Katherine Howard's badge, designed by Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Katherine Howard’s badge, designed by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Thank you to Lauryn Poe for inspiring this post and to Conor Byrne, Marilyn Roberts and Judith Loriente for the subsequent discussions on this issue.

Lauryn contacted me last month to ask me whether I knew of a primary source for Henry VIII referring to Katherine Howard as his “rose without a thorn”. I was already researching Katherine myself and hadn’t come across a source during my research, just historians saying that Henry referred to her as such. I decided to do some digging into it as that’s what I like best, a mystery, something to get to the bottom of.

I consulted the secondary sources on my bookshelf. In The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir wrote that “Henry was so besotted with Katherine that he ordered a medal to be struck in commemoration of their marriage. It was of gold, embossed with Tudor roses and true lovers’ knots entwined, and it carried the inscription: HENRICUS VIII: RUTILANS ROSA SINE SPINA, a pretty reference to the King’s rose without a thorn, his perfect bride”,1 but there was no reference cited. Fortunately, I had better luck with Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. In her book, Fraser wrote that “To Henry VIII, Katherine Howard was his ‘blushing rose without a thorn’.” and in her notes she gave the Latin motto, RUTILANS ROSA SINE SPINA (blushing rose without a thorn) and cited Agnes Strickland, the Victorian historian, as her source.2 I have Strickland’s The Lives of the Queens of England: Volume II so I checked and Strickland wrote:

“He could neither afford to honour Katherine Howard with a public bridal nor a coronation, but he paid her the compliment of causing gold coins to be struck in commemoration of their marriage, bearing the royal arms of England, flanked with H R, and surmounted with the royal diadem. On the reverse is a rose, crowned, in allusion to his bride, flanked by the initiala K R, with the following legend:- HENRICUS VIII. RUTILANS ROSA SINE SPINA.”3

Strickland did not give any more details on the coin struck for Katherine so I then went digging into Tudor coins. In Dye’s Coin Encylopaedia, I found that Henry VIII “introduced the ‘Gold Crown’ into the English series of coinage” and that this coin had “upon its obverse a double rose, crowned between the letters ‘H.R.’ (Henry Rex). ‘H.A.’ (Henry and Anne). ‘H.J.’ (Henry and Jane). ‘H.K.’ (Henry and Katherine)”. It bore the legend “HENRIC. VIII. RUTILANS ROSA SIE SPIA”, or Henricus VIII., Rutilans rosa sine spina, meaning “Henry VIII, the shining/dazzling rose without a thorn. So, this encyclopaedia was stating that the legend actually described Henry, not Katherine.4

I then consulted other coin books and websites. In Coins of England and Great Britain, Tony Clayton stated that the “Crown of the Rose” coin was “an extremely rare coin struck during the second coinage of Henry VIII for a few months in 1526” and explained that there were “two types, both of which feature a large rose on the reverse. One has the inscription HENRIC RUTILANS ROSA SINE SPINA, meaning ‘Henry a dazzling rose without a thorn’, and the other DNS HIB RUTILANS ROSA SINE SPINA, meaning ‘Lord of Ireland a dazzling rose without a thorn’.”5 Henry VIII was still married to Katherine of Aragon in 1526 so this coin was not a medal struck in celebration of his marriage to Katherine Howard. Thomas Snelling’s A View of the Silver Coin and Coinage of England from the Norman Conquest gave exactly the same information as Dye’s Coin Encylopaedia.6 In Henfrey’s Guide to English Coins, it said:

“Crown. Obv. a double rose crowned, between the letters H.K. (for Henry, and Katherine his 1st wife); or H.A. (for Henry, and Anne his 2nd wife); or H.I. (for Henry, and Jane his 3rd wife); or the letters H.R. (for Henricus Rex). All these letters are crowned. HENRIC VIII. RVTILANS ROSA SIE SPIA.”7

It also described the half-crown as being similar but with uncrowned letters next to the legend.

On the Portable Antiquities Scheme website, which records archaeological finds, I found a photo of a gold crown from Henry VIII’s reign which was dated 1509-1526 and bore a crowned H and R with the legend “HENRIC VIII RUTILANS ROSA SINE SPINA”.8 On /www.coinandbullionpages.com, there are photographs of each side of “the Crown of the Double Rose” which has the crowned initials H and I (I was for Jane) either side of the Tudor rose on one side and Henry VIII’s arms on the other. It also bears the legend HENRIC VIII. RVTILANS ROSA SIE SPIA, which is proof that the legend was being used before Henry had even met Katherine Howard.

