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.


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24 thoughts on “The Fall of Catherine Howard”
  1. Again Norfolk failed to protect his family. You would have thought he’d have learnt his lesson with Anne and George, but alas sadly for Katherine Howard no.
    I feel Katherine was a p*rn in the power struggles of Duke of Norfolk and up to a point Jane Boleyn.

    1. Norfolk was only interested in his own skin and disowned his family, but in all honesty I doubt he could have protected any of them anyway.

      The noble families had little power over the Tudor Kings, unlike the power they had held during the Middle Ages.

      What struggle between Norfolk and Jane Rochford? I recommend you read Jane Fox’s biography of Jane Boleyn as you are reading nonsense fictions to have such an unsustainable view of her. There wasn’t any power struggle between Jane and Norfolk, nor was she his pawn. Jane was acting on the instructions of Queen Kathryn and Norfolk probably knew very little until her fall. All Norfolk did was help get his niece a place at Court in 1539 and it was Henry who noticed her at a banquet some time later, she wasn’t a pawn either.

      I think people fail to realise just how powerful Henry Viii had become. Nobody could do anything to protect anyone other than move away from Court and then it was only in Northumberland the Earls did as they pleased because it was so far from power and they had military might behind them. Even then they were taken out and ended on the block after the Northern Rebellion in 1569. This wasn’t the Middle Ages, the old powerful families had been tamed. Norfolk may have tried speaking up for his family, but even then he wouldn’t have succeeded. Unfortunately, the only way to protect your family against Henry’s wrath was to run away abroad.

  2. 16th or 20th/21st century? In certain societies through the world (including Britain) women are still not considered “people” but onjevcts to be bargained. Catherine lost her mother at the tender age of 9, father ost interest in the family as he was searching for a new wife to increase his status and the young girl was akced off to her patenal step-mother’s place where she received very little education, no love and, from what it seems no guidance. As she gre into adolescence she seem to have been extrmely pretty which would have attracted “re-blooded” men like “bees to a honey pot”. Their silver tongues of undying love muist have been a welcome relief.

    The along come “Uncle Howard” who is loooking to et rid of Cromwell and return to his own place of influence. Katherine’s youth and her looks supplied that and H8 was besotted. I think Katherine had no opprtunity to say no (or if she wanted to do so, did not have the “savoir fair” of her niece Elizbath in later times. So an organised marriage between a young pretty girl to a fat, bloated, disease ridden and smelly old man was made.

    So drink and drugs as they are known in these days were not available to ease the disgust, but a certain young and pretty man, Thomas Culpepper, was available to ease what ust have been a horribe life for a young, possibly “dodo” girl.

    Question is why Jane Rochford seem to even agree on this arrangement, especially as Katherine was related to Anne Boleyn.

    As Claire mentioned, Henry would not at first believe Katherine’s earlier “adventures” but was “shot in the arm” (Metophircally speaking) when he soundout about Culpepper. So time to get rid of Wife no. 5 although he is is supposed to have wept for” the happiness and illusion he had lost”.

    As I mentioned, in certain walks of life if the young girl does not marry the parents’ choice, she is mutilated or killed in any case. If this scenario happens after the marriage, it would be the woman and the lover, not teh husband who would be castigated.

    However, H8 did not wait that long ( 2 years?) before his beady eyes rested on possible wife no. 6 who, after being married off to elderly husband, was more or less shunted into yet another one. She seemed to have only escaped the block by H8 dying before her. But then, what did she do? She married a serial lover!!! And that ended in her death in childbirth!

    Katherine a wanton? Yes, perhaps, but what would she have been like if she had recived love fro bith and a guding parental hand. I am sure you parents out thee understand what i mean

  3. So, Catherine had these affairs before the relationship with Henry came about?
    She continued to have an affair even after marrying Henry, with Thomas Culpeper???
    She had to know the risks!!!!
    Was it her uncle who set her up with Henry? Why is it that she actually went through with the relationship, I wonder if she felt an obligation to obey her uncle. Henry was older and in bad shape by then and Catherine was so young. Another sad ending to another young lady! It seems most of the women of this period were like innocent bystanders, they were forced into their positions and then killed for it. (Anne Bolelyn, Lady Jane Grey, Catherine Howard, …)How sad.

