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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25 thoughts on “13 February 1542 – Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, What they Did and Didn’t Say”
  1. I wonder how Weir got the quote so wrong? I hope it was a mistake, because the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about!

    1. I’m assuming it was a mistake. That book is particularly bad for referencing, it just says things like “LP”, “Lisle Letters” etc. with no details of which document in which volume, so I suspect she noted down that quote and then forgot where it was from. Certainly the one in “Original Letters” is Ottwell Johnson’s eye witness account, rather than the fictional one that Weir quotes.

  2. According to Julia Fox’s book, Jane was removed from the Tower after her mental collapse to the care of Sir John and Lady Russell where she was treated by the zking’s physicians. She didn’t return to the Tower until 9th Fevruairy.

    1. Julia Fox’s book was great, and shows Jane Boleyn from a different perspective. She was history’s scapegoat, a lady in waiting who had no choice but to do what her queen commanded. In reality, she died with dignity, and wasn’t the madwoman that many movies would have us believe.

  3. I always wonder how much prisoners in their situation actually knew about how their circumstances were developing.

    In my own research on Katherine and the members of her family imprisoned at this time, I have not been able to find whether she would have been told that Culpeper and Dereham had been killed, or that her step-grandmother and the others from Norfolk House were in the Tower.

    I wonder whether she, at Syon, and Jane Rochford, with the Russells, had some false sense of security before their final journey to the Tower? Russell would know the law relating to prisoners of unsound mind was being changed to allow for Jane to be executed, but would she have any knowledge of it?

  4. I think Henry VIII caused a special law to be passed allowing the execution of the insane so that Jane Boleyn could be executed.

    I really didn’t like the way they portrayed the execution in The Tudors, it is well known that when there was more than one victim, they were executed in order of precedence. This is what happened in the case of George Boleyn and the four other men, George went first, and it’s said that his execution was botched, I do hope not! So Katherine went before Lady Rochford, and as Ottwell Johnston said, she died with some dignity, rather than wetting herself as The Tudors portrayed.

    1. I’d have wet myself if I were walking to the block!!!

      Katherine Howard, so young and lovely, but naïve in the extreme to have thought a secret dalliance would be possible in the “all eyes and ears” Court. Her Howard relatives who had very little time for her as a child were quite quick off the mark to dangle her in front of Henry VIII, one she’d attained beauty and a woman’s body as a young teen. (!!!) Just a tragedy, all around.

      There is no hard evidence that Jane Boleyn was the evil, spiteful behind-the-scenes madwoman she’s been portrayed as in historical fiction. Without hard evidence that can’t be refuted, we can’t know her character or mental state.

    2. Quite correct, there is evidence that both ladies died with dignity, even if Lady Rochford was a bit out of it with her insanity, although some sources indicate that she seemed calm at her execution and together as well. But the way if was portrayed in the Tudor’s is more for drama than accuracy; Lady Rochford was actually held back in the house that they were prepared for death at the Tower. When Katherine had died, dignified and seemingly unafraid, although she more likely was but tried not to show it, the block was cleaned, fresh straw replaced the old and the head and body removed from sight. The second victim then went up, Lady Rochford, who made a few short words and then was executed. Her body was then also removed and the place cleaned up. The victims were not lined up at the Tower green; it was a more formal affair and more dignified. These were people of rank and had a more private execution, although in Queen Anne Boleyn’s case 1000 people had gathered as the doors were left open by mistake.

      What the Tudor’s portrayed, that of poor Katherine urinating was in poor taste; although it is most possible that as a reaction to fear this would happen, there was no need to show such an undignified thing. It was not mentioned by the sources; good or bad, so I put it down to dramatic license. The Tudors series was a great drama series but it did make things for effect that would have a better place in Game of Thrones. Authors these days love to shock and thrill the audiance and they do not care how they do it. It is a shame as it often detracts from what is otherwise great drama. Even if this was a normal physical reaction to being faced with terror and death by the axe; the visual picture was not needed thank-you Tudor authors; the acting and the dignity of the Queen was what I wanted to see.

