departing out of this miserable world, to come to the fruition of his God-head in joy everlasting. Amen.”6

If Catherine had shocked the crowd by claiming that she would have preferred to die the wife of Culpeper, or if Jane had confessed to giving false testimony in 1536, then I am sure that Mr Johnson would have passed that salacious bit of news on to his brother. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, wrote to the Emperor that “Neither the Queen nor Mme. de Rochefort spoke much on the scaffold; all they did was to confess their guilt and pray for the King’s welfare and prosperity”,7 so it appears that Catherine and Jane stuck to scaffold speech convention by confessing to be sinners deserving of death and urging the people to learn from their example. As for Jane being insane during her last days, as depicted in “The Tudors”, Chapuys recorded that she “had shewn symptoms of madness until the very moment when they announced to her that she must die”8 so it appears that Jane had experienced some kind of breakdown during her imprisonment. Poor woman.

It is a shame that these women’s memories have been maligned by fictitious speeches and that the words Jane never even uttered have led to her being branded a traitor to the Boleyns and people claiming that she got what she deserved. Does anybody really deserve to end their days like that anyway?

Visitors to the Tower of London can go and pay their respects to Catherine and Jane at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula because both women were buried there, in the chancel area. RIP Queen Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford.

You can read more about what led to these executions in my post The Fall of Catherine Howard.

Notes and Sources

  1. LP xvii. 28 ii Acts printed in the Statutes at Large, but not entered on the Parliament Roll, C21
  2. The Tudors, Season 4, Episode 5
  3. “The Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England” (The Spanish Chronicle), translated by Martin A. Sharp Hume, p86
  4. Alison Weir quotes this in her book “The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn” and refers to “Original Letters Illustrative of English History”, edited by Henry Ellis, but Ellis actually quotes Ottwell Johnson’s account, not this fictional one (p128 of Volume II).
  5. “The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir – Sunday Times Review by John Guy”, 1st November 2009
  6. “Original letters, illustrative of English history: Volume II”, compiled by Henry Ellis, Keeper of the Manuscripts in the British Museum, 1825, p128
  7. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 6 Part 1: 1538-1542, 232
  8. Ibid.
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