Scandalous Queens: Catherine Howard

It seems we can't get enough of the Tudors lately with with the Showtime miniseries starring a very un-Henry like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and the new movie The Other Boleyn Girl starring Scarlett Johansen as Mary Boleyn, future grandmother of Lettice Knollys. And the great Cate Blanchett continuing the story of Elizabeth I in The Golden Age (just saw the preview this weekend, lots of interesting wigs and Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh!)

It seems like new books appear daily. Philippa Gregory has been writing a popular series of books, and now Carolly Erickson, and Alison Weir are writing historical novels based on this dynasty founded on the wrong side of the blanket (Owen Tudor was the lover and secret husband of Henry V's widow Katherine of Valois).

The focus on the Tudors tends to be on the larger than life Henry, and his second wife Anne Boleyn, but what of the other wife that he beheaded Catherine Howard. What was her story and what made her so scandalous that she lost her head at the tender age of possibly 21? The story of Catherine Howard can be seen as a cautionary tale about what happens when a young, immature girl from a powerful family marries a much older man, and lacks the maturity to deal with her new position.

To understand her, you have to understand her family, The Howards and her Uncle, The Duke Of Norfolk. The Howards were than, as they are now one of the premier Catholic families in the country. They had supported Richard III against Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, but managed to turn their fortunes around after backing the wrong horse. But Henry VIII never fully trusted the family. They were also ambitious, hitching their fortunes first to Anne Boleyn, who turned out to be a Protestant reformer, and then Catherine Howard. To be near the throne meant endless possibilities for advancement and riches. Unfortunately, Catherine Howard proved to be even less of an asset than her first cousin, Anne Boleyn.

Catherine's father was Lord Edmund Howard, the 3rd son of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Her father was a brawler like most of the Howards, but as a gentleman was basically confined to hanging around the court, doing very little. It wasn't until 1531, under the influence of Anne Boleyn, that he was given the post of Controller of Calais. However, the salary was barely enough to to live on, let alone raise a family or pay off his considerable debts.

Catherine's mother, Edmund's first wife, was Jocelyn Culpepper, was a rich heiress, a widow with two children, when they married. She proceeded to give Edmund 10 children of which Catherine was number 10, before she finally expired when Catherine was around ten years old. While her father took up his post in Calais, and married the second of his three wives, little Catherine was sent off to live with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.

The Duchess kept a large household of male and female attendants at her various homes including Lambeth Palace near the King's new Palace of Whitehall. She also had many wards, consisting of the children of relatives who could not not afford to support their families like Catherine Howard's. Supervision was lax, as the Duchess was often at court and had little interest in their upbringing and education. Sounds like a recipe for disaster and it was.

Because of this lackadaisical approach, Catherine was the least educated of Henry's six wives. Oh, she could read and write, unlike many English women of her time, but she had no intellectual curiousity. She is often described by contemporaries as being merry and vivacious, but empty-headed and frivolous with reddish hair and blue eyes, but not necessarily scholarly or even particularly devout.

Catherine was placed in the Maiden's Chamber, a large dormitory like room, where the girls slept two in a bed. It was the equivalent of an Elizabethan boarding school, the girls spent their days having lessons, learning the womanly arts of embroidery and playing instruments, and their nights romping in their room after dark. Catherine was the ringleader of the girls, always leading them into some scrape and then managing to talk her way of out of it, if they got caught.

As Catherine grew up, she attracted many men at a very early age. When Catherine was around thirteen, she began a flirtatious romance with her music tutor Henry Manox, but she soon rejected him in favor of Francis Dereham, another hanger on in the Duchess's household. According to later testimony, she and Henry never slept together but there was some heavy petting going on.

"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," she said in her testimony.

Francis was a secretary of the Duchess' household, and as such was of a higher social status than Henry Manox. There is evidence that she and Francis were lovers, they called each other "husband" and "wife." At night, he would creep up to share her bed in the girl's dormitory. They were so close, that he entrusted her with his money while he was away on business with the Duchess. Mannox was not happy that Catherine had thrown him over, and left a letter for the Duchess detailing just what was going on in her absence. Apparently the Duchess caught the two of them together, and a horrible scene ensued, as the Duchess perhaps realized the consequences of her indifference.

