The Case of Katherine Howard


While Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn loom the largest of Henry VIII’s wives, all six women have provided controversy and prompted debate centuries after their deaths. Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, is no exception. Married to the King on July 28, 1540 and executed on February 13, 1542, her reign was brief but littered with misinformation and its legacy shaped by evolving views of female sexuality and abuse.

Katherine first joined court and met Henry in 1539 when she became a lady-in-waiting to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. At that point, Henry had been a widower for two years following the death of Jane Seymour, and his marriage was masterminded by his councilor, Thomas Cromwell, who was determined to find another queen consort who would complement the Protestant Church of England and the ongoing dissolution of the monasteries. Unfortunately for Cromwell, Anne failed to please Henry and he instead fell for the adolescent Katherine Howard, niece to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and cousin of his deceased second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Katherine’s cousin, Anne Boleyn

Traditional scholarship has placed Katherine’s birth in 1521 based on a report from a French ambassador to Henry’s court who stated she was 18 in 1539. However, given numerous other errors from this individual, not least of which was also misreporting the birth year of Anne of Cleves, his account is certainly not reliable. Further evidence that Katherine may have been younger stems from the fact that she was never placed in Anne Boleyn’s household. Had she been born in 1521, she would have been 12-15 during Anne’s queenship, a perfectly acceptable age to start her career as a damoiselle at court. More modern historians have placed her birth between 1523-1525, including one recent biographer, Conor Byrne, who believes it likely she was born in 1524, a year or so before her sister, Mary.

Katherine’s year of birth is significant in the context of her life, providing a different perspective on the age at which she married Henry and the pre-marital relationships that would eventually lead to her downfall. Put more bluntly, Katherine may have been only 15 when she became queen of England, and as young as 12-14 when these youthful “indiscretions” took place, placing them in the hazier ground of possible child abuse.

Agnes Tilney in her youth

In 1531 Katherine joined the household of her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, whose home accommodated a plethora of noble girls, both Howard and not. This was a common practices for children of Katherine’s rank, where they could be educated alongside peers in a respectable house, making connections on which they could call upon later in life. By this time, too, Katherine’s mother was dead and her father, Lord Edmund Howard, was made Controller of Calais, necessitating a move across the Channel.

While in the Dowager’s home, two “relationships” occurred which are worth investigating. The first was with a man named Henry Manox, who began giving Katherine music lessons in 1536. It’s unclear why these lessons were given only to Katherine, as opposed to other young ladies of the household, but it’s possible they were due to the Dowager and the Duke of Norfolk’s plans to shortly move Katherine to court, a place where music was highly valued and Anne Boleyn, herself a skilled musician, still reigned supreme. Manox appears to have taken a liking to Katherine, going so far as to persuade and/or harass her into some sort of a physical relationship, though according to both of their later testimony Katherine escaped with her virginity intact.

Later on, it would become clear that other girls in the household knew that there was some sort of situation brewing between the two, but it wasn’t reported by any of them at the time. Again, the gap between traditional and modern history is vast here, with older scholarship maintaining that it was simply a household a loose morals and the girls protected each other, and modern analysis arguing that given the shame that this man’s liberties would have caused both Katherine and the Dowager, everyone kept their mouths shut. The difference in Katherine’s perceived age her is key – attempting to parse the motives of a 15-year-old is certainly more convoluted than understanding this was a grown man coming on to a 12-year-old.  In any event, the Dowager appears to have caught on and dismissed Manox, while her failure to raise flags about him speaks more to protecting Katherine’s reputation than his.

The second relationship was with a man named Francis Dereham whom Katherine became acquainted with in 1538 when he was conducting an affair with another, older girl living under the Dowager’s roof. At some point, however, he transferred his affections to Katherine and the two began a sexual relationship that didn’t end until the following year. It appears, based on later testimony, that Dereham sought to marry Katherine, going so far as to call her “Wife” and have her call him “Husband.” Regardless, he seems to have believed a “pre-contract” existed between them, while Katherine apparently did not, as would become clear in 1541. What is less clear, however, is whether this sexual relationship was consensual, but there are a few factors worth considering:

