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Katherine [Catherine; née Katherine Howard] (1518x24–1542), queen of England and Ireland, fifth consort of Henry VIII, was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard (1478×80?–1539), an impecunious younger son of , and his first wife, Elizabeth Tilney, and of Joyce or Jocasta Legh (b. c.1484, d. after 1527), widow of Ralph Legh of Stockwell and daughter of Sir Richard Culpeper of Aylesford, Kent.

A tainted upbringing

The date of Katherine's birth is uncertain, but sources which include the few extant family records suggest that she was born between 1518 and 1524, probably nearer the latter year. Her mother, who may have had five children in her second marriage, as well as about five from her first, died when Katherine was young. Her father, who remarried twice, was in 1531 made comptroller of Calais. Consequently the youthful Katherine was brought up by her father's stepmother, Agnes Tilney [see ], at Chesworth House near Horsham and at Norfolk House, Lambeth. Agnes supervised her education: instruction in reading and writing and in playing the virginals and lute. About 1536 Katherine's music teacher, Henry Manox, a member of a Sussex gentry family, was found to have taken sexual advantage of his position, although he stopped short of intercourse. However, although Lady Norfolk struck Katherine when she found the couple embracing—presumably blaming the victim—she was herself at fault for failing to guard her granddaughter's honour as custom dictated. Manox continued to pursue Katherine after the duchess and her household moved to Lambeth.

Late in 1538 Katherine became sexually involved with Francis Dereham, a kinsman and formerly a gentleman pensioner of her uncle , who had recently entered the dowager's service. Katherine and her bedmate, Katherine Tilney, received Dereham and Manox's cousin Edward Waldgrave in their bedchamber several times during a period of perhaps three months. Dereham addressed Katherine as his wife; they exchanged gifts and became sexual partners, prompting the jealous Manox to co-operate in writing an anonymous letter to Lady Norfolk warning her about secret goings-on in the maids' bedchamber. When Katherine showed this message to him Dereham guessed its author, suggesting that he knew about Manox's relationship with her. Tilney and Dereham later testified that the duchess had struck her granddaughter and Dereham when she found them embracing. After Katherine was made a maid of honour to Anne of Cleves late in 1539, Dereham left for Ireland.

The death of Katherine's father in March 1539 may have prompted her uncle, who was anxious to promote the interests of his extended family, to seek this prized position for her—it was politically advantageous to have a relative employed in the queen's privy chamber. That Katherine herself became queen has traditionally been attributed to a competition for power between court factions divided by religious allegiance, a conservative group led by Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, against reformers led by Thomas Cromwell, the lord privy seal, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer; the conservatives allegedly took advantage of Henry's disappointment with Anne of Cleves early in 1540 to direct his attention towards Katherine. Not all historians have accepted this scenario, however, and it has even been denied that Norfolk and Gardiner were allies. In any case, Henry does not seem to have required assistance in choosing his wife, for the dowager duchess later recalled that he had taken a fancy to Katherine the first time he saw her, perhaps on 19 December 1539, when he travelled to Greenwich to await Anne's arrival. As Katherine was already then receiving a maid of honour's stipend, she was probably in residence when he reached the palace, where he would have had ample opportunity to admire her. Besides attending the new queen's reception at Blackheath on 3 January 1540, Katherine is highly likely to have been present at Anne's other festivities, including the Londoners' welcome in February and the May day celebrations.


Exactly when Henry [see ] began to consider marrying Katherine is uncertain. The grant to her on 24 April 1540 of the possessions of two murderers and the purchase for her on 18 May of twenty-three sarcenet quilts are the earliest known signs of his favour. On 20 June, however, Anne complained to Carl Harst, the duke of Cleves's ambassador in England, that the king was attracted to Katherine, and in a letter to his employer Harst claimed that the affair had been going on for months. His early knowledge of Henry's affection for Katherine is noteworthy because it was not until July that Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador, made his first recorded comment on the new royal favourite, whose identity was then unknown to him. Meanwhile, on 22 June, Anne referred to Henry in kinder terms, probably because she had learned of Katherine's departure from court. Two days later, however, the privy council instructed the queen to remove to Richmond, leaving Henry free to cross the Thames in his barge to court Katherine at her grandmother's Lambeth residence. Richard Hilles, a London merchant, later claimed that the bishop of Winchester entertained Henry and Katherine at his house in Southwark.

