2nd Duke of Norfolk, Catherine Howard, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Execution, Francis Dereham, King François I of France, King Henry VIII of England and Ireland, Lady Rochford, Queen of England and Ireland, Royal Assent, Thomas Culpeper, Thomas Howard
Imprisonment and death
Prior to her marriage to the King, Catherine was pursued by Francis Dereham, a secretary of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, her father, Lord Edmund Howard’s stepmother, Agnes Howard (née Tilney). Catherine Howard had been placed in the Dowager Duchess’s care after her mother’s death.
Catherine Howard and Francis Dereham allegedly became lovers, addressing each other as “husband” and “wife”. Dereham also entrusted Catherine with various wifely duties, such as keeping his money when he was away on business. Many of Catherine’s roommates among the Dowager Duchess’s maids of honour and attendants knew of the relationship, which apparently ended in 1539, when the Dowager Duchess found out.
Despite this, Catherine and Dereham may have parted with intentions to marry upon his return from Ireland, agreeing to a precontract of marriage. If indeed they exchanged vows before having sexual intercourse, they would have been considered married in the eyes of the Church.
If it could have been established that there had been an existence of a precontract between Catherine and Francis Dereham it would have had the effect of terminating Catherine’s marriage to Henry, but it would also have allowed Henry to annul their marriage and banish her from court to live in poverty and disgrace instead of executing her.
However, there is no indication that Henry VIII would have chosen that alternative. Catherine steadfastly denied any precontract, maintaining that Dereham had raped her.
Thomas Culpeper denied ever having committed adultery with Queen Catherine and blamed the Queen for the situation, saying that he had tried to end his friendship with her, but that she was “dying of love for him”. Eventually, Culpeper admitted to intending to sleep with the queen, though he never admitted to having actually done so.
Culpeper and Dereham were arraigned at Guildhall on December 1, 1541 for high treason. They were executed at Tyburn on December 10, 1541, Culpeper being beheaded and Dereham being hanged, drawn and quartered.
According to custom, their heads were placed on spikes on London Bridge. Many of Catherine’s relatives were also detained in the Tower, tried, found guilty of concealing treason and sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of goods.
Queen Catherine’s uncle, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, distanced himself from the scandal by retreating to Kenninghall to write a letter of apology, laying all the blame on his niece and stepmother. His son Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, a poet, remained a favourite of the King. Meanwhile, the King sank further into morbidity and indulged his appetite for food and women.
Catherine remained in limbo until Parliament introduced on January 29, 1542 a bill of attainder, 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 20 days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her.
This measure retroactively solved the matter of Catherine’s supposed precontract and made her unequivocally guilty. No formal trial was held.
When the Lords of the Council came for her, she allegedly panicked and screamed as they manhandled her into the 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 where they 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 her 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.
According to popular folklore her last words were, “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper”, but 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.
She described her punishment as “worthy and just” and asked for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. This was typical of the speeches given by people executed during that period, most likely in an effort to protect their families, since the condemned’s last words would be relayed to the King. Catherine was then beheaded with the executioner’s axe.
King François I of France when told by Sir William Paget how the queen had “wonderfully abused the king”, laid his hand on his heart and announced by his faith as a gentleman that “She hath done wonderous naughtly”.
Upon hearing news of Catherine’s execution, King François I 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”.
Lady Rochford was executed immediately thereafter on Tower Green. Both 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.