This is the part seven in my series examining the lives of the women in Henry VIII’s life. Click here for previous essays from the series.
Note: As we’re now veering into the repeating names of Henry’s wives, I’ll be referring to Catherine Howard with a “C” to differentiate her from her predecessor Katherine (with a “K”) of Aragon.
Catherine Howard was about seventeen years old when she married the 49-year-old Henry VIII, a man with an unpredictable temper, numerous ghastly health conditions, and supreme control over everyone in the country — including her. By every account, she was happy and willing to become his wife, but if she hadn’t been, she’d have been killed for treason probably. Even moreso than with his previous four wives, this was a zero sum game where Henry had control over everything and Catherine none. He spotted her when she was one of many ladies in waiting to his previous wife, decided he wanted her, and that was basically that. Henry had never known the world to operate any differently — anyone who’d ever dared to prevent him from taking what he wanted generally wound up dead.
From most accounts, Catherine was a tiny spitfire of fun energy. She had been offered an education and could read and write, but her passions were more for dancing and small animals than for scholarly conversation. One of the youngest of eleven siblings parented by the youngest of 21 (!!!) siblings, she’d grown up as an afterthought to an afterthought; had she managed to wrangle a medium-wealthy aristocrat, it would have been seen as a great success for her and her family. The Howards were a notable aristocratic family with connections to the Boleyns. Because, even moreso than everyone else in this whole saga was distantly cousins of each other, she and Anne were, in fact, first cousins. That her fate would wind up a grotesque funhouse version of Anne’s only cements the invisible bond between these two, who more than likely never met.
Catherine would have been a toddler when Anne and Henry began their nearly decade-long entanglement, and about ten years old when Anne was put to death for trumped-up charges of adultery and treason. Catherine had been living for most of her childhood away from her neglectful parents, rooming in a sort of dormitory with other forgotten children of other minor aristocrats, in the manor house of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The Dowager Duchess was even more disinterested in any of her wards as their parents had been, mostly staying out of their way and leaving them to their own devices. Growing up in such an environment, Catherine understandably grew up without the same strict upstairs/downstairs sense of servants and aristocrats, all the young adults apparently members of the same crowd of youthful carousing.
Without any actual parental figures to observe, Catherine’s role models were the slightly older girls, who she saw routinely allowing men (both other wards and servants) enter their rooms at night. These girls, she would have seen, were presented with gifts from their various suitors, setting up her understanding of the connection between beauty, sex, and economy. Beginning when she was about 13 years old, she fell victim to repeated assault from her 36-year-old music instructor, Henry Mannox. Under oath, Catherine described their situation as follows:
“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.”
The abuse ended only when Catherine moved from one of the Dowager Duchess’s estates to another, leaving Mannox behind. She quickly fell into a consensual affair with another older man, in this case one of the Dowager Duchess’s secretaries, a man named Francis Dereham. Their relationship became serious enough that the pair were known to refer to one another as “husband” and “wife.” When Dereham left town on business, Catherine looked after his money — the way a real wife would. Of course, there was no hope that this relationship would amount to a proper marriage, for despite Catherine’s family’s relative poverty, they were still aristocrats, and she’d never be permitted to marry a servant like Dereham. So while their housemates knew about the relationship, the Dowager Duchess — a distant relative to Catherine — was kept in the dark.
Inevitably enough, after about a year, their secret was found out by the Dowager Duchess, who forced them to separate by sending Dereham to Ireland. It does seem, however, that the young lovers parted with the understanding that they would marry upon his return. It may or may not have been an explicit precontract, but to the church at the time, if two lovers spoke vows and became sexually involved, they could be seen as technically married. Put a pin in that — it becomes extraordinarily important later on.
So, it was with this romantic history behind her that Catherine, aged about 17, was sent to be a lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves. Bearing in mind what he know about Henry’s revoltingly dismissive attitude toward Anne (documented in my previous essay), and also knowing his habit of looking for love approximately two feet away from his current wife (as had happened with both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour), of course the tiny, vivacious Catherine caught his eye. She was utterly unlike any of his previous wives. Katherine had been scholarly and serious, Anne Boleyn opinionated and passionate, Jane Seymour docile and submissive, Anne of Cleves basically a glorious weirdo. Catherine was spritely, girlish, and full of high spirits. She was also, bear in mind, seven years younger than his daughter Lady Mary, but what did he care? He was a horrifying dirtbag in the midst of a mid-life crisis! Remember how offended he’d been when Anne of Cleves didn’t swoon at the sight of his medically-unsound, pus-covered body? He thought he was still in the prime of his life, so of course this cute teenager would want to be with him!
He began following his usual playbook of: gift her a series of increasingly ostentatious things. Both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour had demurely, and religiously, refused much of his largesse. Catherine? The seventeen year old, abused, neglected, youngest of eleven kids in a technically well-off but actually pretty poor family? Must have thought she’d died and gone to heaven. She didn’t send any of the gifts back, and in fact, luxuriated in them. It was a classic sugar baby scenario, with Henry fawning over her in a weird mixture of spoiling her like a daughter and lusting after her like a lover. He repeatedly referred to her as his “rose without a thorn” and “the very jewel of womanhood.” Remember how much trouble Henry had gone through to divest himself of his first two wives? By now, it was no big thing for him to rush through a quickie annulment to Anne of Cleves, marrying Catherine on July 28, 1540, just six months after his wedding to Anne.
Catherine, being — and I can’t stress this enough — seventeen years old, was not involved in matters of statecraft as Katherine and Anne Boleyn had been. She was a tiny teenage trophy wife, like a sex doll for him to dress up and show off to other people. Goodness knows the people of London were like, “Seriously? Yet another celebration for another Queen?” but real talk: they were probably just excited for the excuse for a big party, yet again. As Henry’s previous wives all had, Catherine took a motto upon becoming his wife, hers being: “No Other Wish But His.” Like this girl may have looked sweet and innocent, but she knew what she was doing, and that was: fooling the King into thinking she was his dream girl. At least, for now.
Like her cousin, Catherine preferred the sophisticated French manner of dress, and Henry provided her with enough funds, cloth, and tailors that she was able to wear a new dress every day, always accentuated with a notable amount of jewels. Following their wedding, she and Henry set out for a cross-country honeymoon. Henry, in paroxysms of new relationship energy, set out to redecorate his palaces in honour of his new beloved Queen, like he literally just threw money all around in order to make her happy and show off how much he loved her. Now, this is still the same King Henry VIII who had been suffering from chronic pain from his ulcerous leg wounds, like on the days they released pus were his good days, because that lessened the pain. So perhaps an argument could be made that he was overcompensating with Catherine to distract himself from the way his body was effectively rotting while he was still alive. His mood swings, which had always been pretty extreme, were getting worse. And without a wife to hate, he took out his rage at the men around him. You know, the sort of husband every 17-year-old dreams about.
About a year after their wedding, Catherine and Henry set out for another cross-country trip, this time headed north. Each time they came to a new palace, Catherine had her trusted lady-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn (yes, the sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn) snoop around to find secret back doors and hidden rooms. Why? Well because by this point, Catherine was fully having an affair with a 20something courtier named Thomas Culpeper. Culpeper was one of Henry VIII’s advisors, and had apparently first become enamored of Catherine back when she was merely a lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves. The pair had struck up a friendship once she was Queen, which matured into the sort of intense bond that involved sneaking off into back corners and hallways for assignations. Not much is known about Culpeper as a person, though he was described by one source as “a beautiful youth,” and his name is the same as that of a man accused at around this same time for a gruesome rape and murder crime spree (it may not have been this Thomas Culpeper who did that, though) (but come on, what are the chances it wasn’t?).
Jane Boleyn not only helped them find rooms to meet, but also delivered messages back and forth between them and, on at least one occasion, stood guard outside the rooms where they were enjoying each other’s company. It was likely during this trip that Catherine wrote an incriminating letter to her lover, which said (spelling and grammar updated by me):
“I never longed so much for a thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, which I trust shall be shortly now… my trust is always in you that you would be as you have promised me.”
Culpeper’s motives are unclear. Some writers, especially novelists, imagine that the pair were truly in love and unable to restrain their passion. Other historians suspect that Culpeper was scheming to win Catherine’s favour so that he could be better placed in Henry’s household. If you watched this plotline play out on The Tudors, they really leaned into the possible-rapist-murderer angle, making him a sort of dead-eyed stalker. His intent is unknown, but Catherine’s — at least, evidenced by the quote above — seems to be that she had truly fallen in love with this man, even knowing the risk to her life. And even this might not have been discovered, if not for a sudden confluence of terrible, terrible luck.
Remember the borderline feral life she had lived at the Dowager Duchess’s home? How she and Dereham had behaved like a married couple and, potentially, had been married? And how her roommates and the servants had all known about this open secret? These people knew how important it was to keep Catherine’s past hidden, and how that could work out in their own advantage. So a number of people came to Catherine asking for money and jobs at court, in exchange for their silence. And Catherine… basically hired all of them. Rather than shutting them up, this got other alumni from the Dowager Duchess’s party house coming after her for money and favours, and Catherine kept giving them out. And somehow, news of her past relationships and behaviour made its way to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, a man known to be an enemy of the Boleyn/Howard family, in general. And as he began investigating her past with both Henry Mannox and Francis Dereham, the matter of Culpeper came to his attention as well.
On November 1, 1541, Henry was praying in a chapel, cluelessly thanking God for bringing him his beloved “jewel of womanhood.” He was interrupted with the news that a warrant had been given for Catherine’s arrest — which was more than a shock to him, as he’d not been told about any of the preliminary investigations, and had not heard any of the rumours about Catherine’s past. That same day, Cranmer went to question Catherine, who became frantic and incoherent, screaming and crying in terror. This really drives home who she really was; where Katherine and Anne Boleyn had reacted graciously and maturely to their plights, Catherine was just a terrified teenager. Her reaction was so extreme that even Cranmer — the man who had engineered her arrest in the first place — wrote that he pitied her. Her behaviour was so erratic that Cranmer basically put her on suicide watch, ensuring that all sharp objects were removed from her chambers.
Catherine’s get out of jail free — or at least, not beheaded — card was to claim that she had, in fact, been precontracted to marry Francis Dereham. If this was the case, it would nullify her marriage to Henry, meaning her affair with Culpeper was no longer treason, meaning she’d be stripped of land and title and sent from court in disgrace… but not put to death. Catherine did not take this easy out, for whatever reason. In fact, she claimed that she had never consented to any part of her relationship with Dereham, alleging he had in fact raped her. The truth is unknown, but we do have the testimony and records of her former housemates, all of whom corroborate that Catherine and Dereham had referred to one another as “husband” and “wife” and that she had, in fact, taken care of his money when he was out of town in a wifely sort of way.
Without precontract as an option to extricate herself, Catherine turned her focus on her lady-in-waiting, claiming that Jane Boleyn had been the architect of the entire affair and that she, Catherine, had been helpless to resist Jane’s manipulations. Now, for a Queen to be so cowed by a lady in waiting was certainly possible. For this Queen, though, it seemed unlikely. Early in her marriage to Henry, Catherine had butted heads with her stepdaughter Lady Mary (who was, remember, seven years older than Catherine). Mary was still devoted to the memory of her late mother, and, Catherine felt, was not treating her new Queen with an adequate amount of respect. Catherine removed two of Mary’s ladies in waiting, which was like the scandal of the time, utterly humiliating Mary. For a woman to be so aggressive against her stepdaughter and then to be so cowed by her lady in waiting seems unlikely, but whatever, anything is possible. Although Catherine’s love letter, quoted above, really makes it seem like she was emotionally invested in the relationship and not just doing it because Jane had forced her to.
Jane was brought in for questioning and basically had a complete nervous breakdown, confessing everything before becoming mostly incoherent. She was doing so poorly that Henry had her removed from jail and put on house arrest in the home of a nearby woman, basically so she’d be able to pull herself together in order to die with dignity. Catherine was formally stripped of her title of Queen on November 23, 1541, and imprisoned in a former convent. In all the chaos, her marriage to Henry was never actually annulled, though she never saw him again.
Both Culpeper and Dereham were arraigned for high treason; Culpeper for his affair with the Queen, and Dereham for failing to notify the King of his prior relationship with Catherine. Both were executed on December 10, 1541. Due to the differences in their rank, the noble-born Culpeper was beheaded while Dereham, the secretary, was hanged, drawn, and quartered. As had also occurred when Catherine’s cousin was sent to jail, many of her relatives were also imprisoned for their potential involvement in her treasonous activities. Note: for a Queen to have sex with a man who is not the King is both adultery and treason, because it calls into question the paternity of any children born to her. The arrested Howards were all found guilty of concealing treason and sentenced to life in prison and forfeiture of goods. Anne Boleyn’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, the same man who had initially arranged for Catherine to be sent to court, evaded capture by writing a letter of apology.
Although Catherine had committed adultery and failed to disclose her prior sexual history, there wasn’t a specific law outlining what should be done with her due to the still sticky situation of the possible precontract with Dereham. So, on February 7, 1542, Parliament passed a bill of attainder that made it treason for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within twenty days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her. On February 10, Lords of the Council came to escort her to the Tower. As she had upon her initial arrest, Catherine panicked, becoming so distraught that they basically had to carry her into the waiting barge. This vessel would have passed under London Bridge, where Culpeper and Dereham’s heads were mounted on spikes. She was put in jail in the Tower, and her execution was scheduled for February 13.
Catherine requested the wooden block that she would be beheaded upon, so that she could practice how to lay her head correctly. One was brought to her, and apparently she spent much of her final night alive rehearsing. She was composed as she made her way to her execution that morning, far from the panicked girl she had been days before. As was customary, she delivered a speech in which she asked for forgiveness for her sins, acknowledged that she deserved to die for betraying the King who had always treated her well, and asked that mercy be granted to her family and prayers for her soul. A rumour spread that her final words had culminated with her declaration that “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper”, but none of the eyewitnesses to her execution noted this unconventional and scandalous utterance. She was beheaded with a single axe stroke.
Jane Boleyn was executed shortly after, and both bodies were buried in the same chapel as their family members Anne and George Boleyn. While her grace was initially unmarked it is now commemorated on a plaque on the west wall dedicated to all those who died in the Tower. Due to her disgrace, all portraits and references to her were destroyed in all royal buildings. Even the Howard family removed her picture from their family portrait gallery.
Further Reading and Watching
I don’t know of any films or TV series that focus only on Catherine’s rise and fall, though it’s such a fascinating story someone should really get on this. Her portrayal in The Tudors seems fairly accurate to what she was like in life, as she sweetly but rather cluelessly destroys her own life. In terms of books, her story is often combined with those of Henry’s other shorter marriages and/or the narrative is shared between her and Jane Boleyn, in books like Philippa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance and . I can recommend Gareth Russell’s recent work Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII, which takes her seriously as a person, unlike several of the biographies of all six wives which can sometimes dismiss her as less interesting or important as the others.
Note: a previous version of this essay incorrectly identified the Duke of Norfolk as Anne Boleyn’s father. In fact, the Duke was uncle to both Anne and Catherine.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter