2 November 1541 – Henry VIII finds out about Catherine Howard’s colourful past

Catherine Howard sketchOn 2nd November 1541, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer left a letter for Henry VIII in the Holy Day Closet at Hampton Court Palace detailing Catherine Howard’s colourful past, and how she had “lived most corruptly and sensually”. Cranmer had been persuaded by Chancellor Audley and the Earl of Hertford to relate the story told by Mary Hall to her brother, John Lassells.

Here is what the Privy Council reported to William Paget, the ambassador in France, regarding the matter:

“Whiles the Kings Majestie was in his progresse oon John Lossells came to the said Archebisshopp of Canterbury and declared unto him that he had ben with a suster of his maryed in Sussex which some tyme had ben servant with thold Duchesse of Norfolk who did allso bring upp the said Maistres Katheryn, and being with his said sister chaunced to fall in comunycacon with her of the Queen, wherein he advised her (bicause she was of the Queen’s old acquaintaunce) to sue to be hir woman; whereunto his sister answered she wold not soo doo, but she was very sorry for the Queen.
Why q, Lossell; Mary q, she, for she is light both in living and in condytions. How so q, Lossell ; Marry quoth she there is oon Fraunce Derram who was servant also in my Lady of Norff howse, which hath lyen in bed with her in his doublet and hoose bitwen the shete an hundred nights, and there hath ben such puffing and blowing bitween them that once in the howse a mayde wch laye in the house with her said to me she wold lye no lenger with her, bicause she knew not what matrymonye ment. And further she said unto him that one Mannock, somtyme also servant to the said Duchess, knew a privie marke of hir body. When the said Lossells had declared this to the said Archebisshop of Canterbury, he considering the weight and importance of the matter, being mervelously perplexed therewith, consulted in the same with the Lord Chauncelor of Englande and the Earl of Hertford, whom the Kings Majestie going on his progresse left to reside at London to ordre his affayres in those pties; who having weighed the mattier and depely pondered the gravity thereof, wherewith they were greately troubled and unquieted, resolved finally the said Archbusshopp of Cant should reveal the same to the Kings Majestie; which because the matter was such as he both sorrowfully lamented and also cound not find in his harte to express the same to the Kings Majestie by word of mouthe he declared thinformacon thereof to his Hieghness in writing.

Whenne the Kings Majestie had red this information thus delyvered unto him, his Grace being much perplexed therwith, yet neverthelesse soo tenderly loved the woman and had conceyved suche a constant opinion of her honesty that he supposed it to be rather a forged mattier than of truthe. Wheruppon it pleased him secretely to call unto him the Lord Privie Seale, the Lord Admirall, Sir Anthony Browne, and Sir Thomas Wriothesley, to whom he opened the case, saying he coulde not beleve it to be trewe, and yet seing thinformacon was made he coulde not be satisfied tyll the certenty therof were knowen, but he wold not in anywise that in thinquisition any sparke of scandal shuld ryse towarde her. Wheruppon it was by his Majesty resolved that the Lorde Privie Seale shulde goo straight to London wher the said Lossell that gave the information was secretely kept, and with all dexteritie to examine and try whither he wolde stande to his sayeng.”

So, the King’s reaction to Cranmer’s letter was to order an investigation to prove the allegations to be “a forged matter” rather than the truth. Henry just could not believe that Catherine could have such a colourful past.

Notes and Sources

  • Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume VII, edited by Sir Harris Nicolas, p353-354

Related Post

9 thoughts on “2 November 1541 – Henry VIII finds out about Catherine Howard’s colourful past”
  1. On a non-Tudor note, Nov. 2 is also Marie Antoinette’s birthday — clearly not a day of good omen for anyone who happens to be a queen. Peculiarly appropriate that it should also be All Souls Day, when the altar was traditionally draped in mourning!

  2. Catherine Howard, Henry’s only wife to make an utter fool of him. The ensuing jocularity in the taverns of London and dining rooms of continental aristocrats on hearing the news can only be imagined.

  3. I can’t help thinking that Henry’s view of himself as a potent sexual being was first called into Question by Anne, if we are to believe she told Jane Parker-Rocester that he was neither skilled nor vigorous.
    The fact that there is so little mention of this suggest everything relating to it was suppressed. It would have stung at the very least but as the greatest Prince in Christendom whose attractiveness and other intellectual and physical attributes were constantly lauded, I think it may well have tipped the balance in favour of Anne’s execution rather than alienation to a Nunnery. While they were at Tournament together in May, the news of the confessions came through and he left, never to speak to Anne again. Was whatever the confession contained a huge slur on his manhood? and if so, was this the first time thereafter his manhood was again potentially the butt of jokes.
    The fact he could not consummate the relationship with Anne of Cleves has always been passed off as due to her physical attributes being extremely unattractive but his ill health and perhaps even intermittent impotence is sometimes queried.

    of course we can never know, but the decision to execute Anne instead of banishment, even when she refused to sign away her’s and Elizabeth’s rights, has always haunted me. I keep asking myself what could have tipped the balance and even though I realise I’m looking back with the benefit of studies of psychology/history/linguistics/diploamacy I can’t help wincing every time I hear the Jane Parker evidence that Anne mentioned Henry’s lack of skills in the bedchamber.

    1. I do think that could be one of the reasons. After the birth of Elizabeth, Anne was constantly under pressure, and it was not just Henry, I think it’s safe to assume that it was also her father and maybe even her brother. But this is Anne, and I doubt she’s one to just take the blame; and I could imagine her to snap and tell the world about Henry’s deficiencies in bed, which in turn must have hurt his ego and anger him.

  4. I know that having sympathy for Henry VIII is not exactly PC but in this case yes I do have sympathy for him. He has come back from a successful, if slighly disappointing progress when his nephew the King of Scots did not turn up in York, and has given thanks for his wife, with whom he is well pleased, and for his son who has just recovered from a terrible fever, and instead of peace and harmony as he had hoped, his vision is suddenly shattered by a letter on the chair in his private chaple telling him his wife has a very colourful past. Having swallowed hard and absorbed the information, he must have been shocked and unable to believe the entire thing. Afterall the sources of the rumours: Mary Lassels and her brother were Protestants who had served in her former household and they had come to the Protestant Archbishop with these rumours; they have a reason for lying; and in Henry’s eyes this he hopes is the case. Unfortunately no; it is the truth.

    I can only imagine first of all the King not being able to take it all in; not wanting to believe any of this and on the other hand, Katherine who is about to be locked in her chambers and not knowing the reasons before it. She must have been terrified; did she guess that her past had been revealled? Did she wonder who had betrayed her? Did she just want to get out to see her husband and explain the story from her pooint of view to him; persusade him that she had left that life behind; that she was a victim, that she loved him, that she was faithful; that she would prove herself to him? Did she hope that Henry would refuse to believe the accusations? Did she have any idea of what was going on?

    The world must have swirled around for both the King and his Queen, but for very different reasons. I feel sorry for Henry; because imagine any husband suddenly finding out that the woman he believed to be perfect and innocent was nothing of the kind, had lied to him; and how they would feel. Henry may have been many things and he may have been foolish and should have enquired more before marrying Katherine, but she was from a good family; she was expected to be a virgin; he had no reason not to accept that she was pure; but he did not deserve to be lied to by Katherine or the Howards.

    1. i find it hard to understand that any one could feel sorry for Henry after what he did to Ann he was a very cruel man ! Why did Ann die because of a pack of vindictive wolves who was hell bent on destroying an incredible human being With the Alfa being Henry !!what he wanted he got a very selfish man !! I’m glad Katherine enjoyed some happiness in her short life being married to a fat old man must have felt like a sentence in its self ! Yes she was lavished with beautiful gifts but we all know money can’t buy happiness !! You could say it was Karma but unfortunately people paid with there lives all because of one man crammer I wonder if he ever regretted writing that letter ! It broke the the Kings heart and sent four people to there deaths I know he was not alone but he did get the ball rolling !!!

      1. Hello, Susan. Yes, Henry at this time was both really obese and tyrannical at this time, but no, he didn’t deserve to have an adulterous wife. Now, the case of Kathryn Howard has been reevaluated in recent years by Josephine Wilkinson and more recently by Gareth Russell and Conor Bryne, which are generally more sympathetic towards her. There is a lack of evidence for her physical adultery, although she was acting foolishly with Thomas Culpeper late at night. She was a young woman, the youngest of his wives, between 16 and 18 years old, so not trained for the crown. However, she was trained to run a large household and make a good marriage, was a lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves so she wasn’t ignorant of her duties as Queen. When you get married you promise to be faithful and a double standard existed. It was expected that the woman should be chaste in and out of marriage and she knew Henry’s marital history. Her cousin, Anne Boleyn had been brutally beheaded on trumped up charges of adultery and Kathryn should have acted with more discretion if she wasn’t being unfaithful to her giant husband.

