The execution of Francis Dereham, The Tudors series
The execution of Francis Dereham, The Tudors series
Today marks the anniversary of the executions of Thomas Culpeper, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, and Francis Dereham, secretary to Queen Catherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII.

If you watched “The Tudors” series, you may be forgiven for believing that these men got their come-uppances, after all, Thomas Culpeper was a rapist and murderer who slept with Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, before seducing the rather air-headed Queen, and Francis Dereham blackmailed his way into serving Catherine as her secretary and boasted of his past relationship with her.  Neither man is likeable and both are portrayed as using Catherine.

But is this true?

Well, we can’t know for sure.

Francis Dereham had been arrested after Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was made aware of Catherine Howard’s premarital sexual behaviour with her music tutor, Henry Manox, and Dereham. Under interrogation, Catherine had confessed to a past sexual relationship with Dereham, and he confessed that he “had known her carnally many times, both in his doublet and hose between the sheets and in naked bed”. Catherine also said that she and Dereham had referred to each other as husband and wife, although she denied that they were in any way pre-contracted. Both Dereham and Catherine affirmed that the relationship had taken place long before she was married to the King.

Agnes Tilney, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who had acted as Catherine’s guardian while the relationship had taken place, was questioned as to whether she had encouraged the Queen to appoint Dereham as her secretary, but we don’t know whether it was her idea. Of course, the fact that Catherine had appointed Dereham as her secretary was used by Audley, Wriothesley and the King’s Council to prove that the couple intended to reignite their relationship. I prefer to think of Catherine as a kindly young woman who wanted to help her past friends by giving them appointments at court, and there is no evidence whatsoever that she and Dereham were involved with each other after her marriage to the King.

As far as Culpeper was concerned, it was Dereham who first mentioned Thomas Culpeper. During an interrogation, he stated “that Culpeper had succeeded him in the Queen’s affections” and when Catherine was questioned about Culpeper she admitted to secret assignations on the back stairs, to calling him her “little sweet fool” and giving him a cap and a ring; however, she denied a sexual relationship. It was Culpeper who sealed his fate by admitting that “he intended and meant to do ill with the Queen and that in like wise the Queen so minded to do with him”. It is unclear what kind of man Thomas Culpeper was and we do not even know whether he committed the rape and murder he is often accused of. There were, in fact, two Thomas Culpepers active at court at this time and they were brothers – see my article “Thomas Culpeper” for more on this. While it is thought that it was Catherine’s Culpeper who committed the crimes, we cannot know for certain. We also don’t know whether Culpeper was in love with Catherine or whether he was using her, hoping to control her and have power by marrying her after Henry VIII’s death. It is hard for us to even speculate, and impossible for us to judge him.

Culpeper and Dereham were tried on 1st December 1541 at the Guildhall, and convicted of treason. Both were executed on 10th December 1541, but Culpeper was beheaded while Dereham had to face the brutal traitor’s death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. In his Chronicle, Charles Wriothesley writes:-

“Culpeper and Dereham were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there Culpeper, after an exhortation made to the people to pray for him, he standing on the ground by the gallows, kneeled down and had his head stricken off; and then Dereham was hanged, membered, bowelled, headed, and quartered [and both] their heads set on London Bridge.”

Culpeper was buried at St Sepulchre Holborn.

Dereham was executed for deflowering Henry VIII’s “rose without a thorn”, for a relationship the couple had long before the King ever set eyes on Catherine, and Culpeper was executed for intending to sleep with the Queen. It was a sad and brutal end to two courtiers.

You can read more about Queen Catherine Howard’s fall and the men in the following articles:

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