article first appeared in November, 2007.
— FIFTH OF A SERIES —
Howard was the cousin of Henry’s second wife,
Anne Boleyn. Like Anne, Kathryn was a born into a noble
family and practically raised in court life in the service of
noble women, first the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and
then, in her late teens, as a lady-in-waiting to King Henry
VIII’s fourth queen,
Anne of Cleves.
OF KATHRYN HOWARD —
THE ONLY KNOWN IMAGE
OF THE QUEEN, FROM A
MINIATURE THAT APPEARS ON A PLAYING CARD
LIKELY PAINTED IN 1541 BY ENGLISH
PAINTER HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER.
MANAGING THE FOURTH
MARRIAGE OF HENRY VIII.
RIVAL, THOMAS HOWARD, DUKE OF
NORFOLK, FOLLOWED CROMWELL AS
THE KING'S TRUSTED ADVISOR.
VIII’s arranged marriage to Anne of Cleves
disintegrated, the king noticed 19-year-old Kathryn Howard
working in the queen’s service. Kathryn’s uncle, the
powerful Duke of Norfolk, doubtless saw Henry’s interest in
Kathryn as a way to gain influence with the king. Norfolk’s
rival was Henry’s minster/advisor Thomas Cromwell, who
had arranged the ill-suited marriage with Anne of Cleves. As
the marriage dissolved, Cromwell was dismissed,
imprisoned at the Tower of London, and executed. Less
than three weeks after his marriage to Anne of Cleves was
annulled, 49-year-old Henry VIII married Kathryn Howard.
That same day Thomas Cromwell was beheaded at the
Tower of London. At the beheading a young, inexperienced
executioner was used. He required three blows with his
sword before finally separating Cromwell from his body. The
Duke of Norfolk had succeeded in placing a second niece in
the highest position of influence possible for a woman in
16th century England.
Howard may have been Queen of England, but
she was a teenager married to an infirm, overweight, and
heavily burdened king thirty years her senior. She was used
to life at the court, including the flirtations and intrigues
common among ladies in waiting and other courtiers. She
was also likely immature, girlish, pretty, relatively
uneducated, and largely ill equipped for the sophisticated
role of Queen of England. Although she swore her first duty
and indeed her love to the king (her motto was
will than his”), the teenage queen had been in love before,
with a fellow courtier in the court of the Dowager Duchess
of Norfolk, the musician Francis Dereham.
KING HENRY VIII BY
COURT PAINTER HANS HOLBEIN.
marriage to Anne of Cleves was officially
annulled on July 9, 1540. On July 28 Henry took Kathryn
Howard as his fifth wife. Throughout the marriage members
of the court were convinced the young
queen was obediently, if not
enthusiastically, trying to honor her wedding
Kathryn continued to maintain a circle of
friends in her own entourage, a circle that
included her former lover, Dereham, and the
dashing Thomas Culpepper, a court favorite of the
king. Culpepper, who had been a member of the courts
since the reign of Anne Boleyn, was still young and dashing
enough to catch the eye of Kathryn. Not long into her reign
the young queen and Culpepper began an affair, aided by
queen’s lady-in-waiting Lady Jane Rochford, who had
been married to George Boleyn, brother of Queen
Anne Boleyn. Lady
Rochford had turned state’s evidence against
Anne Boleyn, implicating her husband in an incestuous affair
with the queen, for which Anne and George Boleyn both
were executed at the Tower of London.
THOMAS HOWARD, THIRD DUKE OF
Rochford was playing a dangerous game. Kathryn
Howard was Queen of England, but still a teenager, and had
the power and opportunity to act on her teenage fantasies.
And Lady Rochford and other members of the queen’s
entourage knew about the queen’s dalliances and affairs.
