Katherine's Story                  



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The Six Wives of Henry VIII

  V.  Katherine Howard's Story 

Katherine Howard was just in her teens when she became King Henry's fifth Queen.  It is not clear exactly how old she was at the time.  Some accounts put her as young as fifteen, and others say she was at least seventeen, in the year 1540 when she married King Henry.  Like Anne Boleyn before her, Katherine Howard was descended from one of the most powerful noble families in England, the Howards.  In fact, Katherine and Anne Boleyn were first cousins.  Because of their royal Plantagenet ancestry, the Howards thought they were more royal than the "upstart" Tudors.  Anne and Katherine's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, was the head of the Howard family. 

Although Katherine was a Howard, she came from a relatively impoverished branch of the family.  There were few, if any, fine clothes or jewels or furs for young Katherine. She was one of ten children, and her father had trouble earning a steady income to support his family.

Katherine, who lost her mother at an early age, was sent to live in the household of the  Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.  The Duchess was the Duke of Norfolk's stepmother, and a powerful old lady.  Numerous young Howard men and women were brought to the Duchess's estate to live.  There they learned the social graces required of their station in life, under the supervision of the elderly Duchess. 

Although entrusted with the care of many impressionable young nobles, the Dowager Duchess didn't pay much attention to the goings-on in her household.  The young women slept dormitory-style in large rooms.  Young men visited the bedchamber at all hours of day and night, unbeknownst to the old deaf Duchess.  Katherine was more than willing to join in the frolics.  At the time, no one took much notice of young Katherine, who was just another dependent young relative. 

Katherine Howard was a petite, cheerful auburn-haired girl of rather ordinary prettiness, with a talent for dance and music.  She was not known for her intellect.  Like many young girls of her time, she received no formal education, and could barely read and write.  She was, however, given music lessons.  She soon became romantically and physically involved with her music teacher, Henry Mannox. 

After growing tired of her first lover, Katherine turned her attentions to a distant cousin, Frances Derham.  That relationship grew serious, and was consummated among discussions of marriage.  This was all kept secret from the Duchess, who would not have approved of the match.  Frances went overseas to make his fortune, with every intention of returning and marrying Katherine. 

No one could have foreseen the events to follow.  Soon after the wedding ceremony, King Henry was looking for a way out of his marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. The Duke of Norfork, who was a powerful presence at Court, saw the potential Queenship "vacancy" as an opportunity for the Howards.  The Howard family was staunchly Catholic, and wanted England to return to the Roman Catholic church.  Having a Catholic Howard queen on the throne would be a great help to this cause. 

The Duke of Norfolk soon discovered a likely Queen candidate to parade in front of Henry.  Norfolk noticed his pretty niece Katherine, and thought that she would attract Henry's attention.  The Duke was assured that Katherine was pure, untouched, and ready for marriage with the King.  Katherine, who wanted this opportunity, hid the truth from her uncle.  This was risky, since many members of the Duchess's household knew about Katherine's affairs with Mannox and Derham.  Katherine must have been in denial at this point, perhaps thinking that no one would dare reveal her secret once she became Queen of England.

Katherine was brought to Court to serve as lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne of Cleves, and  introduced to the King.  As her uncle predicted, Henry found young Katherine most attractive, and began to spend time with her.  Katherine was instructed to flatter the King and make him feel desirable.  Henry was feeling old and vulnerable, and upset about having to give up the vigorous activities of his youth.  His ulcerous leg gave him horrendous pain, and prevented him from doing much exercise.  Katherine made Henry feel young again. He couldn't wait to have her all to himself. 

Once Henry's divorce from Anne of Cleves was final, he married Katherine in a low-profile ceremony.  No one knows exactly what Katherine thought of her new husband physically. Compared to handsome suitors such as Derham and Maddox, Henry must have been a bitter disappointment.  Henry was over fifty years old, in poor physical shape, and very obese.  Whatever she felt, Katherine did not let her feelings show.  In her own way, she learned to care for the affectionate old King who showered her with attention and riches.

Henry was delighted with his new wife, and grew more attached to her every day.  Katherine, in turn, enjoyed being Queen.  She had never had much in the way of clothes or possessions, and now she could have whatever she wanted.  Materially, that is.  As time went by, however, Katherine began to miss the excitement of her past relationships with handsome young men. 

One young man in particular caught her eye.  Her cousin, Thomas Culpeper, was one of Henry's attendants, and a particular favorite of the King.  Culpeper was a rather wild young nobleman who liked to carouse and pursue women.  He was very handsome and entertaining, which provided Henry with amusement in Henry's old age. 

