On this date in History: February 13, 1542 Execution of Catherine Howard, 5th wife of King Henry VIII of England and Ireland.
Catherine Howard (c. 1523 – February 13, 1542) was Queen of England from 1540 until 1541, as the fifth wife of Henry VIII. She (then 16 or 17) married him (then 49) on July 28, 1540, at Oatlands Palace, in Surrey, almost immediately after the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves was arranged.
Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, found her a place at Court in the household of the King’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. As a young and attractive lady-in-waiting, Catherine quickly caught Henry’s eye. The King had displayed little interest in Anne from the beginning, but on Cromwell’s failure to find a new match for Henry, Norfolk saw an opportunity. The Howards may have sought to recreate the influence gained during Queen Anne’s reign. According to Nicholas Sander, the religiously conservative Howard family may have seen Catherine as a figurehead for their fight by expressed determination to restore Roman Catholicism to England. Catholic Bishop Stephen Gardiner entertained the couple at Winchester Palace with “feastings”.
As the King’s interest in Catherine grew, so did the house of Norfolk’s influence. Her youth, prettiness and vivacity were captivating for the middle-aged sovereign, who claimed he had never known “the like to any woman”. Within months of her arrival at court, Henry bestowed gifts of land and expensive cloth upon Catherine. Henry called her his ‘rose without a thorn’ and the ‘very jewel of womanhood’. The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, thought her “delightful”. Holbein’s portrait showed a young auburn-haired girl with a characteristically hooked Howard nose; Catherine was said to have a “gentle, earnest face.”
King Henry and Catherine were married by Bishop Bonner of London at Oatlands Palace on 28 July 1540, the same day Cromwell was executed. The marriage was made public on 8 August, and prayers were said in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace. Henry “indulged her every whim” thanks to her “caprice”. Catherine was young, joyous and carefree; Mannox had taught her to play the virginals. She was too young to take part in administrative matters of State. Nevertheless, every night Sir Thomas Heneage, Groom of the Stool, came to her chamber to report on the King’s well-being.
It was alleged that, in spring 1541, Catherine had already embarked upon a romance with Henry’s favourite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper, a young man who “had succeeded [him] in the Queen’s affections”, according to Dereham’s later testimony. Culpeper called Catherine “my little, sweet fool” in a love letter; she considered marrying him during her time as a maid-of-honour to Anne of Cleves. The couple’s meetings were arranged by one of Catherine’s older ladies-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford (Lady Rochford), the widow of Catherine’s executed cousin, George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s brother.
During the autumn Northern Progress, a crisis began to loom over Catherine’s conduct. People who had witnessed her earlier indiscretions while still a ward at Lambeth contacted her for favours in return for their silence, and many of them were appointed to her royal household. The brother of Mary Lascelles, John Lascelles, tried to convince his sister to find a place within the Queen’s royal chamber, however, Mary refused stating she had witnessed the “light” ways of Queen Catherine while living together at Lambeth. After hearing this John Lascelles reported such news to Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who then interrogated Lascelles’ sister and upon doing so became informed of Catherine’s previous illicit sexual relations while under the Duchess’ care.
Cranmer immediately took up the case to be made to topple his rivals—the Roman Catholic Norfolk family. Lady Rochford was interrogated, and from fear of being tortured, agreed to tell all. She told how she had watched for Catherine backstairs as Culpeper had made his escapes from the Queen’s room. During the investigation, a love letter written in the Queen’s distinctive handwriting was found in Culpeper’s chambers. This is the only letter of hers that still survives (other than her later confession).
On All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1541, the King was to be found in the Chapel Royal, praying as usual for this “jewel of womanhood”. He received there a warrant of the queen’s arrest that described her crimes. On November 7, 1541, Archbishop Cranmer led a delegation of councillors to Winchester Palace, Southwark, to question her. Even the staunch Cranmer found Catherine’s frantic, incoherent state pitiable, saying, “I found her in such lamentation and heaviness as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man’s heart to have looked upon her.” He ordered the guards to remove any objects that she might use to commit suicide.
Imprisonment and death
Establishing the existence of a precontract between Catherine and Dereham would have had the effect of terminating Catherine’s royal union, but it also would have allowed Henry to annul their marriage and banish her from Court, in poverty and disgrace, without having to execute her. Yet still she steadfastly denied any precontract, maintaining that Dereham had raped her.
Catherine was stripped of her title as queen on November 23, 1541, and imprisoned in the new Syon Abbey, Middlesex, formerly a convent, where she remained throughout the winter of 1541. She was forced by a Privy Councillor to return Anne of Cleves’ ring that the King had given her; it was a symbol of her regal and lawful rights. The King would be at Hampton Court, but she would not see him again. Despite these actions taken against her, her marriage to Henry was never formally annulled.
Culpeper and Dereham were arraigned at Guildhall on December 1, 1541 for high treason. They were executed at Tyburn on 10 December 1541, Culpeper being beheaded and Dereham being hanged, drawn and quartered. According to custom, their heads were placed on spikes atop of London Bridge. Many of Catherine’s relatives were also detained in the Tower with the exception of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who had sufficiently distanced himself from the scandal by retreating to Kenninghall to write a grovelling letter of apology.
His son Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, the poet, remained a favourite of the King. The duke knew his family had fallen from grace, wrote an apology on December 14 to the King, excusing himself and laying all the blame on his niece and stepmother. All of the Howard prisoners were tried, found guilty of concealing treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of goods. In time, they were released with their goods restored. The King sank into morbidity and indulged his appetite for food.
Catherine herself remained in limbo until Parliament introduced a bill of attainder on January 29, 1542, which was passed on February 7, 1542. The Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 made it treason, and punishable by death, for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within twenty days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her. This solved the matter of Catherine’s supposed precontract and made her unequivocally guilty.
When the Lords of the Council came for her, she panicked and screamed aloud, as they manhandled her into the waiting barge that would escort her to the Tower on Friday February 10, 1542, her flotilla passing under London Bridge where the heads of Culpeper and Dereham were impaled (and remained until 1546). Entering through the Traitors’ Gate she was led to her prison cell. The next day, the bill of attainder received Royal Assent, and Catherine’s execution was scheduled for 7:00 am on Monday, February 13, 1542. Arrangements for the execution were supervised by Sir John Gage in his role as Constable of the Tower.
The night before her execution, Catherine is believed to have spent many hours practising how to lay her head upon the block, which had been brought to her at her request. She died with relative composure, but looked pale and terrified; she required assistance to climb the scaffold. She made a speech describing her punishment as “worthy and just” and asked for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. According to popular folklore, her final words were, “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper”, however no eyewitness accounts support this. Instead, reporting that she stuck to traditional final words, asking for forgiveness for her sins and acknowledging that she deserved to die ‘a thousand deaths’ for betraying the king; who had always treated her so graciously. Catherine was beheaded with a single stroke of the executioner’s axe. She was about 18 or 19 years old.
Lady Rochford was executed immediately thereafter on Tower Green. Both their bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in the nearby chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, where the bodies of Catherine’s cousins Anne and George Boleyn also lay. Other cousins were also in the crowd, including the Earl of Surrey. King Henry did not attend. Catherine’s body was not one of those identified during restorations of the chapel during Queen Victoria’s reign. She is commemorated on a plaque on the west wall dedicated to all those who died in the Tower. Upon hearing news of Catherine’s execution, Francis I of France wrote a letter to Henry, regretting the “lewd and naughty [evil] behaviour of the Queen” and advising him that “the lightness of women cannot bend the honour of men”.