      Jane Rochford is often shown as being either spiteful or totally setting up the Queen; neither of these are correct. Julia Fox gives us a portrayal of a much more complex person; a person who had to fight for the inheritance she was owed when she was widowed after George’s execution, of a woman who was caught up in the male political battles of ambition of the day, and a woman who was sympathetic to both Queen Jane and to Queen Katherine. She was also used by Cromwell to get information out of poor Anne of Cleves about her virginity or if she had relations with the King. For all of her matronally advice that she gives the Queen I do not think she enjoyed this role and even as the one who brought the lovers to Queen Katherine, in some ways she is caught in the middle and may-be she just felt sorry for her as she was married to a much older man. If Jane had been denied some happiness in her own life; then may-be she just saw a chance to bring some to two young people in love. Unfortunately she was seen as facilitating bedroom treason; and even if Katherine did not sleep with Culpepper it was presummed that she intended to and that Jane Rochford had enabled that to happen. So, the unfortunate and I am sure now mentally shaken Lady Rochford, who clearly had some kind of breakdown when arrested, shared her mistresses fate. I do not believe she was a demented mad woman; but locked up and accused of all sorts of stuff that could lead to her death if proven true or even to life imprisonment if she was spared; it is not surprising she had a mental breakdown.

      I was accused of a serious crime that I did not commit in 2004 and had a breakdown as a result. It took me three years to clear my name and four years to recover from the mental health problems that followed. I still have some of those symptoms today. Mental health is not insanity; it is not something that should be hidden either; it is a disability or illness the same as everything else and if poor Jane Rochford was ill then she has my every sympathy. She should not have been executed in such a state; I read about her being removed for some period of time and treated by the King’s doctors. Clearly they recognised that she was not well and had lost her senses; she was mentally ill; they used this as a defense in Victorian times to prevent murderers from hanging; so they knew it could affect a persons actions, defense and reason. Henry had the law changed to allow someone insane to be excecuted; so it is clear that they knew that she should not be killed. Yes, a person can pretend to be insane or mentally ill or have any number of mentally disturbances and depression is a physical thing as well as a mental state; but the shere terror of her being accused of these aweful things was enough to push her into this decline in her mental health. It is also very possible to have days of clarity and calmness and to be totally detatched from the real life and at her execution it is very possible that she was so detatched that she appeared calm and in control and was able to die with dignity. She certainly was not evil; and I do not know where some fictional drama authors get their ideas from; are they the insane ones here?

  5. Poor JANE? Catherine was a child who I honestly believe just wasn’t mature enough mentally to be a wife to anyone, much less the King. She should have been sent to a convent. Jane on the other hand was a spiteful, malicious person who did deserve death for her acts of TREASON against our Queen Anne and her acts of treason conspiring with Catherine against Henry VIII.

    1. There is no evidence that she betrayed the Boleyns at all and no evidence that she was a spiteful or malicious person. Also, Catherine and Culpeper were quick to blame her for their relationship but we don’t know what her involvement was and she was just a lady-in-waiting who was supposed to do her mistress’s bidding.

      1. To each their own…. I will always feel the way I do. While my research could not compare to all you have put in, I have spent many years and many hours researching the entire history of England with the major being the Tudor bloodline. Again, your research and dedication is amazing and thank you for such an awesome website. 🙂

        1. That’s ok, we all have our own opinions, but Julia Fox and John Guy have done an amazing job at debunking the evidence that is used to back up the idea that Jane betrayed the Boleyns.

          Thank you!

      2. although its has been said many times by many people that jane had no hand in the boleyns downfall or Katherine howards .I think she did and also that she had a very unhappy marriage and she became unhinged because of this and spiteful.

        1. I’ve been studying Jane Boleyn specifically for nearly three years and I’ve yet to find one scrap of evidence that Jane was responsible at all for the Boleyn’s downfall or that she was malicious in anyway.

  6. There are things like anguish, fear, panic.. Just think what happened to someone like lady Rochford, as she realised what where the possibilities. I am so glad not to be in her shoes! It is easy to think of her as the mature woman, and Catherine Howard as the slightly misguided girl. But for a woman in her position at best it must have been difficult. We are talking about royalty here. Unless Jane had some powerful supporters (which I doubt she had!) her existence would have been in the hands of her royal mistress. If Catherine had dismissed her, would Henry have cared? I don’t think so.
    As to their scaffold speeches? I don’t think either of them would have been capable of giving a very elaborate speech. I think both must have been frightened and resigned people. Death is inevitable, the time of death is uncertain. People very much lived by that rule, and expected death as it came. We are the generations that question the time of death. Not people in the 16th century…

  7. Glad to have that eye witness account–very helpful. I imagine if they’d made the alleged speeches, it would have been in several accounts, given it was a public execution. THanks!

