THE WIVES OF HENRY VIII: Catherine Howard
An article by Lauren Leonard
She was the pretty and vain teenager who had plans to be a legend at the court of Henry VIII. She didn’t know her good looks and charm would win the heart of a man old enough to be her father who was on the brink of madness. She never realized that as Queen, she could not have her own loves, and at the end of her short life inherited the same thing that her cousin did: a scaffold at Tower Green.
Catherine Howard could be portrayed as a younger and more hopeless Marie Antoinette. She brought hope to the radical rivals of the Seymours, the Boleyns and the Howards, and became a Queen that lived a life even more irresponsible than her cousin Anne. As a young girl, she never understood the responsibilities of a royal role, and she ended up on Tower Green exactly like her cousins.
Catherine was mostly likely born in 1525, and was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and his wife, Joyce Culpeper (this made her a cousin of Anne Boleyn; her father’s sister was Anne’s mother. It also made her a realtive of one of her lovers, Thomas Culpeper.). She was raised primarily by a step-grandmother named Agnes Tilney (a Dowager Duchess of Norfolk), since her mother died when she five or six years old and the Boleyns gave her father a job in France. As a member of nobility, she was probably raised as an aristocrat, but did not have as good an education as some of Henry’s other wives, although it was said she could read and write English well enough.
During her years with her grandmother, Catherine had two notorious affairs. The first was with Henry Manox, which took place when she was 11 to 16 years old. When she became Queen, Catherine employed him as a musician in her private household, and during her famous adultery trials, he gave evidence against her. Catherine said of Manox: “At the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox, being but a young girl, I suffered him at sundry times to handle and to touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty nor him to require.” The other was with Francis Dereham, who was executed for his love affair with Catherine. It appeared more serious than the one with Manox, especially when they called themselves husband and wife. The affair ended sometime in 1539, when Catherine’s grandmother discovered it. However, if they actually intended on marrying and did before Dereham left for Ireland and Catherine went to court, they would be married by the standards of the Church of England.
When she was about fourteen or fifteen years old, Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, secured a position for her as a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. While she caught the eye of Henry VIII in record time (he did not really like Anne of Cleves much to begin with), nobody in her family thought she was old enough to handle being the King’s mistress, let alone a Queen of England. Yet, the equity of the family had been so damaged by the events of 1536 (Anne and George Boleyn’s executions) that they were willing to win the king’s favor in any possible way that they encouraged Catherine’s flirtation. During the divorce with the king and his fourth wife, Henry and Catherine planned a marriage and married a few weeks after the divorce was finished, in July 1540.
Catherine was not a responsible queen consort and was lavished on by her new husband, who, nearing 50 and having multiple ailments, was showering her with everything including fancy gowns and jewels. However, during her marriage she appeared to be unhappy with married life, and pursued court men her own age. She found happiness in a romantic relationship with a courtier and cousin, Thomas Culpeper. She also did not want to upset her husband, who by this time had probably executed thousands of people (including two of her cousins), and her motto, “No Other Will But His,” to illustrate her tolerance of her husband’s contentment. She continued her casual but private romance with Thomas Culpeper through her cousin’s widow, Lady Rochford (Jane Boleyn). In the summer of 1541, she toured England with her husband, who was still very much in love with her. She also believed that her past could no longer affect her during her tenure as Queen, so she hired Henry Manox as a musician and Francis Dereham as her secretary.
In the fall of 1541, John Lascelles heard of Catherine’s sexual preferences through his sister-in-law and reported them to Catherine’s husband. They were also told of to one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors, Archbishop Cranmer. He too presented the king with more conclusive proof, including a love letter from Catherine to Thomas Culpeper. The letter also implicated Lady Rochford as having arranged many different meetings between them. Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were both placed in the Tower (Henry Manox detached himself from the scandal entirely by testifying against Catherine) and tortured, and both confessed to having a sexual relationship with Catherine. She was stripped of her royal role on November 23 and placed under house arrest, and once, she ran into a chapel at Hampton Court Palace where she believed that Henry was having Mass. Her shrieks down the galleries begging for her life have become a popular ghost story, and her ‘ghost’ is believed to remain there ever since.
Catherine could have spared the fate of her cousin by simply being banished from court, but Henry wanted revenge. By 1542, most of her family was under lock and key in the Tower, with the exception of one of her uncles, the Duke of Norfolk, who had no known involvement in the scandal.
On December 10, 1541, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper were both executed for high treason. Thomas, being of royal blood, was spared a simple death by beheading, while Francis was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Catherine’s adultery created a new law in England-a queen consort must tell her future husband of all of her past sexual life at least 20 days before the marriage. Catherine was pronounced guilty when the sentence was passed, and was also to be beheaded for high treason. Lady Rochford was also found guilty of assisting the Queen and was also charged and found guilty. On February 13, 1542, both women were executed. Catherine’s speech at her execution described her punishment as a worthy and just one, and begged for the leniency of her family and her soul. Her last words were supposedly, “I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper,” but it is now judged as a fictional quote meant to give more interest to her story. Catherine was buried in the Chapel of St. Peter and Vincula, and during the Victorian era, she was honored on a plaque in remembrance of all of the victims of the Tower of London, which included her cousin Anne.
Since her death, Catherine Howard has been portrayed as a silly, vain girl. The picture above is of actress Tazmin Merchant as Catherine in the TV series The Tudors, in which she watches her lover Thomas Culpeper ride off into the distance. The famous Tudor historian Alison Weir defines Catherine Howard as “an emnpty-headed wanton,” in her 1991 Tudor biography The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Henry was apparently slightly hurt and confused by Catherine’s betrayal, and was comforted in a letter from the current King of France, Francis I: “The lightness of women cannot bend the honor of men.” Catherine Howard, unlike Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, is not much pictured in two different lights, but seen as the young, pretty girl who just wanted someone she could truly love, and a pawn of her ruthless family.