        It was the unfortunate information about her past which brought Kathryn trouble and yes, here I do feel sorry for Henry. He had treated Kathryn well and thought of her as his most perfect wife and she had made him feel young again. This letter from Thomas Cranmer had shattered his ideal world and now it meant trouble for young Kathryn also. Personally I believe it ridiculous that people blame Henry for Kathryn Howard’s behaviour. If she broke her marriage vows that was her choice and her fault and it doesn’t matter what Henry looked like and as someone who is married to an older man in poor health I also find remarks about that to be insensitive as well. I conceded a long time ago that Kathryn may or may not have committed adultery because there is a lack of direct evidence. I am not without some sympathy for Kathryn when it comes to her alleged former lovers, because she didn’t know she would marry King Henry at that time, it was a few years earlier and she hadn’t been meant to be Queen. She had a teenage fling, a sexual romance with Francis Dereham who saw far more in their relationship than Kathryn may have. Before that her romance with Mannox, her music master was of an abusive nature and in this I also sympathise. I don’t believe Cranner had any choice but to write that letter. Concealing her past wasn’t a crime, but if she still had her lovers hanging around it may be seen as putting the future succession in danger or make her marriage invalid. Cranmer had learned something serious, scandal involving the Queen, slander was dangerous and to slander the Queen was treason. Hiding the truth on the other hand was misprison of treason. An investigation had to be called to get to the truth. Henry acted with patience in this and didn’t actually believe the rumours and hoped that the stories told by Mary Hall and John Lassells would not be true. Unfortunately several other witnesses confirmed the stories and Henry was devastated. The way Kathryn was treated now was a mix of leniency and confusion. She was confined to her apartments and her jewellery was taken away but she was left her servants and trappings. However, she was questioned about her lovers and in fear she became distressed. She may have simply been afraid or being trying to hide things but her answers were contradictory. However, one must have some sympathy for her because of her youth and she was also now abandoned by her husband and left to her own devices. Worse was to follow and I have to say it is here though that I lose some sympathy for both Kathryn and Henry. Henry because I don’t believe he made a wise choice here of a Queen and Kathryn because her behaviour was totally ridiculous and made her look guilty, even if she didn’t actually commit adultery. What condemned Kathryn, Dereham and Culpeper was their intention to go further, given the chance, putting the legitimacy of potential heirs in doubt. It isn’t true that Kathryn had no chance to defend herself. She wasn’t offered a trial as Anne Boleyn had been given, but she was offered the chance to come to Parliament and speak before her Attainment was passed. She refused and Henry changed his mind about a delegation questioning her. Dereham denied adultery, even under very extreme pressure, which Greg Walker believed meant torture, although no warrant has been found to confirm this, blaming Culpeper instead and he in turn blamed Kathryn and everyone blamed Lady Jane Rochford who had helped Kathryn to meet her alleged lovers. Had Lady Rochford not helped them, Kathryn would have had to just behave herself and content herself with good works. She was the Queen of England and her duty was to her husband and those who sought her compassion. As an intercessor Kathryn appeared to have been successful and there are a number of ceremonies in which she took part with the grace of a grand lady. Whether or not Kathryn deserved death is another question but from the point of view of Henry, he had treated her with every courtesy and she had betrayed him with a man he had looked on almost as a son: that may be at the root of his brutality in ending the life of this young woman. The two men had already been found guilty and executed and Henry also rounded up the entire Howard clan who were questioned, several times, locked up and tried for misprison, but eventually pardoned. The Attainder accused Kathryn of living a loose life and of deception and intending to carry that life on during her marriage and Jane was made out to be some evil brothel keeper almost. Jane had also been ill, having a nervous breakdown and so should not have been executed. However, and here I agree we see the capricious nature of a tyrant, Henry Viii had the Parliament pass a law to allow insane people accused of treason to be put to death. Thus Jane was also executed and her own reputation was ruined. Mary I repealed this law and reversed the Attainders.

        It is very difficult to see Kathryn Howard as anything but a victim, but I don’t see her in that light. I see her as a bright and vibrant young woman who wasn’t suitable for her role as Queen but made the best of it. However, she was also spoiled and could be hard to cross, often making threats to her ladies if they didn’t obey her whims and keep her secrets. She had a nasty streak and she could act like a spoilt child. She loved the glamour of Queenship and the entertainment and the way that Henry literally showered her with gifts and affection. However, Henry suffered a severe bout of depression and was also making friendship visits to Anne of Cleves which gave way to rumours that Henry was about to discard her. She was insecure and this is one of the times that Kathryn met with Culpeper behind her husband’s back. She enjoyed the excitement of the chase and male company but she found Dereham crude and vulgar and his language was offensive. Her reaction to his arrival at Court wasn’t what he had expected and it seems unlikely that she had a new affair with him. Culpeper was a young man that she had been out with before her marriage and a family relation on her mother’s side and she found his company more to her liking. She took the risk that they wouldn’t be seen but even having long conversations late into the night was very foolish and risky. It wasn’t a good choice, but it was her choice. Her life being brought to an end at such a young age, however, is still a tragedy and what we can say is that at the end of the day, Kathryn at least died with dignity. It is also a myth that she said she would rather die as the wife of Thomas Culpeper as two eye witnesses say her end was conventional and she showed penitent commitment to God’s mercy. Jane Rochford, who died first also made a similar good end.

        Did Thomas Cranmer regret writing the letter which ultimately sent four people to their deaths? He probably didn’t intend his investigations to lead to that and I don’t believe it’s accurate to blame him. He was only one of several Councillors who questioned Kathryn and her lovers past and present and the investigation lasted several weeks. In the end it was a combination of one thing leading to another, a Queen who looked guilty, assuming people had committed treason and the brutal decision of a man who had been bitterly betrayed and could find no more compassion for his young wife, not Cranmer or his letter, that sent four people to their deaths.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *