Katherine Howard’s Execution: The Tragic End of a Young Life

Posted By on February 13, 2012

Katherine HowardToday’s post comes from historian Marilyn Roberts, author of “The Mowbray Legacy” and the forthcoming “Norfolk House”. You may remember her articles on the Howards from December. Thank you, Marilyn!

There has been a quiet spell, of sorts, since 22nd December 1541 when we left prominent members of the Howard family incarcerated in the Tower. Some had already been charged and imprisoned for life over their involvement in Queen Katherine’s transgressions, but some, including the old Duchess of Norfolk, are still languishing in some discomfort, and no little terror.

1st January

Marillac, the French Ambassador, writes that Lord William Howard is ‘the least charged’ and it is hoped he will be released soon, but his mother the Duchess, his sister Lady Bridgewater and the former Queen are yet to be judged by parliament through a Bill of Attainder.

16th January

Neatly slotted in among the list of rather mundane parliamentary business for the forthcoming session comes ‘For due process to be had in high treason in cases of lunacy or madness,’ which is highly significant, as Lady Rochford has suffered a nervous breakdown. Attainder will be condemnation without trial, and part of the purpose of the Bill is also to give parliamentary sanction to executions and imprisonments which have already taken place. Tucked away amongst the rest of the business we find the actual Bill of Attainder:

Katharine Howard whom the King took to wife is proved to have been not of pure and honest living before her marriage, and the fact that she has since taken to her service one Francis Dereham, the person with whom she used that vicious life before, and has taken as chamberer a woman who was privy to her naughty life before, is proof of her will to return to her old abominable life … and has met Culpeper in a secret and vile place… with only that bawd, the lady Jane Rocheford….

Some, including Lord Chancellor Audley, are uneasy that Katherine is not to be brought forward to defend herself, even if only to give the appearance of fair treatment, but when the delegation arrives at Syon to question her further she has no more to add except she hopes her family will not be made to suffer for her wrongdoings.

21st January

The Bill has its first reading.

8th February

Catherine Howard

Life-sized figure of Queen Katherine Howard, Gainsborough Old Hall. © Marilyn Roberts 2012

The Bill of Attainder has its second reading and within the next three days will have its third and final reading before becoming an Act of Parliament and passing into law. It is, of course, a foregone conclusion that there will be no opposition, the Act will be passed and Katherine Howard will lose her head. She has been under house arrest, in reduced circumstances but no real discomfort, since the middle of November, so how much does she know of what is going on outside? Does she know Culpeper and Dereham are already gone, that her old step-grandmother is in the Tower, or that her own days are truly numbered? Come to think of it, what do any of the accused know of the current circumstances and whereabouts of the others?

10th February

Katherine Howard is taken on her penultimate journey in this life: to the Tower. In no doubt now as to where she is going and what is to happen to her, she struggles and has to be forced into a small covered boat and is then escorted along the Thames with Southampton ahead in a large barge and Suffolk behind in a barge loaded with armed men. The King’s great friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, has a little granddaughter aged about four. She’s a bright little thing called Jane Grey.

11th February

The Bill of Attainder passes into law after its third reading; Henry cannot face the distasteful task of putting his name to what amounts to his own wife’s death warrant, but the execution is still to go ahead.

12th February

The former Queen Katherine is told to ‘prepare her soul’, as is her lady-in-waiting Lady Rochford. Jane Rochford has gone mad with worry since her arrest, but the new law allowing the execution of someone not of sound mind will be able to deal with that.

13th February

Marillac writes to Francis I and comments on the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s valuables and the precariousness of her position now that the Bill has become an Act of Parliament,

As to the old duchess of Norfolk, some say she shall die, others that she shall keep perpetual prison, like her son Lord William and daughter the Countess of Bridgewater. A few days will show. All her goods are already confiscated, and are of marvellous value, 400,000 or 500,000 cr [crowns]. Norfolk is greatly interested, since the greater part came to her through his late father; yet the times are such that he dare not show that the affair touches him, but approves all that is done.

In a post script to his letter the ambassador writes that he has just heard the Queen is dead, only eighteen months after her marriage. His source reports that she was followed immediately by Jane Rochford and both women made a suitably dignified exit, and are to be buried under the floor of the Tower Church of St. Peter-ad-Vincula close to the likewise decapitated bodies of Katherine’s cousins Anne and George Boleyn.

Ottwell Johnson was present at the scaffold this morning, and is mulling over what he will say in his next letter to his brother John in Calais. He will keep it brief. He will write that the Queen, after telling the onlookers that she felt justly condemned – having sinned against God in breaking all His commandments – had asked those present to pray for the preservation of the King. She made a good end, thinks Ottwell. There are whispers about town that the Queen spoke of her love for Master Thomas Culpeper, but witnesses say not.

Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire. Gainsborough Old Hall - Katherine stayed here with HenryVIII (and Thomas Culpeper). ©Marilyn Roberts 2012

Queen Katherine’s uncle of Norfolk, whose efforts had more than likely brought her to Court in the first place, is conveniently ill today, but his son was present as they snatched his cousin’s life away. Perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, his turn will come.

It looks as though the Dowager Duchess and her daughter will be allowed to live but face life imprisonment. Only time will tell whether the King will find it in his heart to release them – but things are not looking very promising.

You can read Marilyn’s previous articles at:-

RIP Queen Katherine Howard

27 thoughts on “Katherine Howard’s Execution: The Tragic End of a Young Life”

  1. Courtney says:

    Wow!! It really does make my heart ache reading it like that

  2. miladyblue says:

    Just like Anne Boleyn, poor Kathryn had no chance to explain or defend herself in an honest and fair way in a real court of law, nor anyone to act as a lawyer in her behalf. Henry’s tears were all show – a grand display of self pity, but no real concern for a naive young girl thrown to the wolves of court.

    1. Baroness Von Reis says:

      Miladyblue,Once again i must agree with your reply,this Queen was but a child of 15 years when Henry was in the chase for her,to end her life in such a mannor must have been horrific!!I myself have never pityed Henry for the choices he made,it seemed to me that these women were used as brude mares,clearly he cared not for any female offsring,as he said I care not who I call bastards when I am dead.I really think, that any women that was to be with him,should have eyes wide open to this King,aswell as making her bad choices ,sealed her fate but I look at her age that really explaines much about her short life.She was to young and Henry much to old for this doomed child/Queen.She reminds me of The Lady Jane Grey and her very short life as a Queen 9 days.I must sayif you have not seen this movie it is well worth it fac not fic. I thx WilesWales on that find! Regards Baroness Von Reis

  3. Fiz says:

    I feel so sorry for Katherine Howard. She was young and not very bright, in love with at least two other men and along comes Henry VIII and wants to marry her – cut to fade…

  4. Sherri says:

    I have always felt that Katharine Howard was unjustly punished. Her uncle, her grandmother and others who put her in front of Henry knew what she had been doing. They used her for their own ends and means. I also can’t believe that Henry did not know that Katharine was sexually experienced, He just never acknowledged it because of his own ego and inadequacies.

    Katharine was probably what we call light headed. She loved life and it loved her back.
    There was no substance to her. She never had a chance in the political arena.

    Of all the tragic figures in Tudor times, I feel that she didn’t deserve what she got. Of all his wives unlike KOA and AB as well as Anne of Cleves she was not intelligent nor did she have a strong character. She has always reminded me of a happy, cheerful young woman who loved life and wanted to experience it to the fullest. Unfortunately, life was not good to her in the end.

    As for Jane Rochford, if she did actually take part in AB’s and George’s downfall then she actually got what she deserved. Funny, how some of the people that assisted in Anne’s and the Boleyn’s downfall, received their just punishment in the years that followed.

  5. WilesWales says:

    I have to agree with Sherri on this one. We must remember that poor Katherine was only about 18 to 20 years old when all of htis occurred. Her uncle and grandmother forced her into this marriage, Henry was impotent, and she was told she must have a male heir to secure her position. So Lady Rochford intervened (not indireclty, but directly this time) in the manner to which history most knows her. As Anne, it has been reported, said at her trial, “We will all be judged, in time..” Thank you! WilesWales

  6. Dawn !st says:

    Poor child, not really equipt to be Queen to such a King.
    Lovely to see the photo of Gainsbough Old Hall, beautiful place, lived but a few miles from it for many years, and visited often, well worth a visit.

  7. Bridgett says:

    Oh it is heart-wrenching to read every time!

  8. Kim says:

    I think it’s unfair that everyone characterizes Katherine as stupid, or air headed, or not particularly bright. I don’t think that is the case at all. Yes, she made some bad decisions, but that does not make her thick. She believed that she was in love (whether she actually was or not is another matter altogether), and haven’t we all done something stupid in the name of love?

    As Starkey rightly pointed out in his book ‘Six Wives’, it appeared that Katherine would eventually grow into her role and become a rather good Queen. However, she was never given the chance to do so. Looking at the ages that Henry’s wives were when he married them, to me anyway, says an awful lot about the difference between Katherine and the other wives. CoA was 23 (and raised to be a Queen), AB was 31 (if you believe the 1501 birthdate, 25 if you believe 1507) and had been involved with Henry for over 6 years at that point, JS was 29, AoC was 24 (and raised in a very conservative and strict household) and CP was 31.

