13 February 1542 – A tragic day for a queen and her lady

On this day in history, Monday 13th February 1542, Catherine Howard, fifth wife and queen of King Henry VIII, and her lady, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, were executed at the Tower of London after being found guilty of treason by attainder.

An eye-witness, London merchant Otwell Johnson recorded that the two women “made the moost godly and christyan’s end” and you can click here to read more about their executions.

But who were these women and what happened?

Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, was born Jane Parker in Norfolk in around 1504/5 and was the daughter of Henry Parker, 10th Baron Morley, and Alice St John. Her father had been brought up in the household of Lady Margaret Beaufort and had acted as cupbearer at the coronation of King Henry VIII in 1509. By 1520, when she accompanied the royal couple to the Field of Cloth of Gold, she was serving in Queen Catherine of Aragon’s household. In 1522, she played the part of Constancy in the Château Vert Shrovetide pageant, while her future sisters-in-law, Mary and Anne Boleyn, played Kindness and Perseverance.

Jane married George Boleyn, son of Thomas Boleyn and brother of Anne Boleyn, in late 1524/early 1525. It was an arranged marriage, as was normal at the time, and was a good match for both families. The marriage was childless, but there is no evidence to back up the myth that it was an unhappy marriage. In December 1529, George Boleyn took his father’s title of Viscount Rochford when his father was elevated to the earldom of Wiltshire, so Jane became Viscountess Rochford or Lady Rochford. In October 1532, she accompanied Henry VIII and the newly elevated Marquess of Pembroke, Anne Boleyn, on their trip to Calais to meet with King Francis I and took part in the masque arranged for the French king. Jane would have served her sister-in-law when she was crowned queen on 1st June 1533.

In autumn 1534, Jane was temporarily banished from court for allegedly plotting with Queen Anne to remove “the young lady whom this king has been accustomed to serve”, i.e. a lady who had caught the king’s eye, from court. In May 1536, Jane’s husband and sister-in-law, George and Anne, were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Jane sent a letter of comfort to her husband on 4th May 1536 assuring him that she would petition the king on his behalf. However, on 15th May 1536, George and Anne were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. George was beheaded on 17th May 1536, and Anne was beheaded on 19th May 1536. George’s death brought Jane financial difficulties, and she was forced to ask Thomas Cromwell for help, and it appears that it was down to Cromwell that she was appointed to Queen Jane Seymour’s privy chamber. Jane also served Anne of Cleves in 1540 and was one of the ladies who provided evidence regarding the non-consummation of the king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Following the annulment of the marriage, Henry VIII married Catherine Howard, and Jane moved into her household, acting as the young queen’s chief confidant and servant.

Catherine Howard was born c.1522/23 and was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard, son of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and Edmund’s wife, Jocasta (Joyce) Culpeper, widow of Ralph Legh and daughter of Sir Richard Culpeper of Aylesford, Kent. Catherine was brought up in the household of her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, based at Chesworth House near Horsham and Norfolk House, Lambeth. At the age of about 13/14, Catherine was involved with Henry Manox, a man who had been employed to teach youngsters of the household the lute and virginals. Although Manox wanted to sleep with Catherine, he got no further than foreplay, before he was replaced in her affections by Francis Dereham, a man in the dowager duchess’s service. Dereham and Catherine had a full sexual relationship and referred to each other as husband and wife, but it is unclear whether they exchanged any promises. It is believed that the relationship ended in summer 1539 and Catherine went to the royal court in autumn 1539 ready to serve Anne of Cleves on her arrival in England.

At court, Catherine met Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber. Their flirtation ended when Culpeper moved on to another lady, and Catherine ended up catching the king’s eye. On 9th July 1540, the annulment of the king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was announced, and on 28th July 1540, the king married Catherine, who would have been 17/18 years of age, at Oatlands Palace. The couple had a short “honeymoon” before going off on their summer progress. In November 1539, Katherine Tilney, a friend of Catherine’s from her time in the dowager duchess’s household, and Francis Dereham asked Catherine for positions in her household. Katherine was made a chamberer, but, as Gareth Russell points out, there is no record of Dereham being given an official position at this time, although he remained at court and recklessly bragged about his closeness to the queen.

At Easter 1541, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, on the queen’s orders, arranged a meeting between Catherine and Thomas Culpeper. Catherine gave Culpeper gifts, and when he became ill, she sent him messages and food. On 30th June 1541, Henry VIII and Catherine set off on their progress to the north of England. While on progress, Lady Rochford helped Catherine meet secretly with Culpeper at Lincoln and Pontefract. At Pontefract, Catherine also received a visit from Francis Dereham, and he was appointed as a gentleman usher. The royal party arrived back at Hampton Court Palace on 30th October.