As she awaited marriage, Katherine reportedly sent a message to Cranmer, advising ‘that you should not care for your businesses, for you should be in better case than ever you were’ (MacCulloch, 272)—a reassuring gesture, in the light of the archbishop's alleged opposition to the king's marriage with Anne of Cleves. It is also possible, however, that as Anne's maid of honour Katherine had learned that Cranmer sometimes communicated with the Cleves ambassador about court politics, and that she wished him to know that his association with Harst would not hinder her from favouring him. Maintaining secrecy about the Dereham liaison, she married Henry at Oatlands Palace in Surrey on 28 July, three weeks after the annulment of his union to Anne and the day on which Cromwell was executed, along with his client Walter, Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury. On 8 August Katherine was acknowledged as queen at Hampton Court, and a week later prayers were said at matins for her, the king, and Prince Edward. Many observers noted that Henry doted on Katherine, even though Marillac describes her as short and graceful in appearance rather than beautiful. In letters patent of 9 January 1541 Henry confirmed to her a jointure which included the property that had belonged to Queen Jane, as well as some of the estates of Cromwell and Hungerford. He also allotted to her more than £4600 per annum for her household, in which she found posts for friends from her past like Katherine Tilney. Whether Katherine similarly appointed people like Joan Bulmer, to whom Dereham had also been romantically attracted, because she wished either to reward them or to bribe them to silence about her sexual history, cannot now be determined.

In November 1540 Richard Jones dedicated to Katherine his The Byrth of Mankynde, a study of childbirth which was subsequently reprinted several times, though without the dedication. In the same month she sought from Edward Lee, archbishop of York, the advowson of the archdeaconry of York for one of her chaplains. Lee responded on 7 December that he never disposed of advowsons except on the king's orders, but undertook to keep an earlier promise to provide for another of her chaplains when an appropriate position became available. The queen also had a disagreement with her stepdaughter, Princess Mary. On 5 December, Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, told the emperor's sister that he had informed Mary that Katherine had tried to remove two of her attendants because she believed that the princess was showing less respect to her than to her two predecessors. How far Mary succeeded in mollifying Katherine is unclear—on 6 February 1541 Chapuys reported that one of the princess's maids had died of grief after being dismissed by the king.

During the Christmastide holidays of 1540–41 Henry presented Katherine with jewellery and arranged entertainments for her. On 3 January 1541 she greeted Anne of Cleves, who knelt before her in recognition of her royal status. After banqueting with them Henry departed, leaving the queen and Anne to dance together. The next day he dined with them again, and Katherine transferred to Anne a ring and two small dogs that he had given her. On 19 March he escorted Katherine down the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich on her first passage through London, sailing on decorated barges; the citizens welcomed the king and queen with peals of gunshot. At Greenwich, following the convention for royal consorts, Katherine successfully pleaded with Henry to pardon Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir John Wallop, and John Mason, who had been arrested on charges of treasonable correspondence with Cardinal Reginald Pole. She also at various times interceded for Helen Page, accused of felony, obtained the release from prison of her kinsman John Legh, and helped to secure the position of ambassador to France for her uncle Lord William Howard.

The advent of Thomas Culpeper

By March 1541, however, when Henry departed for a brief visit to Dover, leaving her at Greenwich, Katherine's life had become complicated. Francis Dereham, who had returned to England and was pestering her for office, began boasting to her councillors that she favoured him. In addition a gentleman of the king's privy chamber, the younger Thomas Culpeper (c.1514–1541), was seeking favours from her. He was distantly related to Katherine on her mother's side, for they shared a Culpeper ancestor who had lived in the reign of Edward II. Thomas was the second of the three sons of Alexander Culpeper of Bedgebury, Kent (d. 1541), and his second wife, Constance Harper (née Chamberlain); his elder brother, also named Thomas, was a client of Thomas Cromwell. Perhaps the younger Thomas served as a page to the king, as George Cavendish was later to recall in his Metrical Visions of the 1550s, but the first definite evidence for Culpeper as a courtier comes in 1535, when he began acting on behalf of Arthur, Viscount Lisle, the lord deputy of Calais, and his wife, Honor. In October 1537 Honor obtained a hawk for Culpeper, and about that time he successfully requested from her two bracelets of her ‘colours’, while in May 1538 he promised to obtain for her some of the king's cramp rings. He was a gentleman of the privy chamber no later than November 1537, and the following January a boy of his who had been condemned to death for theft at Westminster Palace was reprieved from the gallows when a royal pardon arrived just as the hangman was removing the ladder. In June 1538 he co-operated with Richard Cromwell in obtaining a hawk for the king. In the same month he was made keeper of the armoury for the king's body, and in September 1539 he was appointed to several positions at Penshurst Place, Kent, including that of keeper of the manor. Between 1537 and 1541 the king granted him, mostly ex-monastic, property in Kent, Essex, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire.