And, in the closed society of the Royal
Court, jealousies, competitions, and other
politics made the situation ripe for spies,
traitors, and self-serving informers. But the situation
was made more complex by the power struggle between
followers of Henry’s new state church and those who would
return England to Roman Catholicism. Henry’s new advisor,
the Duke of Norfolk, was a Catholic, and his extended
family, which would include the queen, were suspected of
being Catholic sympathizers. England’s prominent
Protestants were wary of this crowd, and were likely waiting
for a chance to bring them into disfavor.
began to reach important advisors to the king.
Protestant courtiers leaked what had become an open
secret among Queen Kathryn Howard’s entourage. One of
them carried the rumor to Archbishop of Canterbury
Thomas Cranmer, long a key advisor of Henry VIII. (It had
been Cranmer who had built the case for annulment of
Henry’s long first marriage to Queen
Catharine of Aragon.) Cranmer carried
word of the latest queen’s infidelity to
Henry. Importantly, he reported the rumors that Kathryn
Howard was not a virgin at the time of her marriage to
Henry. This, if proved true, would be grounds for
annulment. Worse would be proof that the queen had been
unfaithful to Henry after their wedding. Infidelity to the king
was a capital crime of treason. Henry did not at first believe
the evidence Cranmer brought him. Then, some days later
Cranmer returned with more solid evidence: confessions
secured from Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpepper who
were being held, and probably tortured, in the
Tower of London.
The king had heard enough. This girl he had
married would no longer flaunt her immaturity and
the Crown of England.
THOMAS CRANMER, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY,
WHO INFORMED THE
KING OF HIS KATHRYN
INFIDELITY. CRANMER SURVIVED
REIGN OF HENRY VIII, BUT DID
NOT SURVIVE THAT
OF HIS DAUGHTER
BLOODY MARY, WHO HAD
BURNED AT THE STAKE FOR HERESY.
On November 12, 1541, after fewer than 16 months of
marriage, Kathryn Howard was arrested for treason. While
she denied any serious affair with Thomas Culpepper inside
of her marriage to Henry VIII, she acknowledged her love
relationship with Francis Dereham while she had been a
courtier of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. However,
Kathryn refused to confess that she had been engaged to
Dereham. Had she done so, her betrothal would have been
recognized as grounds for annulment from Henry, and she
would have lost her title and been banished from the
court. But she would have lived.
Instead, by not acknowledging a
marital relationship with Dereham, Kathryn Howard left
Henry no choice but to find her guilty of a treasonous
relationship with Culpepper. She was stripped of her crown
and sentenced to death on November 22. About three
weeks later, Dereham and Culpepper were executed —
Dereham by hanging, and then being drawn and quartered,
and Culpepper beheaded — at the public execution grounds
of Tyburn (near where Marble Arch is today, not far from
Buckingham Palace). (For other locations you
can visit in and near London that have close associations with Henry
VIII and his wives, see:
SKETCH OF THE TOWER OF LONDON MADE DURING THE MID-16TH CENTURY,
AT ABOUT THE TIME OF THE EXECUTION OF KATHRYN HOWARD.
Kathryn was taken from her prison
west of London to the Tower on February 10, 1542. Three
days later she was beheaded. There is no record of her last
words, but unsubstantiated popular belief attributes these:
"I die a Queen, but I would
have died the wife of Culpepper."
Lady Jane Rochford felt the axe just minutes
later. Her last words were reported to have been:
“God has permitted me to suffer this
shameful doom as punishment for having
contributed to my husband's death. I falsely
accused him of loving in an incestuous manner,
his sister, Queen Anne. For this I deserve to die.”
Both were buried
in the Tower at the Chapel of St. Peter ad
Vincula near the last rests of Anne Boleyn and
her brother George. Numerous other family
members of the powerful Howard family were
also imprisoned, several with life sentences. All were
released and reinstated with their possessions. The Duke of
Norfolk escaped any association with the downfall of his
niece. But his time would come.
— END OF PART FIVE —
LEARN ABOUT HENRY VIII &
ALL SIX OF HIS WIVES: