On this day in history, the 28th July 1540*, Henry VIII married Catherine Howard. Henry VIII was 49 and Catherine was about 20 and it was again a love match, well, on Henry’s side anyway. He had fallen in love with his fourth wife’s maid , a girl Starkey describes as “petite, plump, pretty and accomplished in the Courtly graces” with “an easy charm and abundant store of good nature”, in the late spring of 1540.

But who was Catherine Howard?


Catherine Howard was one of the youngest children of Edmund Howard and Jocasta Culpeper and was born around 1520/1521. Her father, Edmund, was the third son of Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and his wife, Elizabeth Tilney, so Catherine was the niece of Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and cousin to Anne Boleyn.

Although she was a Howard, her father had not come to much. Anne Boleyn helped him obtain the position of the Controller of Calais in 1531 but he was dismissed from this position in 1539 and died shortly after. Catherine’s mother, Jocasta, was the eldest child and co-heiress of the Culpepers of Aylesford, Kent, and had been married before to Ralph Legh. She had five children with Legh before being widowed in around 1509/1510. She then married Edmund and had around 10 children with him before dying sometime in the late 1520s.

Early Life

Not much is known about Catherine Howard’s early life but David Starkey describes it as “a scrabbled childhood, with a dominant, providing mother, and a weak debt-ridden and… hen-pecked father.” Starkey also writes that her childhood was short, “marked by her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage and appointment to Calais” – Catherine was forced to grow up quickly. At around the age of 10 or 12, being considered a young woman, Catherine found herself being sent to the household of Agnes Howard (née Tilney), the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, her step-grandmother to complete her education. Her father had been left with around 10 children to bring up and so farmed them out to different relatives to ease his burden.

Life with the Dowager Duchess

The Dowager Duchess had houses at both Horsham and Lambeth, and Catherine found herself placed in the Maidens’ Chamber, a large dormitory where the Duchess’s wards, young, unmarried women of gentle or noble birth, slept together. The young women were taught music by a music master and reading and writing by the Duchess’s clerks and secretaries, and Starkey compares the household to “a slackly run boarding school” run by the Duchess who was “an imperious but ineffectual headmistress.” The young gentleman of the house were able to get into the girls’ dormitory and “there was excessive fraternisation between pupils and staff”.

Henry Manox was employed by the Duchess in around 1536 to teach Catherine to play the virginals. Manox promptly fell in love with Catherine, but the affair was put to an end by the Duchess who found the pair alone and “gave… Mrs Catherine two or three blows and gave straight charge both to her and to… Manox that they should never be alone together.”

Catherine soon forget Manox when she met Francis Dereham, a Howard cousin and “gentleman servitor” to the Duchess. His higher class and position meant that he could win Catherine’s affections with gifts and love tokens and it wasn’t long before Catherine was persuading Mary Lascelles, the Duchess’s chamberer, to steal the key of the Maidens’ Chamber, which the Duchess would lock the dorm with every night, so that she could grant Dereham, and various other gentleman, admission. A jealous Manox attempted to put a stop to the relationship by informing the Duchess of the goings-on in the girls’ dormitory, via an anonymous letter, but although the Duchess did remonstrate with the girls, she did not take it very seriously and the night visits continued. We can only imagine what the girls got up to!

A Queen’s Maiden

In late 1539, Catherine was chosen to serve Anne of Cleves when she became queen and she left the Duchess’s household for Court, leaving Dereham behind her. Starkey writes of how her name was soon linked to Thomas Culpeper, a relative of her mother’s and a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. It was even rumoured that they would marry, but Starkey writes of how quarrels caused the couple to drift apart. It was then that Catherine caught the eye of the King and it seems that it was love at first sight (for the King). Starkey quotes the Dowager Duchess as saying “the King’s Highness did cast a fantasy to Catherine Howard the first time that ever his Grace saw her.”

