Was Catherine Howard Groomed or Abused? – Exploring the Evidence

Whenever I write about Catherine Howard, I receive comments expressing sympathy for her, often suggesting she was groomed or sexually abused as a girl. But what does historical evidence really say about Henry VIII’s fifth wife and her relationships with her music teacher Henry Manox and her step-grandmother’s employee Francis Dereham?

In this video, I delve into primary sources from the 16th century to try and uncover the truth. Was Catherine Howard a victim of grooming and abuse, or were her relationships consensual within the norms of Tudor society?

Join me as I explore this complex and often misunderstood chapter of Tudor history. It’s an emotive topic and one I realise people have strong feelings about, and feel free to share your views…


Whenever I write an article or publish a video about Catherine Howard, I always get comments about how people are sorry for her because she was groomed and/or sexually abused as a girl?

But was Henry VIII’s fifth wife actually groomed or abused by her music teacher Henry Manox and her step-grandmother’s employee Francis Dereham? What is the evidence? What do the primary sources say about this?

The idea that Catherine Howard was sexually abused during her time in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s household by first Manox and then Dereham was first put forward by historian Retha Warnicke and then expanded upon by historian Conor Byrne, and it’s a prevalent idea on social media.

Now before I begin, I want to make it clear that I’m in no way condoning grooming or abuse. I’m not trying to deny anyone’s experience or belittle it. I’m simply going to look at what the primary sources tell us, and by that, I mean the sources from the 16th century, from witness statements at Catherine’s fall in 1541 and 1542. From people who were actually there. And I’ve spent a lot of time reading these sources as I’ve been working on my book “The Fall of Catherine Howard: A Countdown” for many years now on and off. No one will ever know what really happened, but we can come to informed conclusions.

But first, I want to mention Catherine’s age. As with many Tudor people, we don’t know Catherine’s birthdate. This is because when she was born, it wasn’t necessary to register births. However, historian Gareth Russell, author of what I see as the Catherine Howard Bible, “Young and Fair and Damned”, has pieced together various bits of evidence, such as family wills and bequests, a comment made by the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, about her age, the rules governing the employment of maids of honour, and circumstantial evidence, to dismiss a date as late as 1525 and as early as 1518, and to conclude that Catherine was probably born in 1522 or 1523.

Why am I talking about her age? Well, it is relevant when we consider her relationships with Manox, Dereham, the king and Thomas Culpeper, particularly when a lot of comments mention her just being a child when she was involved with these men.

Catherine joined her step-grandmother’s household in 1531 after her father took up the position of Comptroller of Calais. Her mother was dead, and Catherine needed to be cared for. It was quite normal in Tudor times, for children to be brought up as wards in a household of an important and influential person. It was seen as a wonderful opportunity for them. And it was. Agnes Tilney was a wealthy and important woman, her late husband had been the Duke of Norfolk and her stepson was now the Duke of Norfolk. She had quite a few wards like Catherine in her household, and she provided them with an education and her patronage.

In late 1536, Catherine began to have music lessons. She was 13 or 14 by this time and she was taught by two music tutors, both teaching her at the same time: Henry Manox and Robert Barnes. Gareth Russell has concluded, from the age of Manox’s friends, that Manox was no more than five years older than Catherine, so at the very oldest, he was about 18 or 19. As I said, he didn’t teacher her by himself, Barnes also taught at the same time, AND Catherine was chaperoned at her lessons. Still, Manox and Catherine began a romance. And I say romance, because that’s what the evidence points to. Gifts and messages were exchanged, with Isabel and Dorothy, two maids, acting as go-betweens, and the couple met secretly, although never in the maidens’ chamber, the dormitory where Catherine slept. The dowager duchess stumbled on them at one time kissing and reprimanded them. She gave Catherine “two or three blows, and charged them never to be alone together after”, but it didn’t put the couple off and they continued their relationship.

In 1538, a newcomer to the household, Mary Lascelles, tried to warn Manox off Catherine, reminding him of Catherine’s status as a Howard and how her family would kill him if he were to marry her, and that’s when Manox said that he had been intimate with Catherine, what amounted to heavy petting, and that she had promised him her maidenhead. I agree with Gareth Russell who believes that it was Manox’s boast that made Catherine end the relationship. They argued, and Catherine put Manox in his place, saying, “I will never be nought with you and able to marry me ye be not.” She could have been referring to her status as a Howard, but also to the fact that Manox was either betrothed or even married by this point.

Catherine was in control here. Manox may have been in lust with her, and even in love with her, he may have wanted her virginity, but she wouldn’t let him go that far, and when she got fed up of him and was unimpressed with how he talked about her, she finished their relationship.

He may have been older than her, he may have been her music tutor, but there’s no hint of any grooming or abuse, just two people fooling around.

And it didn’t take long for Catherine to move on, and her next beau was Francis Dereham, a young man who was employed by the dowager duchess. Dereham had already been involved with a young woman from the household, Joan Acworth, a servant to Catherine, but the romance had fizzled out. He and his friend, Edward Waldegrave, who was involved with another girl in the household, would visit the maidens’ chamber at night for midnight feasts and, of course, some fooling around. The dowager duchess locked the girls in at night, but clever Catherine had stolen the key to the chamber and had had a copy made, thus allowing the men to visit.

We know from eye witnesses that this time, Catherine went further than kissing and heavy petting, she lost her virginity to Dereham. It’s worth pointing out at this point that the maidens’ chamber was a dormitory-like room shared by the girls of the household, and they even shared beds. So, Dereham and Catherine had no privacy, and what they got up to those night was witnessed by a number of people. Alice Restwold, for example, who shared Catherine’s bed, was so annoyed by the couple’s lovemaking, that she asked to swap beds with another girl. Gareth Russell combed the witness statements from 1541, testimonies from those present in the dormitory on those nights in 1538, and concluded that they “prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their relationship was consensual.” It wasn’t sensible, and I don’t believe for one minute that Dereham was a top bloke – from everything I’ve read, he comes across as incredibly arrogant – but there’s no hint from anyone in the household that Catherine was unhappy with what was going on. It was a romance.

And the Dowager Duchess found out, coming across the couple, and striking both of them. But once again, it did no good.

Dereham appears to have been keen on the idea of marriage, and seems to have assumed that they would get married. The couple even called each other husband and wife, but Catherine got tired of Dereham.

Again, Catherine was in control. When she was offered the opportunity, in late 1539, to go to court in readiness to serve Anne of Cleves, who was to become Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Catherine jumped at it and was happy to leave Dereham behind her.

Catherine Howard would have been about 16 or 17 when she went to court to become a maid of honour. There, she met Thomas Culpeper , a groom of the king’s privy chamber who had been at court since childhood. It was very short-lived romance. Culpeper appears to have wanted a full sexual relationship, and this time, Catherine didn’t want to rush into that, so he broke it off and moved on, leaving a distraught Catherine. Francis Dereham heard of the romance and rushed to court, telling Catherine that she was his. Catherine was firm, telling him “I will not have you”, which led to Dereham leaving the dowager duchess’s service and going to work in Ireland.

In the meantime, forty-eight-year-old Henry VIII was not happy with his new wife and it wasn’t long before his eyes settled on Catherine.
There was obviously a huge age gap between Henry VIII and Catherine Howard, but it wasn’t seen as unusual or anything untoward in Tudor times. In fact, it was seen as beneficial – the young woman got a man who was financially stable and could look after her, and the man got a woman who had plenty of fertile years ahead of her to provide him with heirs and spares. And, of course, Henry’s good friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, had married his fourteen-year-old ward back in 1533 when he’d been been about 49 and they’d had a successful marriage.

There’s no evidence to suggest that Catherine Howard wasn’t happy with the king’s advances, and there’s certainly no evidence at all that the Howards pushed her at the king, and I expect they were actually panicking with what they knew about her past.

Henry VIII married Catherine Howard on 28th July 1540, less than three weeks after his marriage to Anne of Cleves had been annulled. He seems to have doted on Catherine, showering her with gifts, and she gave him a new lease of life for a time. He started getting up early to go hunting and he was described as in “good spirits” and “good humour.” But in February 1541, the king became seriously ill and when he recovered his spirits were low and he was volatile, going without seeing his queen or allowing her to come to his room for a time. But this was just temporary, and he recovered his spirits, and in March 1541 there was a lavish water pageant for Catherine on the Thames.

However, during Holy Week of 1541, Catherine sought out Thomas Culpeper. On Maundy Thursday, one of Catherine’s ladies, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, arranged a meeting between the queen and Culpeper. Usher Henry Webb was asked to fetch Culpeper, and Catherine gave him a velvet cap as a gift, asking him to keep it under his cloak until he got back to his rooms. Culpeper flirtatiously mocked the queen, and Catherine got cross about him being ungrateful for the gift. She decided that she would have nothing more to do with him, and she didn’t for a good few weeks. But then, Culpeper became ill. Catherine was worried about him, and so sent one of her pages with meals for him. Culpeper recovered and was well enough to attend on the king during the royal progress to the North.

It was during this progress, which set off on 30th June 1541 and returned at the end of that October, that Catherine had secret assignations with Culpeper, which included one in her chamber at Lincoln which lasted from 11pm until 4am. And it was also during that progress that Dereham came back into Catherine’s life. He had been wanting a position in her household for some time, but the Howards had employed in and tried to keep him away from Catherine. However, on 25th August, he turned up at Pontefract and Catherine was forced to appoint him as a gentleman usher.

The arrogant Dereham was a loose cannon. He argued with Catherine’s other servants and boasted of his closeness to the queen, causing Catherine to give him gifts of money to shut up and behave.

While Catherine and the king were on their progress, Archbishop Cranmer was given some information by a man named John Lascelles about the queen’s past. Lascelles was the brother of Mary Hall, née Lascelles, who’d been with Catherine in the Dowager Duchess’s household, the very young woman who’d tried to warn Henry Manox off Catherine. When Lascelles had advised his sister to try and get a position in the queen’s household, Mary said she didn’t want to because the queen was “light, both in living and conditions”. When her brother asked her to explain, Mary told him all about Catherine’s relationships with Manox and Dereham, explaining that “one Francis Dereham had lain in bed with her, in his doublet and hose, between the sheets an hundred nights, and a maid in the house had said she would lie no longer with her because she knew not what matrimony was. Moreover one Mannock, a servant of the Duchess, knew a privy mark on her body”. Lascelles felt that he couldn’t keep this to himself and went to Cranmer.

Cranmer discussed what he’d been told with Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley and Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, and they advised him to write it all down in a letter to the king. This letter, of course, led to an investigation into the queen’s past, which also uncovered her present entanglement with Thomas Culpeper.

During the investigation, members of the Dowager Duchess’s household were questioned, members of the Howard and Tilney families were questioned, and of course the men and Catherine.

To cut a very long story short, Catherine Howard, Henry Manox, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper confessed to everything, and letters written by Catherine to Culpeper were found and examined. Catherine and Culpeper denied a full-blown sexual relationship, but Culpeper admitted that “he intended and meant to do ill with the Queen and that likewise the Queen was so minded with him.” That was enough to condemn him. The Treason Act of 1534 stated that those who “do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king’s most royal person, the queen’s or the heirs apparent” were guilty of treason. Intention was all that was needed. And Catherine’s employment of Dereham was seen as evidence that she wanted to, and I quote, “return to her abominable life”.

Regarding her relationship with Francis Dereham, Catherine made a full and detailed confession to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in which she confessed to sleeping with him and calling him husband. Later, she changed her mind, and gave what Gareth Russell describes as a “new and thoroughly unbelievable version of events”, alleging that Dereham had raped her and that she’d never been a willing participant in the relationships she’d had in the Dowager Duchess’s household. This just isn’t corroborated by anyone else, and I think it was pure panic which led to Catherine changing her story. It wasn’t believed then, and I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it now.

I know there will be some who condemn me for not believing Catherine, but there is no reason for others in the household to lie or to try and protect Manox and Dereham. Alice Restwold, for example, would have noticed if Dereham had raped Catherine while she was in that same bed, and she had no reason to try and protect him. I can’t say that my research has led me to like Manox and Dereham, they sound pretty horrible, but I don’t believe they abused Catherine. From witness testimony, their relationships sound consensual.

As for Culpeper, it was Catherine who appears to have done the chasing, and there’s no evidence at all that he manipulated her or tried to blackmail her. I think Catherine fell in love with him and, again, I’m not sure he was the nicest of guys, I think he probably thought the king wasn’t long for this world and that he could marry the dowager queen and be a wealthy and important man.

Culpeper was beheaded and Dereham hanged, drawn and quartered on 10th December 1541. Catherine Howard and her lady, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, were executed by beheading on 13th February 1542.

After I’d finished putting together my notes for this talk, I received a comment on YouTube saying that Catherine was definitely abused because a 13-year-old can’t consent to a relationship with grown men, that she was used and abused by the men in her life and died barely an adult.

Now, the Manox relationship is definitely “icky” to us. Catherine was about 13 or 14, but as Gareth Russell has pointed out, it wasn’t a case of a grown man and a young girl, Manox wasn’t much older than Catherine. When I was a teenager in the 80s, there were plenty of my contemporaries who were sexually active at the age of 14 with boys who were 17/18. Not great, but those boys weren’t paedophiles, groomers, abusers or rapists, the relationships were consensual.

Manox clearly wanted Catherine’s virginity, but she didn’t give it to him. AND, Catherine, as a member of the aristocracy and the stepgranddaughter of the dowager duchess would only have had to utter a few words of complaint to the dowager duchess to get Manox removed as her tutor.

As for Dereham, Catherine was about 14/15 when they became involved, and again, he wouldn’t have been much older, and it WAS consensual. Also, Catherine, again, seems to have controlled the relationship. They’re not the kind of relationships we’d want for our daughters today, but I don’t believe we can paint these men as abusers. It’s very different to what we know about Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour, for example. That was a case of a 14/15 year-old girl and her stepmother’s husband, the man of the house, a man who had a key to her room, not given to him by her, and whose advances clearly were not wanted and seen as worrisome by others in the household.

Going back to Catherine. She was 17/18 when they married and about 19/20 when she died. It’s an icky age gap as far as we’re concerned, but, as I said earlier, not at all unusual for the time. We can certainly call Henry an abuser if we consider that he executed two of his wives, but I don’t think we can label him a paedophile or abuser for marrying Catherine.

These were very different times. Girls of Catherine’s class could marry from the age of 12, and some married even earlier, although consummation wasn’t advisable so early. Margaret Beaufort gave birth at 13, which was seen as too young, and she wasn’t happy about the idea of her granddaughter consummating her marriage to James IV of Scotland straight away at the age of 13 because of what she herself had been through giving birth. There wasn’t really a concept of adolescence in Tudor times, you went from child to adult, and much earlier too.
Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, was condemned to death for her past relationships and for something she hadn’t even done yet. She WAS a victim, she just wasn’t a victim of grooming and sexual abuse, not in my opinion anyway, but I’d love to know your thoughts, so please do share them.

If you want to find out more about Catherine Howard, her life, her time as queen, her relationships with these men, and her downfall, I would highly recommend Gareth Russell’s book “Young and Damned and Fair”. It’s a fantastic read and is meticulously researched and fully referenced. It covers the whole of Catherine’s life. Do get hold of a copy.

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