Queen Catherine Howard – Silliness Meets the Axe

Catherine Howard by Hans Holbein

Catherine Howard by Hans Holbein

Catherine Howard was Henry VIII’s fifth wife, and definitely the silliest. She was born around 1523, probably at Lambeth, London.  Her father’s sister, Elizabeth Howard, was Anne Boleyn’s mother.  Therefore Catherine and Anne were first cousins.  Catherine came from an aristocratic pedigree but she grew up rather poor by royal standards.  When Catherine’s mother passed away in 1530, she was sent to live with her father’s stepmother the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.  The Dowager took in lots of poor aristocratic children like Catherine into her care.  Her house at Lambeth was a cross between a boarding school and a permanent slumber party.  When the Dowager was at court, which was fairly frequently, the kids got up to all sorts of trouble.

When Catherine was around thirteen, her music teacher Henry Mannox began seducing her.  His intentions were entirely dishonourable, but he didn’t achieve his ultimate aim.  Catherine’s attentions moved on to Francis Dereham, who was a secretary in the Dowager’s household.  The two became lovers and may have even exchanged vows between the two of them (which would have made them married in the eyes of the church).  They certainly put on a good show of being husband and wife, and actually openly called each other by those names.  However, before the already advanced flirtation was discovered by grown-ups, Dereham was sent to Ireland and Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, found her a place at court in the household of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.

It was in the service of Anne of Cleves that Catherine first caught Henry’s eye. She didn’t have long to wait, unlike her Boleyn cousin who had to wait 7 years to marry Henry. Within 6 months of his marriage to the German Princess, Henry divorced Anne of Cleves. On 28th July 1540, Henry and Catherine were married at Oatlands Palace located in today’s Surrey.  They were married in secret and spent ten days there together.  Henry was so in love with his new wife that he wanted to get as much alone time together as possible before the reality of court life and its inherent lack of privacy disturbed their marital bliss.  Finally Henry thought he had found his “rose without a thorn,” a wife who was beautiful, charming, obedient, and most importantly of all virtuous.  Henry had a medal commissioned to celebrate their marriage, with lovers’ knots entwined, and that very phrase inscribed in Latin “Henricus VIII: Rutilans Rosa Sine Spina.” Perhaps this was the fifth time lucky.  Or so he thought.

Catherine Howard played by Emily Blunt in the 2003 TV movie Henry VIII

Catherine Howard played by Emily Blunt in the 2003 TV movie Henry VIII

Despite the age gap of more than three decades, Catherine seemed happy too, or at least she put on a very convincing show.  She was so young, still just a teenager, and ill-equipped for the role of queen consort.  Catherine was practically still a child, and one who hadn’t had a lot of love growing up.  It must have been very flattering to become the centre of attention, dotted upon by an old husband like a pet, not to mention the jewels.  Practically every day of her reign as queen, Catherine sported new jewels and gowns.  The Howard family was also pleased.  They were once again the post powerful family in England. The Boleyn stigma seemed to have lifted.

Henry’s great hope for his new marriage was that it would produce more sons.  The baby Prince Edward was young and vulnerable.  Henry had his heir, but he needed a spare, and he hoped to get at least one from Catherine.  Despite Henry’s ardour and persistence (he visited Catherine’s rooms every night during the first few months of marriage), she didn’t conceive during their marriage.  It could be that Henry was too old or unwell to father another child, but everything was jolly for the couple in the beginning.

However, not everyone was pleased with the new queen.  For example, the King’s daughter the Lady Mary disapproved of Catherine’s perceived greed.  Mary was a serious young woman with her own ambitions of marriage and motherhood.  The two women had absolutely nothing in common, but Catherine was a sweet girl and the king adored her. Her youth and inexperience in court intrigues lead her into compromising situation. But Henry’s love was blind to all of that.  He rewarded his young wife not only with material possessions but also wealth and power.  In October 1540,Parliament passed the Queen Consort Act which set out the powers of the Queen.  In it it gave Catherine the power to act as “a woman sole, without the consent of the King’s Highness.”  Henry also gave Catherine the lands that had been Jane Seymour’s much to the chagrin of the ambitious Seymour family.

In February 1541 Henry’s health worsened.  It wasn’t great generally during this time.  He was seriously obese and a wound in his leg from years prior was a constant source of pain.  But in February he could barely walk he was in such pain.  The physical pain also caused psychological problems.  Henry’s temper flared easily and he was depressed.  Catherine tried to comfort him but also had to preside over court without her husband.  She despaired that she couldn’t cheer up the ageing monarch and panicked a bit when he turned his back her attempts.  It was the first glimpse Catherine saw that Henry could shut her out but it only lasted a month.

Tamzin Marchant as Catherine Howard in the TV series The Tudors

Tamzin Marchant as Catherine Howard in the TV series The Tudors

In early April, Catherine got the false hope that she might be pregnant.  Either she misread the signs, or she suffered a very early miscarriage.  Henry’s mood became dark once again.  It was a dull spring at court for the young Queen.  None of the King’s children were at court and she grew bored.  Henry was distracted by a rebellion in the North.

Henry and Catherine went on a royal progress (an annual road trip around the kingdom to meet with royal subjects and rally support for the monarchy.  It was on that trip that Catherine met her old flame Francis Dereham.  He requested a position in her household and she granted him the role as her private secretary on 27th August.  Because of the information Dereham had about Catherine’s less than virtuous past, she didn’t feel that she could refuse him the job.  However, it was a costly appointment for Catherine, as Dereham’s presence in her household greatly disturbed the peace with other members of staff who felt that Dereham was too familiar in his behaviour with the Queen.  Some people were also jealous of Dereham’s influence on Catherine.

Shortly after, it all started to unravel in Catherine’s household.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer,  brought Henry the disturbing news that Catherine may have had a pre-marriage contract with Francis Dereham. This in itself was not a crime, but Henry banished Catherine to Syon Abbey whilst the investigation was underway.  He also stripped her of her title of queen.  Catherine was in absolute hysterics throughout most of the process.  Had she held up her hands and confessed to the pre-contract, her life might have been spared.  But the longer that she protested her innocence, the more damning evidence came forward.

The final nail in Catherine’s proverbial coffin was actually the discovery that she had been engaging in adultery with the King’s close friend and courtier, Thomas Culpepper, during her marriage to the King.  Catherine was taken down the river to the Tower of London and executed along with her friend, Lady Rochford (Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law), who had helped her pay secret visits to Thomas Culpepper.  Catherine is rumoured to have passed many hours  the night before her execution practicing laying her head on the block.  She was no more than twenty years old when she was executed.  By today’s standards, Catherine’s behaviour was naive and immature, but in Tudor England, it could get you killed.


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