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Katherine Howard- Some Misconceptions

On 13 February 1542, Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, was beheaded in the grounds of the Tower of London. An Act of Attainder had been passed, convicting her of adultery and treason, without the formality of a trial. However, many of the well-known facts about Katherine are wrong.

Katherine Howard miniature

Miniature identified as Katherine Howard

A Frivolous Teenager

Well, probably not. We don’t know Katherine’s date of birth but scholars are increasingly in favour of an earlier date than was previously thought. Until recently, her year of birth was thought to be as late as 1525, making her only 17 years old at her execution. It seems more likely that it was 1520-1. This would mean that she was a mature, by Tudor standards, 21-22 years old at her death.

Of course, even 22 is horribly young to die, but in the sixteenth century, 22 was a lot more mature than it is now. By her early twenties, a Tudor woman could expect to be married and have had one or more children. Katherine’s youth is put more sharply into context by the relative age of her husband- Henry was 49 years old when they married. This too, though, was not unusual. Noblewomen in particular were likely to marry an older man. A woman would marry for the first time in her mid- to late teens, a man in his late twenties or early thirties. If it was the man’s second marriage, he would be older still. For example, Catherine Parr’s second marriage took place when she was 20 and her husband 40.

No Better Than She Ought To Be

Katherine Howard’s reputation suffers from a rather unjust assessment of her character. We are encouraged to believe that she was involved in a sexual relationship with Thomas Culpeper during her marriage because she admitted to a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham prior to it. Katherine’s past was laid out for all to see in a way which would make horrible modern gossip magazines rub their hands with glee. What is revealed is an unsupervised childhood during which she was involved in a relationship with her music tutor. It was the sort of “relationship” we would now call child abuse. She then became involved with Francis Dereham, a young man with far better breeding and prospects than her creepy music teacher. It is likely that she and Dereham intended to marry and this might indeed have come to pass had not the king shown an interest in her.

Katherine’s letter to Culpeper shows that she was indeed in love with him in 1541 but David Starkey’s research in his 2004 Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII demonstrates that the physicality of their relationship was far less certain. It appears from the detail of her confession that all the couple got up to was some hand-holding and earnest sighing.

This fact- the fact of Katherine Howard’s essential innocence- is often overlooked. She oddly, naïvely, believed that her husband was some sort of semi-divine being and she cautioned Culpeper not to speak of their relationship even in the confessional lest Henry find out that way. It may have been that she suspected the priest would inform Henry, but she may had simply believed that as Supreme Head of the Church, Henry would know the way that God knew.

Katherine Howard to Thomas Culpepper, 1541

Manuscript of Katherine Howard’s letter to Thomas Culpeper, 1541

“I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper.”

There is a romantic story that on the scaffold, Katherine announced that she would have been married to her supposed lover, Thomas Culpeper, than Henry, with the above words. However, the etiquette of execution made such a statement unthinkable. The victim was permitted to address the crowd gathered to see their end, but it was expected that they would speak of their regret, ask for forgiveness and the prayers of those who would survive them and generally be contrite and uncontroversial. Neither Anne Boleyn nor any of the men executed for adultery with her protested their innocence from the scaffold, although they were all almost certainly innocent. It just wasn’t done.

It’s therefore unthinkable that Katherine Howard would say such a thing. Her actual words are far more dignified than the romantic nonsense would give her credit for. This is a woman who was so keen to meet her maker with some grace that she asked for the executioner’s block to be brought to her room the night before so that she could practice placing her head on it.

The Afterlife of Katherine Howard

Visitors to the splendid Hampton Court Palace are often treated to the tale of poor Katherine’s ghost. It is said to linger in the Haunted Gallery. On her arrest, Katherine broke free from her guards and ran down the gallery looking for her husband in order to plead for her life. She was quickly recaptured by the guards and dragged screaming back down the gallery and into imprisonment. Or so the story goes.

Aside from the supernatural question, there are several holes in this story. Firstly, is it plausible that Katherine could have slipped her guards, even for a moment? She was a young woman held by one or two strong men. Royal guards were not in the habit of relaxing their grip on accused traitors. The story also ignores one rather pertinent fact: by the time of her arrest, Henry had already left Hampton Court. He was not in the habit of lingering once he had put his plan to be rid of a wife into action. Anne Boleyn, for example, never set eyes on Henry after the May Day joust, the day before her arrest. He was said to be so bitterly disappointed in Katherine that he could not stand to see her again and he fled the palace so as to avoid her.

Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of AragonOn 7th January 1536, Catherine of Aragon died in Kimbolton Castle, near Peterborough (where she would be buried). She was 51 years old. Married first to Arthur Tudor and then his younger brother, Henry VIII, she was cast aside when Henry decided to marry Anne Boleyn. Although he had banished her from court, forbidden her from seeing their daughter and even from writing to him, she remained steadfast in her resolve never to acknowledge the dissolution of their marriage nor his new marriage to Anne.

Her last letter was to him, forgiving him everything.

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for.

Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Katharine the Quene

Catherine de’ Medici

On 5th January 1589, Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother of France died at Blois, possibly of pleurisy. She was 69 years old and had spent the last thirty years fighting to keep the French throne in the hands of her sons, three of whom succeeded their father, Catherine’s husband Henri II, to be king of France.

Catherine had arrived in France from her native Italy in 1534. Pope Clement VII (who famously refused to give Henry VIII his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), her uncle, had used his wealth and power to arrange a most illustrious marriage for her. She was descended from the Medici family but though they had been important in Florence, bankers could rarely expect to marry princes. However, Francis I of France had depleted his treasury in the pursuit of land and glory the Italian Wars and the handsome dowry which Clement promised to send with Catherine, along with an alliance with the Pope, meant that Francis was willing to overlook Catherine’s less-than-ideal pedigree.
Catherine de' Medici

That said, Catherine did have a small amount of royal blood. Her mother, Madeleine was related, fairly distantly, to the French crown. Sadly for Catherine, she never knew Madeleine as she had died only a few days after her daughter’s birth. It is thought that she had contracted syphilis from her womanising husband Lorenzo. Within a couple of weeks, he too succumbed and Catherine was left an orphan.

The young girl was raised initially in Florence with relatives and later in Rome, under the care of her uncle the Pope. She was intelligent, witty and lively but never described as a great beauty. Luckily for her, her family wealth and influence would go some way towards making up for such a defect. Many female failings could be compensated for with a heavy enough purse. Various matches were suggested for Catherine but it was the one with Francis I’s second son, Henri Duc d’Orleans, which went to fruition. As the second son, Henri was not expected to become king and so Francis was content to marry him off to the banking heiress.

Aged 14, Catherine set sail for France and was welcomed to Marseilles with great festivity. Soon after her arrival she and Henri married in a lavish ceremony. Henri was a withdrawn youth, scarred by his time as a hostage in Spain. He proved to be a polite and dutiful husband but his affection lay with his long-term mistress, the vampish Diane de Poitiers. Though Henri was distant and disinterested in his plain little wife, Catherine adored him.

Wedding of Catherine de' Medici and Henri, duc d'Orleans

Predictably enough, the marriage was troubled and Catherine and Henri’s lack of heir compounded the problem, especially after Henri’s elder brother died making him next in line to the throne. Catherine was in danger of being repudiated and replaced with a more fertile wife (the assumption being that infertility was the woman’s “fault,” particularly after at least two of Henri’s mistresses gave birth to his children.

Catherine reputedly tried all manner of superstitious solutions to her infertility. Eventually, after some medical intervention (the exact nature of which is shrouded in mystery), Catherine finally conceived after ten years of fruitless marriage. She went on to produce ten children in the following ten years, of whom three daughters and four sons survived infancy. Of those sons, three would become king of France.

As dauphine and then queen, mother to the heirs of France, Catherine still enjoyed all but no influence over her beloved husband. Instead, Henri discussed matters of state with Diane and it was with her that wise courtiers curried favour, not the dowdy foreign queen. Diane even encouraged Henri to visit his wife’s chambers in order to have more children with her but after the delivery of twin girls (both of whom died) in 1556 almost cost Catherine her life, she was advised not to attempt to bear more children. Henri therefore never slept with her again.

In 1559 tragedy struck when Henri was injured in a joust. His opponent’s lance shattered on his visor, sending shards through the king’s eye. After several days of agony, Henri died with Catherine at his side. Catherine took her revenge on Diane by barring her from attending to Henri as he lay dying, calling for his mistress. She then ordered that Diane was to return all the jewels that Henri had given her during their long relationship, claiming that they were crown jewels and not Diane’s to keep. She then banished her from court.

Unfortunately for the queen, her grief (for the rest of her life she rarely wore any colour other than black) and desire to extract a petty revenge caused her to miss the more important opportunity which had presented itself. Her eldest son Francis had acceded to the throne on Henri’s death. As Francis was only fifteen years old, a regent had to be appointed. Typically, the Queen Mother would take on this role however Francis was married to Mary, Queen of Scots, and it was Mary’s uncles who held the real power and Catherine was regent in name only. Francis was crowned at Rheims as was customary but within eighteen months he too was dead after an ear infection led to an abscess in his brain. He was succeeded by his younger brother who became Charles IX.
Catherine de' Medici in black

Catherine was not to let this opportunity slip through her fingers. The Guises held no particular power over Charles and Catherine took the reins of government on herself, finally able to exercise some power. During Charles’s minority and beyond, Catherine strove to reconcile the Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) and avoid civil war. Catherine was pragmatic on matters of religion and hoped to achieve an accord by extending toleration to Protestants while maintaining the support of the powerful Catholic factions. Despite her efforts, antagonism on both sides spiralled out of control and France was torn apart by thirty-six years of on and off civil war.

The nadir of Catherine’s period of power was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which began on 23 August 1572 and led to the murder of thousands of Huguenots. The Massacre followed the marriage of Catherine’s daughter Marguerite (known popularly as Margot) to Henri of Navarre, the Protestant king of Navarre. The marriage, of a prominent member of the Catholic ruling family, to Henri, a Prince of the Blood and a Calvinist, had been designed to unite the quarrelling factions and bring about it a lasting peace. It was not to be: another civil war followed.

Charles IX died only two years after the massacre, reputedly driven almost mad with guilt. He was succeeded by his brother who styled himself Henri III. Although Henri was old enough to rule in his own right, Catherine retained a prominent position at court and Henri left her to deal with the business of ruling which did not interest him, preferring to devote himself to acts of conspicuous piety, such as flagellation.

Though he married, like his brothers before him, he too failed to produce a male heir. The throne to which Catherine had held on so tightly was slipping from their grasp. When Catherine’s youngest son, the duc d’Alençon, the heir apparent, died before his thirtieth birthday, Henri was forced to name his brother-in-law Henri of Navarre as his successor.

The Guises, horrified at the prospect of a Protestant king, rallied their men and took control of Paris. Henri, under Catherine’s advice, fled the city for Blois to regroup. There, he summoned the duc de Guise. It was a trap and on his entrance to the king’s chambers, Guise was set upon by the guard. Catherine knew nothing of Henri’s plan and on discovering what had happened, knew that Henri’s days too were numbered.

Assassination of the Duc de Guise

Less than a fortnight later, Catherine herself died at Blois. She did not live to see her favourite son murdered and Henri of Navarre’s eventual succession to the throne as Henri IV. He later divorced Margot and remarried and so none of his successors carried Catherine’s blood, nor that of her beloved Henri. It was Henri IV though who brought about the peace which Catherine had tried so hard to effect.

Anne Boleyn on the anniversary of her execution

Anne Boleyn, late sixteenth century copy of an earlier work

Anne Boleyn

500 years on, Anne Boleyn is still causing controversy.

While most historians accept that her execution was the result of one of history’s most notorious fit up jobs, academics are still engaged in debate about the facts of her life. Not too long ago, the late Eric Ives and Retha Warnicke conducted a fierce argument about the year of Anne’s birth through the pages of History journal. Several articles were produced on both sides: Ives maintaining 1501 as the likely date and Warnicke countering with 1507 as her preferred year. With such basic information as the year the future queen was born still in debate, what hope is there to establish the more gauzy aspects of Anne’s life?

Perhaps more than might be thought. Warnicke’s argument for 1507 as Anne’s birth year is unconvincing and crumbles in the face of Ives’s academic rigour, as do Warnicke’s other revisionist theories which were adopted (and further adulterated) by Philippa Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl, her bestselling novel which was in turn made into a film, the plot of which deviated so far from the truth as to be almost unrecognisable.

Anne Boleyn in Fiction

There are, in fact, countless novels about Anne Boleyn. In recent years, the market for historical fiction seems to have exploded with new novels published and older ones, by Jean Plaidy, for example, repackaged with fashionable covers. Anne has been a popular subject and, I suspect, has made more appearances in these books than any other queen of England.

There is something fascinating about this woman. It cannot simply be the tragedy of her death for if that were the case, her cousin Catherine Howard would be equally popular. No, there is something fascinating about Anne that her contemporaries discovered and her husband failed to destroy even when he destroyed her.

Anne's uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, by Holbein

Anne’s uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, by Holbein

Life and Untimely Death

Anne was the youngest daughter of Thomas Boleyn, a diplomat in the service of Henry VII and later Henry VIII, and his wife, Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of the first Duke of Norfolk. Her enemies liked to trivialise Anne’s ancestry as being ignominiously low but she was, in fact, of perfectly noble stock. She was related not only to the powerful Dukes of Norfolk, but to other noble families like the Butlers and Ormondes. Anne also benefited from a particularly good education and spend some years at the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands and then at the sophisticated court of France. When she returned to England in her early twenties, Anne Boleyn was not the merchant’s daughter her detractors would have us believe. Rather, a witness described her as “a right fine French lady.” In fact, Anne caused quite a stir with her arrival at Henry VIII’s court.

Anne Boleyn seems to have returned to England because her father had entered into negotiations with their Irish relatives to marry her to James Butler, who would become the Earl of Ormonde. For reasons now unknown, the negotiations floundered and Anne remained at court, unmarried, as a lady in waiting to the queen, Catherine of Aragon. It wasn’t long before the striking young woman had won the attentions of Henry Percy, heir to the dukedom of Northumberland- one of the most powerful and richest peerages in England. Anne and Percy intended to marry and Percy went so far as to publicly announce their engagement, which could be as legally binding as if they had been married. The King’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, and Percy’s father the Duke of Northumberland were furious on discovering the young couple’s intentions and soon broke the engagement.

Percy was not the only man at court to be fascinated by Anne Boleyn. Thomas Wyatt, poet and relation of the Boleyns, paid a great deal of attention to Anne. It is difficult to tell if Wyatt’s feelings for Anne were more serious than the game of courtly love but Anne herself seems never to have taken them too seriously. His most famous poem, Whoso List to Hunt, is about her.

Whoso List to Hunt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

The King’s Great Matter

By the mid 1520s, however, the King had noticed Anne. Henry initially planned to simply install her as a mistress. He had previously had an affair with her sister and assumed Anne would be just as compliant as Mary. Henry was wrong. Anne refused his advances, declined to be his mistress, telling him that her virtue was more important to her. Henry, not used to being refused anything, was fascinated and redoubled his attempts to woo her.

Anne maintained that she would not become his mistress. She removed herself from court until he demanded that she return. She told him that she would consent only to being his wife. Was this a calculated move on Anne’s part? Was she aware of the breakdown of the king’s marriage and hoping to replace Catherine? Or was she simply trying to end Henry’s attentions? While Henry pursued her, she had no hope of making a marriage with anyone else. Who would be foolish enough to cross the king? It may have been that in demanding marriage, Anne hoped Henry would give up his pursuit. If that is what she hoped, Anne was to be disappointed.

At the end of 1526, Anne finally relented and agreed to become Henry’s mistress with the proviso that she would not sleep with him until they were married. Henry, who had previously  toyed with the idea of divorcing Catherine, with whom he had failed to have sons. With Anne’s promise secured, he returned to the plan with gusto.

Petition sent to Clenment VII from the English Parliament urging him to grant Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon

Petition sent to Clenment VII from the English Parliament urging him to grant Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon

Henry expected that the divorce, although unpopular, could be secured quickly. The Pope had the authority to dissolve marriages and in cases such as this, where the king sought to divorce a wife who had failed to give him male heirs and marry a new bride, the Pope often agreed. Unfortunately, the army of the Emperor Charles V sacked Rome before Pope Clement VII passed judgement. Charles was Catherine’s nephew and bitterly opposed Henry’s plan which would humiliate his aunt. The result was to draw out what had been expected to be a process of a few weeks into a bitter, seven year long struggle. In order to secure his divorce and marry Anne, Henry broke away from the Catholic Church, alienated many of his closest friends and his own daughter.

Marriage

After years of struggle, Anne and Henry were married in secret at the end of 1532. Anne was crowned on the 1st of July 1533, five months pregnant with the child everyone expected to be Henry’s longed-for son. On the 7th September, Anne gave birth to a daughter. She was named Elizabeth, after Henry’s mother. The disappointment at Elizabeth’s gender has often been overstated. While it was a blow, it was not a serious one. The baby was health and the couple had high hopes that sons would follow.

Anne was pregnant again soon after Elizabeth’s birth and Henry was sure that this time it would be a son. However she miscarried at the beginning of July 1534. In October 1535, she was pregnant again but in late January, on the day of Catherine of Aragon’s funeral, she miscarried. It was reported that the foetus was identifiable as male. The imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, reported that “She has miscarried of her saviour.”

Downfall

In April 1536, Thomas Cromwell set about removing the queen in order to replace her with one who suited his designs better. He planned Anne’s downfall methodically, looking for any pretext on which she could be accused. He worked quickly and the first arrest was made on 30th April.

Thomas Cromwell, Holbein

Thomas Cromwell, Holbein

Mark Smeaton was a musician at court. He was arrested and taken to Cromwell’s house where is was interrogated and threatened with torture. Smeaton was accused of adultery with the queen. He was then taken to the Tower where he was most likely tortured into confessing. Anne did not know of Cromwell’s machinations and attended the May Day jousts unsuspecting. Henry left the jousts abruptly and Anne was never to see him again.

On the journey back to London, the king questioned one of his men, Henry Norris, about his involvement with Anne. Norris admitted no wrong doing. Henry even promised him pardon if he would admit his guilt. Norris refused and was sent to the Tower the following day. The same day Anne herself was taken to the Tower and interrogated by her uncle and others. She also denied any wrong doing. At the same time, her brother, Francis Weston and Francis Brereton were arrested for adultery with the queen. On the 8th May, Francis Bryan and Thomas Wyatt were sent to the Tower.

Four of the men accused with Anne were tried on 12th May. Smeaton, Weston, Brereton and Norris were all found guilty. Only Smeaton ever admitted guilt, more likely the consequence of torture and the threat of more, than a genuine confession. The other men, as nobles, were not tortured. The queen’s trial was held on 14th May 1536. Despite putting up a convincing defence, Anne was nonetheless found guilty of adultery and treason. Her brother George’s trial was held afterwards although he too was a convincing defendant, he was convicted.

The men were executed on Tower Hill on 17th May. The king, as a last mercy to the woman he had turned his country upside down to have, ordered the executioner of Calais to behead Anne with a sword rather than the traditional axe. The sword was both quicker and more dignified as the condemned knelt upright rather than lay prostrate on the block. It was also less likely than an axe to miss its mark.

On the 19th May 1536, at 7am, Anne Boleyn mounted the scaffold and made a short speech. The executioner was as good as had been promised and her head was severed in a single stroke. Her ladies were left to bundle her body into an arrow chest. It was then hastily buried in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula. Anne entered the Tower on 2nd May 1536 and never left, even in death.

On the 20th May, the king announced his betrothal to one of Anne’s maids, a mouse of a woman and stark contrast to her former mistress.