The Executions of Catherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper

Posted By on February 13, 2010

Catherine HowardThis post continues from “The Fall of Catherine Howard” and tells of how it was the Thomas Cupeper “affair” which was the nail in Catherine Howard’s coffins. I also give information on the executions of the men and of Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford.

The Thomas Culpeper Story

Baldwin Smith writes of how Culpeper’s name had been linked to Catherine’s “as early as 11 November” and that when Catherine was a maid of honour to Anne of Cleves she had mentioned a possible engagement to Thomas Culpeper. However, it was Francis Dereham’s statement “that Culpeper had succeeded him in the Queen’s affections” which brought the spotlight on to Culpeper.

After a series of interrogations, Catherine Howard finally 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. She went on to implicate Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, accusing her of being what Baldwin Smith calls an “agent provocateur” by engineering the affair. Lady Rochford was then interrogated and she accused Catherine and Culpeper of contriving the affair themselves and forcing her to act as a go-between.

Baldwin Smith writes that even then the evidence was “inconclusive, dependent upon idle gossip”, but then Culpeper sealed his and Catherine’s fates 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.” Both Culpeper and Catherine Howard were therefore guilty of treason under the 1534 Treason Act which defined traitors as those who “do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine” harm to the King or his death. The Queen, Culpeper and Dereham were all found to be traitors by their ill intent, by their carnal desires and their intentions. I love Baldwin Smith’s comment:-

“Kings might breed bastards with impunity, but Queens could not allow the breath of scandal to approach their lives.”

Talk about double standards!!

However, this is understandable when you consider that the King needed to know that any royal offspring was his when the children were heirs to the throne.

Lacey Baldwin Smith goes on to say that “Catherine and her friends deserved death simply on the grounds that they had by their actions allowed adulterous rumour to touch the person of the Queen, and it made no difference whether those rumours were true or not. They still existed. Consequently, it made but little difference if the evidence on which the Queen was condemned was extorted by torture, or even if it was, strictly speaking not true at all.”

In other words, it didn’t matter if Catherine had committed adultery with Thomas Culpeper or not, her reckless behaviour and colourful past had ruined her reputation and this called into question the paternity of any future royal issue. Catherine was a traitor and had to go.

As someone who is shocked by Anne Boleyn’s trial and the fact that she was convicted when there was just no evidence to support adultery or incest, I find Lacey Baldwin Smith’s views on Tudor law in relation to Catherine Howard rather interesting. Baldwin Smith concludes that the truth or falsehood of any testimony was completely unimportant because the jury were not the ones that decided on the guilt or innocence of the defendant, everything was down to royal will, the wishes of the King, and the defendant was deemed guilty unless it was proved otherwise – no “innocent until proved guilty” in Tudor times, no sirree!

On the 14th November 1541, Catherine Howard was taken by armed guard to Syon, where she was imprisoned. On the 22nd November it was announced that Catherine “had forfeited her honour and should be proceeded against by law, and was henceforth to be named no longer Queen, but only Catherine Howard.” (LP XVi, 1366). On the 1st December Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were arraigned at Guildhall for treason and sentenced to a traitor’s death. Both men petitioned Henry VIII to commute their death to beheading but only Culpeper was successful in his petition. On the 10th December 1541:-

“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.” Wriothesley, Chronicle, I, p. 131

Following their executions, many Howard relatives found themselves imprisoned: Lord William, the Dowager Duchess, Lady Bridgewater and many more. On the 22nd December, the Howards, with the exception of the Duke of Norfolk, were tried, found guilty and imprisoned. Fortunately, the Howard clan, apart from Catherine, were pardoned and released. On the 21st January 1542 the Bill of Attainder against Catherine Howard was introduced into Parliament and on the 11th February Catherine’s death warrant became legal. The Queen was to die.

The End

On the 10th February 1542, Catherine Howard was finally taken to the Tower of London by boat. Baldwin Smith writes of how Catherine’s flotilla would have had to have passed under the heads of Culpeper and Dereham , who were impaled on London Bridge – how awful! Catherine got out at Traitor’s Gate and was escorted to her prison. On the evening of the 12th February, she was told to “dispose her soul and prepare for death” because her execution would take place on the following morning, a Monday. Catherine then requested that the block be brought to her room so that she could practise, so that she could die in a dignified manner, as a Howard and as Queen.

At 9am on the 13th February 1542, Catherine was helped up on to the scaffold and Marillac’s report to the French King said that Catherine “was so weak that she could hardly speak”. However, Marillac was not present and an eye witness, Ottwell Johnson, wrote of her bravery, her “steadfast countenance” and her “constancy”. The executioner knelt in front of the Queen to ask for her forgiveness, which she gave him with her payment, and then Catherine knelt in prayer. Julia Fox, in “Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford”, writes of how Catherine then addressed the crowd, acknowledging her faults, stating her faith in Christ and asking everyone to pray for her. Contrary to myth and legend, Catherine did not cry out “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper”, instead she was dignified and followed the usual convention of execution speeches.

As she finished her speech, her ladies stepped forward and removed her mantle and placed a linen cap on her head. A blindfold was then placed over her eyes and she was helped to place her head on the block and arrange her skirts. The masked executioner then took Catherine’s head off with one blow. She was gone. The woman who had taken away her husband’s image of youth and shattered his illusions was gone.

The Execution of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford

Once Catherine Howard’s head had been taken off and her body taken to St Peter ad Vincula Chapel, the scaffold was prepared for “that bawd, the lady Jane Rochford” (the words of Chapuys). the woman who Chapuys felt had “aggravated the Queen’s misdeeds to the utmost” by encouraging Catherine’s secret meetings with Culpeper and acting as go-between. The scaffold was washed down with water and covered in fresh straw and then Jane was brought out to die.

Ottwell Johnson recorded how Jane faced death with composure, bravery and dignity. She climbed the scaffold, forgave the executioner and then faced the crowd. Julia Fox writes of how there is no transcript of Jane Boleyn’s speech but Johnson record’s give us enough information to reconstruct it. According to Fox:-

“she began by declaring her complete faith and trust in God. “I have,” she said, “committed many sins against God from my youth upwards and have offended the king’s royal Majesty very dangerously, so my punishment is just and deserved. I am justly condemned by the laws of this realm and by Parliament. All of you who watch me die should learn from my example and change your own lives. You must gladly obey the king in all things, for he us a just and godly prince. I pray for his preservation and beseech you all to do the same. I now entrust my soul to God and pray for his mercy.” Not once did she refer to the specific offences…neither did she have anything but praise for Henry.”

Neither did Jane confess to giving false testimony about her husband George Boleyn committing incest with his sister, Anne Boleyn.

Jane Boleyn then removed her cloak, had her hair bound up out of the way, prayed and then knelt blindfolded. Her head was taken off with one blow and that was the end of “the infamous Lady Rochford”.

Lacey Baldwin Smith’s View of Catherine

Lacey Baldwin Smith is quite harsh in his summation of Catherine Howard:-

“Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves all had their champions, but Catherine Howard had none. It may have been because she was shallow and brittle, arrogant in success and servile in distress. Her actions can be excused on the grounds that she was an ignorant child of nature, but the evidence does not point that way. Catherine was just as well-educated as most of her contemporaries of an equivalent position; she certainly had enough sense to conceal as long as possible the affair with Culpeper; and she appears to have had something resembling a guilty conscience since she warned Culpeper not to mention their meetings, even in the confessional, for fear that the King, being head of the Church, would in some mysterious and mystical fashion come to hear of it.”

Lacey Baldwin Smith concludes his biography of Catherine Howard by saying:

“Here in a twisted, obscure sort of way lies the essential failure of Catherine Howard’s life: although she was caught up in the game of politics and was never a free agent, the Queen never brought happiness or love, security or respect, into the world in which she lived. She enacted a light-hearted dream in which juvenile delinquency, wanton selfishness, and ephemeral hedonism, were the abiding themes. Who is to say whose fault it was – Catherine’s or that of her age.”

But isn’t this rather harsh? Was she even guilty of adultery?

Was Catherine Howard Guilty?

I watched Jonathan Rhys Meyers on Martha Stewart last week and he mentioned that Catherine Howard was guilty of all that Anne Boleyn was charged with, and that is the traditional view of Catherine – Anne Boleyn was innocent but Catherine Howard was guilty – but was she?

David Starkey, in his book “Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII” claims that although Catherine may have fallen in love with Culpeper she may not actually have committed adultery. Yes, she fooled around with her tutor Manox and had a sexual relationship with Dereham, as her “husband”, but these were before her marriage and she may not have gone as far as sleeping with Culpeper. So, she may have been guilty of bigamy but not adultery.

David Loades, in his book “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, writes:-

“There was no proof in the modern sense that either of them [Catherine or Jane Rochford] had committed any offence worse than extreme indiscretion and stupidity.”

To me, Catherine Howard was simply a naive girl who felt that her past had no bearing on the present and who felt that Henry, as head of the Church, knew of her past anyway. She was a young attractive girl who probably did not want to be saddled with an older man well past his prime and she was a girl who enjoyed flirtation, the attention of young, attractive men. Should she have known better? Yes! She certainly should not, as a married woman and Queen, have encouraged Culpeper, but I don’t think she let things go too far. Perhaps she thought that Henry would not live much longer and then she’d be free to marry Culpeper – who knows! Did she deserve death? No!

What Catherine was guilty of was shattering Henry’s illusions and making him look like a fool; for that she could not be forgiven. As Loades says:-

“Two factors elevated her indiscretions to the level of high politics. The first was that she inflicted serious psychological damage upon the King, and the second was that she was the instrument of a powerful aristocratic faction. As Lacey Baldwin Smith pointed out thirty years ago, Henry would have grown old anyway, and Catherine could hardly be blamed for that. However, that was not the real point. The King had fortified himself with illusions of virility for many years, and like many such men in middle age he had made a fool of himself over a pretty girl. The virility of a King was a part of the well-being of the realm, and Henry’s disillusionment sapped the vitality of England…Catherine deprived Henry of the chance to grow old gracefully.”


I’m so glad that we’ve got to the end of a rather “bloody” week! I’m surprised that I haven’t been having nightmares about heads flying! I’m relieved that I didn’t live in Tudor times and I think that we should all pause in our daily life and think about these people who came to such horrific ends.