    Katherine was between 15 and 20, raised under extremely loose supervision and not expected to really make all that much of herself. To me, personally, her mistakes do not speak to stupidity, but to a girl that didn’t know any better.

    I admire Katherine a great deal, she was thrust into the limelight out of nowhere and she did the best she knew how. Yes, she made a grave mistake that cost her everything, but when the time came, she was dignified and made a good end. I think those last few days of her life speak more to the kind of woman Katherine was going to become than anything else. I think it is a shame, because I believe that she would have eventually made a wonderful Queen.

    1. Claire says:

      Hi Kim,
      Have you read my article Catherine Howard – Material Girl?. I don’t think she was stupid either. I think she was reckless, but who isn’t when they are in love? But I think she had made a good start as queen and had shown herself to be kind and considerate. I personally feel that she was used by Culpeper, a manipulative older man.

  9. JS says:

    Great article. I have a question about these lines: “Suffolk behind in a barge loaded with armed men. The King’s great friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, has a little granddaughter aged about four. She’s a bright little thing called Jane Grey.”

    Do these sentences regarding the “10th Feb” paragraph mean that Charles Suffolk attended Catherine’s trip to the Tower, and he brought Jane Grey with him? It sounded like she was in the barge with him. Curious.


    1. Claire says:

      I think Marilyn is just making the point that Suffolk’s granddaughter would, ironically, suffer the same fate as Catherine Howard. She would not have been in the barge with him.

      1. Marilyn R says:

        Thanks, Claire.

        Yes, what I meant was that life for these people was liable to take a vicious twist. Brandon’s own granddaughter, Queen Jane, was beheaded twelve years and two days after he took Queen Katherine to the Tower.

        Thanks for pointing out that what I had put could be misconstrued – I’ll do something about that before the book manuscript goes to the proof-reader.


        1. Lina says:

          Hi Marilyn!

          Do you have a date for your book? Looking forward to it 🙂

  10. Marilyn R says:

    Hi Lina,
    Thank you for your interest.
    I’m finishing off ‘The Bare Bones of Queen Victoria’s Family Trees’ , which we suddenly realised needs to come out in time for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, so that will be out in about six weeks’ time, but it has messed-up the schedule a bit.

    ‘Norfolk House’ is just about done but there has been major refurbishment at the medieval manor in Lincolnshire that I believe was built to the same style, so I’m waiting for the scaffolding to come down so I can take the final photos. I hope to be in print with this by July at the latest, but I’ll let Claire know when anything moves.

    Best wishes,


  11. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Claire,I agree Queen Katherine was most likely forced into marriage with the King,at a very young age I heard she was 15 years when the King was in the chase for this girl.No she wasnot stupid just very young,as we all make mistakes one time or another.I do however wonder why these ladys didnot learn fron this Kings past? The court was full of the Kings informents,nothing got away from Henry, even if you didnot wrong him,if he wanted you gone you ,were gone so tragic. Regards Baroness Von Reis

  12. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Claire, How is her name spelled Katherine/Catherine/Kathryn?????? Does anyone no the true spelling of this Queens name???? Regards Baroness Von Reis

    1. Marilyn R says:

      I have tended to spell it ‘Katheryn’, which is how she signed the letter to Culpeper, but for search engine purposes I am advised to spell it ‘Katherine’.

  13. suzie says:

    hi one and all my computer has been in and out so now I’m back……Little Catherine Howard didn’t have have a chance once the kings eye fell on her and she became the shiney new toy. She was a child and kid even by todays standards. Henry hand children older then Catherine, certainly princess Mary was. Sooooo here is a little girl playing dress up at the court of the King and she prances around as the Queen. Henry was an old man by this time and he sees himself as a young man to adored by a young wife, and you just didn’t say no to the King. I don’t feel Henry cried anything other than alegator tears for Catherine as he tossed her to the wolves he knew he was fool and an old fool at that.
    As to Lady Jane Rochford ( ? ) Karma or not she had a hand in Catherines down fall. She had never liked Queen Anne and George Boleyn, though her husband, let us just say there was touble in the merrage….Jane did lie probably to get revenge. Second guessing another person is impossible, expecially a dead one.

  14. If Jane Rochford really was a little bit loopy at the end (Lord knows I would have been), it was horrendous of the powers that be to execute her. And did a bill really get passed during that time, to have insane people executed, or was that just something thrown in to the show? IF it was passed , due to Henry’s situation, then it seems like it went through mighty fast. Katherine showed a bit of spunk at the end, though, if she really did say what it is reported that she said. I hope that is true….good for you, Katherine Howard!!!! Henry be damned.