Gold crown of Henry VIII, c. Bristol City Council
Gold crown of Henry VIII, c. Bristol City Council

When I spoke to Conor Byrne, author of Katherine Howard: A New History, about my doubts over the coin being struck for Katherine Howard he pointed out that David Starkey had pointed this out in his book on the six wives – “why hadn’t I looked at that book first?”, I asked myself. In his notes on his chapter on Katherine. Starkey writes that the motto “originates with Agnes Strickland” and that the coin in question, the Crown of the Double Rose, “had been issued since Wolsey’s recoinage of 1536.”9 He went on to explain that after Jane Seymour’s death the coin bore the cipher “HR” and remained that way from 1537 until the end of Henry’s reign. He also stated, as I’d found out, that the motto/legend referred to Henry. Starkey concluded that the rose badge and motto had nothing to do with Katherine and that “this reading of the evidence is confirmed by M. Siddons, Heraldic Badges of England and Wales. Dr Siddons finds that Catherine, unlike Henry’s other wives, seems to have displayed no personal badge.” That would explain why the only image of Katherine’s rose badge I’ve been able to find is the one from the Weidenfeld & Nicolson archive (a publisher established in 1948). I have not been able to find any mention of Katherine’s “rose” badge in any primary sources or any images of it from any historic houses. The badges or “arms” Antonia Fraser writes of being inserted by Galyon Hone, the King’s glazier, at Rochester, and quickly removed in 1542 after Katherine’s fall, may well have been a cipher like the “HA” ciphers (Henry and Anne) that Henry tried to get removed from Hampton Court Palace after Anne Boleyn’s fall.10 If anyone knows of any badges depicting a rose for Katherine then please do share in the comments below.

David Starkey writes of how Agnes Strickland’s “rose without a thorn” story “has been repeated, with less excuse, by her many successors” and it’s true. I am one of those “successors”, I have been guilty of writing of Henry VIII referring to Katherine as his “rose without a thorn” and also “a perfect jewel of womanhood”,11 which were actually his privy council’s words and not his own. Henry VIII may well have believed Katherine to be unblemished and perfect, but the romantic motto and badge seem to be fiction. What a shame!

So, we go from Katherine being Henry VIII’s “blushing rose without a thorn” to Henry VIII being the “dazzling rose without a thorn”, interesting…

You can read more about Katherine Howard in Conor Byrne’s new biography Katherine Howard: A New History.

Coin image – Gold crown of Henry VIII, Bristol City Council, from finds.org.uk/database/images/image/id/334156 and used under Creative Commons licence.

Notes and Sources

  1. Weir, Alison (2007) The Six Wives of Henry VIII, p436
  2. Fraser, Antonia (1992) The Six Wives of Henry VIII, p405,548
  3. Strickland, Agnes (1866) Lives of the Queens of England, Volume II, p351-2
  4. Dye, John S (1883) Dye’s coin encyclopædia: a complete illustrated history of the coins of the world, p771
  5. Clayton, Tony (2013) Coins of England and Great Britain (‘Coins of the UK’) – see http://www.coins-of-the-uk.co.uk/fours.html
  6. Snelling, Thomas (1762) A View of the Silver Coin and Coinage of England, from the Norman Conquest to the Present Time, p12
  7. Henfrey’s Guide to English Coins (A Guide to the Study and Arrangement of English Coins by Henry William Henfrey) (1870), p38
  8. Portable Antiquities Scheme – see http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/449941
  9. Starkey, David (2003) The Six Wives of Henry VIII, p810 (note 17 to chapter 73)
  10. Fraser, p437
  11. LP xvi 1334, 12 November 1541, The Council to Paget, Ambassador in France: “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.”

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41 thoughts on “Katherine Howard – Was she really Henry VIII’s “rose without a thorn”?”
  1. Excellent detective work as always, Claire. It is somewhat of a shame that Henry VIII did not after all romantically refer to Katherine Howard as his ‘rose without a thorn’!
    Another myth about the six wives.

  2. In The Autobiography of Henry VIII with Footnotes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George (a good book by the way), Henry commissioned his gardener to grow a rose without a form to honor Katherine.

    1. There is no index in this book and the fool’s “footnotes” are fictional. Not a bad read if I recall (read so long ago) but a disappointment overall.

  3. Thank you for this article Claire and for your website as well. I have learned so much since I found you two years ago!

