Inspirations from History: Katherine Howard

For my second post on people from history who inspire me, I wanted to do a piece on Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife. I remember as I stood in front of the altar in the chapel of St Peter at the Tower of London, it struck me that Katherine was buried there, that young, naive girl who I believe had only did what she did to forget that she was married to an ageing, obese tyrant. These days Katherine is still vilified as an adulteress, but to me she always seems like a fun loving young woman who was pushed into marrying a man so many years older than her. Below is my “brief” overview of her life (when I say brief I mean almost 6000 words long)
Throughout history, Katherine Howard has been vilified as the young bimbo wife of Henry VIII, the wife who cuckolded him by sleeping with his groom Thomas Culpeper. But was Katherine really the bimbo she is so often made out to be, or was she simply a pawn in some higher game of politics and power and a young woman who was foolish and naïve enough to think she could get away with having relationships with other men?
Katherine Howard was the younger daughter of Edmund Howard and Jocasta Culpeper, although her date of birth is completely unknown. There are at least three contemporary resources suggesting that Katherine was unusually young at the time she became Queen in July 1540. Katherine could not have been born after 1527, since her maternal grandmother Dame Isabel Leigh mentioned her in her will dated that year and four years previously Dame Isabel’s husband failed to mention the Howard girls; rather mentioning the brothers instead. This may be pointing to the masculine standards of the day, however, rather than the fact that Katherine had not been born. However, the earlier limit is harder to determine as the marriage of her parents is far from certain itself. If Edmund and Jocasta were married between 1514-15 and her brothers were older than her, then it suggests she could not have been born before 1517-18. There is also evidence stating that she was born between 1518-24, as the French ambassador stated she was 18 when sharing a bed with Dereham, and Dereham’s own confession states that this was between the years of 1538-39. However the ambassador then discredits himself by saying that Dereham was corrupting Katherine from the age of 13! If we accept Katherine as being 18 in 1539, then she must have been born around 1521. Our final clue comes from her marriage portrait, although there is some uncertainty here too. It was painted in 1540-41 and gives her age as being 21, establishing that she she would have been born between 1519-20 (Baldwin Smith 1961, 193). Baldwin Smith (1961, 193) suggests that this is as good a year as any to suggest as we know Mannox was first smitten with Katherine in 1536, when she would have been aged between 13 and 14. This again fits in with the contemporary report of the French ambassador who states she was 18 in 1539, and the suggestion that she was very young to have been made a queen.

Portrait of Katherine Howard, from the miniature by Hans Holbein the Younger

Whilst Katherine’s date of birth is speculation, the home where she spent her childhood is unknown and except for the more lurid details of her childhood preserved in connection with her downfall, we know almost nothing of her early life (Baldwin Smith 1961, 35). Some sources indicate she grew up in London whilst others say she spent her early life at the Howard residence of Lambeth or Oxenheath in Kent, the home of her uncle William Cotton. What is very certain, and authenticated, is that Katherine spent the majority of her childhood with her step-grandmother the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Agnes Howard neé Tilney in Sussex and Lambeth (Baldwin Smith 1961, 41).

Alison Weir states that these early years spent with the duchess were spent in “impoverished gentility” and the young Katherine was oftentimes neglected by the dowager duchess, and forced to spend her time seeking the companionship of servants and people of lower rank (Weir 2007, 434). When Katherine joined the household of the Dowager Duchess, she was placed in the Maiden’s Chamber, a large dormitory whose inmates largely slept two to a bed. Here Katherine found herself surrounded by other young women of gentle birth, unlike the “people of lower rank” suggested by Weir, all of whom were connected to the Howard family by birth or by marriage. These girls, like Katherine, were there to complete their education and to wait on the duchess. Music masters were employed, clerks to teach the girls how to read and write and of course, plenty of young men were around to teach the girls other things too (Starkey 2004, 646). Here, I think Katherine would have been in her element. She was a young, spritely and a quick learner and would have been able to shine among these other young women. Not only was she a quick developer mentally, but physically also, and it seems it was this that set her on the path to her own destruction.
The first gentleman to catch Katherine’s eye was Henry Mannox, employed by the Duchess in around 1536 to teach the girls how to play the virginals. According to Mannox’s own confession during Katherine’s fall he quickly “fell in love with her” and she with him but Katherine kept the relationship in bounds out of a sense of fierce Howard pride. She told him, “I will never be naught with you…and able to marry me ye be not”. However she did allow him other favours which were often interrupted by the Duchess (Starkey 2004, 646). Katherine herself mentions these in her own confession prior to her execution:
“At the flattering and fair persuasions of Mannox, being but a young girl I suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty to permit nor him to require” (Fraser 1993, 391-392).
The second romance for Katherine was with Francis Dereham, a gentleman pensioner in the Duchesses Lambeth household. Unlike her previous tryst with Mannox, this relationship was much more serious and more likely that it was fully consummated. Considering that two of them called each other husband and wife it can be suggested that they were pre-contracted to each other and had reinforced these vows by sleeping with each other (Fraser 1993, 392). Dereham himself was a Howard cousin and thus able to provide Katherine with trinkets and gifts that reflected his social standing, and Katherine thus permitted him access and attentions previously denied the music master, including access to the maiden’s chamber. This room was out of bounds to all men and each night the Duchess would have the keys taken to her room, but Katherine found a way around it using cunning and secrecy that would only become clearer during her later affair with Culpeper. She had the Duchesses maid, Mary Lascelles, “steal the key and bring it to her” (Starkey 2004, 647). This of course, meant admission for Dereham and other young men.

In his book “Six Wives” Starkey states that, driven by jealously Mannox wrote an anonymous letter to the duchess informing her of what was happening:
“Your Grace
It shall be meet you take heed to your gentlewomen for it shall like you half an hour after you shall be a bed to rise suddenly and visit their chamber you shall see that which shall displease you. But if you make anybody of counsel you shall be deceived. Make then fewer your secretary”
The Duchess, having found the letter in her pew at chapel, stormed to the chamber and “declared how she was advertised…of their misrule” (Starkey 2004, 647). According to Fraser, after the Duchess discovered Katherine and Dereham embracing she was “much offended”, hitting out literally at all of those present. However this does not amount to more than Katherine’s own later confession that there was a relationship in which Dereham “used her as a man doth his wife”. It seems that Katherine thought herself betrothed to Dereham and her submission to his sexual advances had nothing terrible about it at the time (Fraser 1993, 393).
Later on when the more intimate details of Katherine and Dereham’s relationship came to light, one witness confirmed that they were “so much in love that they kissed after a wonderful manner, for they would kiss and hang by their bellies like two sparrows” (Baldwin Smith 1961, 55). Dereham became such a frequent visitor to the chamber despite even the Duchess previously finding them. That was until their relationship eventually cooled when Dereham was away in Ireland and Katherine sent away to her uncle’s house. It was here that Katherine first met Thomas Culpeper, a groom of the King’s Privy Chamber. Fraser here states “that her early feelings for Culpeper can only be gauged to her later behaviour towards him, but from her welcoming attitude to him then, one suspects that she was genuinely in love with him in the autumn of 1539” (Fraser 1993, 394). This is a bit of a broad statement to make with no other argument being presented than her suspicions and whilst the two of them met long before the affair actually took place, making the statement of love so early may be going a bit too far.
It was during the time with her uncle, that Katherine caught the eye of another man, and a man who would ultimately prove to be her undoing. King Henry VIII.
From the moment Katherine caught Henry’s eye, her uncle began to plot, to use her as a way of getting the Howard family more power. He hoped to make her the King’s mistress at the very least, or better yet his queen. As Hutchinson (2009, 136) states, Katherine was for all intents and purposes, being pimped out for the king. Henry himself first met Katherine at Stephen Gardiner’s palace in Southwark during the spring of 1540 where she was dancing with other young women. From that moment the king was frequently invited to banquets and entertainments at Lambeth by the Dowager Duchess, and Henry cast a fancy at the young, fashionable, giggling Katherine. Did Katherine understand that she was just a pawn in the political games of her uncle? We cannot truly know the answer to this but we do know that Katherine accepted Henry’s attentions and his expensive gifts of jewellery and land. It seemed the King had fallen head over heels in love with another one of Norfolk’s nieces who would ultimately walk to the same fate that Anne Boleyn had gone to four years previously (Hutchinson 2009, 136-137).
At this moment it is important to put Katherine Howard into context a little by looking briefly at what was happening in court, and how she ended up coming into power as Queen. By this point, Henry was more than unhappy with his fourth wife Anne of Cleves and he was desperately searching for a way to be rid of her. The story is well known; Henry was unable to do his marital duties with Anne having informed Cromwell after the wedding night that he judged her to be “no maid” and thus the marriage was never consummated. He clearly did not like the way she looked, nor her “unpleasant airs” and claimed it was this that stopped him sleeping with her. But of course, as is typical of Henry, he cannot have been the problem and he claimed that he had “duas pollutions nocturnas in somno” (ejaculations or wet dreams) and would be able to perform with others, just not Anne (Hutchinson 2006, 28-29). Henry had been urging Cromwell to find him a way out of the marriage since he first laid eyes on Anne but time had run out. Cromwell was arrested at a Privy Council meeting on 10th June 1540 and Anne was sent away on 24th June for her health. The marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation and Cromwell provided one last service to the king, writing a testimony confirming that the king’s case was true. Thomas Cromwell was condemned by act of attainder on 29th June and the marriage formally ended on 9th July. Just 19 days after the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, Henry married Katherine Howard at Oatlands Palace on 19th July. Ironically, this was the same day that Cromwell lost his head on Tower Green by a clumsy and unskilled axe man (Hutchinson 2006, 34-37).
Henry was understandably infatuated with his new bride and had, it seemed, found a new wife who embodied all of the qualities that he admired in women – beauty, charm, pleasant disposition, obedience and virtue. But was Katherine as elated with her new husband as he was with her? Indeed Katherine was young and Henry was much older with an ever increasing girth and a wound on his leg that refused to heal. But for all outward appearances she displayed a loving manner towards her husband. On 8th August Katherine appeared for the first time as Queen at Hampton Court, dining publically under a cloth of estate (Weir 2007, 431-433).
Henry doted on his new wife and provided for her everything that she wanted. Every day she wore new gowns ad new jewellery, Henry had never been so extravagant with any of his previous wives and this earned the disapproval of many older people at court. This included the Lady Mary who never treated Katherine with the same respect as she had done to Jane Seymour or Anne of Cleves. After all Mary was at least 9 years older than Katherine and there may have been an element of jealousy in Mary’s treatment of Katherine; Mary was after all unmarried at the age of 24! Of course having all of the riches at her disposal and all of the servants at her beck and call would have gone to Katherine’s head. She had never known such a lifestyle growing up with the Duchess and her innocence would leave her open to the compromising situations that would eventually prove to be her downfall (Weir 2007, 433-434).
Despite the gifts of gowns, jewels and land, Katherine was expected to receive petitions, listen to requests to influence her husband, administer her household and behave like a good wife should. But Katherine did not do this (I can always imagine her wrinkling her nose when someone suggested she had to go and listen to petitions!) and spent the majority of her time dancing (Baldwin Smith 1961 136-137). It cannot have been easy for the young Katherine to live up to the Kings ideals although she may have tried. Her own motto “no other will but his” must have seemed natural to Henry with his new, perfect wife ready to do his will.
However despite Henry’s renewed vigour, his moods and health soon waned. He had already given up jousting but ignored his physicians when it came to hunting and his moods could change hourly. In March 1541 the ulcer on his leg closed and the court thought he would die. But he recovered his moods soured and nothing could please him, not even his wife (Baldwin Smith 1961, 139). Just before the summer progress of 1541 that would prove her downfall, Katherine herself was in a sulk quite unlike her normal, cheerful self. She believed that she was pregnant but sadly it came to nothing. Katherine may have been mistaken or may have suffered from an early miscarriage but whatever the case; it cast the king once more into a black mood (Weir 2007, 140). It was after this that Katherine found her own spirits low, having heard that because of her failure to become pregnant that he was looking for another wife. When Henry asked her what was wrong she said that she had heard rumours that he would take Anne of Cleves back. After Henry assured her of his undying love she was back to her normal self. That was until she noticed the ladies of the court paying more respect to the lady Mary and in a fit of pure spite; Katherine had two of Mary’s ladies removed from service (Baldwin Smith 1961, 140). Katherine’s own changing moods just go to show how young she really was and how inexperienced in worldly matters, and that she would stoop to fits of spiteful vengeance just to get her own back on her step daughter.
On 28th May 1541 one of the greatest atrocities of Henry VIII’s reign happened. A member of the Plantagenet house by the name of Sir John Neville began a rebellion to restore the old Catholic religion. Margaret Pole, a member of that ancient house and with a valid claim to the throne, was at that time imprisoned in the Tower. Facing rebellion, the King believed that Pole was a threat to security and ordered her death despite Katherine’s pleas for mercy. Pole was aged 68, and on the morning of 28th May was lead out to Tower Green having only had a few hours to prepare herself for death. There, she was butchered to death by a young, inexperienced executioner (Weir 2007, 440-441). It left the realm secure however, and on 30th July 1541 the King and Queen left on a progress to the north with the intent of formally pardoning those who had taken part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. The progress made its way north into Yorkshire and as far as Newcastle. Whilst on the journey news reached Henry that Spain and France were on the brink of war but it did little to dampen his spirits. Indeed little could dampen Katherine’s high spirits either, at least until whilst staying at Pontefract, someone from her past showed up (Weir 2007, 442). Previously, Katherine had filled her household with Howard girls and relations. For instance Joan Bulmer, a girl from the days at Lambeth was found a place within the Queen’s household. And it was at Pontefract in August 1541 that Francis Dereham showed up bearing a letter of recommendation from the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Here Katherine made a huge mistake, and fearing that if she did not take him in to her household he would tell everyone of their former love, she made him her private secretary (Baldwin Smith 1961, 142-143). Dereham came to Katherine obviously with information that could severely harm her reputation. Was this why she took him in to service, rather than because the Duchess asked her to? In any case Dereham proved unsuitable, he was rude with a violent temper and often clashed with members of the Queen’s household.
The progress returned to London on 26th October 1491 where bad news awaited Henry in droves. His sister Margaret had died and his son, the four year old Prince Edward was severely unwell with a fever. But after his son began to recover and Henry planned a service of thanksgiving, there came a piece of news that would shatter Henry’s marriage and prove disastrous for Katherine (Weir 2007, 443-444).
The crisis came in a tale told to Thomas Cranmer by John Lascelles, a man whose sister Mary had once served the Dowager Duchess at Lambeth. The tale confirmed to Cranmer that Katherine may have been pre-contracted to Francis Dereham which made her marriage to the King invalid. And the news had to be broken to the King. On 2nd November at Hampton Court, a letter was given to the King telling all. At first Henry did not believe what he was reading but this was just the calm before the storm and at this moment, all the evidence pointed to Katherine’s behaviour before her marriage to the King. But of course, witnesses to what Katherine had been up to during the progress soon came out of the woodwork. To start with Dereham was taken to the tower and there he made sure that Culpeper’s name was dropped into his confession, that he heard a rumour that Thomas Culpeper had “overtaken him in the Queen’s affections”. He said as much, hoping to save himself and Culpeper was soon arrested (Fraser 1993, 422-423). The truth was indeed now out, Katherine was not as innocent as she had made out and like the King had believed. Henry flipped, he blamed his council for suggesting that he marry her before breaking down in tears, calling for a sword so he could kill her himself. In a way the King felt he had been tricked into believing she was a virgin, that he had been cuckolded and everyone knew it.
Katherine was then called to questioning, having been locked in her rooms at Hampton Court. She was confronted by Thomas Cranmer who “found her in such lamentation and heaviness” Her attendants told him of her wild moods which only his visits could calm, especially when he delivered a message of “grace and mercy” which was more than she could have expected. Cranmer himself saw the pre-contract with Dereham as heaven sent, a way he could easily get Henry out of the marriage and pronounce it as invalid. That way Katherine could be disgraced and put away. But the evidence for the pre-contract was sparse, based on a shaky betrothal and the Queen in her terror could not grasp that admitting to a pre-contract would have her life. Instead she made excuses, saying that Dereham had forced her into a sexual liaison. She certainly was not as clever as her cousin Anne Boleyn had been, nor as well educated and she had no one now left to advise her (Fraser 1993, 425). Prior to Katherine being taken to Syon the Lady Rochford, wife of executed George Boleyn and sister in law to Anne Boleyn, knew that she was in danger. She had aided and abetted Katherine’s affair with Thomas Culpeper and “was seized with a raving madness”. Katherine and Rochford were confined together and many thought that they would share the same fate. Meanwhile at Lambeth the Dowager Duchess heard reports of Katherine’s misconduct and knew it had happened under her roof. She took a more rational view of the situation, knowing that nothing could be done to Katherine for something that was done before her marriage, yet still she began searching the house for evidence knowing that if Katherine fell, all of the Howard family would fall with her (Weir 2007, 449).
Whilst still held at Hampton Court, Katherine played into Cranmer’s hands during questioning, when she mentioned Thomas Culpeper, the name of her distant cousin and the man whom had so recently been arrested. Dereham had mentioned to Cranmer a rumour that the two of them would marry, which Katherine vehemently denied “what should you trouble me thereabouts, for you know I will not have you; and if you heard such report you know more than I” (Weir 2007, 455).
On 7th November 1541, Cranmer sent Katherine’s confession to the King and Katherine received a visit from the Privy Council to help her write a plea for forgiveness. After Henry received this he felt happier, for she could not have been unfaithful and he knew at this stage that he could get away with a divorce (Weir 2007, 457-458). That was until further evidence came to light about Katherine’s affair with Thomas Culpeper and Henry had Katherine moved from Hampton Court to Syon Abbey, there to await her fate. Katherine was removed from Hampton Court on 14th November to Syon; she would never see King Henry again. He himself had left Hampton Court previously and did not return until she had been moved to Syon. At this stage her harboured a deep resentment of Dereham, the man who had, spoiled his “Rose without a thorn” and it was a greater resentment than he held even for Culpeper who was accused of the worse crime of adultery. He would invoke treason against them both, accusing them both of adultery with Katherine and all three of them would die for it (Fraser 1993, 425-426).
More evidence began coming forward as Katherine was held at Syon, tales of her trysts with Culpeper which could only be taken as adulterous. Despite the fact that Culpeper kept denying the fact he had carnal knowledge of the Queen, what else could she be doing with him in her chambers two nights running and up the backstairs in Lincoln until two in the morning? Culpeper himself admitted to night-time rendezvous in Greenwich, Lincoln, Pontefract and York. Many witnesses also mentioned Lady Rochford who attempted to show that she was little more than an innocent bystander, somehow at the other end of the room where Katherine was meeting with Culpeper and not knowing what was happening. Katherine reversed it, saying that Rochford had tempted her with the meetings and Culpeper said she provoked him into a relationship with the Queen. But whatever else, all three of them were involved and far too deeply (Fraser 1993. 427-428). Regarding Dereham, his appointment as secretary gave the Queen’s accusers what they were after. He was tortured; condemned as a traitor and on 10th December was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Culpeper died on the same day, but due to his rank and mercy from the king his sentence was changed to beheading (Fraser 1993, 428). In the same month, a number of other people were arrested for having concealed Katherine’s past, including the Dowager Duchess. Katherine’s uncle Norfolk however was spared imprisonment by distancing himself from his niece (Fraser 1993, 430).
On 24th November Katherine, who had been demoted from Queen ship two days previously was incited for having led “an abominable, base, carnal and voluptuous life…like a common harlot with divers persons…maintaining however the outward appearance of chastity and honesty”. Now it was a matter of waiting, and Katherine was seemingly ready to accept her fate. On Friday 10th February 1542 Katherine was transferred from Syon to the Tower, whereupon in a moment of blind terror she refused to go. Eventually the Council bundled her into the waiting barge, which was enclosed. This was just as well, as they sailed beneath tower bridge which held the still rotting heads of both Dereham and Culpeper. Katherine had in fact at this stage been condemned to death by an Act of Attainder, although the document was still waiting for the King’s signature. No execution could take part without him signing the form however and in the end it was signed with the Great Seal to save the King more distress. It was read in Parliament on Saturday 11th February which meant the execution could now go ahead, but not on a Sunday. Katherine gained a day’s grace, and on the Sunday she asked that the block be brought to her rooms so she could practice how to place herself, mindful of conducting herself properly in her last moments. Executions after all were important moments, and it would do well for her to know what it was she must do.
On Monday 13th February 1542 Katherine was lead out of her rooms to Tower Green where 6 years earlier her cousin had been executed. She mounted the scaffold where she prayed for her husband and admitted that she deserved punishment. Folklore states that she spoke the following, “I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper”. This is apocryphal and Katherine did not say this. She then placed her head on the block as she had practiced and her head was removed in one stroke (Weir 2007, 479-481). Lady Rochford followed her out, still in a frenzy. Henry had to have a special act passed to allow the execution of the insane before he could have her removed for her part in the scandal. But, faced with the axe and with Katherine’s remains being wrapped in a blanket, she recovered her reason enough to make her last speech before she too lost her head (Weir 2007, 481-482).

Grave marker of Katherine Howard within the chapel of St Peter Ad Vicula
Katherine’s body was taken to the nearby chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula where she was laid to rest in an unmarked grave near to her cousin Anne Boleyn. And there she lay forgotten until 1553 when Queen Mary had the act of attainder reversed as it had never borne the signature of the King. There Katherine rests still, her name marked on a tile by the altar although no one knows whether Katherine herself rests beneath it. Her name is still very much vilified as Henry VIII’s ‘bimbo queen’, his adulteress, as opposed to the young naïve girl that she truly was.
Katherine Howard died young, the victim of a bitter struggle for power on the part of her uncle Norfolk and the Howard faction. She was little more than a naïve girl, desperate to be loved when she had a husband who was so much larger than she was, and so much older. I do not believe it fair to say that Katherine deserved what she got for her affair with Thomas Culpeper or indeed her pre-marital trysts with Mannox and Dereham; in fact I believe that she was naïve and a girl who had no idea of the mess that she was getting herself into. Having been a part of that huge Howard family, she would have known what had happened to her cousin Anne Boleyn all those years before, the rumours that she had affairs with other men including her own brother and would have known that Anne went to her death because of it. And yet Katherine still walked the path she did, unknowing of the mess she was getting herself into. It is unfair to label her as an adulteress and Henry’s empty headed bimbo queen for she was much more than that. She was young yes, and not so well educated but in the end I think that all Katherine Howard wanted was to be loved and in the end that proved to be her downfall.
Baldwin Smith, L, 1961, Catherine Howard, Amberley Publishing: Stroud
Fraser, A, 1993, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Vintage: London
Hutchinson, R, 2006, The Last Days of Henry VIII, Phoenix: London
Hutchinson, R, 2009, House Of Treason: The Rise & Fall Of A Tudor Dynasty, Phoenix: London
Starkey, D, 2004, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, Vintage: London
Weir, A, 2007, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Vintage: London.

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