  8. I feel little sympathy for Katherine Howard. It is always tragic when a young person dies, certainly. And Katherine Howard was indeed that. Her up-bringing was very disfunctional, to say the least, from what books tell us, & for that she should be given a bit of leeway. But she was not a very bright girl, or she allowed her feelings of lust take over where her brain should have been. Then again, she may have been looking for love, attention, and security all of her short sad life. I think Jane Rochford was bullied , possibly, in to marrying George Boleyn. And was rather an outsider to the entire Boleyn faction. When she went back to court after their executions, and was in time a lady in waiting to Katherine, she should not have even become involved with anything other than normal, day to day duties. But in some books about Katherine & Jane, it is said that Jane cared a lot about this very young girl. I do not know if that is true or just part of fiction.

  9. I think it is a pity that we really do not know exactly what these ladies said, if anything; although I am disappointed that Catherine may not have said she would rather die the wife of Culpepper or express her love for him; as a bit of a romantic at heart; I wish she had have said this. I am glad that the errors in the Spanish Chronicle are highlighted in this article as I was about to say it is a bit fanciful as a document in any event; but i still wish Catherine had have said something like this; never mind.

    I find it incredible that the Queen was informed of her fate just the day or so before she was meant to die; not very long to prepare her soul. As she wanted to die with some dignity, Katherine also practised all night her posture at the block; and I think that both ladies showed as much dignity as they were able given the terrible fate of beheading. It may have been meant as a quick death; but records show that at times, beheading even for nobles and queens was anything but if the executioner got it wrong. The axe was poor in design for one thing; being a standard wood axe and not specially made for the job and not all executioners were experienced or good at their trade. Thomas Cromwell experienced several blows before his end came, and Mary, Queen of Scots was executed only after a third blow. The Duke of Monmouth was the most notorious with 8 or so blows and then a knife had to be used. It was not always as swift as it was in these two cases.

    The question of whether or not Catherine was guilty is I think one for another time; the ladies had been found guilty by a dubious process of the attainer; a bill being read out in Parliament with a list of the crimes and the so called evidence and then voted guilty and given the royal assent some days later. There was no trial as there had have been with Queen Anne Boleyn; Henry did not want the embarrassment of his wife gaining sympathy in a public trial as happened with Anne. He also felt humiliated and after three months of investigations, allegations, more and more things coming to light; the entire Howard family being questioned, terrified, more interrogations, put into prison, houses searced and goods seized; more and more reveallations at council meetings; and the Queen and Lady Rochford now being locked up for more than two months after the men had been killed; Henry wanted the whole thing out of the way and done quietly and privately. The law had condemned the women; but the law of the day was corrupt.

    The entire process with Catherine Howard to me seems very at odds with what the norm would have been when investigating and trying a public figure or a Tudor Queen. It was also odd that the process took so long. It is odd that there is such a gap between the trials of the men and the condemnation of the women. Anne Boleyn and the five men accused, tried and executed with her had all been within 19 days. There are different circumstances, such as an alleged conspiracy to set Anne up and get rid of her, but that all happened so quickly. The time span of the entire affair with Catherine Howard is long and drawn out. Why? Yes, some of the so called evidence and confessions came out only slowly, but surely, the main trials were over by December 10th when Dereham and Culpepper were killed or was there more evidence that lay hidden that the King and his council hoped to find in order to properly condemn Catherine? Was the King in shock and did the Queen still think that Henry would forgive her and release her? Many questions; a gap of two months; and very few answers when it comes to this particular sad event in the history of Henry and his wives.

    Sorry, I digress.

    Jane Rochford was very unfortunate I think as she was obviously doing what she believed to be her duty to help the Queen if Catherine wanted to recruit her to gain access to the two men involved. Jane may have acted as go between and may have passed messages and even witnessed things; although the latter is not clear; may even have brought the men to the Queen; but did her actions deserve death?