  4. I love your unraveling the threads of the myth. Great detective work is so exciting to me, I can only imagine how it must be for you who do all the hard work. Congratulations once again.
    Have you decided if and when you might do another tour? I just spent 2 1/2 weeks in Scotland, England and Wales on a wonderful tour through the company CIE, however there was so much I missed which I had hoped to see about Anne and Henry. It was Sunday when I went to the Tower and St. Peter’s was closed for a church service. St. George’s Chapel was closed in preparation for the Order of the Garter ceremony. Hever Castle was too far from Windsor and the only day I could have gone there I woke up sick. I loved every minute of my visit, but long to see so much more.

  5. Excellent detective work, as always! We should have known Henry would have been talking about HENRY when he mentioned perfection! There goes another great romantic story! But I’m glad to know the truth. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for that most interesting article. I too have read Starkey but failed to notice his evidence on this. I must say that I sometimes disagree with some of the articles on this site as I find them a little too sugary and romantic, (or maybe ‘feminine’) but always love reading them. This one however, you have stuck your hand up and admitted that you, along with many many others, myself included, mistakenly accepted this as fact. It just shows how history never ceases to fascinate and there is always more to discover (see programme on Richard III the other night about his fighting prowess).
    Your website does you credit and it is little gems like this that keep me intrigued. For people for whom the Tudor era is a hobby, not a job, peolpe like you are a godsend.
    All the best

  7. Fascinating. Sheds a new light on how Henry saw himself and the House of Tudor, doesn’t it? He’s saying that the Tudors are the roses without thorns, that he himself is a rose without a thorn. A dazzling bloom – grandeur? prosperity? – without any of the thorns – the thorns presumably being all the negative traits people would not want in a monarch.

    1. ITA! Henry, however, took narcissim to new heights, IMO

      Just a side note: it is Interesting that the Tudors laid so much stress on the “rose” emblem, when they supposedly ended something called “the cousins’ wars”, not “the wars of the roses”

  8. Well done there Claire in your hunting out the truth of the matter. That was really interesting.
    I did smile to myself at Henry being described as the shining/dazzling rose without a thorn…he may have been like that in the beginning, but those thorns sure grew thick and fast as time went by 🙂
    It is a pretty and romantic description though, and although we now know it wasn’t said about Catherine Howard, I think it will always stay with her…like many of the myths that still follow Anne through history, at least Catherine’s is a ‘nice’ one.

    1. It was lucky that I started digging into this before we completed the cover design for Conor’s book as we quite liked the title Katherine Howard: Rose Without a Thorn and that would have been a bad title for a book looking to dispel some of the myths about her.

  9. Thank you Claire for such an excellent article. This was something I had never come across before, so have learned something new. Like many people I am fascinated by the Tudor era. I am so pleased that I have found your website.

  10. Hi Claire,

    Thanks for the mention.

    Like others, I’ve been so influenced by the sheer volume of authors who quote the ‘rose’ motto, that even though I came across Starkey’s explanation some time ago, I still wondered if somewhere along the line there actually was a mention and I had missed it. Same with the ‘jewel’ which, as I said in my previous post, actually bugs me more than the rose does!

    Looking forward to reading Conor’s book and am still plodding on with the Dowager Duchess, etc myself, but I have so many other loose ends to tie up on other jobs before I’ll find time for the final proof read.

    Will keep you posted. Thinking of calling it ‘The Other Howards – Queen Katherine’s Fellow Prisoners’ rather than’ Trouble in Paradise’ which had been inspired by Old Paradise Street in Lambeth. What do you and your readers think ??

    M x

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      That’s ok. It is interesting how Agnes Strickland is still affecting authors today, with things like this just being passed on and on.

      I know what it’s like. I had to put my book on Katherine’s fall to one side for a bit because of other projects and the children being home for the school hols. Must get back to it!

      I can’t wait to read your book on the Howards. I like titles which are simple and sum up a book (like the Ronseal advert – it does what it says on the tin), so I’d go with “The Other Howards – Queen Katherine’s Fellow Prisoners”. I think that makes it obvious for people browsing online or in bookshops what it’s actually about. Just my opinion though!


    2. what I would love to find out is,what happened to Katherine howards ladies in waiting after Katherine execution ,are there any records of later marriages of these women ,or in fact any information at all ?.

      1. The women who found themselves in the Tower for concealing what they knew about Katherin’s past were, in the main, those who had lived with her at Norfolk House before her marriage – although Tylney and Bulmer were also at Court – but most of her ladies who served her as queen were not implicated, although were questioned about Culpeper.
        It’s difficult to find out what happpened to even some of the ‘big’ names in the case, and with most of the women involved being of unexceptional social status, they faded into the background. I always think what a difference there would be today, where everybody would be scrambling to sell their ‘story’ to sleazy newspapers!

  11. I wonder how all the talk of roses might have influenced Shakespeare’s famous quote about “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

    Please note, I am paraphrasing here, since I don’t have a reference on my desk.

  12. Underlying so much of our study
    Of Henry’s marriages is our assumption that females were seen then as now. Not the case. They were prizes, often, but they were also property and channels for property to be distributed through. And the Almighty Church had its own message (only slightly ameliorated by the chivalric code and the Blessed “Virgin” Mary mythologies) that women were occasions of sin and (except in some non-human, perfect state) spiritually inferior to men. That Henry’s first two wives were brilliant enough and self-possessed enough to value themselves must have been as much an inner conflict for themselves as the conflict it provided for Henry. Katherine of Aragon was the Spanish ambassador for some time as well as Henry’s deputy during the Scottish war, and she had a formidable mother. Ann Boleyn certainly had the great cultivation to be at least within arms reach of Marguerite of France (with her heretical views), and Francis’ mother. Except for Katharine Parr, who had ultimately to abase herself fully to save her life, Henry chose no women after Anne who challenged the male supremacy paradigm. It makes sense that Henry, and not the Howard girl, was the rose without a thorn. Even though Elizabeth I ruled, and translated, early on, the mystical book of her mother’s associate Princess Marguerite of France, she took pride in herself, over and over, as a Prince, using the decidedly masculine connotation.

      1. and apparently some high ranking women in the police force are now addressed as ‘Sir’ instead of Ma’am, strange ol’ world…with the supposed equality that both sexes are meant to have today, that being called Sir is still considered to be a higher status than being called Ma’am….weird.

    1. Even today, Queen Elizabeth II includes among her official titles the Duke of Normandy, the Duke of Lancaster, and Lord of Mann (referring to the Isle of Mann)

  13. History is not stagnant! That is what is so engaging about
    This website–we can always learn something new about
    The Tudors and their times. Thanks Claire !
    Warm Regards from a reader in the US,

  14. Sad to see these stories be disproven in some ways–this one was fundamental enough that I really do feel a pang!

    But it did occur to me that if mainstream historians (is that the right term?) looked at some of what the specialist ones, such as the coin ones mentioned here, were doing, more than one issue would be cleared up sooner.

  15. So from this article I understand that the phrase “Rose without a thorn” was a phrase used for years and years to describe Henry himself. I can believe that this is fact and the phrase mistakenly got attached to Katherine Howard. However the first thing that came to my mind when reading this article was who decided in the first place to describe Henry as a rose without a thorn? His grandmother who adored him? Himself? His council and advisers? I know that when Henry took the throne England had huge hope for its future through Henry being so young, well educated, talented, kindhearted, devout and so on. So did Henry see himself as a perfect rose without a thorn or was that the expectation of what he would and could be being placed on him by his country?

  16. Excellent detective work Claire! I just love reading all about the Tudors…I guess that probably Henry himself or someone very close to him must have come up with the “Rose without a thorn” motto….as he was the first Tudor who could claim both both Lancaster and York roses on his own right!

  17. Absolutely fascinating article Claire! It just goes to show you how information can be misconstrued over centuries, like a game of telephone.
    Keep up the good work.

  18. Good piece of dectective work and a thought provoking article. I am sure that Henry may have thought of Katherine in terms of her being his perfect wife; when he was not depressed or in a foul mood that is and complained about her, Cromwells death and just about everything; but the rose without a thorn story is the one romantic story of this marriage that endures. I myself would prefer such things to remain a mystery as I enjoy such stories; but as a historian I too am on the side of finding the truth of the matter. I was surprised that there was a medal claimed to be struck but it would not be unnusual for a King to commemorate his Queen in such a way with a golden coin or a medalian, which may have been intended as a special personal gift. But well if no evidence of such a medalian can be found, that is a shame.

    Henry was certainly bessoted with Katherine, who at 17-19 years old at the time of her marriage was in the first bloomings of womanhood. He lavashed gifts on her, some which she shared with Anne of Cleves and others; he gave her her endowment of great estates to show her status as Queen and he seems to have allowed her a degree of patronage and freedom in the way she passed her days. There were times that Henry could not be with her and she found herself locked out of his rooms in March 1541 due to his leg and his depression, and no-one told her what was wrong; poor Katherine believed she had done something wrong; she was simply neglected. It is during this period that if she wanted to dance during the entertainments at night at court she would have to look upon the charming young courtiers, who I am sure were only too pleased to have her attention. It is doubtful that anything untoward happened at this time at Henry once recovered seems to have more than made things up to his pretty young bride. Katherine and Henry went on several visits to favourite courtiers and she received gifts of Baynards Castle on the Thames at this time. She was said to be spoilt but Henry was simply paying attention to a bride that he had earlier neglected.