On 1st November 1541, All Saints’ Day, the king asked the Bishop of Lincoln at mass “to make prayer and give thanks with him for the good life he led and hoped to [lead with her] […]”, but his joy in his marriage was brought to an end the following day when he was confronted by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer with a letter that he was to read in private. The letter was concerning allegations that had been made to the king’s privy council concerning the queen’s time in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s household and her previous relationships with Henry Manox and Francis Dereham. The information had come from John Lassells, brother of Mary Hall, who, like Catherine, had been a member of the dowager duchess’s household. The claims were investigated and found to be true. Unfortunately, things became even worse for Catherine when Thomas Culpeper’s name came up during the interrogations.

Francis Dereham confessed to knowing the queen “carnally”, and both Dereham and Catherine confessed to calling each other husband and wife. Robert Davenport (Damport), who, like Dereham, was tortured during their interrogations, stated that Dereham was hoping that the king would die so that he could marry Catherine. Thomas Culpeper and Catherine denied having a sexual relationship, but Culpeper confessed that “he intended and meant to do ill with the Queen and that likewise the Queen was so minded with him.”

On 14th November 1541, Catherine was moved from Hampton Court Palace to Syon House and various members of her household were taken to the Tower of London. On the third day of her imprisonment, Lady Rochford suffered some kind of mental breakdown and so was sent to the home of Sir John Russell, the Lord Admiral, to be cared for there by his wife, Anne, and to be treated by the king’s physicians. On 1st December 1541, Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were arraigned at Guildhall for high treason and sentenced to death. They were executed at Tyburn on 10th December 1541. Culpeper’s sentence had been commuted to beheading, because of his status, but Dereham had to suffer the full traitor’s death. On 22nd December, members of the Howard and Tilney family, plus their staff, were tried for misprision of treason for covering up the “unlawful, carnal, voluptuous, and licentious life” of Queen Catherine Howard while she lived with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk at Lambeth. They were found guilty.

On 21st January 1542, a bill of attainder against Catherine Howard and Lady Rochford was introduced into the House of Lords, and it received royal assent on 11th February 1542. According to this bill, the women were convicted and attainted of high treason and should “suffer accordingly”, i.e. be executed. Jane was escorted to the Tower of London on 9th February, and Catherine was moved from Syon to the Tower on 10th February. On 12th February 1542, the two women were told to prepare for their executions, which would take place the following day. They were both executed on 13th February 1542 by beheading, and their remains were laid to rest in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

Most of the Howards and Tilneys were pardoned and released at the end of February 1542, following the executions of Catherine and Jane, but the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk wasn’t pardoned until 5th May 1542 and her son, Lord William Howard, wasn’t pardoned until August 1542.

Notes and Sources

Picture: Still from Showtime#s “The Tudors” series.

  • My own research notes for The Fall of Catherine Howard: A Countdown, work in progress.
  • 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 “13 February 1542 – A tragic day for a queen and her lady”
  1. This was indeed a sad day. Even Eleanor of Aquataine when she raised an army against Henry II was not executed. More troubling was the execution of Jane Boleyn, a woman whose mind had snapped from the pressure. Henry then changed the law so that even those considered insane could be executed with no impediment.
    Many people have been executed in England over the previous centuries but what seems to make Henry VIII’s so heinous is that many seem like personal vengeance barely couched in any legality.
    Though it has been nearly 5 centuries R.I.P Queen Catherine and Jane Boleyn. You are not forgotten.

    1. Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine and was powerful in her own right and one time Queen of France, she was also the mother of his numerous children so Henry dared not touch a hair of her head, although yes her rebellion could well have deserved the death penalty Henry satisfied himself that imprisonment would suffice, and locked up out of harms way she would not be able to cause any trouble, for someone as adventurous and vital as Eleanor she must have found it a dreadful cross to bear, I agree February 13th 1542 was a very sad day, the dew must have still been on the grass when these two ladies took their last walk, and though over the centuries the dust has settled heavily on their remains, their stories have not been forgotten, Henrys desire to pass the law on those who were insane allowing them to suffer death seems to me to be merely vengeance, fuelled by the blind fury he felt, yet Jane had served him and his previous wives loyally and apart from the one incident where she sided with Anne to get his mistress banished from court, there doesn’t seem to be any other time when she upset him, he must have thought Jane had revelled in her situation whearas she more than likely hated it, what woman would want to go creeping about at night in a draughty palace keeping watch peering behind the door, especially when it wasn’t her going to meet a lover, poor Jane must have wished she was safely tucked up in her bed with her tankard of ale.

    1. On Catherine Howard, I have enjoyed the books by Gareth Russell, Conor Byrne and Lacey Baldwin Smith. On Jane Boleyn, there’s Julia Fox’s biography and also Clare Cherry and I cover Jane in our biography of her husband George Boleyn.

      1. Iv Josephine Wilkinsons which is good, iv yet to read Baldwin Smiths book, iv heard that he’s not very sympathetic towards Catherine, I’m not sure but I think a female author would be inclined to be more sympathetic towards her, what do you Claire?

  2. Rest in peace Queen Katherine Howard, both of whom were beheaded under difficult circumstances. Katherine was a young woman who had acted as a foolish bording school girl, taking every risk in the book, seeing a gentleman of the King’s household in her rooms late on a number of occasions or over the period of the Northern progress, risking being seen or even walked in on, thinking she did nothing wrong, while not thinking o.k I am married to Henry Viii, I need to be a virtuous nun. Although there is no evidence of adultery and it is likely that for most of the time, the couple were not entirely alone, this behaviour was going to make them look guilty. In an age that the principle of innocent unless proven guilty and even a defence lawyer didn’t exist this was not good. There was never going to be much they could do to show that no sin or crime was committed. Katherine wasn’t even given a hearing so no evidence was even evaluated by a jury. So, here she was found guilty by an Act of Parliament and judged on her former life as if she was some kind of wild woman who came along and devised some dastily plan to harm the King by luring him into her bed through deception and then meeting former lovers in order to place her ill begotten child on the throne. This might bkow everything up out of all proportion but when it comes to sex scandal you will find nothing much has changed. As a woman it was her fault. Even if nothing happened, it was still her fault. She was a woman. That was enough. As a woman all the problems of the world were her fault. That she was young and pretty, well that didn’t make her innocent, no that made her even more guilty as she was using her sexual appetites that young women have in particular to lure the King and the men around her, even if they abysed or used her. This myth was woven into the charges against her and into the myth of her execution speach.

    Katherine died with dignity and swiftness, which is a mercy, but her most important last words are so often misquoted. Romantic and dramatic as they were, there is nothing in the official or the independent eye witness reports of her death that have Katherine Howard saying she would rather die as the wife of Thomas Culpepper than as Queen of England. This is another much later invention which feeds into the media myth of her being a tart and temptress and sex crazed bimbo. Her last speech was as conventional and repentant as other execution speeches. She repented her sins and prayed for the King and died with dignity. Her practices of her posture the night before had helped her to find composure. She was buried, as was Jane near her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn in Saint Peter’s in the Tower, later that day.

    Jane’s execution is particularly disturbing as she was not mentally fit. Whether guilty of misprison or not, foolish, stupid, just doing her job or loyal or whatever other motivation caused her to be caught up in this madness, the Government recognised that she had lost her mind and sent her to be nursed at the home of John Russell and his wife. It is impossible to know what the exact nature of her mental collapse was but she was seen by the royal doctors regularly so it must have been pretty bad. I am going to guess from my own experience, a full psychotic breakdown followed by severe depression and anxiety. I would also say it is quite likely that she had not fully recovered by the time of her execution. This doesn’t mean she was not lucid or aware of her surroundings. She may even have been given something to calm her that morning. Valarian and belladonna and even melissa were well known as were new plants from South America to have effective mind altering powers and act as sedatives. Mind you the quantity of hops used at that time in Tudor strong beer would have the same effect. Whatever she was given, we also know that Lady Rochford appeared calm. This probably masked her true state of mind. It had been illegal to kill a man or woman who had become insane and Henry Viii chose to change that. This was enacted at the same time as the Attainder of the women, a few days earlier. Jane too was buried near her Queen and husband and sister in law. Her own life has been blighted with slander and liable by writers and film and drama as the woman who got men for Queen Katherine, which is not true or the woman who lied about the sexual practices of George Boleyn to Cromwell, but again this is not true. But when you are the woman or man executed for scandalous charges or for plotting the downfall of a Tudor or Medieval or later Monarch or for Rebellion, how do you get people to hear the truth when history has already made up its mind?

    Rest in peace Lady Jane Boleyn and Queen Katherine Howard.

    1. I would just like to add that this cruel statute allowing people who are insane to be executed in such trials as treason was repealed by Mary I.

      1. I didn’t know that either, the people who condemn Mary too easily should realise that shows she was not the Bloody Mary of legend!

  3. Hi, Claire mentioned it on an earlier post and I looked it up. Yes, a sensible woman. After all it was a very nasty thing to do, more revenge than justice. I know Henry was losing it but this was aimed at Jane, who yes should have known better, but was in no fit state and the Parliament probably had little choice either. It was just another one of Henry’s nasty ways of making someone pay extra. I wonder if he felt this is another Boleyn plotting and scheming and two Boleyn/Howard Queens, now they will all feel my wrath. Yes, Henry here is the ‘bloody ‘ one and he also had a party afterwards and invited a lot of beautiful ladies, so that tells you a lot.

    1. Yes iv always felt this was more like spite, like when Dereham was executed just for knowing Catherine before she was married, when he was in a range his emotions got the better of him and he was quite literally capable of being very cruel, I bet everyone was tip toeing around him, I did feel for him though the time when he wept before his council, he was broken hearted over Catherine, happy valentines to you to.

  4. I think some of Henry’s vengeful actions in this case we’re based on him being embarrassed by what he considered being ‘duped’ by Catherine. Look at his over reaction at the meeting of Anne of Cleves.

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