Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, became Queen in 1540, aged around 17, and was executed in 1542, aged just 19, on charges of treason and adultery. But who was the mysterious teenager who so enraptured and enraged the king? Troubled and abused child or promiscuous temptress?
1. She was born into a very well connected family
Catherine’s parents – Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper – were part of the extended family of the Duke of Norfolk. Catherine was cousin to Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, and second cousin to his third wife, Jane Seymour.
Her father, however, was the third son of 21 children in total, and primogeniture meant he was not destined for greatness in his family’s eyes. Catherine’s childhood is relatively obscure: even the spelling of her name is under question.
2. She was brought up in the household of her aunt
Catherine’s aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, had large households at Chesworth House (Sussex) and Norfolk House (Lambeth): she ended up becoming responsible for many wards, often children or dependents of poorer relations, exactly like Catherine.
Whilst this should have been a respectable place for a young woman to grow up, the Dowager Duchess’ household was relatively lax in terms of discipline. Men used to sneak into the girls’ bedrooms at night, and education was far less rigorous than was expected.
3. She had questionable relationships as a teenager
Much has been written about Catherine’s early relationships: most notably with Henry Mannox, her music teacher, and Francis Dereham, her aunt’s secretary.
Catherine’s relationship with Mannox appears to have been relatively short-lived: he pestered her sexually and exploited his position as her music teacher. She had broken off relations by mid 1538. The Duchess knew of at least one of these relationships, and had forbade Catherine and Mannox being left alone together after hearing of gossip.
Francis Dereham, a secretary in the Duchess’ household, was Catherine’s next love interest, and the two were extremely close: the story goes they called each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, and many believe they had made promises to marry when Dereham returned from a trip to Ireland.
In both cases, Catherine was a teenager, perhaps as young as 13 when she was involved with Mannox, leading modern historians to reassess her later life in light of what would was potentially an exploitative sexual relationship.
4. She first met Henry through his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves
Catherine went to court as a lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Anne Boleyn had been Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting, and Jane Seymour had been Anne Boleyn’s, so the path of pretty young women catching the King’s eye while serving his wife was well-established.
Henry had little interest in his new wife Anne, and his head was quickly turned by the vivacious young Catherine.
5. She was nicknamed ‘The Rose Without a Thorn’
Henry began to court Catherine in earnest in early 1540, showering her with gifts of land, jewels and clothes. The Norfolk family also began to regain stature at court, having fallen from grace along with Anne Boleyn.
Legend has it that Henry called her his ‘rose without a thorn’: we know for certain he described her as the ‘very jewel of womanhood’ and that he claimed to have never known a woman ‘like her’.
By this time, Henry was 49: bloated and in pain from an ulcer on his leg that would not heal, he was far from a man in his prime. Catherine, on the other hand, was around 17.
6. She was queen for less than two years
Catherine was little more than a child when she became queen in 1540, and she acted like one: her primary interests appear to have been fashion and music, and she did not seem to understand the high stakes politics of Henry’s court.
Henry married Catherine in July 1540, just 3 weeks after the annulment of his marriage from Anne of Cleves.
She quarrelled with her new step-daughter Mary (who was in fact 7 years older than her), brought her friends from the Dowager Duchess’ household to court to wait on her, and even went as far as to employ her former lover, Francis Dereham as a Gentleman Usher in her court.
7. Life as queen lost its shine
Being Queen of England was less fun than it sounded for the teenage Catherine. Henry was bad tempered and in pain, and the allure of his favourite, Thomas Culpeper, was too much for Catherine to resist. The two became close in 1541: they began meeting in private and exchanging notes.
The true nature of their relationship is unclear: some claim it was merely a close friendship, and that Catherine knew all too well the danger of adultery following the execution of her cousin Anne Boleyn. Others have argued Culpeper wanted political leverage, and a place as one of Catherine’s favourites would serve him well should anything befall the king.
Either way: the two were close, and they had a romantic history – Catherine had considered marrying Culpeper when she first came to court as a lady-in-waiting.
8. Her old friends were the ones to betray her
Mary Lascelles, one of Catherine’s friends from her time at the Dowager Duchess’ household, told her brother of Catherine’s ‘light’ (promiscuous) behaviour as a girl: he in turn passed the information on to Archbishop Cranmer, who, after further investigation, reported it to the King.
Henry received Cranmer’s letter on 1 November 1541, and he promptly ordered Catherine to be locked in her rooms. He never saw her again. Her ghost is still said to haunt the corridor at Hampton Court she ran down screaming for the King, in a desperate attempt to persuade him of her innocence.
9. Henry showed no mercy
Catherine denied that there had ever been a pre-contract (a kind of formal, binding engagement) between her and Francis Dereham, and she claimed he raped her rather than it being a consensual relationship. She also steadfastly denied accusations of adultery with Thomas Culpeper.
Despite this, Culpeper and Dereham were executed at Tyburn on 10 December 1541, with their heads later displayed on spikes at Tower Bridge.
10. She died with dignity
The Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 forbade a queen to not disclose her sexual history prior to marriage with the king within 20 days of their marriage, as well as prohibited the ‘incitement of adultery’ and Catherine was found guilty of treason on these charges. The punishment was execution.
At this point, Catherine was 18 or 19, and it is said she met the news of her impending death with hysteria. However, she had composed herself by the time of execution, giving a speech in which she asked for prayers for her soul and for her family, and described her punishment as ‘worthy and just’ given her betrayal of the king.
Her words cannot be taken as an admission of guilt: many used their last words to help their friends and family avoid the worst of the king’s wrath. She was executed with a single stroke of the sword on 13 February 1542.