13 February 1542 – Executions of Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Rochford

Posted By on February 13, 2015

Catherine Howard On this day in history, 13 February 1542, Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, and Lady Jane Rochford, wife of the late George Boleyn, were executed at the Tower of London.

We have an eye-witness account of their executions from a letter written by London merchant Otwell Johnson.

“[…] And for news from hence, know ye, that even according to my writing on Sunday last, I see the Queen and the Lady Rochford suffer within the Tower, the day following, whos 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 Godhead in joy everlasting. Amen.

Your loving brother

OTWELL JOHNSON.”

This is the only eye-witness account and it makes no mention of Catherine crying out “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper” or of Jane confessing to giving false testimony about her husband committing incest with his sister, Anne Boleyn. That story comes from the “The Chronicle of King Henry VIII”, or “The Spanish Chronicle”, a source which is treated with caution by the majority of historians due to its inaccuracies.

You can read more about Catherine and Jane’s fall and executions in the following articles:

And about Catherine and Jane in these articles:

Recommended reading:

  • Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne
  • Catherine Howard by Lacey Baldwin Smith
  • Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox

Notes and Sources

  • Original letters, illustrative of English history: Volume II, compiled by Henry Ellis, Keeper of the Manuscripts in the British Museum, 1825, p128

The portrait is found in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and is of an unknown woman attributed to the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger c.1540-1545. Catherine’s biographer, Conor Byrne believes it to be of Catherine.

11 thoughts on “13 February 1542 – Executions of Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Rochford”

  1. Francesco says:

    I wonder if Lady Rochoford really said something since she was almost completely insane when she was beheaded.

    1. Claire says:

      I think it was more of a breakdown than insanity and she’d been nursed back to health at Lord Russell’s house on the Strand and under the supervision of Henry VIII’s doctors. She does not appear to have shown any sign of madness at her execution.

      1. Francesco says:

        It is a good theory Claire, but if it was a breakdown nursed back to health, why did the Parliament change the existing law, which prevented from executing persons declared insane?

        1. Claire says:

          A breakdown would have been classed as madness in those days, don’t you think? There are still many to day who don’t understand depression and mental breakdowns and class them as madness.

          The law of 1542 which was first discussed in Parliament on 16 January 1542 was designed “For due process to be had in high treason in cases of lunacy or madness”, so it allowed Jane to be found guilty of high treason by Bill of Attainder, which was also brought to Parliament that day. We know that Jane was said to have gone “mad” on the third day of her imprisonment and that Henry made sure she was nursed so that he could take action against her. We just don’t know how serious it was, but Henry would have had to cover all his bases anyway. There’s no way he was letting Jane off scot-free.

          We know that Anne Boleyn had bouts of hysteria, going from laughing to weeping, when she was first imprisoned so it’s no surprise that Jane was affected. She must have been scared witless. Obviously she got worse but we don’t know how much worse. There is no mention of her acting strangely when she was talken back to the Tower and the eye-witness report of her execution describes Jane as having “the most godly and Christian’s end” and making a speech. I believe that the merchant who wrote the account in a personal letter would have described any strange behaviour, and Jane was obviously lucid enough to make a speech. Chapuys, who had previously made mention of Jane going “mad” when she was first imprisoned, makes no mention of any sign of madness at her execution:
          “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.”

          There’s no denying that Jane had had some kind of breakdown but it does apear that between the law being presented to Parliament in mid January and her execution on 13th February that Jane had made enough of a recovery to ‘die a good death’, to keep herself together and to follow usual scaffold etiquette like her mistress before her.

          The wording of the legislation makes interesting reading:

          “In as muche as sometyme some personnes beinge accused of hyghe treasons, have after they have benne examined before kinges majesties counsayle, confessed theyr offences of hyghe treason, and yet never the lesse after the doynge of theyr treasons, and examinations and confessions therof, as afore saide, haue fallen to madnes or lunacye, wherby the condygne punishemente of theyr treasons, were they never soo notable and detestable, hath been deferred spared and delayed, and whether their madnes or lunacy by them outwardly shewed, were of trouth or falsely contrived and counterfayted, it is thinge almost impossible certainely to judge or try. Be it therefore enacted by authoritie of tis present parliament, to avoide al sinister counterfeit and false practices and ymaginations that may be used for excuse of punishement of high treasons, in suche cases where they be done or committed by any person or persons of good perfect and hole memory at the time of suche their offences…”

          In such cases, people were to be tried in absentia, as in Jane’s case.