  • In 1541, when Katherine’s history with Dereham was revealed, testimony reported Dereham quoting Katherine as saying that it was possible to engage in intercourse without conceiving a child. The exact quote has been taken to mean that Katherine was using 16th century modes of contraception, but it could have meant several different things. For one, given that fertility was placed firmly on the woman’s shoulders and number of mental and emotional factors were believed to effect fertility, it’s possible that Katherine, having been raped, would have believed it impossible to conceive under the circumstance. Two, if Dereham was truly trying to marry Katherine or believed their informal oaths to each other were legally binding, he would likely not have been in favor of contraception. Indeed, a pregnancy may very well have forced the Howards’ hand into allowing a marriage. Three, given that Katherine was 14 at the time, it’s possible what she was saying was that she was physically incapable of conceiving a child.
  • The relative longevity of the relationship and Katherine’s silence could speak only to the predicament that she was in. Tudor laws regarding the rape of a virgin and child abuse were strict and punishable by death, but Katherine was also isolated with her father living in Calais and the Dowager often away at court. In short, there was no one to speak for her and short of evidence of violence, consent was implied. Furthermore, Katherine was a Howard and had likely been raised to be proud of her last name and knew very well that her virtue and unblemished reputation were critical to her future success.

It should be said, however, that such arguments go against the grain of how Katherine’s behavior is analyzed. Usually this relationship is depicted as a youthful romance, her “first love,” but one that she outgrew by the time she secured a place at court. Part of this, of course, is due to her age previously being presumed as closer to 17.

Katherine’s uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

When Anne of Cleves arrived in England in 1539, joining her household was a natural move for the 15-year-old Katherine, and her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who knew nothing of Manox or Dereham, was eager to place a Howard close in proximity to the new queen. Henry and Anne were married, against Henry’s will, on January 6, 1540 and in the weeks and months that followed it became clear to everyone from Henry’s ministers to Anne’s ladies that the relationship had not been consummated.

Theories as to why abound, running the gamut of Henry being offended by Anne’s apparent distaste for him to Henry being disgusted by her lack of sophistication and/or appearance. It’s also generally believed that Henry fell for Katherine during this time, his attraction stemming from his discontentment with Anne. Byrne’s theory is that when Henry sullenly told Cromwell the morning after his wedding night that he had “left her as good a maid as I found her” and criticized her body, it was less that she was “ugly,” as that Henry genuinely believed she wasn’t a virgin due to the misguided belief that a “maid’s” stomach and bust would be smaller.

Anne of Cleves

That’s certainly possible, as are any number of theories given the bizarreness of Henry’s fourth marriage all around. To a certain extent it’s understandable that virginity could, to Tudor eyes, seem tied to a woman’s physical size, if for no other reason than once a woman married she usually began going through multiple pregnancies, a process that, obviously, enlarged both her stomach and bust. While less is known of Jane Seymour’s physical appearance, we do know that Katherine of Aragon’s pregnancies took a significant physical toll on her and that Anne Boleyn was almost unfashionably thin – this perception may very well have complemented Henry’s experience with women. And age plays a role here as well, with many women marrying as adolescents they were, quite literally, not fully grown at the time they were “maids.”

The second argument that Byrne lays out is that since Katherine arrived at court before Anne did, Henry may have become acquainted with her prior to the wedding and his dissatisfaction with Anne may have stemmed more from having already fallen in love with Katherine. Maybe, but I’m less convinced of this – or, at least, I certainly don’t think this was a driving factor of Henry’s behavior.

Whatever the reasoning, Henry’s marriage to Anne would be brief and the couple were amicably divorced by July 9, 1540. Anne, who didn’t put up a fight, agreed to take on the honorary role of the King’s “sister” at his court and unlike Henry’s previous wives, escaped her marriage with her honor and head intact. Henry and Katherine were married on July 28, 1540, the same day Thomas Cromwell, whom Henry blamed for the failure of his union with Anne, was beheaded at the Tower of London.

Cromwell’s demise left a significant opening for the Howards, who had not fared well under his tenure. Their religious conservatism – or Catholicism – was perhaps closer in line with Henry’s personal beliefs, but had been anathema to the forces of the King’s court who wanted to see England evolve along the more radical lines of the Germans. So, too, did Katherine becoming queen, a situation with which the older generation was already intimately familiar having lived through the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn.

Katherine Howard

About a year after Katherine’s marriage, Dereham approached her while on a summer progress at Pontefract Castle, demanding employment in her household. It is unclear exactly what their conversation entailed, or on what terms their earlier involvement had ended, but Katherine would go on to employ him as her Private Secretary and an Usher in her household. Given that her presumed virginity at the time of her wedding was paramount to her maintaining her reputation, if not her position, it’s possible that Dereham attempted to blackmail Katherine and parlay their previous interactions into a more lucrative career for himself.