A Royal Marriage

According to Lacey Baldwin Smith and David Loades, the couple married on the 28th July 1540 at Oatlands. The King had managed to get his marriage to Catherine’s mistress, Anne of Cleves, annulled just a few days before his fifth marriage and was keen to start a new life with his young “rose without a thorn”. Henry had not been attracted to his fourth wife and had been experiencing sexual problems, namely impotence, however, Loades writes of how the King just couldn’t keep his hands off Catherine, even in public. The King was at last happy and showered his young bride with jewels, clothes and estates, but his happiness was rather short-lived and it was not long before the ecstatic King was brought down to earth with a resounding bump.

Trouble in Paradise

Henry’s energy began to wane after a few months of marriage and in March 1541 his leg ulcer closed up and the King became seriously ill, it was even thought at one point that he would die. His illness, weight gain and the pain he was suffering caused him to be bad-tempered and unpredictable, and the King, aware that he was not looking his best, refused to see Catherine for nearly a fortnight. When he did finally see his wife, it must have been difficult for the young woman to handle his mood swings and please him, and it was around this time that Catherine renewed her relationship with Thomas Culpeper.

People often ask “What was she thinking?” and it is astounding that Catherine did not realise that her relationship with Culpeper could well be her undoing. Clearly, the young woman was not attracted to the huge, bad-tempered King, although she may have been fond of him, and Loades points out that the womanizing Culpeper may have established a hold on Catherine, intending to marry her upon the King’s death. He probably set out to seduce Catherine, who was feeling rejected, lonely and frustrated, and Loades writes of how Catherine “needed the gratification of Culpeper’s advances, and may even have believed that she would be more pleasing to Henry if she kept herself in good practice.” Whatever the cause of the relationship, it is apparent from the one surviving letter from Catherine to Culpeper that she was very much enamoured by him. Helped by the principal lady of her chamber, Lady Jane Rochford, Catherine had secret assignations with Culpeper throughout the royal progress of July and August 1541. Catherine also, unwisely, appointed Francis Dereham as her private secretary in August 1541 and she had also allowed her old friend, Joan Bulmer, to join her household. David Loades writes:-

“Catherine had simply given too many hostages to fortune, and the remarkable thing is that Henry’s self-deception was allowed to continue for as long as it did.”

The Beginning of the End

Gossip surrounded the Queen on the royal progress, but Catherine got away with her very inappropriate behaviour and colourful past until John Lascelles, brother of Mary Hall (née Lascelles) from Catherine’s past, opened his big mouth on the 1st November 1541 and told Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, of Catherine’s past. Lascelles knew nothing of Culpeper but his story raised concerns about Catherine’s virginity, or lack of it, and a possible precontract between her and Dereham. On the 2nd November, Cranmer gave the King a note at mass regarding what he had learned, but the King did not believe it and ordered a secret enquiry to clear his wife’s name. Lascelles and his sister were interviewed and the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Wriothesley, arrested Dereham and detained Henry Manox. Mary Hall confirmed that what she had told her brother was true and the two men confessed. The King was still not willing to believe that his bride was not the virginal rose he thought she was, but Catherine was still ordered to keep to her chamber. In the meantime, Catherine’s ladies were questioned and Dereham implicated Thomas Culpeper. On the 7th November, Catherine was interrogated by Cranmer and her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. At the start of the interrogation, Catherine wept and proclaimed her innocence, but started telling the truth the following day.

Bigamy and Adultery

During interrogation, Francis Dereham had confessed to having sexual intercourse with Catherine Howard but claimed that they had been contracted to marry. As I said in my guest post at The Tudor Tutor – http://tudortutor.com/2010/07/22/be-my-guest-claire-ridgeway-part-1/ -a promise of marriage, whether written or verbal, was binding if consummated, so Catherine was a bigamist if Dereham was telling the truth. David Loades writes that the contract between her and Dereham may well have saved Catherine’s life, if she had admitted to it, because it would have made her marriage to the King null and void and would have allowed Henry to annul the marriage easily, BUT, Catherine denied any such contract.

