February 13, 1542: Katheryn Howard's Bloody Valentine

Seven or eight thousand people crowded the Tower green on a cold February morning. It was the day before Valentine's Day, 1542, and the people were gathering to see a rare spectacle, the execution of a Queen of England.

When Anne Boleyn was awaiting the executioner, her jailers fretted that she would declare her innocence before the crowd. To try to keep the audience small - and limit those who might be exposed to her words - they attempted some confusing tactics. This time, they had no such concerns. The young woman lodged in the royal apartments was resigned to her fate.

Katheryn and Jane Parker had been condemned by an Act of Attainder on Saturday and brought to the Tower that afternoon for execution. The stories say Katheryn struggled and cried when the council came to escort her to the Tower, and the weeping young girl had to be physically forced onto the barge.

But the following day was Sunday, a day on which an execution could not take place. They would have to wait until Monday morning. Considering the anguish she had been in since her arrest, one wonders if Katheryn was grateful for one more day of life, or if it merely added to her torment.

The curious people flooded through the gates of the Tower to watch her die. This was no innocent martyr to Henry's desires, as the people saw it. Katheryn Howard had sinned, and now she would pay for it with her life. It was the kind of execution parents loved to bring their children to, illustrating the wages of sin to impressionable young minds.

The doors to the royal apartments opened and Katheryn stepped out into the cold morning air. She was a tiny girl, plump and pretty, possibly only sixteen or seventeen years old. That morning, she wore a black velvet gown, chosen from among the six she had been allowed. Its fabric suited her rank; its color suited the solemn occasion to which she wore it.

Katheryn had been shamed before all of England. The salacious details of her pre-marital affairs had been aired to the public, all of her secrets known. They had never proved adultery, only managing to wrest a confession from Thomas Culpepper that he would sleep with the young queen if given the opportunity.

That intent was enough to condemn them.

Henry VIII alternated fits of weeping and rage at the "betrayal" of his teenaged bride, that "rose among women" whose petals had been caressed by others. When Anne had languished in the Tower, Henry had partied like a frat boy, cheerfully indifferent to his cuckold's horns, claiming openly that Anne Boleyn had slept with a hundred men.

Now, learning that Katheryn had intercourse with one man, and had been intimately touched by another before she married Henry was enough to send him screaming for a sword to kill her himself and mourning so bitterly that his council feared for him. Chapuys writes that Henry blamed his council his lamentable fate of marrying such "ill-conditioned wives." Their response to that is not recorded, but perhaps it's best left to the imagination.

In the end, Henry couldn't even bring himself to sign Katheryn's death warrant. The council had done it for him, adding The king wills it at the bottom, dubiously legal, but no one was arguing that particular point.

The men accused with her were dead already. Francis Dereham - whose only crime had been to sleep with an unmarried girl before she came to the king's attention - had suffered a horrid traitor's death of disemboweling. Thomas Culpepper, once one of Henry's favorites, was given the more merciful death of beheading. His crime had been to meet with the queen for whispered conversations and furtive exchanges of gifts.

Behind Katheryn walked Jane Parker, Lady Rochford, who had arranged these secret meetings. Both Katheryn and Culpepper had tried to put the blame squarely on her shoulders, insisting Lady Rochford had goaded them into meeting. Lady Rochford had broken down under the stress and appeared to have gone insane, but she had apparently found peace, because she walked with quiet dignity behind Katheryn as they headed to the scaffold.

They likely followed the same route as Anne Boleyn, moving from the royal apartments (marked in red) around the Jewel House and through the Coldharbour Gate (marked in green), until they reached the north corner of the White Tower. The scaffold was erected where the black X is marked on the map. The Chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula is indicated in blue. Today, the spot of the scaffold is where visitors to the Tower gather to see the Crown Jewels.

Katheryn had to be terrified. She was not to be granted the elegant, swift death delivered by a swordsman as her cousin had before her. No, Katheryn would bow her head to the block under the brutal blade of an axe.

Frightened she might be, but Katheryn remembered she was a Howard, and she was determined to die with dignity. The night before, she had asked her jailer, Sir John Gage, to bring the block to her chambers so she could practice laying her head on it and not fumble before the crowd. Reportedly, she asked the ladies serving her which position made for a better presentation. She may have had the hideously botched execution of Margaret Pole in mind.

She climbed the few steps of the scaffold now. It was likely the same one used for Anne Boleyn - stored away and reassembled when needed - but this time, the niceties hadn't been observed. There's no mention of the yards of expensive black velvet that had adorned the scaffold like a macabre parade float when Anne died. Anne had been an anointed Queen; Katheryn had been stripped of the rank that had been a courtesy title due to her marriage to the king and was now "merely Katheryn Howard." She had been granted her last request for a "private death" inside the walls of the Tower, but that was all.

