On All Souls’ Day 1541, Catherine Howard, niece of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and cousin of the late Queen Anne Boleyn, had been queen for just 15 months. She had married Henry VIII as his fifth wife on 28th July 1540, following the annulment of his six month marriage to Anne of Cleves, and the couple appeared to be happy. The young, vivacious Catherine seemed to have restored the king’s youth and his joy in life, little did either of them know that everything was just about to change.

The royal couple had returned to Hampton Court Palace from a four-month-long progress to the north of England on 30th October 1541. Although James V of Scotland had stood up the king in York, the trip had been successful in demonstrating Henry VIII’s authority to the north, a part of the country that had rebelled against him in late 1536 and early 1537, and had been an opportunity for Henry to humiliate his northern subjects and demands displays of submission from them. The king must have been fairly pleased with the progress.

Henry was also pleased with his wife. On All Saints’ Day, 1st November 1541, the king had directed 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] […]”. However, his joy and thankfulness was to be shortlived, for on 2nd November 1541, as the king arrived for mass in the Holy Day Closet at Hampton Court Palace, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer gave him a letter. The archbishop asked the king to read it in private, for it concerned a matter that he “had not the heart to tell it by word of mouth”. The letter outlined allegations that had been made by John Lassells, brother of Mary Hall, who’d been a member of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s household with Catherine Howard. Mary had told her brother things about Catherine’s past, information that Lassells felt needed to be passed on to the king’s council.

A report from the king’s council to William Paget, the English ambassador in France, gives details about Lassells’ claims:

“Are commanded to signify to him a most miserable case lately revealed. The King, on sentence given of the [invalidity] of his marriage with Anne of Cleves, being solicited by his Council to marry again, took to wife Katharine, daughter to the late lord Edmund Howard, thinking [now in his old] age to have obtained [a jewel] for womanhood, But this joy is turned to [extreme sorrow; for] after receiving his Maker on [All Hallows Day last] and directing the bp. of Lincoln, his [ghostly father], to make prayer and give thanks with him for the good life he led and hoped to [lead with her], on All Souls Day at mass the abp. [of Canterbury] having heard that she was not a woman of [such purity] as was esteemed, sorrowfully revealed it to the King, and how it came to his knowledge.

While the King was in his progress, one John [Lossels] came to the Abp. and told him that he had been with a sister of his, married, in [Sussex], who had been servant with the old duchess of [Norfolk] who brought up the said Katharine, and he had recommended her to sue for service with [the Queen]. She said she would not, but [was very sorry for the Queen]. “Why? quoth Lossels. Marry, quoth she, for she is [light, both in living] and conditions. How so? quoth Lossels.” [She replied] that one Fras. Derham had lain in bed[with her, in his doublet] and hose, between the sheets an hundr[ed nights], and a maid in the house had said she would lie no longer with her because [she knew not what ma]trimony was. Moreover [one] Mannock, a servant of the [Duchess, knew a] privy mark on her body. The Abp., being much perplexed, consulted the lord Chancellor and the [earl of Hertford], and by their advice reported the matter to the King in writing, as he had not the heart to tell it by word of mouth.”

The king didn’t believe these claims about his wife’s past, he believed “the matter forged”, but ordered a full investigation into the matter. Lassells and his sister were to be examined by William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton and Lord Privy Seal, while Thomas Wriothesley, one of the king’s principal secretaries, was to examine Henry Manox, Catherine’s former music tutor, and to apprehend Francis Dereham “on a pretence of piracy”. The king must have hoped that this was all a storm in a teacup, tall tales and gossip, but Southampton and Wriothesley were to bring him bad news:

“Wriothesley found from Mannock’s confession that he used to feel the [secret parts] of her body before Derrham [was familiar] with her; and Derrham confessed that he had k[nown her car]nally many times, both in his doublet and [hose between] the sheets and in naked bed, alleging three women [as witnesses].”

Henry VIII was heartbroken:

“On learning this the King’s heart was pierced with pe[nsiveness, so that it was long] before he could [utter his sorrow]; “and finally, with plenty [of tears, (which was strange] in his courage), opened the same.”

The report goes on to say that “[Katharine was spoken] to by the abp. of [Canterbury, the lord] Chancellor, the duke of Norfolk, [the lord Great Chamberlain], and the bp. of [Winchester]. She at first constantly denied it, but at last disclosed everything [to the abp.] of Canterbury, who took her confession [in writing] subscribed by her hand. Then [the rest of the witnesses], eight or nine men and women, were examined, and agreed in one [tale].”

Just over a month later, after it had come out that the queen had also been having secret meetings with Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber, the king’s grief had turned to anger and hatred. Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador, reported:

“this King has changed his love for the Queen into hatred, and taken such grief at being deceived that of late it was thought he had gone mad, for he called for a sword to slay her he had loved so much. Sitting in Council he suddenly called for horses without saving where he would go. Sometimes he said irrelevantly (hors de propoz) that that wicked woman had never such delight in her incontinency as she should have torture in her death. And finally he took to tears regretting his ill luck in meeting with such ill-conditioned wives, and blaming his Council for this last mischief.”

Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper were executed for treason at Tyburn on 10th December 1541. Catherine, and her lady, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, were executed at the Tower of London on 13th February 1542.

Notes and Sources

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