The Fall of Catherine Howard

Posted By on February 13, 2010

Catherine HowardWhat a bloodbath it’s been this week! I think you’ll be relieved to hear that these are the last deaths of the week!

On this day in history, at around 9am on the 13th February 1542, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was executed at the Tower of London followed by Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. Catherine was the second of Henry VIII’s wives to be executed, but why was she executed? How did she fall from being Henry’s jewel and his “rose without a thorn” to having her head taken off just over a year later?

Catherine Howard’s Fall

On the 2nd November 1541, Henry VIII was given a letter written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who had been persuaded by Chancellor Audley and the Earl of Hertford to relate the story told by Mary Hall, who knew Catherine from her time in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s household, to her brother John Lassells. Cranmer related the story of Catherine’s colourful past and declared that she had “lived most corruptly and sensually”.

Lacey Baldwin Smith, in “Catherine Howard: The Queen Whose Adulteries Made a Fool of Henry VIII”, writes of how this letter coincided with the council in London learning of Catherine’s early relationship with Francis Dereham. This information combined with that gathered from Lassells gave Cranmer, Audley and Hertford, the three men who had been left as deputies in the King’s absence (Henry had been on Progress), the ammunition that they needed to bring the Howard faction.

Henry read the letter in private, as requested, and then dismissed it, concluding that there was no truth in these stories about his beloved wife. Instead of turning against Catherine, as he had done so easily with Anne Boleyn, he ordered an investigation to find the source of the slander to protect his Queen. Lassells was re-examined by William Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Southampton and Lord Privy Seal, and Henry Manox (Catherine’s former music tutor) and Francis Dereham were both detained by Sir Thomas Wriothesley. Lassells stood by the story he had heard from his sister, Manox confessed that he “had commonly used to feel the secrets and other parts of the Queen’s body” and Dereham admitted that he “had known her carnally many times, both in his doublet and hose between the sheets and in naked bed.” Mary Hall, sister of John Lassells was also questioned and she confirmed what her brother had told the council.

Henry VIII was shocked and could not believe that his “rose without a thorn”, his innocent Catherine, could have such a scandalous past. He ordered that Catherine be taken to her chambers and kept there. If we are to believe the story behind Catherine’s ghost, which haunts the “haunted gallery” at Hampton Court Palace, Catherine escaped from her chamber and ran down the gallery to try and speak to the King who was at Mass in his chapel. She was caught before she had chance to explain herself to the King and she was taken back to her chamber screaming. That is apparently why a ghostly form is seen drifting down the gallery with a “ghastly look of despair” on its face and making “the most unearthly shrieks.”

As Catherine Howard was guarded at Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII met with his Privy Council at an emergency meeting at the Bishop of Winchester’s House in Southwark. It was there that he heard all of the evidence against Catherine and, as Lacey Baldwin Smith says, “the old Henry of consummate conceit and boundless energy died”. One minute he was consumed with hate, wanting to kill Catherine with his own sword, and the next weeping for the wife he had lost, for the illusion of happiness and innocence that he had lost.

Lacey Baldwin Smith makes the point that “Catherine Howard fared better than her cousin, Anne Boleyn, who was dispatched with callous regard” as even though Norfolk and Cranmer were sent to interrogate the Queen, she was to remain in her rooms at Hampton Court Palace and not to be taken to the Tower. After bouts of hysterics and weeping, Catherine claimed that there had never been a marriage contract between herself and Dereham and implied that Dereham had forced his affections on her through “violence rather than of her free consent and will”. She did, however, go on to say that she and Dereham had called each other husband and wife and that Dereham had:

“lain with me, sometimes in his doublet and hose, and two or three times naked; but not so naked that he had nothing upon him, for he had always at the least his doublet and as I do think, his hose also, but I mean naked when his hose were put down.” (Quoted in Lacey Baldwin Smith’s “Catherine Howard”)

She then wrote a long letter of confession to the King, here are some excerpts:-

“finally he [Dereham] lay with me naked, and used me in such a sort as a man doth his wife many and sundry times, but how often I know not, and our company ended almost a year before the Kings Majesty was married to my lady Anne of Cleves…Now the whole truth being declared unto your majesty, I most humbly beseech the same to consider the subtle persuasions of young men, and the ignorance and frailness of young women. I was so desirous to be taken unto your grace’s favour…that I could not, nor had grace, to consider how great a fault it was to conceal my former faults from your majesty, considering that I intended ever during my life to be faithful and true unto your majesty.”

Baldwin Smith writes of how Catherine may well have escaped the marriage with her life if she had acknowledged a marriage contract between herself and Dereham. Confessing to this would have meant that her marriage to Henry was null and void. But, Catherine refused to acknowledge this and there was also doubt that it could be proved that Catherine and Dereham had had a legal marriage. However, Catherine’s bigamous relationship was not what cost her her life, it was her relationship with a certain Thomas Culpeper which did that.

Read “The Executions of Catherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper” for the continuation of Catherine Howard’s story.