Catherine Howard was born in 1523 at Lambeth, a part of modern day London, England.
Her uncle, The Duke of Norfolk, found Catherine a place at Court in the household of the King Henry VIII’s fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleves.
As a young and attractive lady-in-waiting, Catherine quickly caught the eye of King Henry, who had displayed little interest in Anne from the beginning.
As the King’s interest in Catherine grew, Henry began to bestow gifts of land and expensive cloth upon his “rose without a thorn.”
King Henry VIII and Catherine married on 28 July 28, 1540 at Oatlands Palace almost immediately after the annulment of the kings marriage to Anne of Cleves.
It was alleged that early in 1541, Catherine embarked upon a romance with Henry’s favorite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper, a young man who, according to Dereham’s testimony “had succeeded [him] in the Queen’s affections”, and whom Catherine had considered marrying during her time as a maid-of-honour to Anne of Cleves.
The couple’s meetings were arranged by one of Catherine’s older ladies-in-waiting, Lady Rochford, the widow of Catherine’s cousin, George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s brother.
King Henry VIII and Catherine toured England together in the summer of 1541, and preparations for any signs of pregnancy, which would have led to a coronation, were in place, indicating that the royal couple were sexually active with each other.
During this time, however, a crisis began to loom over Catherine.
People who had witnessed her indiscretions at Lambeth began to contact her for favours in return for their silence, and many of them were appointed to her household.
Most disastrously, Catherine appointed Francis Dereham as her personal secretary, at the urging of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.
This miscalculation led to charges of treason for committing adultery with Francis Dereham while married to the King.
By late 1541, Catherine’s previous indiscretions had become known to John Lascelles, a Protestant reformer whose sister, Mary Hall, had been a member of the Dowager Duchess’s household; Mary had seen a love letter to Thomas Culpeper in Catherine’s distinctive handwriting, which is the only letter of hers that still survives, other than her written confession.
However, today there is considerable doubt as to the story’s authenticity, since Catherine was not fully aware of the charges against her until the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and a delegation of councilors were sent to question her on November 7, 1541.
Even the staunch Thomas Cranmer found Catherine’s frantic, incoherent state pitiable, saying, “I found her in such lamentation and heaviness as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man’s heart to have looked upon her.”
He ordered the guards to remove any objects that she might use to commit suicide.
While admitting a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham would have had the effect of terminating Catherine’s royal union, it also would have allowed King Henry to annul their marriage and banish her from Court.
Catherine would have been disgraced, impoverished, and exiled, but, ultimately, she would have been spared execution.
However, she steadfastly denied any relationship, maintaining that Francis Dereham had raped her.
Catherine was stripped of her title as queen on November 23rd and imprisoned in Syon Abbey, Middlesex, where she remained throughout the winter of 1541.
Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were executed at Tyburn on December 10, 1541, Culpeper being beheaded and Dereham being hanged, drawn, and quartered.
According to the Royal Custom, their heads were then placed on top of London Bridge.
Many of Catherine’s relatives were also detained in the Tower with the exception of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who had sufficiently distanced himself from the scandal by writing a letter on December 14th to the King, excusing himself and laying all the blame on his niece and stepmother.
Then these same relatives were tried, found guilty of concealing treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of goods.
In time, however, they were released with their goods restored.
Catherine herself remained in limbo until Parliament passed a bill of attainder on February 7, 1542.
The Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 made it treason, punishable by death, for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within twenty days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her.
This solved the matter of Catherine’s supposed pre-marital relations with Culpeper and made her unequivocally guilty.
Catherine was subsequently taken to the Tower on Friday, February 10, 1542.
The next day, the bill of attainder received the Royal Assent, and Catherine’s execution was scheduled for 7 a.m. 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 practicing 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 and required assistance to climb the scaffold.
She made a speech describing her punishment as “worthy and just” and asked for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul.
Catherine was beheaded with a single stroke, as was Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, immediately thereafter.
Both their 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.
King Henry VIII did not attend her execution.
Catherine’s body was not one of those identified during restorations of the chapel during Queen Victoria’s reign.
She however is commemorated on a plaque on the west wall dedicated to all those who died in the Tower.
Upon hearing news of Catherine’s execution, Francis I of France wrote a letter to King 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”.
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