  15. Frank P says:

    katherine knew what would happen if she were caught. Many people were executed for treason before her. She was stupid to take the risk when is was so easy to get caught.

  16. Sherri says:


    I am revisiting this blog on Katherine Howard and feel even more sympathy/empathy for her.

    She was only a teenager and hadn’t experienced life as it was at the court. At times it must have been overwhelming. Even though she might have been considered old enough in physical age she certainly was not in emotional age. She did not have the exposure and maturity to be able to be queen. Katharine would have made the perfect mistress.

    She was happy, bubbly, excitable, full of life and love. She loved beautiful gowns and jewelery (she never had much when growing up), dancing, music. I see her as giving love to everyone and not realizing that there was anything wrong with physical intimacy with the one she loved at the moment. Many people misled Katharine and they were the guilty ones.

    Katherine wanted to share her zest for love and joy. Katherine also brought Henry back to life for a time. He should have rejoiced in that. I don’t feel she deserved to die. Who really knows if she was guilty of all that she was charged with.

    Again, I feel that Henry was the culprit here as he tried desperately to put Katharine in a mold that she didn’t fit and that he was only thinking of himself in how many around him would envy him for having such a young girl. Also and forever trying to prove to one and all that he was a great man especially in the bedroom. If George and Anne actually made comments concerning his performance in bed and lack of it then he would have gone through life trying to prove them. Even in death Anne was able to influence Henry’s perception of himself.

  17. BanditQueen says:

    Have no sympathy for Katherine Howard at all! Some of her early stuff may not have totally been her fault but it is clear that from the age of 15 or so that she and some of the other maidens in the dorms were stealing the key and letting young men into their rooms of their own free will. She had a very adult sounding relationship with Dereham in the two eyears prior to her going to court and lived with him almost as if they were man and wife, having a very active sex life. She was no innocent when she came to court and she was no child either. She was a mature teenager of at least 17 or 18, an adult, in an age when women were much more sexually mature than they are today and many women would have been maried and had a child by then. She was raised to know what was expected of her and not to be a whore, but as the supervision on her was low key she behaved like one just the same and was very sexually mature by the time she married Henry.

    Katherine may not have had the education that some of Henry’s other wives had, but that does not mean she was dumb or stupid. She was raised with enough of the great lady to play her part well in public at least even if she was a flirt and a show off as well. She could carry off state occassions when it was demanded of her and did so well on the progress. She would have had a decent education, learning to read and write and to sow, dance and play a musical instrument. She would also have been taught grace and good manners, She would have observed what was happening in the public world of the court and known the fate of her cousin Anne Boleyn who although innocent was still accused of being a whore and executed. Katherine would have had enough brains to have been told that she shoudl be careful and not cheat on Henry VIII. That she chose to ignore that advice and do so is her own fault. She was 19 or 20 by the time of her many affairs on the progress and not a child or a poor little girl to be sorry for her. The poor little Katherine bragaide need to stop being so soppy and fluffy and wake up to the reality of life in Tudor England and what was expected by one given the honour of being Queen.

    If Katherine Howard did not know it was foolish and dangerous as well as treason to sleep around while marred to King Henry then perhaps her brain really was missing! Her uncle was the Duke of Norfolk and her legal guardian was the Dowager Duchess; they must have from time to time have been overheard talking about the court and its dangers as well as its attractions. Katherine also came to court in 1539 to prepare for the arrival of Anne of Cleves and served for seven months as her maid of honour. She would have learnt something of the behaviour that was expected of her mistress and so knew full well what she could and could not do once she was Queen. If not then she was indeed an idiot, but I do not believe that she was in any way as stupid as she is often portrayed in fiction and the media. if Katherine knew anything during ehe two years married to Henry it was that he was hard to please and had a short fuse. When her behaviour was revealled to her and her offending the King brought home to her Katherine was terrified: why because she was guilty and she knew she was guilty and that Henry could do as he wished with her.

    Katherine did what everyone does when they get found out; she hid the true extent of her guilt and her behaviour in the hope and belief that the officials just knew about her shaddy past and nothing about her present exploits. She gave a free and frank account of her many love tokens and affairs prior to her marriage with the King and that was fine; it would help her in fact had she said she was contracted with Dereham. She obviously saw that relationship differently to how he saw it. It would have gone in her favour had she not committed adultery and confessed a previous relationship as it would have made her relationship with Henry unlawful. Here she would not take advice and as the twit she was; lied about the contract with him and denied they had promised to live as man and wife. What an idiot! Now here I do have some sympathy for her as she was afraid and she believed it may go badly with her to admit to such a thing and she saw herself as Queen. She hoped to talk her way out of it and remain as Queen.