Katheryn walked across the raw boards covered with a thick layer of straw meant to absorb her blood and faced the crowd.

She had not been raised as a courtier, and taught from birth how deal gracefully with public scrutiny as Anne Boleyn had. Katheryn was just a simple gentlewoman with scant education, and little adult supervision in her formative years. She'd only reigned as queen for one year, a position she had to learn "on the job" as it were, completely unprepared for court etiquette. Certainly, nothing in Katheryn's short life had prepared her for this. But in her last moments, Katheryn comported herself like a queen.

Some accounts say Katheryn looked pale and frightened - one says she seemed so weak that she could barely speak. The French Ambassador had written that Katheryn spent her last days in constant tears, but now she stood solemn and composed, though she could not completely conceal her fear. God knows how hard it was for her, but she did her duty, and she did it with grace and dignity.

A witness wrote of her last moments in a tone of pride, saying that Katheryn

[...] made the most godly and Christian end that ever was heard tell of (I think) since the world's creation [...]

We don't have an exact record of her words, but Katheryn said the things that were expected of a condemned traitor. They were so ordinary that no one bothered recording the exact wording, just the gist of it. She would have thought long and hard about what she would say, knowing it would be publicized far and wide, and her words could have repercussions on her family if the king was displeased by them. Katheryn praised the king for his goodness to her, confessing that she deserved death, and exhorting the people to take example from what happened to her, and amend any sin in their own lives.

When she finished speaking, Katheryn disrobed, stripping off her outer gown and sleeves. She had no jewelry to remove, it having been seized as soon as the investigation into her affairs began. But the fabric was costly and the French hood she wore had valuable gold trim. The garments would be laid aside for the executioner as part of his payment.

Unlike Anne Boleyn, there's no mention of the council buying the clothing back from the executioner, or redeeming the items Katheryn had left behind in her rooms in the royal apartments, which now belonged to John Gage. The council let both men keep their prerogatives, apparently having no concern souvenirs would be made.

Wearing only her kirtle, petticoat, and chemise in the February chill, Katheryn prayed as knelt down in the pile of straw in front of the block. Her auburn hair would have been tucked up into a white linen cap to leave her little neck bare. She laid her throat on the bare wood as she had practiced. Tradition was that the condemned would thrust out their arms as a signal that they were ready. Sometimes, a friend would take their hands and hold them stretched forward, but Katheryn's friends had been taken from her when she was brought to the Tower.

The axe rose and fell. The executioner was good - it took only one blow before Katheryn's head was severed. Anne Boleyn's ladies had rushed forward to throw a cloth over her head as soon as it left her shoulders to protect her dignity. There's no mention this was done for Katheryn.

Chapuys records that Katheryn's torso was covered by a black cloak and pulled aside for the next occupant of the block. Lady Rochford stepped forward.

Chapuys had written she had periods of lucidity during her spell of madness. The legislation passed to make it legal to execute the insane had implied Lady Rochford was faking. Either way, she was calm and dignified now, and she made a speech similar to Katheryn's before she knelt down in the bloody straw and laid her neck on the dripping block.

The witnesses all reported both women made a "goodly end." Katheryn had done her name proud in this last, as had the much maligned Lady Rochford. Later, a legend would arise that Katheryn had declared she died a queen but would rather have died as Culpepper's wife, and that Lady Rochford had said she deserved to die for lying about her husband and Anne Boleyn. Fanciful nonsense, and nothing more.

It was over. The crowd wandered away, leaving behind the two bodies which lay on the scaffold while their blood drained out through the boards, dripping onto the grass below.

Sometime later - how long the records do not say - Katheryn and Lady Rochford's bodies were  were carried to the chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula where Anne and George had been buried. There is no mention of them being wrapped in cerecloth - the heavy white, waxed cloth used for burial shrouds - only the black cloak with which Katheryn had been covered after death. Since the cloak was valuable and would not have been buried with her, the implication is that the bodies were put directly in the earth. I hope it is simply an omission and both Katheryn and Lady Rochford were given at least the scant courtesy of a shroud.

A few feet beneath the paving stones to the right of the altar, hasty graves were scratched out for both of them and they were buried with no marker above them.

But someone wanted nothing of Katheryn Howard to remain. Her grave was filled with lime, meant to hasten decomposition. This was - by no means - an ordinary part of the burial process. It raises the question of who gave the order and why. It seems we'll never know for certain, but there was one person who wanted to erase the "rose without a thorn" from memory.

Three hundred years passed, and the little chapel fell into a pitiful state of disrepair. Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his History of England wrote in 1848:

In truth there is no sadder spot on the earth than that little cemetery. Death is there associated, not, as in Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul's, with genius and virtue, with public veneration and with imperishable renown; not, as in our humblest churches and churchyards, with everything that is most endearing in social and domestic charities; but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny, with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame. Thither have been carried, through successive ages, by the rude hands of gaolers, without one mourner following, the bleeding relics of men who had been the captains of armies, the leaders of parties, the oracles of senates, and the ornaments of courts.

Thither was borne, before the window where Jane Grey was praying, the mangled corpse of Guilford Dudley. Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, and protector of the realm, reposes there by the brother whom he murdered. There has mouldered away the headless trunk of John Fisher, bishop of Rochester and Cardinal of Saint Vitalis, a man worthy to have lived in a better age, and to have died in a better cause. There are laid John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, Lord High Admiral, and Thomas Cromwell, earl of Essex, Lord High Treasurer. There, too, is another Essex, on whom nature and fortune had lavished all their bounties in vain, and whom valour, grace, genius, royal favour, popular applause, conducted to an early and ignominious doom. Not far off sleep two chiefs of the great house of Howard, Thomas, fourth Duke of Norfolk, and Philip, eleventh Earl of Arundel. Here and there, among the thick graves of unquiet and aspiring statesmen, lie more delicate sufferers; Margaret of Salisbury, the last of the proud name of Plantagenet, and those two fair queens who perished by the jealous rage of Henry. Such was the dust with which the dust of Monmouth mingled.

His words helped bring the sad condition of the chapel to public attention, and soon Queen Victoria gave her permission for a restoration. She ordered that an attempt be made to identify the famous persons buried in the chapel, a task which proved more difficult than anticipated, because the tiny chapel had been in continuous use as a parish church, and there were over a thousand within its walls. The bones of a grave's prior occupant would be pushed aside to make room for another.

The bones believed to be Anne Boleyn's had been pushed aside for a lead coffin occupied by a woman who had died in 1760. In other places, the bones of unknown persons mingled with older burials.

Close by, somewhat in a south-east direction, and nearer to the wall of the chancel, gathered together in two distinct groups, were found the bones of two females; these were examined and carefully sorted, they appeared to belong to a person of about thirty to forty years of age, and to another who must have been considerably advanced in years. It is worthy of note that these latter remains were a little to the south-east of the younger female.
These groups had been much disturbed, and many bones are missing: the younger female had been of rather delicate proportions, the elder had been tall, and certainly of above average height.
These remains are believed to be those of Lady Rochford and Margaret of Clarence, Countess of Salisbury: and, as was subsequently discovered, they had been removed somewhat to the east of their original resting places, in order to make room for two unknown persons, who had been buried close to the step of the chancel, probably about one hundred years ago.

Search though they might, they found no trace of Katheryn Howard. They speculated that the lime had dissolved her young bones to dust.

No remains which could be identified as those of Queen Katharine Howard were found; it should, however, be borne in mind that lime has been most extensively used in these interments, and as Katharine Howard was only twenty years old when she was beheaded (at which age the bones have not become hard and consolidated), it is very possible that even when Judge Jeffreys was interred in the chancel, her remains had already become dust. It was at first supposed, as she had been buried on this spot, that her remains had been discovered, when the group of female bones were found lying near the Duke of Northumberland; but a closer examination showed that the age and size of the bones (Katharine Howard is said to have been very small in stature) would not support that supposition, and these are now believed to be the remains of Lady Rochford.

Only Katheryn Howard's memory remains.

History has tended to judge her harshly, and even today, she is thought of as the queen who deserved her execution, a foolish little adulteress that had the misfortune of getting caught. Even those who accept she may not have been "technically" guilty charge her with terminal stupidity in putting herself into the situation with Culpepper.

But we don't know why Katheryn chose to meet with him. Some have suggested she might have been being blackmailed to keep her past hidden. Or it could be as simple as Katheryn being a teenage girl in the throes of love who never imagined talking with a man in secrecy could get her in such dire straights.

In the end, Katheryn Howard died because she had premarital sexual experience. The king passed a law that made it treason for a woman to conceal her sexual history if the king showed interest in marrying her. The meetings with Culpepper were just icing on the proverbial cake. She died because Henry could not stand the thought of her being touched by others, and she broke his heart.

Despite her paltry education, there is evidence Katheryn tried to be a good queen to her people. She pleaded with the king for mercy towards convicted criminals. And despite her image as a silly girl only interested in fashion, one of the largest expenses on her privy purse accounts was purchasing warm clothing for the elderly Margaret Pole.

In recent years, the legacy of Anne Boleyn has begun to be re-examined. Even Lady Rochford has been the subject of new scholarship, sweeping away the layers of myth that have clung to her memory. Perhaps it's time we do the same with Katheryn Howard.

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