To Die a Queen: The Downfall of Katherine Howard

She’s probably one of the least-known of Henry VIII’s six wives – but the downfall and death of young Katherine Howard leaves many people asking questions on who she was. A naive child? A common harlot? Or a young woman in love?

Katherine Howard as depicted by Hans the Younger (Credit: Wikipedia)

The day after All Saint’s Day of 1541 was normal for Katherine Howard. The weather was bright, if cold, music was playing and she and her ladies were dancing together. Suddenly, guards barged into her chambers, lances in hand and she was told that she would be confined to her apartments until further notice.

The young woman, probably not even out of her teens at that point, must have been terrified and confused. Her husband – King Henry VIII – had locked her away and was refusing to see her. What would happen to her? What was going to be her fate? What had brought her to this situation?

Katherine Howard, the tenth child of Joyce Culpepper and Edmund Howard was raised in the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Described as flirty and vivacious, she was trained in the art of music and dance. Although she was not highly educated, her ability to read and write was impressive enough for that era. She received little discipline from the Dowager Duchess who paid hardly any attention to her wards and was encouraged by the older girls living with her who allowed men into their apartments at night. It was there that she came across her first love, Francis Derehem.

The details of their romance differ from sources. Many have alleged that they became lovers, calling each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. In 1539, they were parted when Derehem left for Ireland. They may have planned to marry when he came back, but by then, Katherine had been sent to court.

The young Howard’s date of birth cannot be verified, but it is said that by the time she came to court, she was about sixteen or seventeen years old. By then, Henry VIII was married to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Although he had already been displeased with Anne, the arrival of young, vivacious Katherine Howard fuelled Henry’s desire to get rid of his wife – not very unlike what happened when Katherine’s cousin, Anne Boleyn caught his eye many years before.

Thankfully for Henry, Anne of Cleves agreed to an annulment, and on 28 July 1540, he and Katherine were married. He was 49, and she probably wasn’t even 18.

To be married to a man old enough to be her father…how did Katherine really feel about this? The King of England was no longer the handsome boy he once was, in his youth. By the time he had come across Katherine, he was old, weighing in at around 300 lb. and he was suffering in serious pain from a leg wound from a jousting accident in 1536. The wound never healed and became ulcerated, having to be cleaned daily. It’s said that the young mistress Howard revived the king, allowed him to regain his lost youth.

The only surviving letter written by Katherine Howard to Culpepper. It is signed: ‘Yours as long as life endures, Katheryn’ (Credit: National Archives)

His young queen may have felt different about the marriage, understandably. All of a sudden, Katherine found herself married to a man old enough to be her father and basically rotting from the waist down. Although the king showered the young queen with jewels, gowns and gifts, was she really happy? Katherine knew how to entertain – she danced, played music and worked a charm. But to do so for such an old man? She could not have really enjoyed it.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the young queen sought happiness with another man. In spring 1541, she appeared to have become enamoured with a young man named Thomas Culpepper. Before her marriage to the king, it is said that Katherine had wanted to marry the courtier. To marry a man her own age against a man who was old and obese? Not surprising.

Was the young rose in love with Culpepper?  When the young man was arrested, an infamous letter was found, in the queen’s handwriting. It would be used as evidence that an affair was taking place and the two were lovers.

 It makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company.

An extract from the surviving letter from Katherine Howard to Thomas Culpepper

It is possible, however, to put a different interpretation upon Katherine’s letter. It’s possible that it was written by the desperation of a young woman who was seeking to placate an aggressive, suitor, one who had close contact with the king. Culpepper, it may be suggested, had established some form of threatening control over the queen’s life, and although he-as he admitted under torture-was seeking sexual satisfaction with her, Katherine was trying to ensure his silence through a misguided attempt at appeasement. The letter makes it clear that she wished for his presence, but she never refers to him as her ‘lover‘ or ‘darling’, and expresses a desire for no more than verbal conversation with him. While he admitted that he wanted sexual satisfaction from Katherine, it must be noted that Culpepper (along with Derehem) was tortured into confession when they were both arrested in November 1541. Tortured like many others who had been sent to the Tower of London at that time.

