by Susan Flantzer
Catherine Howard was the fifth of the six wives of King Henry VIII of England and the second of his two beheaded wives. She was born around 1523, the fifth of the six children of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpepper. Catherine’s father, Lord Edmund Howard, was the third son of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Edmund’s eldest brother was Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, a prominent Tudor politician, and one of his younger sisters was Elizabeth Howard, mother of King Henry VIII’s other beheaded wife, Anne Boleyn. Therefore, Catherine and Anne were first cousins.
Catherine had five half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage to Ralph Leigh:
- Isabel Leigh, (c. 1495 – 1573) married (1) Sir Edward Baynton, had issue (2) James Stumpe, (3) Thomas Stafford
- Margaret Leigh (born after 1496), married a husband surnamed Rice
- Joyce Leigh, (born after 1496) married John Stanney
- Sir John Leigh (born after 1496, died 1566), married Margaret Saunders
- Ralph Leigh (born after 1496, died before 1563), married Margaret Ireland, had issue
Catherine had five full siblings:
- Margaret Howard (circa 1515 – 1572), married Sir Thomas Arundell of Wardour Castle, had issue
- Henry Howard
- Mary Howard, who married Edmund Trafford
- Sir George Howard (circa 1525 – 1580)
- Sir Charles Howard
Catherine’s mother died when she was a young child, and she was sent off with some siblings to be raised by her step-grandmother Agnes Howard (née Tilney), Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, the second wife of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. It was common for aristocratic children to be raised in other aristocratic households, but it appears that the supervision in the Dowager Duchess’ household was quite lax. Catherine and the Dowager Duchess’ other wards were often left to their own devices and the care of servants. Apparently, young Catherine had an affair with the music master Henry Manox and then with Francis Dereham, a secretary of the Dowager Duchess. The Dowager Duchess eventually found out about Catherine and Dereham. Dereham was sent away to Ireland but it is possible that they had intentions to marry upon his return from Ireland, agreeing to a pre-contract of marriage.
Catherine’s uncle Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, also the uncle of Anne Boleyn and as Lord High Steward, had presided at Anne’s trial, found a position for Catherine at court. Through the influence of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief minister, Henry had married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry immediately disliked Anne of Cleves and the marriage was never consummated. Catherine became one of Anne’s maids-of-honor, and immediately caught Henry’s attention. Catherine was well aware of Henry’s interest in her and aided by his extreme distaste for Anne, set out to captivate the king. Katherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, saw this an opportunity to regain the influence they had before the disastrous fall of Anne Boleyn. Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled on July 9, 1540. Thomas Cromwell, the scapegoat for the failed marriage to Anne of Cleves, was arrested on June 10, 1540 under a bill of attainder and executed for treason and heresy on Tower Hill on July 28, 1540. Henry married Catherine Howard that same day.
Henry called his teenaged bride his “rose without a thorn.” He was delighted with her and gave her the lands of the executed Cromwell and showered her with jewelry. Catherine adopted the motto Non autre volonte que la sienne (No other wiill but his), which would soon prove quite ironic.
In 1540, Thomas Culpeper, a Gentleman to the King’s Privy Chamber, caught Catherine’s attention. By 1541, they were spending time together, often alone and late at night, aided and abetted by Catherine’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, the widow of George Boleyn, who had been accused, convicted and executed for adultery with his sister Anne Boleyn. The affair would cause the downfall of all involved.
Catherine also employed her previous lover Francis Dereham, first as her Private Secretary and then as a Gentleman Usher of the Queen’s Chamber. Dereham’s bragging about being Catherine’s former lover was brought to the attention of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who brought evidence of Catherine’s previous affair with Dereham to the king’s attention. Though Henry originally refused to believe the allegations, Dereham confessed. It took another meeting of the council, however, before Henry believed the accusations against Dereham and went into a rage, blaming the council before consoling himself in hunting. When questioned, Catherine could have admitted a prior contract to marry Dereham, which would have made her subsequent marriage to Henry invalid, but she instead claimed that Dereham had forced her to enter into an adulterous relationship. Dereham, meanwhile, exposed Catherine’s relationship with Thomas Culpeper.
On November 1, 1541, Catherine was imprisoned at Syon House. She had been brought there from Hampton Court Palace after running through the palace, shrieking denials of her guilt, unsuccessfully trying to get to Henry as he was at prayer in the Chapel Royal. The gallery through which she ran through is known as the Haunted Gallery and her ghost is reputedly said to haunt it.
On December 1, 1541, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper were executed at Tyburn, the principal place of execution of London criminals and convicted traitors. Both men were to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. However, Henry VIII had mercy on his Gentleman to the King’s Privy Chamber and commuted Thomas Culpeper’s execution to a beheading. Francis Dereham was not as lucky and was hanged, drawn and quartered. Both their heads were placed on spikes on top of London Bridge.
Catherine was brought to the Tower of London on February 10, 1542 by barge, passing under London Bridge where Dereham and Culpepper’s heads were displayed and remained displayed until 1546. Her execution by beheading was to take place on February 13, 1542 at 7:00 AM. The night before her execution, Catherine is believed to have practiced how to lay her head upon the block, which had been brought to her at her request. Catherine was beheaded with one stroke on Tower Green within the Tower of London. Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, was executed immediately afterward. Catherine Howard was buried in an unmarked grave in the nearby Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula.