Another Teenage Queen Loses her Head


[Last Tudor-related post of the week. Promise.]

Katheryn* Howard was a bubbly, generous girl raised by her step-grandmother the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk in a dormitory-esque setting. The Duchess was responsible for several children and the household she ran was similar to that of an informal school. The size of the household — over a hundred people at Lambeth — seems to have allowed the hormone-riddled teenagers to essentially do as they pleased.

After flirting then ditching her music teacher, Henry Mannox,  in 1538 Katheryn set her eyes on Francis Dereham. Dereham was a member of the Duchess’ household and seems to have swept Katheryn off her feet. They began calling each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ and their relationship was probably — if not undoubtedly — consummated. If they believed they were married, or as good as, there was nothing wrong with behaving as such. At least, until Mannox became jealous and tipped off the Duchess of her step-granddaughter’s promiscuity. Duchess Agnes was not impressed when she found Katheryn and Dereham ’embracing’ and flew into a rage, hitting nearly everyone in the room.

Though Dereham was better born than Mannox, it still wasn’t a great match for a girl descended from Edward I, no matter Katheryn’s feelings for him. Incidentally, they cooled while Dereham was in Ireland and she was transferred closer to court, where she met the dashing Thomas Culpepper in 1539.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), while attending on Queen Anne of Cleves, the King fell in love with her.

So, out with Henry VIII’s fourth wife and in with the fifth.

As historian David Starkey puts it, her husband was not the stuff dreams are made of. Henry, at forty-eight, was no longer the lean golden-haired prince of 1509. Balding, overweight with a stinking ulcer on his thigh and with a horrible marital history, Katheryn apparently put some spring back into His Majesty’s step. He was hopelessly in love with the teenage cousin of his second wife, showering her in gifts and jewels.

Katheryn, who had grown up considerly poor, was probably quite happy other than

A miniature identified as Katheryn Howard.

the fact that she was married to a man more than twice her age. She maintained a friendly relationship with Anne of Cleves; after dinner the two regal ladies danced together while the King retired to his chambers. I once read somewhere — probably online — that Katheryn Howard and Anne of Cleves had a lesbian affair.  I don’t believe so and I’ve read no reasonable proof, just as I don’t believe George Boleyn and Mark Smeaton were lovers.

Anyway, Katheryn continued to enjoy her queen-hood, though her husband often had to restrain her from lavishing valuable gifts at everyone she knew. Joan Bulmer, who lived with Katheryn at Lambeth, was inducted as one the new Queen’s ladies-in-waiting and Dereham himself begged his way into becoming her gentleman usher.

Though the King and Queen…met…often, there was no sign of a Duke of York to accompany Jane Seymour’s (Wife No. 3) son Edward in the nursery, despite Katheryn coming from an extremely fertile family. And Henry often spent days in his chambers nursing his swollen legs and decreeing that his wife not be allowed to see him.

Perhaps these days alone reminded Katheryn of her admiration for Thomas Culpepper. Culpepper was in his late twenties, charming, and highly favoured by the King. Historian Antonia Fraser compares him to a young Duke of Suffolk: a ladies’ man who would climb high in royal favour. The Queen, about nineteen now, bestowed upon Culpepper treasured gifts, met secretly at night, and in April of 1541 wrote him a terribly spelt yet passionate love letter.

The fall of Katheryn Howard was a swift, tragic chain of events beginning in early

Tamzin Merchant as Katheryn Howard.

November. Mary Hall, who served in the Duchess’ household at the same time as Katheryn, told her brother of the late-night meetings Katheryn enjoyed with Mannox and Dereham. Her brother then told Archbishop Cranmer, who told the King, who was a little disbelieving but insecure enough to let questioning ensue.

Mannox admitted to flirtation but nothing as horrible as a full-fledged affair. Dereham admitted that he had been pre-contracted to the Queen and of their consummated relationship. Neither of these were a crime. However, Dereham told his interrogators (and torturers?) that ‘Culpepper had succeeded him in the Queen’s affections.’ Jane Boleyn Viscountess Rochford (sister-in-law and wife of Anne and George Boleyn) was also a part of this tale. She, as maid-of-honour, had been the go-between for Katheryn and Culpepper and had encouraged her mistress in persuing the dangerous relationship. Katheryn nervously but continuously maintained her innocence.

On December 1, Dereham and Culpepper were found guilty of treason. On the 10th they were executed, Culpepper by axe but Dereham by a full traitor’s death.

Katheryn was transferred to the Tower of London on 10 February with some resistance. After an Act of Attainder (which spared Henry the grief of signing another wife’s death warrant) was passed on the 11th, Katheryn Howard and Jane Rochford were legally dead. The poor girl was notified on the 12th that she was to die the following day.

Katheryn asked for the block to be brought to her, so she could practise how to place her neck upon it.

On Monday the 13th, Katheryn climbed the scaffold steps, spoke of her sins, love for and goodliness of the King, and called upon God for mercy. She knelt and placed her neck on the block as practised, and her head was struck off.

She might have not reached her twentieth birthday.**


*The spelling of Katheryn’s name is basically a personal preference. It has been spelt Katherine, Catherine, Katheryn, Kathryn, and Katharine. Many people spell it with a ‘y’ to discern her from Catherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr, or otherwise call her ‘Kitty.’

**The birthdate of Katheryn Howard is unknown, but can be pinned down around 1521-1525, making her between seventeen and twenty-one at the time of her execution.

Further reading:

  • The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
  • Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey
  • A Tudor Tradegy: the Life and Times of Catherine Howard by Lacey Baldwin Smith

4 thoughts on “Another Teenage Queen Loses her Head

    • The more I delve into the Tudor world the more I’m faced with hundreds and hundreds of novels and books written about them. Even reading the primary sources is like reading a novel because of the extreme drama and romance!

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