Culpeper apparently had a reputation for lechery. Five months after Culpeper's execution Hilles alleged to Bullinger that a chamberlain of the king (unnamed) who had been hanged (except that Culpeper was beheaded) for adultery with Queen Katherine had two years earlier raped the wife of a park-keeper, and that one of the villagers who tried to arrest him was killed. The king was said to have pardoned him for these offences. In March 1541, moreover, some of his servants, together with men of Sir Thomas Paston, his colleague in the privy chamber, were imprisoned for their role in an affray at Southwark. Culpeper had attended the same court functions as Katherine in 1540, including the May day tournaments, in which he was defeated by Richard Cromwell, and on Maundy Thursday 1541 was given a velvet cap by her. For their meetings, which probably began about this time, they required the assistance of Katherine's lady of the privy chamber, , the financially straitened widow of Queen Anne's brother George. On these occasions only Lady Rochford, who was probably bribed, and Katherine Tilney, who later denied knowing the visitor's identity, were allowed to enter the queen's chamber.

Problematic relationship

Culpeper continued to meet the queen after 30 June when she accompanied Henry on his progress to the northern counties, where rebellion had recently been suppressed and where he hoped to meet James V of Scotland at York. Bad weather delayed their entry into Lincoln until 9 August. Katherine permitted Culpeper access to her chamber there and again at Pontefract Castle, where the court arrived on 23 August. Crucial to all interpretations of their relationship is the letter addressed to ‘Master Culpeper’, undated but probably dispatched during this progress, perhaps at Liddington or Lincoln, endeavouring to arrange their meetings—Katherine asks that he send a horse for her postman. In this letter (calendared as LP Henry VIII, 16, no. 1134) Katherine sympathizes about Culpeper's illness, hopes that he will ‘be as’ he had ‘promised’ her, expresses dismay that they are not together so that they can talk, and wishes that he could see the ‘pain’ she takes in writing to him—‘It makes my heart die to think I cannot be always in your company’. Signing off ‘Yours as long as lyffe endures’, this message has for many historians served as prima facie evidence for the queen's passion for Culpeper, and by extension for an adulterous affair between them.

It is possible, however, to put a different interpretation upon Katherine's letter, that its emotional tone was fuelled less by sexual ardour than by the desperation of a young woman who was seeking to placate an aggressive, dangerous suitor, one who, moreover, as a member of the privy chamber had close contact with the king. The promise she mentioned could have concerned the Dereham affair. Culpeper, it may be suggested, had established some form of threatening control over the queen's life, and although he—as he admitted—was seeking sexual satisfaction with her, Katherine was trying to ensure his silence through a misguided attempt at appeasement. The letter makes it clear that she wished for his presence, but she never refers to him as her ‘lover’ or ‘darling’, and expresses a desire for no more than verbal conversation with him. Far from initiating relationships, Katherine's attitude to Culpeper, as to the other men in her life, the king included, can be seen as essentially passive, reactive to their demands.

Four days after her arrival at Pontefract not only did Katherine meet with Culpeper, she also appointed Dereham her secretary. She later insisted that this appointment was at her grandmother's urging, and was probably intended to silence him, too, about their former relationship. She could reasonably hope for success in this, for Dereham later confessed that on two occasions she bribed him to hold his tongue. All this while the king and queen were publicly moving triumphantly through the north, extravagantly celebrating the majesty of the monarchy. By 16 September they had reached York, where Katherine met Culpeper in Lady Rochford's chambers. At some point, she could not recall when, Katherine's growing fear of discovery caused her to send word to him through Rochford that she would not meet with him again. She did remember calling him ‘little sweet fool’ when he refused to accept her decision as final (Bath MSS, 2, 9–10). James V failed to appear at York, and by the end of September the royal party had turned south toward Hampton Court. Unbeknownst to them, as they left Hull on 6 October, trouble was brewing in London.

Disclosures and discoveries

Early in October 1541 John Lassells told Archbishop Cranmer about Katherine's premarital behaviour. His informant was his sister Mary Hall, who had been employed at Horsham and Lambeth by Lord William Howard and the latter's mother, Lady Norfolk. Cranmer consulted the earl of Hertford and the chancellor, Lord Audley, who persuaded him to convey these disclosures to Henry when he arrived at Hampton Court. On 2 November, therefore, Cranmer presented a written statement of the allegations to a disbelieving king, who sent the earl of Southampton to interview Lassells and Hall, and dispatched Sir Thomas Wriothesley, the principal secretary, to question Dereham and Manox. The two men confirmed Hall's testimony, and on 6 November, Henry deserted Katherine, never to see her again.

In the days that followed Norfolk, Audley, Cranmer, and the marquess of Winchester interrogated the queen, who had been confined to her chambers, about her relations with Manox and Dereham. At first she denied the allegations, but on 8 November she confirmed them to Cranmer, who recorded her testimony and who later reported to Henry that he had found her in ‘lamentation and heaviness, as I never saw no creature’ (Jenkyns, 308). She claimed that the encounters with Manox had occurred when she was a ‘young girl’, and that Dereham had aggressively pursued her. Although Dereham had addressed her as his wife, she denied that they were married, an opinion that Cranmer doubted, since under canon law a union was valid if a couple took vows to wed in the future and then had sexual relations. Her denial might indicate an ignorance of canon law, a proud reluctance to relinquish the queenship, or even a conviction that a marriage was unlawful if one of the vowtakers had not felt free to withhold consent. Possibly Dereham had used his knowledge of Manox's previous intimacy to seduce her.

Katherine and Dereham, who was tortured, both denied that their relationship had continued after she became queen. In her statement Katherine begged the king's pardon and asked that he remember her youth, ignorance, and frailty. Following this interview Cranmer visited her again and found her almost out of her mind with fright. He had learned from her attendants that the ‘vehement rage’ he had witnessed earlier had continued from his departure until his return. In his letter to the king he pointed out that her emotional state had been such that instead of first emphasizing how ‘grievous’ were her transgressions and then holding out hopes of royal clemency, as Henry had instructed, Cranmer decided to offer the hopes of forgiveness first. This promise failed to ease her mind for very long because, as she finally admitted, ‘this sudden mercy’ made her offences seem even more ‘heinous’. About 6 o'clock, Cranmer recalled, after he had brought her into ‘quietness’, she fell into another ‘pang’ because it was the time when Sir Thomas Heneage ordinarily brought her a message from the king (Jenkyns, 308–9).

The inquisition was far from over, however, and if Henry had been serious about the offer of clemency he was soon to change his mind. In his confession Dereham alleged that Culpeper had replaced him in the queen's affections, a surprising revelation given Katherine's extreme secrecy concerning her meetings with the latter. Interrogated about this by councillors on 11 November, Katherine denied the allegation, but subsequently admitted to the rendezvous, blaming Culpeper as the aggressor in their relationship. Next day Cranmer and the council signed her statement, and Audley informed the judges of her unchaste life. On the 13th her household was informed of her misconduct. The privy council also questioned some of her attendants, especially Lady Rochford, who speculated that Culpeper and the queen, whom she blamed equally for the meetings, had committed adultery. By contemporary standards the argument was a reasonable one. Wives who met secretly with men other than their husbands earned dishonourable reputations, for women were assumed to be more driven by lust than men.

Although Culpeper accused Katherine of initiating their meetings, he did admit to intending to do ill with her, albeit without success. As the French ambassador reported to his king, the admission was sufficient to condemn him, since the Treason Act of 1534 recognized intent to harm the king as high treason. The queen's motives remain opaque, not least because her questioners never pressed Katherine to explain why she met with Culpeper or needed to converse with him, beyond her excuse that he insisted on seeing her. Perhaps they were indeed physically attracted to one another, but it is just as probable that she was attempting to purchase his silence about her past; it seems unlikely to be mere coincidence that her association with him began in the spring of 1541 after Dereham had been boasting of her favours to himself. An admission that she had been attempting to deceive the king by concealing her relationship with Dereham would not have bolstered her defence, a consideration that could account for her silence as to why she agreed to meetings with Culpeper. Seen against a background of court life in which mutual espionage was routine, such an interpretation may offer a more plausible explanation for her conduct than the ill-advised passion and even ‘imbecility’ which most historians have accepted as the causes of her downfall.

The king's reaction when the charges against his queen were confirmed was one of enormous sorrow. On 12 November the privy council described his deep distress in a letter to Sir William Paget, the resident ambassador in France, telling how at first Henry was so choked up with emotion that he could not express his feelings, but had finally released ‘plenty of tears’ (LP Henry VIII, 16, no. 1334). As late as April 1542 Chapuys reported to the emperor that ‘Since he heard of his late wife's conduct he has not been the same man, and Chapuys has always found him sad, pensive and sighing’ (LP Henry VIII, 17, App. B no. 13).

Deaths and judgments

On 14 November 1541 Katherine was moved to the former monastery of Syon, and eight days later was deprived of her queenship. On 1 December a special commission sitting at the Guildhall convicted Culpeper and Dereham of treason. Nine days later Culpeper was beheaded at Tyburn after requesting the bystanders to pray for him. The place was unusual for such a sentence—beheadings were normally carried out in relative privacy at Tower Hill—but the council had required that he be drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn in order to make his execution ‘notable’. His body was buried in St Sepulchre Holborn. Then Dereham endured the usual penalties of treason, being hanged, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered. The privy council next rounded up some of Katherine's other relatives and associates. The arrests were so numerous that space ran out in the Tower's prison quarters, making it necessary to house some of the accused in the royal apartments. Lady Norfolk, who had opened two of Dereham's coffers, allegedly looking for evidence for the crown, was suspected of attempting to destroy incriminating manuscripts. Under intensive questioning she admitted to having known of Katherine's unchaste past, and subsequently she, her widowed daughter Katherine, countess of Bridgewater, her son Lord William, the latter's wife, Margaret, Katherine's sister-in-law Anne, and a number of attendants were indicted for misprision of treason, on the grounds of their having concealed Katherine's sexual history from Henry. All pleaded guilty and threw themselves on the king's mercy, and all were eventually pardoned and released.

A different fate awaited Katherine, one she suffered primarily because she had possessed neither the courage nor the wisdom to confess her illicit past to Henry when he proposed marriage. Since Lady Norfolk and Katherine's other relatives who knew about her relationship with Dereham conspired to remain silent, she followed their example, probably acting upon their advice. That her stepgrandmother had warned her of dire consequences if Henry ever learned of the Dereham affair could account for Katherine's great distress after admitting it to Cranmer. Fear of disclosure would also have made her vulnerable to the machinations of seasoned courtiers like Culpeper, for as she said in her confession about Dereham, ‘the sorrow of my offenses was ever before my eyes’ (Bath MSS, 2, 9).

Although they were indicted, neither Katherine nor Lady Rochford was brought to trial. Instead they were condemned under a bill of attainder introduced into the House of Lords on 21 January 1541. There seems to have been uncertainty among the judges, however, about whether the former queen's offence constituted treason, and when the bill returned for its second reading on the 28th its further passage was postponed, with Audley warning against moving too hastily, as Katherine was not merely a private lady. Subject to royal approval, the lords agreed to send a deputation from both houses to her. But on the 30th Audley announced that the council had advised against this procedure, and the bill resumed its parliamentary journey. It received the king's assent, given in absentia by letters patent, on 11 February. The bill proclaimed the high treason of Katherine and Lady Rochford and upheld the convictions of Culpeper, Dereham, and various Howard relatives. It stipulated that any future queen who failed to disclose her unchaste past would be guilty of treason, and that others who remained silent about such illicit behaviour would be guilty of misprision of treason. Before Henry assented to it, the earl of Southampton and duke of Suffolk met Katherine, who confirmed her testimony, asked that her relatives should not be blamed for errors, and petitioned Henry to distribute some of her clothes to her maidservants. On 10 February she travelled by barge to the Tower of London, passing under London Bridge on which were displayed the rotting heads of Culpeper and Dereham. Three days later, at 9 a.m., although so weak that she had to be assisted up to the scaffold, she mustered the strength to admit before the axe fell that her execution was just. After a cloth had been placed over Katherine's corpse, Lady Rochford was also beheaded. They were buried under the altar of St Peter ad Vincula, the chapel of the Tower, the same day.

Because Katherine had confessed to illicit communications with Manox and Dereham and to the rendezvous with Culpeper, contemporary and later reporters basically accepted her guilt. Writing in the 1550s, George Cavendish blamed her fall on her ‘beawtie’ and ‘wanton youth’, and Culpeper's misdeeds on his ‘prid and viciousness’ and ‘Courtly lyfe’ (Cavendish, ll.897, 942, 945). In 1585 the Catholic priest Nicholas Sander, writing about England's break with Rome, delivered himself of the opinion that ‘As the king himself was faithful neither to God nor to his first wife, so also his wives were not faithful to him.’ So it was, explained Sander, that the adulterous Katherine and ‘her companions in sin’, Culpeper and Francis Dereham, ‘were put to death’ (Sander, 153–4).

Retha M. Warnicke


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Longleat House, Wiltshire · TNA: PRO, state papers


window (of the Queen of Sheba), King's Cam.