Rumors of their relationship and/or Katherine’s lack of virtue had sprung up by now, however nothing had so far taken root. But it was earlier in 1541 that Katherine appears to have begun meeting with Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman in Henry’s household, and a man with whom there had been talk of her marrying when she was a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. The meetings seem to have stemmed from at least one conversation, if not more, between Culpeper and Jane, Lady Rochford, the widow of Anne Boleyn’s brother, George. It’s unclear why or how Jane involved herself in the interactions, but according to Katherine it was she who suggested that the Queen meet with Culpeper, which she did for the first time in April 1541. At least one letter from Katherine to Culpeper survives, though it should be noted that the first 16 words of it are written in a different hand than the rest.

Traditionally, historians have accepted the presumption that the two conducted a physical affair. Indeed, many moderns historians still do. It has only been recently that some called that belief into question, pointing to the obvious example of Anne Boleyn’s presumed innocence in light of the charges of adultery against her. So why not the same consideration for Katherine? Well, certainly part of it has to do with those charges coming to light against details emerging about Manox and Dereham, but Anne Boleyn was also rumored to have had affairs before Henry, most notably with the poet Thomas Wyatt and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.

Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting would turn on her during the gathering of evidence and trial, but so, too, did Anne’s. The letter that exists points to a relationship, however its contents, in the context of 16th century courtly language, doesn’t necessarily indicate a physical or even romantic one.

Hampton Court Palace, Katherine’s home for significant portions of her tenure as queen and where she was first imprisoned when Henry found out about her prior relationships

More recent scholarship has put forth a number of theories as to what was going on between her and Culpeper. One is that Culpeper was in love with her and sought to meet with her, while another is that the two engaged in an emotional affair. And finally, it has been posited that Culpeper may very well have been blackmailing Katherine just like Dereham, having learned of her premarital relationships. There is evidence of gifts being given to Culpeper by Katherine, which could indicate her favor or her attempting to buy him off. If she loved him and was giving him gifts, then she was knowingly being reckless. If she feared him and was giving him gifts, then she was acting out of desperation and hoping for the best.

Whatever the case was, Mary Lascelles, who had resided in the Dowager Duchess’s household with Katherine during her youth appears to have told her brother, John Lascelles, another courtier, about Katherine’s past “indiscretions.” The information was brought to the attention of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury who, with the permission of the King, questioned her, Manox and Dereham, finding evidence that Katherine hadn’t been chaste upon marriage.

Katherine, meanwhile, was held under lock and key at Hampton Court Palace. By the time she was approached by Cranmer, her uncle of Norfolk and other councilors, she was hysterical and quickly confessed to the validity of Manox and Dereham’s claims, with the exception of one – she maintained that she had never been pre-contracted to Dereham, which would have negated her marriage to Henry.

This has been seen by many as Katherine lying to hold on to her queenship and refusing to surrender her exalted status. Rarely is it considered that she may have been telling the truth. It’s worth noting that even in typical marriages arranged for children, there was at least the formality of each party assuring that the union was what they wished when they came of age and entered into a “full” marriage. Henry VIII, for example had been prompted to repudiate his betrothal to Katherine of Aragon while he was still Prince of Wales on the grounds that he had been a child when he first agreed to marriage and no longer wished it. Katherine’s point of view could very well have been that she had been a child and the oath was made under duress or coercion.

It should be noted that, at its worst, none of this behavior was illegal. Katherine could have found herself divorced, but her death wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Committing adultery during her marriage was another matter altogether. In the course of Dereham’s interrogation he apparently voiced his suspicion that Culpeper was Katherine’s lover, bringing their so-called relationship to light. Katherine admitted to having met with Culpeper on three occasions over the summer, and of having let him kiss her hand, but swore nothing else had taken place. Culpeper confessed to meaning “to do ill with her,” however that confession was secured through torture, undermining its credibility.

Jane Boleyn, for her part, swore that she had no idea what had transpired between Katherine and Culpeper, before later suggesting that they had probably been lovers and that Katherine had been asking for Culpeper every day since her relationship with Dereham had come to light. (Which, if her interactions with Culpeper rested on his knowledge of what had happened with Dereham, would make sense. As would the fact that Culpeper belonged to Henry’s household and would have had insight into what was going on.)

Henry VIII c. 1542

On November 22, Katherine’s title as queen was stripped of her and she was held at Syon Abbey in Middlesex, having been asked to return her wedding ring. On December 1, Dereham and Culpeper were tried at Guildhall where they were found guilty and on December 10, they were both executed at Tyburn. Culpeper, given his position at court, had his sentence commuted to a beheading, while Dereham was given the traditional traitor’s death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Byrne, for his part, believes the severity of death may have been due to Katherine’s claims that she had been forced into a sexual relationship with him, however it may have been due to simply being of a lower status.

Katherine, meanwhile, still lived. In January 1542, a Bill of Attainder was presented in Parliament, which read:

Katherine Howard whom the King took to wife is proved to have been not of pure and honest living before her marriage, and the fact she has since taken to her service one Francis Dereham, the person with whom she ‘used that vicious life before,’ and has taken as chamberer a woman was privy to her naughy life before, is proof of her will to return to her old abominable life. Also she has confederated with lady Jane Rocheford, widow, late wife of Sir Geo. Boleyn, late lord Rocheford, to ‘bring her vicious and abominable purpose to pass” with Thos. Culpeper, late one of the King’s Privy Chamber, and has met Culpeper in “a secret and vile place,” at 11 o’clock at night, and remained there with him until 3 a.m., with only ‘that bawd, the lady Jane Rocheford.’ For these reasons, Culpeper and Dereham have been executed, and the Queen and lady Rochford stand indicted. The indictments of such as have lately suffered are hereby approved, and the said Queen and lady Rochford are, by authority of this Parliament, convicted and attainted of high treason, and shall suffer accordingly; and the said Queen, lady Rocheford, Culpeper, and Dereham shall forefeit to the Crown all possessions which they held on 25 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII. The Royal assent to this Act shall given by commission.

On February 11, the attainder became law and it became criminal for a potential consort to hide her sexual history from the King. Not for nothing, but Henry’s next wife would be a widow, neatly skirting the issue altogether. The day before, Katherine had been moved from the Abbey to the Tower of London and, on the evening of the 12th, she and Jane Boleyn were both informed they would be executed the next morning. Katherine reportedly spent the night practicing laying her head on the block.

On the morning of February 13th, she was led to the scaffold erected on the Tower Green to which eyewitnesses recalled she needed help ascending, looking very pale and weak. Though rumor would later have it that she knelt declaring, “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper,” this isn’t supported by contemporaries or anyone present at her execution. Instead she was described as saying very little, kneeling gracefully and being beheaded in a single stroke of an axe. Jane would be executed directly after her, their bodies buried near the Tower chapel, close to the bodies of Anne and George Boleyn.

So why isn’t Katherine given the same benefit of the doubt Anne was? Well, for a number of different factors, not least of which is that there were many that acknowledged the charges against Anne were trumped-up even as the events leading up to her death were unfolding. In Katherine’s case, her “lack of virtue” was positioned squarely as her own fault and the combination of a prior sexual history with a supposed extra-marital affair lends itself to thinking there is a distinct pattern of behavior.

And certainly there very well might have been. But while Katherine’s youth prompted sympathy even in her day, it is only through a more modern lens that we question the veracity or morality of a “consensual” sexual relationship taking place between a pre-teen and an adult. It is also through a more modern lens that we can acknowledge Katherine’s failure to “stop” these relationships or alert her guardians doesn’t mean they weren’t the result of coercion.

Katherine may have been guilty of an affair, physical or otherwise. Or she may very well have just been naive. Yet another difference between her and Anne, and indeed all of Henry’s other wives, was her complete lack of experience in comparison. Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, whatever their fate, were both foreign alliances, Katherine an infanta of Spain and Anne the daughter of a duke. Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour were seasoned courtiers who had years of experience navigating court politics before their relationships with Henry began. When Henry married his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, he was her third husband. Katherine Howard, on the other hand, was 15-years-old, fresh from the country.

There are certain areas where exerting a 21st century point of view on historical figures and events undermines our ability to understand, and then there are others where doing so can help to provide a more nuanced comprehension of how human beings might react within the context of their own time. Katherine might not have called it abuse and she might not have called it rape, but it would be limiting to ignore the impact of her experiences on a 12-14-year-old girl without recourse. It’s impossible at this point to know the exact nature of Katherine’s associations with these men, but in the absence of compelling evidence pointing in either direction, it’s worth, at the very least, being skeptical until guilt can be proven.

5 thoughts on “The Case of Katherine Howard

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