  2. Christine says:

    Yes it must have been a breakdown brought on by sheer terror at what was in store, people who suffer from breakdowns can’t talk properly and in fact can’t function at all, they didn’t know about breakdowns or stress related illnesses in Tudor times, as recent as the First World War they used to shoot deserters because they didn’t realise the mental pressure on the brain, post traumatic stress disorder now is recognised as being a proper illness, Jane Rochford knew she was going to be beheaded and it got to much for her, Catherine was hysterical but at their executions they were both calm and died with dignity.

  3. BanditQueen says:

    A complete nervous breakdown can lead to you suffering from mental health problems for years. Depression is a physical as well as a mental reaction and is not something that can merely be nursed away; it can entrap you in a downward spiral that does not lift without careful treatment and long term help. It is also strange to know that today the term in law seems to be insanity for any type of mental illness as when you get called for jury duty on the form that you can sign to ask to be excused it still has the option Insane. Some things never change.

    Poor Jane Rochford, she must have been unaware of what terror she faced; she must have wondered what was going on, she may have been detatched from the reality of her situation and have regressed inside. Whatever her state of mind, I doubt that she was in her real state of sanity; she was out of her mind; she was depressed, fargone, should have been able to claim protection from execution on the basis that she was not able to carry out her own defence or that she was unable to understand the charges against her, whatever the mark of insanity at the time. However, Henry manipulated the law to suddenly change the law so she could be executed.

    Katherine appears to have regained her lack of composure that she suffered when she was paralysed by fear and terror on hearing that she was going to the Tower earlier that month, for she knew she would face her death at the young age of about 19. Some historians believe that she may have been younger, maybe 17 or 18. But she had now been in the Tower for a number of days and had become accepting of her fate. Katherine died with the dignity that had not marked her short life and as you can see if you go the earlier post, there are varied opinions of what she said, the most famous legend coming down to us, that she had declared she would rather die the wife of Culpepper, her lover, than the wife of the King, her sovereign lord. But as we can see, people who were there give a rather different story and her farewell was fairly orthodox as expected. She prayed for her sins to be forgiven, prayed for the king, asked the people to pray for her and so on, nothing unconventional.

    Both ladies may have fallen foul of the law, but in the end you cannot help but feel some compassion for them as they faced their aweful end, which was thankfully in this case fast. The legal process that had condemned them leads much to have been desired even by the standards of the day; as neither woman was given the chance to defend herself in open court. The Queen was condemned and declared guilty by an Act of Attainer, which outlined her accussed crimes, the so called evidence to back it up was read out and the accused was declared guilty. The Bill was read in Parliament and consent given. In Katherine’s case, the Lords had a problem with the Bill and it had to return for more than one reading, doubts being sent to the King. Henry clearly wanted to avoid the public case that had been embarrising to him, of Anne Boleyn, and he wanted to avoid the public from feeling compassion for the young queen. He also wanted to avoid airing more dirty washing in public, so the whole thing was kept to the limited exposure of Parliament.

    Jane Rochford, I believe has had a poor press, there is no evidence that she sold out her husband, George Boleyn, that she was a shrew, or that she was almost a madam for lovers for Katherine Howard, and the two gentlemen that she may have shown into her mistresses chamber denied all sexual contact, as did the Queen. Personally, I do believe she slept wih Culpepper and was in love with him; but the evidence for actual sexual criminal adultery is lacking. Jane was meant to have brought the men to Katherine, but did she do so as she had no choice, so was guilty of misprison of treason, or did she do so because she felt sorry for the Queen? Whatever Jane’s role; she was deemed more guilty than the other ladies. maybe because she was older and so should know better or because she was a chief lady, but there is debate about her role in the whole affair and if she really warranted her fate. Henry was certainly persuaded she did so, but his change of the law to ensure both women were killed is the sign that Henry was turning into a tyrant.

  4. Christine says:

    Has it really got that on the Jury Service form, insane? I’d find that offensive, in this politically correct age I’d have thought it would have read mental health problems, not insanity that’s something from the Victorian age.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Hi, Christine, unfortunately institutions and employment and more pillars of society still have not changed much since Victorian Times, the use of inappropriate language is still a big problem. But yes it does indeed say that on a jury summons form, you can state a reason to be excused, and I have been summoned twice, that was the description used for mental health, and this is only a couple of years ago. I was shocked, but that was what I had to tick. We may have come a way from putting people with mental health problems in Bedlam, but some of the attitudes and language have never changed.

      1. Christine says:

        Thanks for replying I think that needs to be addressed il mention it to my local MP.

        1. Jennifer Rambo says:

          I am very late in finding this conversation about Lady Rochford and why the King pushed to have her beheaded when she was clearly insane. Remember Henry allowed Jane to remain in court after Queen Anne ‘s beheading. Probably because she helped build the case against the Queen. However Henry was not giving her another chance He would be rid of another reminder of Anne.

  5. Bella ardila says:

    Poor Katherine. She really do love someone else

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