Catherine Howard: Facts, Biography, Portraits & Information

Miniature portrait of Catherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger

Miniature portrait of Catherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger

Catherine Howard was a cousin of Henry VIII’s ill-fated second queen, Anne Boleyn; and like Anne, Catherine would die on the scaffold at Tower Green. Her birthdate is unknown, but her father was the younger brother of the duke of Norfolk. Though personally impoverished, Catherine had a powerful family name and thus secured an appointment as lady-in-waiting to Henry’s fourth queen, Anne of Cleves. While at court, she caught the eye of the middle-aged king and became a political pawn of her family and its Catholic allies. Catherine’s greatest crime was her silliness. Raised in the far too permissive household of her grandmother, she was a flirtatious and emotional girl who rarely understood the consequences of her actions. She made the mistake of continuing her girlish indiscretions as queen. Henry was besotted with her, calling her his ‘Rose without a Thorn’ and showering her with gifts and public affection. Catherine was understandably more attracted to men her own age and, after just seventeen months of marriage to the king, she was arrested for adultery. The distraught king at first refused to believe the evidence but it was persuasive. Unlike Anne Boleyn, Catherine had betrayed the king. She was beheaded on 13 February 1542, only nineteen or twenty years old. The drama of her execution lends gravity to a brief life which would otherwise pass unnoticed.

‘I found her in such lamentation and heaviness, as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man’s heart in the world, to have looked upon her.’ Thomas Cranmer describes visiting Catherine after her arrest, 1542


Catherine Howard’s short life is one of the great cautionary tales of Henry VIII’s reign; there is about it something strangely pathetic and small, but also powerful and moving. Catherine was neither particularly beautiful or intelligent, but she was a charming, flirtatious girl who rose, virtually overnight, from obscurity to become queen of England.
She was the daughter of the 2d duke of Norfolk’s youngest son, Edmund, and his wife, Jocasta (Joyce) Culpeper. She was one of too many children for her impoverished parents and the date of her birth was not recorded; most historians believe it was 1521. Edmund was not an auspicious individual and, like most younger sons, spent most of his life in constant need of money. He complained to the king’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell that he wished to be a poor man’s son for at least then he could work without shame. But he was an aristocrat, a member of one of the greatest noble families of England, and he could do little but beg for help from one relation to another. He sent his daughter to live with her grandmother, the dowager duchess of Norfolk, and thus avoided responsibility for Catherine’s upbringing. This should not reflect badly upon him since it was typical of the times; and though Catherine’s grandmother complained ceaselessly about the expense of supporting numerous grandchildren, she did provide a comfortable home. She did not, however, provide strict supervision – a fact which would have dire consequences for the entire Norfolk family after Catherine became queen.

Catherine was raised in a type of dormitory at Lambeth Palace, crowded in with other young girls (some were servants to her grandmother) and her education was not intellectual. Rather, her days were spent passing the time in the most pleasant manner possible. The duchess’s household was not wealthy and Catherine understandably chafed at her constricted lifestyle. There was within her a strong love of luxury and inability to control her desires; this was a lack of self-control, a realization that certain things should not be done, must not be risked, no matter how much she wanted something. While she was simply one of many daughters of an impoverished lord, this immaturity did not matter. But when she became queen, it remained and past indiscretions also returned to haunt her.

Catherine grew into a merry and vivacious girl, not conventionally beautiful but graceful and charming. She possessed all the vitality of youth, something which proved irresistible to her aged king. The only part of her sporadic education which she seemed to enjoy were her music lessons; in particular, she enjoyed the attentions of her music teacher, a man named Henry Mannox. They first met in 1536, when Catherine was just fifteen years old. Hired to teach her the virginal and lute, Mannox soon began a practiced seduction of his young pupil.

Catherine later swore the relationship was not consummated. ‘At the flattering and fair persuasions of Mannox being but a young girl I suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty to permit nor him to require,’ she later told interrogators. Mannox admitted the same. Since Catherine later confessed to more serious transgressions, there was no reason for her to lie in this instance. And one can certainly condemn Mannox for taking advantage of his young student.

As a mere music teacher, Mannox was too far below her in social status for a serious relationship to develop. Though he followed the duchess’s household to London in 1538, Catherine’s attentions soon turned elsewhere. She fell in love with a gentleman-pensioner in her grandmother’s household named Francis Dereham. This relationship was far more serious and undoubtedly consummated. There is much evidence on this point, including Catherine’s own confession: ‘Francis Dereham by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose and obtained first to lie upon my bed with his doublet and hose and after within the bed and finally he lay with me naked and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife many and sundry times but how often I know not.’

Their affair continued throughout 1538. They addressed one another as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ and when Dereham was sent to Ireland on business, he left 100 pds in Catherine’s keeping.

But Mannox, still with the household, was infuriated; his attraction to Catherine continued while she spurned his company for Dereham’s. In revenge, he sent an anonymous note to the dowager duchess. She then discovered Catherine and Dereham together and there was a frightful scene. But a physical relationship between a betrothed couple was not uncommon by sixteenth-century standards and Catherine and Dereham parted with some understanding of marriage when he returned from Ireland.

But, unluckily for Dereham, Catherine’s heart cooled towards him while he was away. And in 1539, having moved closer to court and staying at her uncle’s house, she met Thomas Culpeper. A gentleman of the king’s Privy Chamber and cousin of Catherine’s mother Joyce Culpeper, he was a handsome and charming young man; his position in court was considered important since it allowed personal access to the king. Catherine fell in love with him, though Culpeper’s own feelings are not known. Catherine’s family was powerful and she was an attractive girl. It is likely that he was at least interested in her, if not immediately infatuated.

But then the great event occurred which was to change Catherine’s life forever. She arrived at court in late 1539 or early 1540 as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII fell in love with her.

It is clear from Catherine’s life before meeting the king that she was a flirtatious and emotional girl. It is also clear that she possessed the charm and sexual allure to attract men. These were to be her greatest strengths and weaknesses, for while they attracted the king, they also led her into increasingly reckless behavior. If she had married Dereham or Culpeper, or any other social-climber, she would have remained a gossip and flirt, perhaps she would have succumbed to adultery. But behavior that could be tolerated in a poor niece of a duke was treason in a queen of England.

Catherine’s family was torn between elation and trepidation with regard to Henry’s infatuation. The Norfolk name was one of the oldest in England. They had supported Richard III against the first Tudor king, Henry VII, but managed to win favor with their military prowess and servile devotion to the new dynasty. But Henry VIII never fully trusted Thomas Howard, the 3d duke of Norfolk, though he wed two of Norfolk’s nieces. Their grand name, then, was both blessing and curse. As an old family in a court of upstarts and fond of feudal prerogative, Catherine’s relatives had made wary friends and bitter enemies at court. And the divisive reign of Anne Boleyn, herself no friend of her Norfolk relations (the duke presided over her trial), had taught them all to tread carefully about the king. And Catherine’s personality worried them. Could she sustain the king’s attraction? And, if so, could she become a mature and successful queen?

It is important to remember that Henry’s previous English queens, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, had spent years in royal service before marrying their king. They were veterans of the English court and knew the intricacies and dangers of their position. Catherine was a mere child by contrast, barely literate, and born in a later generation. But for the conservative faction at Henry’s court, those dedicated to the restoration of the Catholic faith as practiced before the Reformation, she was their last, best hope. Unlike Anne Boleyn, Catherine’s personal and political success was not tied to the Protestant faith. She had been raised Catholic by her Norfolk grandmother and, despite her personal lapses, she represented the conservative faith to others.