  4. You also have to consider that Catherine’s fairly poor upbringing could have created in her a desire for wealth and power. What young girl would not be bowled over by the attention of the most powerful man in the land? His riches, jewels, castles? The chance to be queen? She was so young and by all accounts not the brightest person on Earth. I think she did not have the capacity to see the situation for what it was. She probably was a pawn of her family’s desires too but I believe she wanted to reap the benefits of being a queen for herself.

    I have also read that Catherine and Culpepper were “heating up” even before King Henry was interested in her. She probably thought herself clever enough to be able to go on dealing with Culpepper even after marriage and not get caught. My hunch is that Culpepper would have approved of her taking advantage of Henry and the sudden opportunity, as he would surely benefit too. They were playing with fire and the emotions of a dangerous man.

    Poor Henry! He fell for a bubbly, attractive, musically talented, yet vapid and bawdy girl who broke his heart.

    RIP Queen Catherine

  5. May,I’ve got a question.
    Maybe i’m just a fool to ask this 😉 but wasn’t Anne the one who was known as the “rose without a thorn” or am I wrong?I know that there are English roses named Anne Boleyn.
    I love your web site and I’m a big fan of Anne and her story and I would be happy for an answer =) nice greetings (and in hope that I’m not a fool) sophie ♥

  6. Hi Sophie,
    Yes, Anne Boleyn has got a beautiful English rose named after her but Catherine Howard was the wife that Henry VIII actually referred to as his “rose without a thorn” and the “very jewel of womanhood”, he was quite besotted with her.
    I’m so pleased that you love the site and thank you so much for taking the time to post and you’re not a fool in the slightest! x

  7. Thank you for your quick answer Claire ! It means a lot to me to find out such things as much as I can about Anne and her time so I can avoid to make mistakes like this !
    That was a fasciating time and I’m very interested in. I also like to look at the shop with articles close to the Tudor-Time and it makes me unhappy to know that it isn’t easy to buy anything because of the fact that I live in Europe, rather Germany. But I think I can survive these sad circumstances 😀 So again thanks for your quick answer, I am very pleased about it! Love you site ♥ sophie

  8. Hi Sophie,
    I too am in Europe! Steve, the jeweller who makes the B necklace and state chains etc. is in the UK and Daniela (“The Tudors” range), Kris (French Hoods) and Tiffini (the silver jewellery featuring the portrait of Anne) are in the US – all of them ship worldwide so you can buy from our shop. 🙂 Hope that helps x

  9. I can’t help but feel sorry for both Catherine Howard and Henry. It seem s there is a recurring thread throughout his life and that is he so desperately wanted a son, listened to counsel that was toxic for him and Catherine a young lonely woman only wanting to be loved and cherished for who she was that was drawn towards anyone that ill used her to further their means. Although I despise what the man did, I can’t help but wonder if like with the Tudors he felt haunted by the ghosts of all the women that he betrayed because of his vanity from Katherine of Aragon to Katherine Parr. I really believe that Anne Boleyn was the true love of his life regardless of whether she gave him a son or not. She was truly his passion because she was his equal. Sometimes in every life relationships happen over and over again.

  10. Yes Katherine was silly to betray the king, but can annyone blame her for wanting to bed a handsome young man? What a hypocrit Henry was. How many mistresses had he had behind his first wife’s back? Did she have to die?

  11. Anonia Frasernotes that a recent reconstruction of the first floor of Hampton Court shows that katherine could not have reached the chapel from her own apartments via the so called haunted gallery

  12. Is that a portrait of Katherine (or is it Catherine? So many of them, I can’t remember who spells it which way!) at the top of the page? If so, I have to say, she looks neither young nor beautiful. I agree with Jill, who says that poor Kitty was just looking for love. There is so much we know now about how traumas of childhood (such as losing your mother at a young age) can affect you into adulthood and certainly into “teen”hood. I, too, felt that she deserved whatever she got and was very stupid, but reading some of the commentary here makes me see her in a different light. It sounds like she was introduced to sex at far too young an age, when she was lonely and vulnerable and led a promiscuous lifestyle (BTW, this is common for victims of childhood trauma and sexual abuse) that she didn’t know how to change. She wanted to be loved and was helpless to save herself. Another victim of Henry’s.