A few months into her marriage, Katherine and Thomas Culpepper began to flirt.  For some reason, neither seemed aware of the danger they were courting.  Quickly, the relationship progressed beyond courtly love. The historical accounts of this period do not agree as to whether adultery in the full sense was actually committed, as both parties denied it in the end.  However, the affair certainly went beyond what King Henry would ever tolerate.  Anne Boleyn's former sister-in-law, Lady Jane Rochford, helped Katherine and Thomas conduct their secret meetings.  It is ironic that Lady Rochford, who had been a key player in Anne Boleyn's downfall, would have a major role in Katherine's tragedy as well.

Other troubles were brewing.  Shortly after Katherine became Queen, she received a  visit from her old lover, Frances Derham.  By this time, Derham had recovered from the disappointment of returning to England, only to find his true love serving at the Royal Court, and no longer interested in his love.  It was apparent at the time that Katherine had her eye on bigger and better things than a shirttail relative and small-time adventurer. Now, as he addressed the young Queen, he found it incredible that his pretty, giggly,  young intended bride was now the Queen of England. How in the world did this happen? 

Derham decided, unwisely, to try to profit from the situation.  He asked the new Queen to make him her private secretary.  After all, that was the least she could do, given the change in plans.  Katherine probably had doubts about this idea, but Derham may have threatened to tell the truth about their past.  Or, she may have felt guilty for abandoning Derham for a better opportunity.  For whatever reason, Katherine agreed to Derham's request.  Derham was now ensconced in Queen Katherine's household, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

Meanwhile, King Henry still had no idea of Katherine's past.  Her family had assured Henry that his new bride had never known the touch of a man, and Katherine kept her silence.  Who knows what the future might have held in store for her if Henry had never learned the truth? 

Unfortunately, that was not to be.  Religious and political rivalries played a major role in Katherine's demise.  The Catholic Howard family was rising in power and influence on Queen Katherine's skirt-tails.  This threatened those in England who followed the new reformed Protestant religious movement.  The religious reformers feared a return of Roman Catholicism to the country, and wanted to end the Howards' influence on the King and Supreme Head of the English Church.

While Katherine and Tom Culpeper's affair was in full swing, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, received a visit.  The visitor was a man whose sister who had worked in the household of the Duchess of Norfork, where Katherine had grown up. The Archbishop learned that Katherine had  known other men intimately before Henry, and that she had planned to marry Frances Derham.  The fact that Derham was now her private secretary added credence to the story.

Archbishop Cranmer was not a vicious man, and had no personal wish to destroy Queen Katherine.  Yet here was an opportunity to aid the growing religious reform movement by bringing down the Catholic Howard influence. Besides that, Katherine's behavior was downright dangerous.  What kind of reputation did she have?  Was she still involved with Derham?  Most of all, was she doing anything, or did she have the potential to, endanger the succession to the throne?  A King of England could not afford to have a wife with a "light" reputation, especially when he had been kept in the dark about it all this time. 

All in all, Cranmer knew it was his duty, unpleasant as it was, to check out the story, and to inform the King before he heard it from someone else.  The Archbishop and other advisors to King Henry investigated the matter, and interviewed members of the household where Katherine was raised.  Frances Derham and his associates were also questioned, as were various members of the Howard family.  It turned out that the stories about Katherine's past were true. 

Cranmer dreaded telling the King that his darling, beloved "rose without a thorn" was not the pure and innocent damsel he thought she was when she came to him in marriage.  Cranmer had no idea how the King might react to the news.  Would he believe the story?  Would he be furious with Katherine and her family, or might he forgive her early indiscretions, and chalk it up to a lack of guidance or youthful ignorance?  Henry was entirely besotted with Katherine now.  No telling what might happen when he learned the truth. 

Henry was dumfounded when he read Cranmer's letter listing the accusations against Katherine.  At first he could not believe the allegations.  Then, gradually, he began to accept the truth.  The King was furious about being deceived about his wife's past, and consented to a full-scale investigation to learn more.  Henry was, however, inclined to go easy on Katherine at first, especially if it was found that she had been pre-contracted (engaged) to another man before she married Henry.  At this point, Henry knew only that Katherine had known other men before her marriage.  He  still knew nothing about her current involvement with Thomas Culpeper.