Derehem most certainly had some aspect of control – it appears that he made confessions (under torture) that he and the queen had been betrothed when she was younger. At the request of her grandmother – or was it blackmail from Derehem? – the young queen took him into her royal household in late 1541. It is said that he boasted that he was ‘greatly favoured’ by the young queen in an apparent attempt to invoke jealousy in Culpepper.

On the 2nd November 1541, the ‘rose without a thorn’ found herself barricaded into her chambers, without any clear explanation. Terrified for her life, she pleaded to be let see the king, to plead her case. But even in his old age, Henry VIII acted unfairly. He locked himself away in prayer and refused all attempts for Katherine to see him. Even when she briefly escaped her chambers and ran to the doors of the chapel, he would not let her speak.

Katherine never saw her husband again.

In November 1541, she was moved to Syon Abbey where she was again kept in solitary confinement, with only a few maids for company. She was ordered to return all of her jewels and gifts from the king. One jewel she had to return was a ring that belonged to the queen before her, Anne of Cleves. This ring was a symbol of Katherine’s lawful and regal rights. By returning the ring, Katherine was relinquishing her life.

Relinquishing her lawful rights meant that the young Howard had no right to a formal trial. She had no chance to defend her honour. All that she could do was wait and see what the King decided to do.

 Now, I refer the judgment of my offenses with my life and death wholly unto your most benign and merciful Grace, to be considered by no justice of your Majesty’s laws but only by your infinite goodness, pity, compassion and mercy, without which I acknowledge myself worthy of the most extreme punishment.

An extract from Katherine Howard’s letter to Henry VIII, pleading her innocence and begging for mercy. Sadly, the king was not in a forgiving mood – two months after this was written, she was escorted to the Tower.

Meanwhile, Derehem and Culpepper met their fates. On 10th December 1541, both men were dragged out of their prison cells and executed in front of a loud jeering crowd. Initally, both men were to be hanged, drawn and quartered. But due to his previous favoritism at court, Henry VIII commuted Culpepper’s sentence to a simple beheading. Derehem received no such mercy.

On 10th February 1542, Katherine Howard was informed that she was to be taken to the Tower. The young woman was terrified. Reports say that she screamed and tried to fight the guards as they took her from Syon Abbey, out onto the fortilla, that travelled to the Tower. No doubt, it passed under London Bridge where the heads of Derehem and Culpepper were displayed on pikes. Seeing the men that she loved, their heads cut off and left to be eaten by birds, brought her to hysterics.

Locked in a prison cell, it wasn’t too long for the young girl to learn her fate. The same fate that befell her cousin before her: Katherine was to be executed. The night before, something was brought to the cell – the executioner’s block. Now, this was not a psychological game inflicted by the guards or even the king – Katherine had requested it herself. All she asked was for the block to be brought to her so she ‘could place herself and make trial of it.’ If she was to die, Katherine wanted to die with dignity.

And die with dignity she did. 7am, 13th February 1542, Katherine Howard, along with her kinswoman, Jane Boleyn, were escorted from their cells and beheaded. The young girl was frightened, pale as a ghost and needed help to climb up to the scaffold, but she remained composed and calm, asking for mercy on her soul and forgiveness before placing her head on the block that she had spent hours practising with.

I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper.

Katherine Howard’s alleged last words before she was executed. While it is highly unlikely that she actually used these words, they have gone down in legacy.

Henry VIII is infamous for his six wives and multiple lovers. There were no repercussions for a man who had affairs in those times. But when young Katherine Howard found another man, she found herself on the block. Not very fair for a Tudor woman.

Did Katherine Howard love Culpepper? It is known that she had slight happiness with him at the very least. To love another man her age in comparison to an old king does not come as a surprise. Katherine’s actions were unfairly criticized by the king’s government and saw her die at a young age.

In truth, all this young queen probably really wanted was for real love. She would never have found it in an old, fat man on the throne. While trapped to a cruel king, she sought and maybe even found love in the form of a young courtier. But that search and that love would ultimately send her and those that the young Katherine Howard loved, to death by the executioner’s axe.

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