Catherine then went on to write a letter of confession to the King, begging for his mercy and stating that her relationship with Dereham had ended “almost a year before the King’s Majesty was married to my lady Anna of Cleves”, but the King’s Council were now aware of Culpeper, who subsequently confessed to a recent relationship with the Queen. Catherine was moved to Syon and her household at Hampton Court Palace was broken down on the 13th November. When questioned again by Cranmer and Wriothesley, Catherine admitted to having secret meetings with Culpeper but refused to confess to adultery. She laid the blame on Culpeper, for wanting the meetings, and on Lady Jane Rochford for organising them. Culpeper admitted to the meetings but denied full blown sex, although he confessed that he did intend to sleep with the Queen and that the Queen also desired it. We will never know the truth of the situation, but even though Catherine and Culpeper may not have consummated their relationship, it seems that they would have given the opportunity to.

By the 22nd November, the Council had decided that Catherine, Dereham and Culpeper were guilty and Catherine was stripped of her title of Queen. On the 1st December, Dereham and Culpeper pleaded guilty of treason at Guildhall and were both sentenced to a traitor’s death. Both men petitioned the King to commute their death to beheading but only Culpeper was successful. 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 the executions of Dereham and Culpeper, many Howard relatives, including the Dowager Duchess and Lord William, were arrested and on the 22nd December, the Howards, with the exception of the Duke of Norfolk, were tried, found guilty and imprisoned. Fortunately for them, they were later pardoned and released, Catherine was not so lucky.

On the 21st January 1542 the Bill of Attainder against Catherine Howard, the former queen, was introduced into Parliament and on the 11th February Catherine’s death warrant became legal. Two days later, on the 13th February 1542, Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s “rose without a form”, was executed. Contrary to the execution scene of “The Tudors” – SPOILER ALERT! – Catherine did not wet herself or have to watch Jane Rochford get beheaded first. The executions were done in order of rank and Catherine, as the former queen, went first. Eye witness, Ottwell Johnson, wrote of her “steadfast countenance” and “constancy” and Jane Rochford’s biographer, Julia Fox, writes of how Catherine addressed the crowd, acknowledging her faults, stating her faith in Christ and asking the people to pray for her. She followed the usual convention and choreography of executions and did not shout out “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper”, although I wish she had! Her head was then taken off with one blow off the executioner’s axe and her remains buried in the Tower chapel, the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

Catherine Howard’s Resting Place

In the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, there is a floor marker, a memorial tile, at the altar. Visitors to the chapel today are not able to see Catherine’s memorial floor tile because it is underneath the altar table. However, it is just a memorial tile, rather than a grave marker, because Catherine’s body was not found and identified in 1876-7 when restoration work was carried out. The Victorians believed that lime destroyed Catherine’s young bones but knew that she had been buried somewhere in the vicinity. Alison Weir thinks that it is possible that the bones identified as belonging to Anne Boleyn actually belonged to Catherine Howard because they belonged to a petite young woman with a square jaw. Here is the description from Doyne C Bell’s “Notices of he Historic Persons Buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London”:-

“Dr Mouat… at once pronounced them to be those of a female of between twenty-five and thirty years of age, of a delicate frame of body, and who had been of slender and perfect proportions; the forehead and lower jaw were small and especially well formed.”

In the full report by Dr Mouat, he mentions that the lower part of the face must have been “moderately full, with a somewhat square chin” and I can see why Weir thinks that this is more like the miniature of Catherine Howard rather than the portraits of Anne, with her long face. Who knows?! What we do know, however, is that both women were buried there somewhere.

*David Starkey dates the marriage to the 8th August 1540 at Hampton Court Palace but Lacey Baldwin Smith and David Loades date it to the 28th July 1540 at Oatlands.

You can read more about Catherine’s fall and execution in the following articles:-

Notes and Sources

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