    It was when the letter to Culpepper and his own confession had come to light and she was again confronted that Katherine realised she was in danger. But she tried to lie her way out of it and was not very good at it. She became more and more hysterical and gave more and more away. It was clear that she and Culpepper had been lovers and that they were seen in and out of the royal bedchambers by a number of her women. She had even made threats to her ladies that she would make trouble for them if they did not keep watch when she and either FRancis Derehem or Culpepper were engaged in sexual activities. She got the helo of Lady Rochford, either as Jane had previously had an unhappy marriage or as she felt sorry for the young Queen being the wife of an older man. She barred Henry from coming into her room on progress and had another man in bed when he was at her door. Katherine was no fool on these occassions; she was malipulating and making threats and being a bully to ensure her ladies did as she wanted. She did not see the harm in what she had done until it was too late and then she acted the penitent wife in order to save her own neck.

    It was clear that Katherine was guilty and that she had believed that she would never find out. She wanted to marry Culpepper and plotted the death of the King in her own mind. Making promises to Dereham to also marry him if the King was dead was not only foolish it was high treason and she knew it. She may have acted the fool, but I do not believe that in this case she was being one; no she was plotting her future with either of her lovers hoping that Henry would not live much longer. Katherine had everything she had ever wanted; the glory and the spendour of being a Queen, the full attention of an adoring public and a doting husband and she had the world at her feet. She also had lovers and a lack of responsibility. She may not have planned to be Queen; her uncle may not have given her any choice, but once she was Queen she knew the behaviour that was demanded of her and she chose to ignore it. Instead she behaved like a spoilt child, having her cake and eating it. Katherine was not a poor helpless victim of Henry’s jealous rages; she was the cause of his jealous rages; an adulterer and a brazen hussy and a royal whore who knew exactly what she was doing. The thing was she got caught and then the drama and the tears followed.

  18. Melissa Catherine says:

    I agree whole heartedly with BanditQueen.
    I don’t believe for a moment that Katherine was nothing more than a child. She was a woman. A Tudor woman. And she knew what was expected. She knew how to navigate the court. She may not have been as intelligent as Anne Boleyn, but she was certainly educated. She was not naive nor was she a poor little doll cast on the shores of fortune or misfortune. She was simply a woman who did nothing to control her impulses, lied, cheated, and threw her weight around to get what she wanted. Did she deserve her end? Well, it seems in this case, knowingly committing treason, speaking of the King’s death, planning for its eventuality, and seeing what had happened to Henry’s 2nd wife, her own cousin-she was basically begging for her eventual fate. Not very many people deserve the death penalty and by our standards Katherine certainly didn’t. But we can’t judge by our standards. Katherine was certainly guilty. Yes, Henry was apparently neurotic or psychotic to be chopping off heads left and right, but that in itself would make most people toe the line! Katherine and her little crew of spoilt miscreants didn’t even bother to take notice of events in the not so distant past. She disregarded everything and everybody except her own desires. And she forgot that what people Henry viii rises up, he can just as easily bring down. In that sense, at least, she was an idiot.

  19. I cannot gather any sympathy for this woman/child. It is tragic that she had the life that she had, & was brought up in the manner that she was. For that, it is truly sad. But I doubt she was brainless. She had wiles and apparently she knew how to use them. She knew what she was doing. I do not know of anything during her short reign that she accomplished that was to the benefit of the country or the crown. True, she did not really have a lot of time to accomplish much of anything, but, then, again, she was too busy playing and cavorting and cheating on her husband. I also feel absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for Henry. As usual, he let his urges rule his mind. And she was young enough to be his grand daughter.

  20. Joe says:

    Melissa Catherine – ‘planning for it’s eventuality’? You make it sound like Katherine was trying to murder the king, which is an outlandish accusation.
    I don’t think this queen committed adultery. She was framed. And a girl of 15-17 is a girl, not a woman. She was not in her twenties.
    Patricia, you forget the many good things she did, or perhaps you’re not aware of them. She gave clothing to the imprisoned old woman Countess of Salisbury who was later executed in the cruellest of ways.

  21. Vicki says:

    HI. This is very interesting and I belong to a group of friends who read about The English Queens. A question we have is this: Was there lime put on the body of Queen Katheryn when she buried? And if so, does anyone know why? Thank you very much.

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