Was Queen Catherine Howard guilty of treason?

Catherine Howard was born in around 1525. Her grandfather was Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. She was brought up in the enormous household at Chesworth House near Horsham of her step-grandmother, Duchess Agnes Howard. She seemed to have received little or no intellectual training and it was later claimed that the children were allowed to run wild. Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) has commented that "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."

In 1536, Catherine, who was around 12 years of age at the time, Henry Manox, her music teacher, tried to seduce her. She later recalled "at the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox 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". Six years later Manox confessed that he was attracted to Catherine and "he felt more than was convenient" but swore that he never knew her "carnally".

Catherine's next romance was with Francis Dereham, when she was about fourteen. After finding out about Catherine's relationship with Henry Manox, the Duchess locked her in her bedroom of a night. Catherine persuaded one of the maids, Mary Lascelles, "to steal the key and bring it to her". The door was unlocked and Dereham was admitted. Manox was not allowed in and he later reported: "They (Howard and Dereham) would commonly banquet and be merry there till two or three of the clock in the morning. Wine, strawberries, apples, and other things to make good cheer... were served."

The Tudor historian, Edward Hall claimed that Dereham visited Catherine Howard in her bedroom at night. They also exchanged love tokens. Dereham gave her satin and velvet gifts while Catherine gave him an armband and an embroidered friar's knot. Catherine later confessed that Dereham "knew of a little woman in London with a crooked back, who was skilled in making flowers of silk".

The relationship came to an end when Manox sent an anonymous letter to the Duchess. He suggested that she should visit Catherine's bedroom "half an hour after" going to bed. He added that "you shall see that which shall displease you." Dereham was sent away and Catherine was told off for her "banqueting by night" because she feared "it would hurt her beauty".

In late 1539 Catherine Howard was appointed to the household of Anne of Cleves. It was not long before Catherine had fallen in love with Thomas Culpeper, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Culpeper was Catherine's cousin on her mother's side and she had been fond of him since childhood. However, that fondness now developed into something far more deeper. David Starkey, the author of Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) has pointed out: "He was a handsome, delinquent boy and a favourite of men and women alike. As Henry's former Page, he had sometimes slept in his master's bed, and, when he got older, he had a queue of female admirers. But with Catherine, it seems, it was different. She was his female equivalent and there was an instant, powerful attraction between them. Soon it was rumoured, they would marry."

In the spring of 1540 Henry VIII met the fifteen year-old Catherine Howard. It has been suggested by Retha M. Warnicke that the two of the leading Roman Catholics in England, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, arranged for the King to meet Catherine and this was part of a power struggle against two religious reformers Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Henry married Catherine on 8th August 1540 at Hampton Court.

Primary Sources
Thomas Cranmer
(Source 1) A possible portrait of Catherine Howard (c. 1538)

(Source 2) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002)

Catherine... came under her grandmother's care, to learn obedience, good manners, some social graces and the rudiments of household management; enough, in short, 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... 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...

Catherine Howard was an extreme, but by no means untypical example of the way in which her world regarded its women-folk as pawns in the game of high politics. Silly, feckless and over-sexed, she'd been incapable of meeting the demands made upon her and had become the inevitable victim of a system which ruthlessly eliminated its failures.

(Source 3) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

It was not long before Catherine attracted the attention of the King. By April 1540, he was said to be very enamoured of her, and before the month was out had made her substantial grants of lands confiscated from convicted criminals. Catherine's youthful charm rejuvenated Henry, and she seems to have responded warmly to his advances, having no doubt been well primed by her family. It was certainly a dazzling experience to be courted by the King, and Catherine was not without ambition - Norfolk and Gardiner had explained what their purpose was in pushing her into the spotlight. Yet she was no Anne Boleyn, being a good deal younger than Anne had been, and far more empty-headed, although she was precocious enough when it came to experience of men. It had already therefore occurred to her that she might become queen of England, and this was no doubt enough to compensate for the fact that, as a man, Henry had very little to offer a girl of her age. He was now nearing fifty, and had aged beyond his years. The abscess on his leg was slowing him down, and there were days when he could hardly walk, let alone ride. Worse still, it oozed pus continually, and had to be dressed daily, not a pleasant task for the person assigned to do it as the wound stank dreadfully. As well as being afflicted with this, the King had become exceedingly fat: a new suit of armour, made for him at this time, measured 54 inches around the waist. He was frequently irascible, quick to burst out in temper, and given to bouts of black depression as the years advanced. Yet on occasion he could still exert himself to be charming, especially to the ladies, and he was doing that now for Catherine's benefit, behaving as if he were the magnificent specimen of manhood who had vanquished so many women in his youth. Catherine flattered Henry's vanity; she pretended not to notice his bad leg, and did not flinch from the smell it exuded. She was young, graceful and pretty, and Henry was entranced. The Catholic faction watched with satisfaction as their affair progressed. The Queen, not now so naive as formerly, watched too; she bore Catherine no rancour on a personal level, for she was not in love with her husband, yet this new development made her fearful. If henry believed she stood in the way of his future happiness, what might he not do to rid himself of her.

(Source 4) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984)

In the spring of 1540, Henry was falling in love with Catherine Howard, the twenty-year-old daughter of Norfolk's brother, Lord Edmund Howard. She was one of Anne of Cleves's ladies-in-waiting. She had spent some years in the household of her grandmother, the old Duchess of Norfolk...

Henry often crossed the river from Whitehall in his barge to visit Catherine Howard in Southwark. On several occasions he met her there at parties in Gardiner's house. There is a well-established tradition that Norfolk and Gardiner introduced her to Henry in the hope that she would become his mistress and persuade him to adopt Gardiner's pro-Catholic policy and destroy Cromwell; but there is not a shred of evidence that Catherine Howard played any part whatever in Cromwell's downfall or in the shift in Henry's policy in 1540.

(Source 5) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII

There were even strong rumours that Catherine went pregnant to the altar. It is easy to read Henry's motives. Physically repelled by Anne of Cleves, and humiliated by his sexual failure with her, he sought and found consolation from Catherine. We can also guess that sex, which had been impossible with Anne, was easy with her. And it was easy because she made it easy. Henry, lost in pleasure, never seems to have asked himself how she obtained such skill. Instead, he attributed it all to love and his own recovered youth...

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. And she was prepared to make some effort to see that they did... Catherine, in short, had begun rather well. She had a good heart, and a less bad head than most of her chroniclers have assumed.

Dispute has raged as to whether its subject really is Catherine Howard (source 6). But the identification of the jewels settles the issue once and for all. It also establishes, for the first time, her exact appearance. She had auburn hair, pale skin, dark eyes and brows, the rather fetching beginnings of a double chin, and an expression that was at once quizzical and come-hither.

Catherine Howard
(Source 6) Catherine Howard by Hans Holbein (c. 1540)

(Source 7) Philippa Jones, The Other Tudors: Henry VIII's Mistresses and Bastards (2010)

Catherine is never described as beautiful. She was described as small and fairly pretty. What Catherine had was youth and vivacity, and she was a neglected child suddenly presented with a fairytale place at court... Catherine, this joyful, loving, sparkling, sexy girl was just what Henry imagined he wanted. As to the rest, he could persuade himself that she was chaste and loving, both of which assumptions were, in this case, cruelly false...

Once she was married, Catherine proved herself to be a good bedfellow, but a poor companion. She was badly educated and relied on the King's infatuation to keep him interested in her. Within a few months of the marriage, Henry became ill; his leg became so bad that it was believed that he might die. He did not want to be with Catherine while he was sick, possibly as it brought home to him how much older he was than his wife.

(Source 8) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

Henry seems to have genuinely believed that his young bride was the innocent rose which she appeared to be at first sight. How he managed not to notice that she had not come to him as a virgin is something of a mystery... However excellent Catherine may have been as a bedfellow, she had distinct limitations as a companion. Her education had been badly neglected... she was also vain, greedy, and totally lacking in political sense... Her lavish household, costing the King some £4,600 per annum, filled up with her numerous relations and their dependants.

(Source 9) Catherine Howard, letter to Thomas Culpeper (11th August, 1541)

Master Culpeper, I heartily recommend me unto you... 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... Come when my Lady Rochford is here, for that I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment... Yours as long as life endures.

(Source 10) Retha M. Warnicke, Catherine Howard : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

It is possible, however, to put a different interpretation upon Catherine's letter, that its emotional tone was fuelled less by sexual ardour than by the desperation of a young woman who was seeking to placate an aggressive, dangerous suitor, one who, moreover, as a member of the privy chamber had close contact with the king. The promise she mentioned could have concerned the Dereham affair. Culpeper, it may be suggested, had established some form of threatening control over the queen's life, and although he - as he admitted - was seeking sexual satisfaction with her, Catherine was trying to ensure his silence through a misguided attempt at appeasement.


(Source 10) Catherine Howard, confession (7th November, 1541)

My sorrow I can by no writing express, nevertheless I trust your most benign nature will have some respect unto my youth, my ignorance, my frailness, my humble confession of my faults and plain declaration of the same, referring me wholly unto your Grace's pity and mercy. First at the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox, 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.

Also Francis Dereham by many persuasions procured me to 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, and our company ended almost a year before the King's Majesty was married to my Lady Anne of Cleves, and continued not past one quarter of a year, or a little above... The subtle persuasions of young men and the ignorance and frailness of young women.

I was so desirous to be taken unto your Grace's favour, and so blinded with the desire of worldly glory, that I could not, nor had grace, to consider how great a fault it was to conceal my former faults from your Majesty, considering that I intended ever during my life to be faithful and true unto your Majesty after; nevertheless, the sorrow of mine offences was ever before mine eyes, considering the infinite goodness of your Majesty towards me from time to time ever increasing and not diminishing: Now I refer the judgement of all my offences with my life and death wholly unto your most benign and merciful Grace to be considered by no justice of your Majesty's laws but only by your infinite goodness, pity, compassion and mercy, without the which I acknowledge myself worthy of extreme punishment.

(Source 11) Kelly Hart, The Mistresses of Henry VIII (2009)

If a queen had an affair during marriage and conceived, then somebody else's bastard could inherit the throne of England. In an age where people believed in the divine right of kings, this situation would have been against God's ordained social order and therefore a challenge to God's authority. It was unthinkable for a queen to allow any hint of scandal about her; she must be completely and utterly above reproach.

(Source 12) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII

Catherine Howard and Lady Rochford were condemned by an Act of Attainder. The Bill was introduced on 21 January 1542 and completed all its Parliamentary stages three weeks later. The key clauses of the Act were flagrantly retrospective. 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. Finally, with all the loop-holes closed, Catherine and Lady Rochford were declared convicted of high treason.

(Source 13) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

Lord Chancellor Audley seems to have some qualms about it, fearing that justice might not be seen to be done, but perhaps it was felt that the spectacle of another queen on trial for substantially the same offence might have brought ridicule upon the English Crown.

(Source 14) Eustace Chapuys, report to King Charles V (29th January, 1542)

Queen is very cheerful, and more plump and pretty than ever; she is as careful about her dress and as imperious and wilful as at the time she was with the King, notwithstanding that she expects to be put to death, that she confesses she has deserved it, and asks for no favour except that the execution shall be secret and not under the eyes of the world.

Questions for Students

Question 1: 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."

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

Question 3: 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.

Question 4: Give as many reasons as you can why Catherine Howard might have had doubts about marrying Henry VIII.

Question 5: 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.

Question 6: 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.

Question 7: Read Catherine's confession (source 10). Does it prove she was guilty of committing adultery?

Question 8. 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.

Question 9: What does the author of source 12 mean when he says the "key clauses of the Act were flagrantly retrospective".

Question 10: Why did Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley advise Henry VIII against ordering the execution of Catherine Howard?

Question 11: What request did Catherine Howard make concerning her execution?

Question 12: Was Catherine Howard guilty of high treason?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here