    If Catherine went on to commit treason with the two men; then yes as she fascilitated that treason and kept quiet about it. If Catherine told the truth and did not have criminal intercourse with the men; then it is still possible that Jane was guilty of treason as she brought the men to the Queen and left them alone. She could not know that they would just talk or could she know if they had sexual relations unless she heard it or saw it and then she did not report it. But she put the two of them in a position that allowed treason to occur. That is why she may have been guilty of presumption of treason or misprison of treason; concealling an act of treason and not reporting it. According to the law at the time the former was punishable by death; the latter by either death or prison for life, depending on the serious nature of the concealment. If Jane also helped Catherine to meet with her alleged lovers then she would be guilty of assisting in her treason. What Jane did and what she saw are also very much subject to debate and interpretation and some uncertainty lies in her part in this. It was, however, considered sufficient for her to be judged to be guilty enough to share her mistresses fate. Other ladies had been questioned about their role, but Jane Rochford seems to have been the one that came to light as the worst culprit in the whole affair. There is no actual eye witness testomony as to what Catherine got up to or did not get up to, but Jane seems to have been pointed to as the one who brought the men to the Queen and so the one who enabled her alleged treason. That is why she was selected to die, and that is why she is unfortunate.

    Jane was also said to have lost her reason; it being officially up to now unlawful to execute someone who was insane; but the law was changed to allow for her execution and she was to share her mistresses fate. I think she probably had gone barmy, although she seems to have been composed on the scaffold, but if she had lost all sense of reality then it is most possible that she was detached from her surroundings and may have lost her sense of fear at the time of her death. In this she may have been the lucky one; as not being truly aware of the terrible fate that was about to happen I would imagine to be a blessing. It is also possible to speak words that would suffice and still be insane at the tme of her death; Catherine poor woman was terrified, but still managed to give some dignity to her end after all she had gone through.

    I am still convinced that Catherine was guilty of treason, and I do not think of her as a helpless child; anything but. Yes, there seems to be little evidence to convict her; and that may also explain why she was not publically tried; but there did not need to me. The council and her accusers were convinced that she wanted to return to her somewhat unconventional life of sexual ease; and in an age when a woman’s morals were highly suspect in any event; it is clear that she was condemned easily enough without it. It is a shame that she died at the young age of 19-21; but she was a grown woman and not an innocent child; she knew the consequences of treason; and this was the sad result of her choices in life. The only blessing in this whole sad affair, that for these two women; who should have had so much more to offer in life, death came swiftly and they are remembered as dying with dignity and grace.

    Catherine and Jane rest in peace as I am sure you do.

    I do have one P.S because of the date of their execution: the Eve of Saint Valantine; the night before Valantine’s Day. In the Autobiography of Henry VIII a feast was being held on the night of Catherine’s execution. It was laid out as a love feast; something that probably would have been at court; something that may have been planned some time before and the King had forgotten to cancel so it went ahead. The feast is described as meant to celebrate the love of the King and Queen and lovers, before the day of love, and that the dishes were red and pink and there were hearts all over the place; the tables were decorated with hearts and the hall was all red and pink and the courtiers and ladies all in red and pink and the dishes also red and pink. The scene is then described as a mourning feast in this case, as all are there but the court is in mourning and the mood is in mourning and everyone is wishing they are not there as the feast has gone ahead, but the Queen is dead. At some point in the book, which is probably historic license; the King appears to see the ghost of his dead wife and speak with her although all the court see only thin air. The court are embarrassed as the feast clearly should not have gone ahead and Henry seems to have lost his senses.

    I was wondering: did such an event happen and what source is there for it? Thanks in advance.


  10. I know one thing I now for a fact I would wet myself if I was being executed I would be petrified ! I will admit people back then amazed me with the courage they had . People today can’t handle a common cold we have antibiotics like sweets they had nothing god they was tough people ! I loved the Tudors i and when they portrayed Katherine wetting herself they portrayed fear nothing to do with dignity . It’s easy to pass comments on situation you will never experience !!!!

  11. I am absolutely opposed to the death penalty, and to any form of inhumane treatment. Needless to say, I find these executions horrifying.

    In the context of monarchial behavior, they are not all that unusual. The adulterous daughters-in-law of Philip the Fair ended up just as dead, and with even less judicial treatment.

    I see references to John Guy in Comments. My issue with Mr. Guy is his blatant Roman Catholic bias. By modern judicial standards, none of the monarchs of this time were just or fair. Many died for paltry reasons, and few, if any, received the kind of trial we would deem fair today.

    Lady Rochford, of all people, knew this. Why would she risk her neck aiding the Queen in an affair which was bound to be discovered and end in death for all? It is surely no coincidence that she was the only lady in waiting executed with the Queen. It is all so pathetic. One must give them credit for maintaining their dignity on the scaffold. Perhaps it was a firm belief in the afterlife that saw them through.

  12. What kind of tincture would have been given to them? How else could they be so seemingly composed on the way to a horrifying public death?

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