There was a possibility that Dereham and Catherine had a "precontract" to marry after he returned from Ireland. If this was true, that they had exchanged vows of their intention to marry before they had sex, in the eyes of the church they would have been considered married and her later marriage to Henry would have been bigamous.

Catherine was sent to court by her uncle, who found her a place as one of Anne of Cleve's ladies in waiting. From the start, Catherine caught the eye of the King who had no interest in his new wife. While her family doubted that Catherine was mature enough to handle being the King's mistress, they saw her as a way to influence the King in matters of the true religion. Not to mention enrich their own pockets along the way.

Indeed as Henry's interest in Catherine grew, so did the Howard influence at court, as Henry lavished gifts and land on Catherine. After Henry had his marraige to Anne of Cleves annulled in July of 1540, rumors swirled at court that Catherine was pregnant. Their quick marriage only few weeks after the annulment added fuel to the fire.

What was it about Catherine Howard that made Henry act like a schoolboy? He was 49 years old at the time that they met, he'd already buried one wife, and several children. He was worn down by the rebellions in the north, worries about the succession, and the jockeying for position between those of the new faith like Cranmer and the Catholic faction at court.

Catherine's lively, vivacious nature must have been a soothing balm to a man who was severely overweight, suffered from gout and ulcerating sores. He had a notoriously short temper. He lavished costly gifts on Catherine, spending more money than he had on any of his other wives. Catherine played her part well, perhaps she was coached by her Uncle Norfolk on how exactly to please the king. Henry was so infatuated he considered her his "rose without a thorn."

Interesting tidbit, Catherine chose as her motto: No Other Will But His when she became Queen. If only she had kept her motto.

As Queen, Catherine was able to indulge her love of luxury and pleasure. She loved to dance, and enjoyed being indulged by her much older husband, not to mention all the attention she received at court, as courtiers jockeyed for her favor. Henry was not only generous to his adored bride but also to her family as well. He made her brother a maember of the Privy Council. In return, Catherine shared her husband's bed, and was loving towards him.

Unlike her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine never concerned herself with the messy business of politics or religion. Her only real assertive moment came early in the spring of 1541, when she helped two prisoners held in the Tower of London. Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III's brother. She'd been imprisoned in the Tower for two years without adequate clothing to handle the harsh winters. Catherine received permission from Henry to send the eldery woman warm clothes. She also asked the King to pardon Sir Thomas Wyatt for his association with engineering the King's marriage to Anne of Cleves. She also attempted to be a good stepmother to Henry's children, reaching out to both the Princess Mary and Elizabeth.

Catherine's downfall began when she began a flirtation with her distant relative Thomas Culpepper who had been one of her most ardent suitors when she came to court. Their meetings were facilitated by none other than Lady Rochford, sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn (more on her in another post). It continued with her other disasterous decision to appoint Henry Manox and Francis Dereham to her household. Yes, the very two men that she'd been indiscreet with before her marriage.

Why would Catherine risk her position as Queen? Was she bored with having to entertain a cranky, old man, who she didn't love and whose body now repulsed her? Did she think that by keeping her former paramours close, she could monitor their actions? Perhaps some of the Howard arrogance came to the fore. Although Catherine had fallen in love with Culpeper before her marriage to Henry, it's not clear whether or not Culpeper returned her affections. Maybe this was Catherine's attempts to get a little of her own back.

And what of her great love, Culpeper? For his part, he was no doubt using Catherine's infatuation to further his own ambitions. Apparently, he was not a particularly 'gentlemanly' gentleman. In fact, he had brutally raped a park-keeper's wife, ordering three of his servants to hold her down during the attack; he also murdered a villager who tried to save her. He had been pardoned by the king for his crimes. What a piece of work! His ambitions regarding Catherine undoubtedly stemmed from the King's poor health. If the king died, then the queen dowager would maintain some influence and power at court (i.e Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr). She'd already given him several tokens of her affection, passed on by Lady Rochford, who acted as a go-between.

