Was Queen Catherine Howard guilty of treason? (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Was Queen Catherine Howard guilty of treason?

Q1: Read the introduction and then explain the comments made by Antonia Fraser: "Duchess Agnes had kept something closely approaching a high-class brothel, but the true comparison was to a high-class finishing school in which some quietly prospered and others more daringly looked round to exploit its opportunities."

A1: Catherine Howard was brought up by her step-grandmother, Duchess Agnes Howard in her household at Chesworth House. She seemed to have received little or no intellectual training and it was later claimed that the children were allowed to run wild. The main intention was "to fit her for marriage to the husband who would in due course to be chosen by the family - perhaps some rising man in Court whom it would be useful to attach to the Howard interest."

It seems she was given a great deal of freedom and became sexually involved with Henry Manox, her music teacher and Francis Dereham, a young man who the Howards considered to a prospective husband. It was these sexual adventures that resulted in Antonia Fraser describing Chesworth House as "something closely approaching a high-class brothel".

Q2: Use the information in sources 2-5 to describe the personality of Catherine Howard.

A2: Alison Plowden (source 2) describes Catherine Howard as "a pretty child, but bird-brained and barely literate, she grew naturally into an empty-headed adolescent, one of a bevy of giggling, chattering girls who thought of precious little but clothes, young men and how to squeeze as much fun as possible out of life before they were inexorably claimed by marriage and the painful drudgery of child-bearing."

Alison Weir (source 3) agrees that she was "pretty" and "empty-headed". David Starkey (source 5) provides a more positive picture of Catherine Howard: "Catherine, like many teenagers, certainly showed herself to be wilful and sensual. But she also displayed leadership, resourcefulness and independence, which are qualities less commonly found in headstrong young girls... True, she was a good-time girl. But, like many good-time girls, she was also warm, loving and good-natured. She wanted to have a good time. But she wanted other people to have a good time, too."

Q3: Sources 1 and 6 show possible portraits of Catherine. Explain why historians believe that only one of these portraits can be confirmed as being of Catherine Howard.

A3: The author of source 5 claims that we know source 6 is genuine because of the "identification of the jewels" in the painting.

Q4: Give as many reasons as you can why Catherine Howard might have had doubts about marrying Henry VIII.

A4: Catherine Howard would have been aware that if Henry VIII got tired of his young wife he might have her executed like Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII was in poor health and was difficult to please.

Q5: According to Philippa Jones (source 7) and David Loades (source 8), why did Henry VIII become dissatisfied with Catherine Howard soon after they got married.

A5: Philippa Jones argues that "Catherine proved herself to be a good bedfellow, but a poor companion". This was partly because she was "badly educated". The problem became worse when Henry VIII became ill as "it brought home to him how much older he was than his wife". David Loades agrees with Jones about her education. He also points out that she upset Henry by being "vain, greedy, and totally lacking in political sense" and her "lavish household" cost some £4,600 per annum.

Q6: In November, 1541, Catherine Howard was accused of having sexual relationships with Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham. Read sources 9 and 10. Does the letter sent by Catherine on 11th August, 1541, prove that she was guilty of adultery.

A6: Catherine Howard's letter makes it clear that she wanted Thomas Culpeper to visit her: "I never longed so much for thing as I do to see you and to speak with you... It makes my heart to die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company." However, Retha M. Warnicke (source 10) believes that it is possible to interpret the letter in a different way. She suggests the possibility that Catherine wanted a meeting with Culpeper because he was blackmailing her: "Catherine was trying to ensure his silence through a misguided attempt at appeasement."

Q7: Read Catherine's confession (source 10). Does it prove she was guilty of committing adultery?

A7: In her confession, Catherine Howard admitted having sexual relations with Henry Manox and Francis Dereham before her marriage to Henry VIII. However, she insisted that she had not committed adultery.

Q8: The trial of Culpeper and Dereham began on 1st December, 1541. Dereham was charged with "presumptive treason" and of having led the Queen into "an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous and licentious life". Culpeper was accused of having criminal intercourse with the Queen on 29th August 1541 at Pontefract, and at other times, before and after that date. Mary Hall and Jane Boleyn (Lady Rochford) provided evidence against the men. Read about these two women and explain how their testimony helped to convict Culpeper and Dereham.

A8: Mary Hall (maiden name Mary Lascelles) worked for Duchess Agnes Howard at Chesworth House. At the trial she claimed that she observed Catherine have sexual relations with Henry Manox, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper. This was important evidence against Dereham as he was charged with having led the Queen into "an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous and licentious life". However, her evidence only concerned the period before Catherine's marriage and therefore was of no importance to the charges against Culpeper.

Lady Rochford admitted that she arranged for Catherine Howard to meet Thomas Culpeper. The Queen's servants, Katherine Tylney and Margaret Morton both gave evidence that Culpeper met the Queen in Lady Rochford's chamber. Morton testified that while at Pontefract Castle in August 1541, Lady Rochford locked the room from inside after both Catherine and Culpeper went inside. Morton also said that she "never mistrusted the Queen until at Hatfield I saw her look out of her chamber window on Master Culpeper, after such sort that I thought there was love between them". On another occasion the Queen was in her closet with Culpeper for five or six hours, and Morton thought "for certain they had passed out" (a Tudor euphemism for orgasm). Lady Rochford's testimony helped to convict Culpeper of adultery.

Q9: What does the author of source 12 mean when he says the "key clauses of the Act were flagrantly retrospective".

A9: Henry VIII was aware that their was not enough evidence to convict Catherine Howard of adultery. He therefore persuaded Parliament to pass a new law: "If any loose-living woman dare marry the King 'without plain declaration before of her unchaste life unto his Majesty', it was treason. Adultery by or with the Queen or the wife of the Prince of wales was treason. And failure on the part of the witnesses to disclose such offences was misprision of treason." This new act made it possible for Catherine Howard to be convicted of high treason.

Q10: Why did Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley advise Henry VIII against ordering the execution of Catherine Howard?

A10: Thomas Audley feared that the executions of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard might bring "ridicule upon the English Crown".

Q11: What request did Catherine Howard make concerning her execution?

A11: According to Eustace Chapuys Catherine Howard asked "that the execution shall be secret and not under the eyes of the world".

Q12: Was Catherine Howard guilty of high treason?

A12: By passing a new law (see answer for Q9) based on Catherine Howard's confession she was indeed guilty of high treason.