The Fall of Katheryn Howard


In early November of 1541, the king was passed a note after mass. His councilors were so afraid of his reaction to its contents that they couldn't bring themselves to inform him in person.

Unlike Anne Boleyn, when Henry was told that Katheryn might be having an affair, he said the matter "might be forged," and demanded an investigation into the matter. He was troubled, but did not denounce his young queen and send her to the Tower.

Henry had married Katheryn Howard on July 28, 1540. He called her his Rose Without A Thorn. Katheryn was very young, possibly only sixteen or seventeen when she married the king. But Henry's rose had lived a very eventful life before she came to the king's attention as a lady in waiting for the wife he would soon divorce, Anna von Kleefes.

Katheryn had been raised by her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Agnes Tilney Howard. The Dowager Duchess ran something like a boarding school for young, aristocratic women. They lived in a dormitory-style room, and were given the usual education of a Tudor girl of gentle birth: dancing, music, reading and writing. However, the supervision of these young ladies seems to have been somewhat lax.

In about 1535, the Dowager Duchess hired Henry Mannox to teach Katheryn to play the virginals. Katheryn could have been no more than twelve or thirteen at this time, which today would put the entire situation in a different light. But in those days, Katheryn was considered a woman, old enough to marry. (King Henry's grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, had her first - and only - child at age thirteen.)

Mannox later said he fell in love with the young Katheryn, and she returned his affections. Their budding relationship - if you wish to call it that - moved to the physical when Katheryn "suffered" him to touch the intimate parts of her body. Mannox bragged about it - crudely - to Mary Hall:

“I know her well enough, for I have [touched her intimately] and I know [her body] among a hundred… And she loves me and I love her, and she hath said to me that I shall have her maidenhead, though it be painful to her, and not doubting but I will be good to her hereafter.”

Mannox also claimed he knew of a mark on her private parts, but was adamant in his later testimony that they had never had full sexual relations.

The affair was discovered by the Dowager Duchess when she caught the two alone together. It's mentioned in the trial records that she slapped Katheryn two or three times and ordered her never to be alone with the music teacher again.

In 1538, Francis Dereham came to serve at the Dowager Duchess's household. Along with other young gentlemen, he would sneak into the maidens' dormitory, aided by Katheryn, who crept into the Dowager Duchess's chamber and stole the keys. The young men brought fruit and wine "and other things to make good cheer."

There was a marked difference between Katheryn's affair with Mannox and the one she had with Dereham. They called one another "husband" and "wife" during these meetings. The other girls testified to witnessing the physical consummation. According to church and civil law, the pair were legally married. Katheryn was even tasked with holding money for him when he was away on business.

These meetings came to an abrupt halt when a jealous Mannox wrote a letter to the Dowager Duchess, telling her that she would be "displeased" if she visited the maiden's chamber late at night. Agnes stormed in one evening. What punishment the Dowager Duchess meted out to the girls is not recorded, but an angry Katheryn stole the letter and showed it to Dereham. Dereham confronted Mannox about it and called him a knave.

Katheryn said in her confession that the affair with Dereham ended about a year before her appointment to serve the new queen, Anna von Kleefes, as a lady in waiting. The Dowager Duchess must have sighed with relief to have her difficult charge off her hands.

While she was at court, Katheryn may have begun a flirtation with a young courtier, a favorite of King Henry. His name was Thomas Culpepper, and he was Katheryn's seventh cousin.

Culpepper was said to be very handsome and charming. Henry appointed Culpepper as a groom of the bedchamber around 1535, during the reign of Anne Boleyn. Culpepper helped to dress the king, and slept in the king's bedchamber.

It's possible that Culpepper had a darker side. Records indicate that a Thomas Culpepper was pardoned by the king for raping a park keeper's wife and slaying a man who tried to rescue her. However, Culpepper had an older brother who was also named Thomas Culpepper, so it can't be said for certain which brother it was.

Culpepper was one of the men sent to fetch the king's new bride, Anna von Kleefes. The king was unhappy in the marriage from the start and his roving eyes turned to one of her ladies, the young, pretty Katheryn. Soon, Anna was sent away with an annulment in hand, and Henry married Katheryn only eighteen days later.

At this point in his life, Henry was obese, and had a festering leg wound that wouldn't heal. By the standards of his day, he was an old man. Not exactly the man of Katheryn's dreams, but she was a Howard girl, and the duty of every young woman of the day was to marry well and bring honor to her family. The Howards seem not to have known about - or decided to deny - her marriage to Dereham, and Katheryn didn't tell the king about it when he approached her. Instead of being married off to some minor courtier due to her sullied reputation, Katheryn was climbing to impossible heights. In retrospect, she seems to have been doomed to fall.

On August 8, 1540, Katheryn Howard was presented as queen to the court. Henry lavished gifts on his young bride, whom he called "the very jewel of womanhood." His records indicate he spent more on her than he had on any of his previous queens, though Katheryn was only his wife for a short eighteen months.

But Katheryn's past quickly came back to haunt her. Francis Dereham appeared, perhaps sent by the Dowager Duchess, to ask for an appointment to court. Katheryn made him her secretary. Was she being blackmailed? We don't know, but it doesn't seem like she was happy with the arrangement. Dereham quickly became jealous of Culpepper, whom he said had succeeded him in Katheryn's affections.

Culpepper, too, was seething. The Spanish Chronicle states Culpepper was so grieved over Katheryn's marriage to the king that he fell ill over it. He sighed and cast longing looks at her when he was in her presence.

Katheryn wrote him a letter, delivered to him by Jane Parker, Lady Rochford. It's the only letter of hers that survives, and it was included in the evidence against her when the allegations of adultery came to light.

Jane Parker was the former sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn. She is traditionally blamed as being the one who condemned her husband and Anne to the scaffold by accusing them of incest, but there's no proof of her involvement in those particular accusations.

Jane Parker assisted the young queen in sending Culpepper messages and small gifts. She even arranged a few short meetings in her own bedchamber and an empty room. She scouted out locations for these meetings and reported to the queen where the back stairs could be found. It was later said she did these things in exchange for Katheryn finding her a new husband. But we cannot be sure of her motives.

There have been various theories down through the ages as to why Katheryn continued to meet with Culpepper after she married the king. Some suspect he was blackmailing her to remain silent about her past, or that Culpepper was trying to manipulate the young queen.

Perhaps it really was love. Katheryn does seem to have retained some affection for Culpepper because she referred to him at one time as her "sweet little fool," and her letter to him bemoans the fate she has that she cannot always be in his company.

The investigation quickly uncovered Katheryn's past and present entanglements. By the sixth of November, Katheryn knew she was in serious trouble. The council had been questioning her ladies and past acquaintances, and by now, the king knew all of the allegations against his thornless rose had not been "forged" after all. He abruptly left Hampton Court - Katheryn never saw him again. The following day, her jewels were seized, and Katheryn went into hysterics when Cranmer tried to question her.

I found her in such lamentation and heaviness, as I never saw no creature; so that it would have pitied any man’s heart in the world to have looked upon her: and in that vehement rage she continued, as they informed me which be about her, from my departure from her unto my return again.

He returned the next day and found her calmer and more cooperative. She made a humble confession in a letter written to the king, laying out her pre-marital affairs in detail. She begged for mercy.


But mercy was in short supply. The king was in an anguished rage, alternately roaring and crying. His reaction is a sharp difference from his cheerful demeanor after the accusations against Anne Boleyn. 

 Chapuys wrote:

"This King has wonderfully felt the case of the Queen, his wife... He has certainly shown greater sorrow and regret at her loss than at the faults, loss or divorce of his preceding wives."

The king ordered the Dowager Duchess imprisoned. Dereham and Culpepper went to the Tower. On the 11th, Katheryn was moved from Hampton Court to Syon Abbey. The king ordered her living conditions to be sharply reduced from what she was used to as queen. She had only six servants, and since her jewels had been seized, the only adornment she was allowed was a few hoods with gold trim, and six gowns.


“First, the King’s pleasure is, that the Queen, with convenient diligence, remove to the house of Syon, there to remain, till the matter be further ordered, in the state of a Queen, furnished moderately, as her life and conditions have deserved; that is to say, with the furniture of three chambers hanged with mean stuff, without any cloth of estate.”

She admitted in the interrogation that she had given Culpepper a cap with gold aglets and a chain. Norfolk wrote in his report:

She says that my Lady Rochford would at every lodging search the back doors & tell her of them if there were any, unasked; and since the progress she told her that when she came to Greenwich she knew an old kitchen where she might well speak with him. 


Katheryn paints Jane Parker as not only participating, but actively urging Katheryn to meet with Culpepper.
Culpepper tried to blame her too:

Lady Rochford contrived these interviews. The Queen would “in every house seek for the back doors and back stairs herself.” At Pomfret she feared the King had set watch at the back door, and lady Rochford made her servant watch in the court to see if that were so. [...] Lady Rochford provoked him much to love the Queen [ ...]

Jane, for her part, confessed that she believed Culpepper and the queen had been intimate.

Since her trouble the Queen has daily asked for Culpeper, saying that if that matter came not out she feared not. At Lincoln, when the Queen was with Culpeper, she was asleep until the Queen called her to answer Lovekyn. She thinks Culpeper has known the Queen carnally.

Why did Jane say that? Neither Katheryn or Culpepper ever admitted to a physical relationship. Such a thing would have been nearly impossible, given the brief, furtive nature of their stolen moments together. A queen was too closely watched by her ladies in waiting to escape them long. It was only because of the comparatively lax standards of a royal progress - most of the court had been dismissed while the king and queen were traveling - that the meetings were even possible. A whispered conversation behind a door, or a few minutes in an empty chamber was all they were ever able to have. But, in the end, it was enough to destroy them both.

Thomas Culpepper said that Katheryn had an almost superstitious fear of her husband's power as head of the church. She told him to not mention her in the confessional, lest the king hear it. God knows what pressures they put on Culpepper to confess. They likely didn't physically torture him, because of his noble blood, but it's certain his interrogation was heated. Culpepper ultimately confessed: 


"he intended and meant to do ill with the Queen and that in like wise the Queen so minded to do with him.”

That was enough to seal their doom as traitors.

On the 13th of November, the queen's household was dissolved, a very final and definitive gesture. The short reign of Katheryn Howard was over, one way or the other.

On the 22nd of November, the council decided it had enough evidence of the queen's guilt. They had spoken to Katheryn's roommates at the Dowager Duchess's house, Mannox, and Culpepper. They had found the letter Katheryn wrote to Culpepper. And Katheryn herself had written a confession of being what the king of France called "wondrous naughty."

The Duke of Norfolk, uncle of Katheryn and of Anne Boleyn, read the formal charges to her at Syon Abbey:

"My Lady Katheryn Howard. You have been charged with treason. The grounds for this charge is that you entered into marriage with His Royal Highness, King Henry VIII having knowledge of a previous betrothal to both Henry Mannox and Francis Dereham. It is also stated that you employed these persons, here at the Palace, with the full intention of continuing this sordid lifestyle. You have, not only brought shame upon your name, but have grievously sought to destroy His Majesty the King. It will be in your best interest to admit to these crimes and plead for his mercy."

Katheryn, displaying remarkable dignity for one so young, and under such terrible stress, replied:

"I am innocent of all charges and will never admit to these lies. If there is any ground of truth in these statements, then it is because of childish ignorance and the evil companions with whom I was formally surrounded. I also seek to state, that I am faithful to the King and would never wish harm upon him. I will seek his mercy, but not by admitting to these treacherous lies."


Katheryn would not admit she and Dereham had been pre-contracted or married. Maybe she knew it wouldn't save her anyway, even if she did admit to it. After all, her cousin, Anne Boleyn, had admitted to a pre-contract which allowed the king to annul their marriage, and was still beheaded a few days later. As it turned out, her cooperation was not required. Later that day, it was announced:


"[Katheryn] had forfeited her honour and should be proceeded against by law, and was henceforth to be named no longer Queen, but only Katheryn Howard."


On the first of December, Katheryn Howard was indicted:

That Katharine, queen of England, formerly called Kath. Howerd, late of Lambyth, Surr., one of the daughters of lord Edmund Howard, before the marriage between the King and her, led an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, and vicious life, like a common harlot, with divers persons, as with Francis Derham of Lambeth and Hen. Manak of Streteham, Surr., 20 and 24 May 32 Hen. VIII., and at other times, maintaining however the outward appearance of chastity and honesty. That she led the King by word and gesture to love her and (he believing her to be pure and chaste and free from other matrimonial yoke) arrogantly coupled herself with him in marriage.
And the said Queen and Francis, being charged by divers of the King's Council with their vicious life, could not deny it, but excused themselves by alleging that they were contracted to each other before the marriage with the King; which contract at the time of the marriage they falsely and traitorously concealed from the King, to the peril of the King and of his children to be begotten by her and the damage of the whole realm.
And after the marriage, the said Queen and Francis, intending to renew their vicious life, 25 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., at Pomfret, and at other times and places, practised that the said Francis should be retained in the Queen's service; and the Queen, at Pomfret, 27 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., did so retain the said Francis, and had him in notable favour above others, and, in her secret chamber and other suspect places, spoke with him and committed secret affairs to him both by word and writing, and for the fulfilling of their wicked and traitorous purpose, gave him divers gifts and sums of money on the 27 Aug. and at other times.
Also the said Queen, not satisfied with her vicious life aforesaid, on the 29 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., at Pomfret, and at other times and places before and after, with Thos. Culpeper, late of London, one of the gentlemen of the King's privy chamber, falsely and traitorously held illicit meeting and conference to incite the said Culpeper to have carnal intercourse with her; and insinuated to him that she loved him above the King and all others. Similarly the said Culpeper incited the Queen. And the better and more secretly to pursue their carnal life they retained Jane lady Rochford, late wife of Sir Geo. Boleyn late lord Rochford, as a go-between to contrive meetings in the Queen's stole chamber and other suspect places; and so the said Jane falsely and traitorously aided and abetted them.

The same day, Culpepper and Dereham were tried for treason at the Guildhall and found guilty. The French ambassador wrote that he found it a little curious:


The personages before named were, five or six days ago, brought from the Tower into the great consistory of London, called Illehale(Guildhall), where the Mayor first, and beside him the Chancellor, Norfolk, Suffolk, and the rest of the Council, in presence of all who chose to attend, made anew the process of the said prisoners, and read aloud the Queen's signed deposition of what she had done with Durans before marriage, and her conversations with Colpepre. After both had been heard and examined they were condemned, Durans for having not only kept the lady from the time he violated her at the age of 13 until 18, but for having since been of her chamber and brought thither the woman who had been his accomplice before, which is presumptive evidence that they continued in their first purpose, especially as the Queen had said to lady Rochefort that if Colpepre would not listen to her there was, behind the door, another “qui ne demandoit pas meilleur party.” Colpepre had like sentence, although he had not passed beyond words; for he confessed his intention to do so, and his confessed conversations, being held by a subject to a Queen, deserved death.
Many people thought the publication of these foul details strange, but the intention is to prevent it being said afterwards that they were unjustly condemned. Another strange thing has been noted, viz., that Norfolk was at the judgment, and even in examining the prisoners laughed as if he had cause to rejoice.



Nine days later, Culpepper and Dereham met their end at the hands of the executioner. Culpepper, as a noble, was sentenced to simple beheading. He made a simple speech, repenting of his sins, and then knelt before the block. It was over in a moment.

As a commoner, Dereham was subject to the full horrors of a traitor's death. He was hanged until he was half-dead from strangulation, then cut down. His stomach was then sliced open, his entrails scooped out and thrown onto a bed of coals. Only after this agony was he beheaded. His body was then chopped into quarters, his head mounted beside Culpepper's on the Tower bridge, as a warning to others.