That was soon to change. As the investigation moved forward, Katherine's affair with Culpeper soon came to light.  Various members of Katherine's household wanted to save their skins, and began to tell all they knew.  Stories about Katherine and Thomas's secret meetings began to surface.  Apparently Katherine and Thomas had been especially busy during a recent "progress", or trip, that Henry and his wife had taken in Northern England.  Culpeper had been part of Henry's entourage on the trip, and he and Katherine had enjoyed each other's company behind the King's back.  Lady Rochford was a great help to the lovers in covering up their activities.

Once Henry heard about Katherine and Culpeper, that was the end. Katherine was putting the succession to the English throne in danger, not to mention making Henry a cuckold.  This was High Treason, and nothing could save Katherine now.  At this point Henry was totally stricken, and agreed to his wife's arrest.  Henry went through various stages of grief, denial, anger, and guilt that he had "imposed himself" on a beautiful young girl.  He ended up feeling hurt, disillusioned, and just plain numb.

The Duke of Norfolk was horrified that this calamity should happen to his family, and abandoned Katherine to her fate.  Somehow the Duke and Dowager Duchess  managed to convince Henry that they had known nothing about Katherine's past.  Henry still blamed the Howards for getting him into this mess, but let them escape serious punishment.

Queen Katherine was enjoying a dance lesson when she was taken by the King's Guards, and put under arrest.  She became hysterical, and tried to see the King.  She thought that Henry would forgive her if she were able to apologize in person, and beg his forgiveness. Henry refused to see her.  Some say that Henry may have weakened if Katherine had managed to plead with him face-to-face. We will never know.

Derham, Culpeper, Lady Rochford, and numerous others were also arrested. Lady Rochford was so terrified that she lost her senses. To many, it made no sense that Francis Derham was charged with any crime.  His relationship with Katherine occurred before she had ever known Henry.  How could Derham have known that his obscure little girlfriend would one day be Queen?  Thomas Culpeper, on the other hand, was another matter.  Culpeper knew full well what he was doing when he became involved with the King's wife.  Strangely enough, Henry was angrier with Derham than with Culpeper.  This was probably because, in Henry's mind, Derham was the one who stole his precious young wife's virtue.

Katherine was not immediately sent to prison.  Instead, she was moved from Court to Syon Palace, and kept there in relative comfort until the charges against her were fully in place.  That took several months. 

Given the circumstances, Katherine was treated fairly well at Syon Palace. She was allowed to have ladies-in-waiting, good food, and fashionable clothes.  No jewels, furs or other riches were allowed, however.

During this time,  Henry's councilors tried to annul the marriage on the grounds of a pre-existing marriage contract between Katherine and Derham.  If Katherine had been pre-contracted to someone else before she married Henry, her marriage to Henry would be invalid by English law.  The marriage could then be annulled.  Technically, this could have saved Katherine's life.  It would have been easy for Katherine to agree to this, but, for some reason, she steadfastly denied that she had ever been pre-contracted to Derham.  She and Culpeper also denied committing adultery.

As a result of these events, a special law was passed that made it a crime for a woman to conceal her past when coming to the King of England in marriage.  Katherine and her accomplices were ultimately found guilty of treason and condemned to death.  Derham was also convicted of treason, on the grounds of his early relationship with the future Queen.  Culpeper and Derham were executed in December of 1541.

In February of 1542, Katherine Howard was beheaded for treason, along with Lady Rochford.  Henry went into a steep decline after that, and never again felt passion for anyone the way he did for Katherine Howard.

Katherine did not have much time in which to leave her mark on the world.   She left no children, no works of literature or philosophy or art, and no lasting memorials.  She is mainly remembered for her ability to charm men of all ages, and for the short-lived pleasure and pain and of her brief time as Queen.


Additional Reading About Katherine Howard

For additional reading about Katherine Howard, Henry VIII, Henry's wives, and other royal scandals, here are some books that may be ordered from Amazon.com. 

To bring up the details about a particular book, please click on the underlined link beside the picture of the book you are interested in.

  Six Wives of Henry VIII  by Alison Wier


The Wives of Henry VIII  by Antonia Fraser



Divorced, Beheaded, Survived:  A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey



Henry VIII : The King and His Court by Alison Wier



The Autobiography of Henry VIII : With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers:  A Novel by Margaret George



The Tudors (A Royal History of England) by  Neville Williams,  Antonia Fraser (Editor)



The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England by Antonia Fraser (Editor)



The Kings and Queens of England and Scotland by Plantagenet Somerset Fry, Peter Fry



A Treasury of Royal Scandals : The Shocking True Stories of History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes and Emperors  by Michael Farquhar


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