Catherine’s relatives questioned her maturity, but they were not willing to risk the king’s wrath by pointing it out. Henry VIII was mercurial and dangerous, and his latest marriage was a bitter disappointment. Woe to the courtier who spoke ill of his latest attraction! It was left to the Norfolk clan to coach Catherine as best they could and hope their triumph would last.

The king soon publicly favored young Mistress Howard. On 24 April she was given lands seized from a felon; a few weeks later, she received an expensive gift of quilted sarcanet. It is possible their relationship was consummated around this time for there was a sudden urgency to annul the ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves. The king’s advisors soon found a valid impediment to the fourth marriage and, on 13 July 1540, it was officially ended by Parliament. Meanwhile, the French ambassador reported rumors that Catherine was pregnant. The king had one son and heir but the vagaries of life in the 16th century made another heir necessary. Henry had just turned forty-nine years old and half his subjects were eighteen or younger. The security of his realm was his greatest concern and it could only be guaranteed by legitimate heirs; as a second son himself, he knew the life of young Prince Edward was a slender thread upon which to balance a dynasty.

Henry married Catherine on 28 July 1540 at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. The ceremony was a success, albeit lacking in the usual pomp and display of royal unions. Catherine was never crowned queen of England. Henry VIII simply couldn’t afford the ceremony; perhaps, too, he wished to wait until the marriage proved successful in the most important way and Catherine bore him a son. The king consulted his council on creating a new succession should the blessed event occur, pushing his daughters Mary and Elizabeth even further from the throne.

The next year was an Indian summer in the king’s life. Catherine chose as her motto ‘Non autre volonte que la sienne’ (‘No other wish but his’ or ‘No other will than his’) and did her best to amuse and distract him. The waste of lives and exorbitant money fighting France had depressed the English treasury and the king’s spirits. And the Reformation had cost him the love of the common people. Henry also increasingly suffered from the ailments which would kill him a few years later. He had severe headaches and pains throughout his body; he found it difficult to sleep and was often impotent.

English politics had become another headache for the king. His great advisor and friend, Thomas Cromwell, had championed the Protestant cause and the union with Anne of Cleves. The king’s disappointment – and the endless conniving of Cromwell’s enemies – led to his arrest and execution on the very day Henry and Catherine married. Within a few months, the king openly lamented the loss of his ‘most faithful servant’.

Chief among Cromwell’s enemies were Catherine’s uncle Norfolk and his close friend, Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester. Norfolk had always chafed at the power Henry granted the ‘commoner’ Cromwell; Gardiner was a Catholic who despised Cromwell’s legislative destruction of the papacy in England. They used Catherine and the king’s own impatience and cupidity to destroy Cromwell. But it was only a brief triumph.

Catherine was not pregnant in the summer of 1540, nor did she become so. But the king was so physically affectionate with her in public that none doubted the happy event would occur. Still, warning signs about this hasty marriage had already begun. Catherine’s relationship with Dereham had never been kept secret, though Henry was perhaps unaware of it. His courtiers gossiped and wondered. Joan Bulmer, a young woman who had lived with Catherine at Lambeth, requested that Catherine bring her to court to share in her ‘great destiny’; it was a subtle blackmail. In August 1541, Dereham was made her secretary, perhaps as a bribe to keep quiet about their former relationship. So even as she collected rich gifts of gowns, jewels, fur cloaks, and golden clocks, Catherine knew her indecorous past lurked in the background. Was she worried? As her later behavior showed, she was not.

She was not merely collecting personal finery, but also lands and manors that had once belonged to Jane Seymour and even Thomas Cromwell. And she began to explore the traditional role of the queen as patroness. She also took great care to ensure her aged husband’s happiness. Many biographers have speculated on Catherine’s true feelings for Henry VIII. She probably did not love him in the most romantic sense of the word, but she did love him for the affection and generosity he showed her. And she also approached him with something of an awed reverence, for he was the king and thus a quasi-mystical figure, all-knowing and all-powerful.

But he was not immune to illness and in the spring of 1541, the king fell low with a serious fever and Catherine was sent away for her own safety. It was around this time that she began her affair with Culpeper, the handsome young man who had caught her fancy two years before; as evidence, we need only read her only surviving letter, written to Culpeper in April 1541. When the king recovered, he took Catherine on a royal progress through the north of England and again the French ambassador reported rumors of her pregnancy. It was even suggested that, should the condition be confirmed, Catherine would be crowned at York Minster. These rumors prove that Henry still made love to his wife on a somewhat regular basis. And for her part, Catherine was confident she could ‘meddle with a man’ without pregnancy, which made her relationship with Culpeper safe. He and Dereham both traveled in the progress as members of the royal household.

In Catherine’s rather simple view of marriage, as long as she and the king were happy, nothing else mattered. And since the king would be happy as long as he was ignorant, all would be well.

And the king was ignorant for a surprisingly long time. For his part, Culpeper was using Catherine’s infatuation to further his own ambitions. He was not a particularly ‘gentlemanly’ gentleman. In fact, he had brutally raped a park-keeper’s wife, ordering three of his servants to hold her down during the attack; he also murdered a villager who tried to save her. He had been pardoned by the king, but it is one of the few facts we know about Culpeper and not a pleasant one. His ambitions regarding Catherine undoubtedly stemmed from Henry VIII’s ill health. If the king died, then the queen dowager would maintain some influence and power at court. Before that inevitable day, she could give him as many expensive gifts as he desired.

Did Catherine love Culpeper? She undoubtedly did, at least as much as her immature view of love allowed. He was handsome, very charming, if only in a superficial manner, and he complemented and cajoled her. She became increasingly open in her affection, enough to worry Culpeper himself. As a gentleman of the privy chamber, he knew the king’s moods better than anyone and had no desire to risk much for Catherine.

But there were others at court who knew of the relationship, and they would not keep quiet. When the northern progress finally ended on 1 November, and the royal couple settled at Hampton Court Palace, Catherine’s past and present indiscretions caught up with her. She had been safe enough during the northern progress, for a traveling court was not nearly as gossip-ridden as a settled one; there were, after all, far more practical matters to attend to as the king moved from city to city. But once they were home, other matters could take precedence – matters like the queen’s infidelity.

Catherine’s fall from grace was so rapid that foreign ambassadors were at a loss to explain it. The man behind it was John Lascelles, the brother of Mary Hall, herself a chambermaid to the dowager duchess of Norfolk and thus privy to Catherine’s past. However, the past was not necessarily a danger to the queen; most young women could not withstand scrutiny of their early flirtations. They were perhaps not serious enough to warrant her execution. Lascelles, who was a ‘convinced reformer’, was motivated by his religious convictions and not personal animosity towards Catherine. But she represented the conservative Catholic faction and, with her influence, they were growing more powerful and reactionary. Lascelles went to Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s close friend and archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer recognized the dangers to Catherine, namely the precontract with Dereham that would invalidate her marriage to Henry VIII. The precontract, of course, while ending her marriage, also excused her intimacy with Dereham.

On 2 November, while Henry attended a Mass for All Souls’ Day, Cranmer passed him a letter with the charges. The king was immediately ‘perplexed’ and believed the letter was a forgery. This was his first and thoroughly honest reaction; Catherine had deceived him well. He ordered Cranmer to keep the matter private and began an investigation. It took but a few days for Catherine’s house of cards to come tumbling down.

An assortment of female servants were arrested and sent to the Tower, as was Dereham. He was tortured; he confessed his earlier relationship and named Culpeper as the queen’s current lover. Culpeper was then arrested, tortured, and confessed.

When confronted with the confessions, Henry’s confusion gave way to great anger and self-pity. He managed to blame everyone but himself for this latest marital catastrophe. He wished for a sword to slay Catherine himself – a not uncommon reaction for a cuckolded husband, particularly one who had been so generous and trusting. He left Hampton Court on 5 November, sailing to Whitehall Palace. Catherine was arrested on 12 November and her tearful pleas to see the king were ignored; she was locked in her rooms. Two days later, she was taken to Syon House. She would never see Henry again.

Cranmer was given the distasteful task of interrogating the terrified girl. She was hysterical, convinced she would be executed like her cousin; even the archbishop felt pity for her condition. Perhaps he suggested an option to Henry VIII that he had first proposed for Anne Boleyn – let Catherine admit her sins, annul the marriage, and send her away. The Dereham precontract was the perfect excuse. Catherine need only admit its existence and her life would be spared. It was the king’s ‘most gracious mercy’ and her only possible chance for survival.

But Catherine, frightened and lacking any counsel, did not realize that the precontract would save her life. Instead, she was convinced it would be used to condemn her. And so, even as she admitted to ‘carnal copulation’ with Dereham, she stressed his ‘importune forcement’ and ‘violence’. She and Cranmer wanted the same end but talked at odds. And it was possible, too, that Henry VIII had never intended to spare her life.

Indeed, with each day that passed, the king was less inclined to show mercy. The floodgates had opened and ever more scurrilous rumors were heard about his ‘Rose without a thorn’.

Catherine was demoted from her position as Queen on 22 November and formally indicted two days later for leading an ‘abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous and vicious life’. She remained at Syon House for the next two months. On 10 December, Dereham paid a horrific penalty for his ‘crimes’; he was hung, drawn, and quartered (disemboweled and castrated while still conscious) as a traitor. Culpeper was also executed that day, though he suffered a more merciful beheading; this was ordered by the king, perhaps because of Culpeper’s higher rank and personal service in his household. Their heads were fixed on spears atop London Bridge and remained there as late as 1546.

Catherine, meanwhile, continued in a state of suspended hysteria. Her various relatives were sent to the Tower, including the elderly dowager duchess. Only the duke survived, having sufficiently humbled himself before Henry.

Perhaps the executions of Dereham and Culpeper had brought a newfound maturity to Catherine. She was content to remain quietly at Syon House, though it was clear the king could not allow it. On 21 January the House of Lords passed an Act of Attainder and it received the king’s approval on 11 February. It was intended to answer the question vexing them all – of what exactly was Catherine Howard guilty? If she had been precontracted to Dereham, then she was never married to the king – and thus not guilty of adultery. But in a speech on 6 February, Henry made it clear that the new Act could punish those who intended to commit treason (or adultery, since adultery in a queen was treason.) It was this intent which sealed Catherine’s fate.

On Friday, 10 February 1542, the duke of Suffolk arrived to take Catherine to the Tower of London. The hysterical frenzy returned; she struggled and had to be forced aboard the barge. She was dressed in black velvet and lodged in the Queen’s Apartments, though no longer queen. On Sunday night, she was informed that she would be executed the next day. Her only request was that the block be brought to her for she wished to ‘know how to place herself.’ It was to be her last act on a grand stage; she would die with all the dignity and composure possible.

Around seven o’clock on Monday, 13 February, several privy councilors arrived as escort. Her uncle Norfolk was not among them, having wisely withdrawn to his country estates. Catherine was weak and frightened and had to be helped up the steps to the scaffold. But once there, she made a small, quiet speech regarding her ‘worthy and just punishment’; she prayed for the king’s preservation and for God’s forgiveness. The actual execution was over quickly. Catherine’s body was interred at the nearby chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

Catherine Howard did not have an impact upon English history. She is perhaps the most inconsequential of Henry VIII’s six wives, her reign as queen a very brief eighteen months. She bore no children and made no lasting impression upon those who knew her. But it should be remembered that she was thirty years younger than her husband, a silly young girl who never understood the dangers of royal regard. Her life was over before it had truly begun; we can only wonder how it might have ended differently.

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