Tag Archives: execution

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.

Early Modern Carnival!

This month, I’m proud to be hosting the Early Modern Carnivalesque here at Harlots, Harpies and Harridans. Nominations have been filtering in all month, with some really interesting posts for you.

As a huge bibliophile, I was pleased to see a number of bookish posts. Starting off with a pair of posts from Anchora on A1 pages (the page in an Early Modern book before the title page). The first post is fascinating and full of wonderful photographs of early books, including some beautiful engravings and illustrations. In a second post on the subject, Anchora-author Adam G. Hooks has some lovely owner’s marks in the form of notes and underscoring in an early seventeenth century book. The book was written by Robert Cecil (councillor to Elizabeth I and James VI & I) and was written in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (1605). This post is also full of photographs, including some excellent examples of secretary hand from the period.

Elizabeth I's secretary hand signature

Over at Wynken de Worde, there’s a fascinating post about the arguments around digitising historic texts. There are some valuable contributions in the comments too so remember to read them! Despite my love for physical books (I am a hobby bookbinder after all), I am definitely on the side of digitisation, even if only for the accessibility. The Wynken de Worde post goes far beyond the accessibility argument and provides a highly convincing case for digitisation.

The next post, from the Folger Shakespeare Library is not only a great account of the wealth of new information old documents can provide but also features some excellent examples of digitised texts (in this case photographic reproductions), as if we needed to add further weight to the argument in favour. The deeds photographed are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and feature some beautiful secretary hand writing.

Some of the submissions took a darker tone, in particular concerning one of the Early Modern period’s favourite forms of popular spectacle: executions. Executed Today has an interesting post on one of Henry VIII’s early executions in 1510 (before he really got into the swing of things!). Henry had acceded the previous year and won himself a big popularity boost by executing Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. Both men were prominent councillors to Henry’s father but were also focuses for popular discontent over the old king’s taxes. Dudley tried to win Henry’s favour by writing a treatise in favour of absolute monarchy, in the hope of a pardon, but was to be disappointed. His son John would go on to become the Duke of Northumberland before meeting the same fate as his father. John’s son Robert Dudley, who became the Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth I’s Master of the Horse and life long favourite.

Execution of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

While poor old Edmund Dudley was beheaded on Tower Hill, our next post, over at The Chirurgeons Apprentice looks at hanging, the preferred method of execution towards the end of the Early Modern period. It features a fascinating account of a public hanging in England in 1726, written by a Frenchman and goes on to look at this rather gruesome method of execution in general.

Finally, we have a look at the Hapsbugs’ unwitting attempts to end their line through in-breeding in this post about Charles II of Spain. The Hasburgs, keen to preserve the purity of their bloodline, had an unfortunate habit of marrying their cousins. This was not immediately problematic but generation after generation, problems started to appear. Charles II (1661-1700) suffered from multiple physical and emotional disabilities which may well have been the result of centuries of inbreeding (Charles’s parents were uncle and niece which made Charles’s father also his great-uncle). His disabilities were obvious from birth and he was not expected to survive. He did and suceeded to the throne but was an ineffective king. He had no children of his own and his death in 1700, a few days short of his 39th birthday, sparked the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).

Charles II of Spain

I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of recent Early Modern blogging. The next Carnival is the medieval edition and will be hosted by She-Wolf next month and the next Early Modern edition will be in November at Anchora which has been featured here. Huge thanks to Sharon of Carnivalesque for letting me host this month!

Henry Fitzroy: The Boy Who Would Be King

On 15 June 1519, Henry VIII’s son was born. Unfortunately for the king, the boy’s mother, Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, was his mistress and not his wife. The child was illegitimate and therefore barred from the succession to the English throne.

Henry’s wife at the time was the redoubtable Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Most Catholic Kings of Spain. Catherine’s royal pedigree was beyond reproach and she was popular in England. After numerous pregnancies since their marriage in 1507, the only child which had survived was a daughter, Mary, then 16 months old.

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lucas Horen, 1534

Henry’s joy in his new born son was obvious, not least because it demonstrated once and for all that he could produce a boy, even if his wife couldn’t. The boy was named Henry Fitzroy (“son of the king”). It was a bitter blow to Catherine and it would not be the last. In 1525, Henry made his six year old son Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset and sparked rumours that he meant to make his son, rather than Princess Mary, his heir.

Fitzroy was raised in Yorkshire and bestowed with various other titles over the years (including Admiral of England, Ireland and Normandy; Warden of the Cinque Ports; Lieutenant of Ireland). The king took great interest in his son, and in 1533 arranged a good marriage for him. It was rumoured around this time that Fitzroy should marry Mary, his half-sister, in order to ensure the succession! Henry VIII was an adulterer, a serial philanderer and a bigamist but even he drew the line at forcing his children into an incestuous marriage. Fitzroy was instead married to Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and Anne Boleyn’s cousin.

Mary Howard, Duchess Of Richmond and Somerset, sketch by Holbein

Fitzroy witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution at the Tower of London on 19 Mary 1536. By that time, he was ill himself and within weeks he had succumbed to consumption, dying on 23 July at Richmond Palace.

At the time of his death, his father was putting a bill through Parliament which, if passed, would disinherit his daughter with Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth (Mary had already been disinherited) and permit him to designate a successor of his choice. It is not certain that Fitzroy would have been the designate, but it is very likely that he would have been the king’s first choice in want of a legitimate heir. Fitzroy’s premature death means that we can only guess at what the repercussions of such a move would have been. As it was, Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to the longed for, legitimate son fifteen months after Fitzroy’s death.

Off to London to see (some dead) queens

Tomorrow I am off to London. My partner’s work have sent him down there for a course so I am taking advantage of his plush hotel and joining him. We’ll be staying in Kensington, just along the road from the Natural History Museum and the V&A and just round the corner from the French bookshops I love. I haven’t spent much time in the V&A so I am hoping to remedy this.

Aside from that, I am planning another trip to the Tower. I will sit through the Yeoman Warden’s iffy history once again in order to do my little pilgrimage to the graves of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey. I wish you could spend a little time there alone but sadly not.

I am also planning a trip to the National Gallery to see the Delaroche exhibition which centres on his spectacular Execution of Lady Jane Grey.

Since I will be in the vicinity, I might pay a visit to Kensington Palace as I have never been before and the Enchanted Palace exhibition looks fun.

Then, when I get back to Edinburgh, Stranger Than Fiction, our new non-fiction writers’ group has its first meeting on the 474th anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution. I am hoping this proves to be a good omen! Art for the site and posters is by my co-organiser Sharon- more of her work at her blog, The Sapient Pig.

In other news- big website revamp is being planned.

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.