Tag Archives: Tower of London

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.

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.