The beginning of the end came after Henry and Catherine's progress the summer of 1541 in the North of England, undertaken to placate the region after a series of rebellions. Henry had also hoped to meet up with his nephew, James V of Scotland. Henry was still as besotted as ever with his new bride.

"Now in his old days after sundry troubles of mind which have happened unto him by marraiges he had obtained a jewel in Catherine."

However, John Lascelles, a protestant reformer had as sister who had been a chambermaid to the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and knew what Catherine had been up to. Worried about the threat to his faith by the Catholic faction surrounding the Duke of Norfolk, he informed Thomas Cranmer of Catherine's youthful indiscretions.

Cranmer left a letter for Henry went he went to Mass on All Soul's Day (November 2nd) 1541. Henry at first refused to believe the allegations that about his wife, unlike his previous behavior with Anne Boleyn, when he was only too willing to believe the most vile accusations. However, he asked Cranmer to discretely investigate further. Dereham and Culpeper were arrested. Dereham confessed to his behavior with Catherine when they were members of the Duchess' household. Culpeper however claimed that the relationship between himself and the Queen was no more than a flirtation.

Catherine was arrested on November 12th. She was never to see the King again. Confined to Hampton Court, stripped of all luxuries, her attempts to see the King were ignored, and Cranmer interrogated her concerning the charges. Despite the fact that admitting to a precontract with Francis Dereham would have spared her the fate of her cousin, Catherine steadfastly denied it, insisting that Dereham had forced himself on her.

The Duke of Norfolk, not known for his family loyalty, swiftly moved to throw Catherine under a bus and to castigate his step mother for her moral laxness. He even threw in a diatribe against his other niece, the long dead Anne Boleyn as an extra measure. It was a caculated move to save his butt and his place at court. Henry, at one point, had softened towards Catherine and was leaning towards leniency. However, the anti-Catherine, pro Protestant faction at court nipped that in the bud by insinuating that Catherine's appointing Dereham to her household indicated that the relationship had continued after her marriage to the King. No longer was it just her youthful indiscretions being held against her, but adultery.

On November 22nd, Catherine was stripped of her title as Queen and imprisoned at Syon House. Culpeper and Dereham were executed, Dereham in the particularly grisly method of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Culpeper as a gentleman was spared that indignity being beheaded instead. The charge was treasonous conduct. Catherine remained in limbo until Parliament passed a bill of attainder on January 21, 1542 making treason punishable by death. She was taken to the Tower on February 10th and executed on the 13th, the day before Valentine's Day.

The night before her execution, Catherine spend hours practising how to lay her head upon the block. No longer the vivacious, lively teenager who had captivated a King, she died with dignity, asking for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. She was beheaded with one stroke, and buried in an unmarked grave in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula where her unlucky cousin Anne Boleyn is also buried. A plague on the west wall of the church is dedicated to those who died on Tower Green.

Catherine's reputation suffered horribly during the Victorian years, where her earlier behavior was a sign of moral laxness. However, in recent years, historians have started to look more kindly towards her. It's important to remember how young she was, her mother died when she was young, her father was ineffectual at best, shipped off to not even a blood relative where she had no one to guide her in what was proper and what was not. Used and abandoned by her poweful family when she became a hindrance. Her indiscretions to us in the 21st century seem perfectly normal for a young girl. But in Tudor England, where a girl's virginity and need for an heir who was indisputably her husband's, Catherine's indiscretions become something more.

If Catherine had married Dereham or Culpeper, she would have been just another empty-headed flirt who people at court gossiped about behind her back. Instead, she caught the attention of the most powerful man in the land. Unlike her cousin Anne or Jane Seymour, who had spent years in royal service before they became Queen, Catherine had no experience with the hotbed of intrique of court life, where nobles constantly jockeyed for position with a King who seemed to change his mind daily about whom he favored.

Yes, she was incredibly stupid but if anything she's to be pitied more than reviled for her sins such as they were.

In her final hours, she displayed the maturity and composure, that would have made her a good Queen, if she had come to that realisation months sooner.

Thanks to David Starkey's monumental book Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, Eleanor Herman's Sex with the Queen, and Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII.


I've always had a weakness for poor Francis Dereham.

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