    1. Hi Karyn,
      Yes, it’s a miniature of Catherine Howard. I think that the Tudors did have a different idea of beauty than we do today.
      Poor Catherine, you’re right when you talk about her upbringing, it wasn’t exactly stable and I think she was always looking for love and attention. When she had the relationship with Dereham, she was not to know that they were going to be separated and that she’d end up marrying the King and how can you tell the King about your past. Poor girl, I think Henry just saw red and wanted her punished for making such a fool of him and reminding him that he was old and “past it”.

  13. It is said that Henry VIII “wept uncontrollably” when he was informed of Katherine’s affairs. Do you think this is true? And do you think that, perhaps, his reaction was in part due to “memories” of Anne Boleyn? I don’t believe that Anne was guilty, and don’t know what Henry thought, but maybe Katherine’s infidelity reminded Henry of his divorce with Anne.

  14. When Catherine refused to acknowledge the piece of paper that would acctually “set her free” she signed her death sentence,or so we are told.But what proof do we have of this? I wonder if that really mattered wheter she signed or not given to the fact that Henry diusposed of his wives as he pleased,their “crimes” being somewhat merky at times.I look at it this way,Henry wanted to marry again and was looking for a way out so killing one of his “favorite” wives was his only option.And being the anoited one put to rule by God,the crimes were just means to an end perhaps?My point is if Henry wanted to dispose of Catherine he could do so(and did).From what I´ve read on her she acted rather foolish and I agree about the Lady Rochford,who has everything to gain but a las fell “on her own sword” so to speak.

  15. Like his ego, Henry’s pride was bigger than his waist-line. There was no way he was going to let the matter go. If he had truly disbelieved the rumors about Catherine, he would have ignored them, but he didn’t. Give a man, any man, at any period in time, the power to do as he pleases with women, including slaughtering them; then woe betide the female species, regardless of how good, bad, righteous, pretty, ugly or learned she may be. The man was an animal.

    1. I find your comments about men in general not only sad and untruthful but also ridiculous and offensive. Your post, however, started well. I agree that his pride brought about Catherine’s death. He certainly had many faults but please do not add stupid generalisations about the entire male gender.

  16. Compared to all the rest, “KITTY” was the most beautiful. Her so called upbringing retarded & shamefully mishandled. She was simply a victim of her own raunchy low life family affairs as most women of that era. Upon seeing this disgusting old diseased man, on his last “good leg”, she probably thought he would die soon. It’s a wonder he didn’t stroke out from her youthful abundant sexual appetit. His sagging aged ego & dilapitated condition ugh! The girl deserved an academy award for her performance with him. i don”t know how she kept from gagging from the sight & stench of him. She was sexually abused & spiritually damaged. Prone to live out her short lifepath with no “safe” or real happy exhistance. My heart is truly sad for that precious uncared for & discarded jewel. “A Pearl Cast Before Swine.”

    Sarah Catherine “Katie” Peterson

    1. Love the “pearls before swine”! I don’t think history has seen a bigger swine than Henry viii. Hope he’s burning in hell for the treatment of all his wives. The first will always be my fav. thank you for a most interesting website. Your jewelery is amazing!

  17. I have become convinced that the portrait miniature above is Not Katherine Howard. look at a photo of the famous portrait of Anne of Cleves beside this one and you will see it is the same person in a different outfit. As a portrait artist, I capture the unique appearance of my subjects, so I believe I have a pretty good eye and I am now wondering why this portrait has been definitively marked as being Catherine Howard when it looks so much like Anne of Cleves? We know that the miniature above, because of the jewelry, is of one of Henry’s Queens but we don’t know which Queen. Another reason that we know it is a queen is that there are at least one duplicate and only a queen would have a duplicate created. The sitter in the above miniature portrait is not youthful and pretty as Catherine Howard has been described, she has the same eyes and general face shape as the portrait of Anne of Cleves when you look at it from a different angle. Don’t be fooled by the different clothing and headdress.

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