    Katherine seems to have set her seal on the fashions of the day and to enjoyed rich and lovely dresses, may-be to excess. Her step daughter criticised her and as a result according to Chapyus two of her maids were dismissed and Katherine complained that Mary did not show her proper respect. Henry if he did spoil his wife surely would have had a gift made that commemorated her, but that there is no evidence makes such a thing now questionable. He may have seen in Katherine a yonng Jane Seymour and hoped she was fruitful, but he must also have been disappointed that she was not pregnant even after they had come back from a successful northern progress. Katherine was also a kind and charming young woman, generous and fun loving. She played her part as intercessor, part of her Queenly duty well by asking for mercy for several high status prisoners. Henry gave her the life of Thomas Wyatt and Wallop and she gave gifts of mantles and furs for poor Margaret Pole in the Tower, but sadly could not prevent this elderly grand ladies execution. Katherine had many qualities to commend her, well documented but overlooked in drama and media, especially in the Tudors that showed her as a selfish and silly idiot. I would think that Henry thought highly of her and may have referred to her as his rose. That a medalion shows Henry as the rose without a thorn does exist is also a good laugh given his many poor decisions in his latter years.

    Henry did, however, refer to Katherine as a perfect example of womanhood, as he had her prayed for in this sense at the service on All Souls Day, but little did he know that at that service his world and his marriage to Katherine was about to be brought tumbling down, as rumours of her sexual exploits surfaced and Katherine was not a perfect rose afterall.

  19. This is really interesting! I had never even questioned that possibly she hadn’t been referred to as his ‘Rose w/out Thorns’. How strange that Henry VIII of all people was referred to as “Rose without Thorns”…lol….I feel like he was a pretty prickly guys! 🙂

  20. Forgive me this rather simple question, but why wasn’t Henry able to “afford to honour Katherine Howard with a public bridal nor a coronation”? I always wondered why neither of them happened, given his infatuation, was the reason really a lack of money?

    1. it’s Strickland again putting 2 + 2 together to make 5, that is, saying it was a low-key affair for economic reasons because she could not think of any other explanation. His other marriages were low-key as well, and four of his six wives were not crowned, but he was hardly knocking on the door of the Poor House!

  21. Questioning long-accepted “facts” is part of what makes history so intriguing. Undoubtedly there is still much information to be gleaned from original sources, and ever-expanding internet sites ease the process. Thank you Claire for this wonderful article, a teachable moment.

  22. “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”

    Poor Henry..having to be begged to re-marry yet again..he was so bullied by his council…

  23. This was such an interesting article. Ironically, my copy of Conor Byrne’s Book “Katherine Howard: A new history” arrived today. This gets me in the right frame of mind to begin my read. Thank you Claire.

  24. I believe the word “afford” is used in a sense other than an economic one. He could not “afford” to give her a coronation, because based on his past history of needing to be rid of wives, a crowned and anointed queen might be harder to dispose of. A crowned queen might have more legal protections. The original statement being written in the 1860’s makes it more likely this is the use of “afford” intended. In this sense of the word: “He could not afford to give this full consideration, as he was too occupied with weighty affairs…”

  25. Wow! And we think that nothing can be found anymore on these subjects… Your research should be largely published, it’s a real historian work… Could it not appear in History Magazines? It’s worth it! As so many people refer to Katherine Howard as the famous “Rose”… And in the end it appears to be Henry himself… Ah ah what a joke, the Rose had long vanished when he met his fifth wife then….

  26. Excellent tackling of research, as always, Claire. Tracing something we think we “know” only to find that when we get there, there is no There there! History is never boring and not set in stone as often as we think.

  27. One additional thought, from the numismatic aspect:
    If indeed the “rosa sine spine” (rose without a thorn) had been for Katherine Howard or indeed any of Henry’s wives other than his first one (Katherine of Aragon), how on earth could Mary Stuart have tolerated having that motto on some of her own coins?
    e.g. https://en.numista.com/catalogue/pieces126586.html
    Since Elizabeth I also used the expression on some of her coins,
    see e.g. https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/655884
    the idea MUST have been that it was referring to Henry VIII and his line (unless, perhaps, the English state).

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