At some point, the king decided there would be no trial for Katheryn. She would be condemned by Bill of Attainder, which was introduced to Parliament on the 21st of January. It passed on February 11, and Katheryn's death was made law. It included what is probably one of the more unusual laws ever passed:



AND furthermore be it enacted for evading of such like heinous and abominable treasons, in case it fortune either the King our Sovereign Lord that now is or any of his successors hereafter being King of England, should take a fancy to any woman, of what estate degree or condition soever she be, either subject or resident within his Dominions or Realms, in way of Marriage, thinking and esteeming her a pure and clean maid, when indeed the proof may or after shall appear contrary either by due testimony or confession of the party or parties, and yet she nevertheless willingly do couple herself with her Sovereign Lord and King in marriage, without plain declaration before of her unchaste life unto his Majesty, that then every such offence shall be deemed and adjudged High Treason; and therein convicted by the Law shall have and suffer such pains of death, losses and forfeitures of land, tenants, goods, chattels, and debtors, as in cases of High Treason.


It continued that anyone knowing of unchaste behavior by the woman had to report it within twenty days of the marriage, or be guilty of misprison of treason.

Following it was a change to the law which allowed the king to execute insane persons; Jane Parker appeared to have gone mad, but she seems to have recovered before the end.

On February 10, one day before the bill became law, Katheryn and Jane were taken to the Tower. Reportedly, Katheryn struggled when she realized where they were taking her, but they forced her onto the boat. They would have floated down the Thames beneath the bridge where the heads of Culpepper and Dereham were impaled.

Katheryn was met at the Tower by her jailer, Sir John Gage. The previous man to occupy his position, Sir William Kingston, who tended Anne Boleyn before her execution, had died. Gage seems to have been of a kind temperament, because he treated the sobbing young Katheryn with every courtesy. He took her to the luxurious royal apartments, where Anne had been imprisoned. No trace of these buildings remain today.

A bishop came to take her confession. Unlike Anne Boleyn, Katheryn did not call an audience to witness her swearing she was innocent. She met with him in secrecy and quietly made her shrift. Unlike Anne, she was not to have a long time to stay within the Tower walls; she was told to prepare for death almost immediately.

As young as she was, and as foolish as she had been, Katheryn remembered she was a Howard. The only thing she had left was her dignity, and she was determined to make a good death.

She asked Gage to bring the block to her chamber so she could practice laying her head on it. Unlike Anne Boleyn, no graceful sword would take her head. She would bow before the brutal blow of the axe like any other traitor. One wonders if she had in mind the horribly botched execution of Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury on her mind as she practiced.

Even at this late hour, Henry couldn't bring himself to sign the death warrant. His council did it for him, attaching his seal and the phrase, "The king wills it," in French. Once again, the difference in his behavior in this situation and that of Anne Boleyn is chillingly telling.

On February 13, Katheryn and Jane Parker were led from their lodgings to the scaffold. Even more people surrounded the scaffold than had been present at Anne Boleyn's execution: some sources say seven or eight thousand people came to witness. Katheryn is recorded as having looked pale and frightened, but she did her name proud.

She gave the traditional speech deploring her sins and praising the king, though we don't have the exact wording of it. The legend that she said she would rather die the wife of Culpepper than the queen is false - as is the legend that Jane Parker confessed she deserved to die for lying about her husband and Anne Boleyn. Both women said the conventional things and then laid their heads upon the block.

Katheryn went first, and with one blow of the axe, the life of the teenaged queen was over. Jane Parker laid her throat on the blood-covered block and died instantly, as well.

Neither was given even the scant dignity of the elm chest in which Anne Boleyn's remains were placed. They were simply wrapped in cerecloth, after their clothing was stripped as a tip for the executioner, and buried beneath the chapel floor in St. Peter-ad-Vincula.

When the chapel was renovated in the Victorian era, they searched for Katheryn Howard's remains. Nothing was found in the place they believed she was buried, and they theorized that her young, soft bones had decayed away into the soil. They also reported finding lime in the area of her grave, meant to hasten decomposition. It seems someone hoped there would be nothing left of Katheryn Howard.

Bones were discovered where Jane Parker was believed to be buried. Some writers believe that Jane's bones were actually those of Anne Boleyn, but unless the crypt is re-opened for DNA tests, it's unlikely we'll ever know for sure.

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