Catherine Howard

For other people named Catherine Howard, see Catherine Howard (disambiguation).
Catherine Howard

Queen consort of England
Tenure 28 July 1540 – 23 November 1541
Born circa 1523
Lambeth, London
Died 13 February 1542 (aged 19/20)
Tower of London
Burial Church of St Peter ad Vincula
Spouse Henry VIII of England
(m. 1540)
House Howard
Father Lord Edmund Howard
Mother Joyce Culpeper
Religion Church of England
prev. Roman Catholic

Catherine Howard (circa 152313 February 1542) was Queen of England from 1540 until 1541, as the fifth wife of Henry VIII.[lower-alpha 1] Catherine, then 16 or 17, married Henry VIII on 28 July 1540, at Oatlands Palace, in Surrey, almost immediately after the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves was arranged.

Catherine was stripped of her title as queen within 16 months, in November 1541. She was beheaded three months later, on the grounds of treason for committing adultery while married to the King.


Catherine was a daughter of Lord Edmund Howard (c. 1478 – 1539) and Joyce Culpeper (c. 1480 – c. 1528). Her father's sister, Elizabeth Howard, was the mother of Anne Boleyn. Therefore, Catherine Howard was the first cousin of Anne Boleyn, and the first cousin once removed of Lady Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I), King Henry VIII and Anne's daughter. As a granddaughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk (1443 – 1524), Catherine had an aristocratic pedigree. Her father was not wealthy, being a younger son among 21 children and disfavoured in the custom of primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherits all his father's estate.

When Catherine's parents married, her mother already had five children from her first husband, Ralph Leigh (c. 1476 – 1509); she went on to have another six with Catherine's father, Catherine being about her mother's tenth child. With little to sustain the family, her father was often reduced to begging for handouts from his more affluent relatives. After Catherine's mother died in 1528, her father married twice more. In 1531 he was appointed Controller of Calais.[2] He was dismissed from his post in 1539, and died in March 1539. Catherine was the third of Henry VIII's wives to have been a member of the English nobility or gentry; Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves were of Continental royalty.

Early life

Catherine was born in Lambeth in about 1523, yet the exact date of her birth remains uncertain.[3] Soon after the death of her mother (in about 1528), when Catherine was aged about five, she was sent with some of her siblings to live in the care of her father's stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The Dowager Duchess presided over large households at Chesworth House in Horsham in Sussex, and at Norfolk House in Lambeth where dozens of attendants, along with her many wards—usually the children of aristocratic but poor relatives—resided.[4] While sending young children to be educated and trained in aristocratic households other than their own was common for centuries among European nobles, supervision at both Chesworth House and Lambeth was apparently lax. The Dowager Duchess was often at Court and seems to have had little direct involvement in the upbringing of her wards and young female attendants.[5]

As a result of the Dowager Duchess' lack of discipline, Catherine became influenced by some older girls who candidly allowed men into the sleeping areas at night for entertainment. The girls were rewarded with food and wine and gifts. Catherine was not as well educated as some of Henry's other wives, although, on its own, her ability to read and write was impressive enough at the time. Her character has often been described as vivacious, giggly and brisk, but never scholarly or devout. She displayed great interest in her dance lessons, but would often be distracted during them and make jokes. She also had a nurturing side for animals, particularly dogs.[6]

In the Duchess's household at Horsham, in around 1536, Catherine and her music teacher, Henry Mannox, began a sexual relationship. Catherine was then aged about thirteen. He later gave evidence in the inquiry against her. Mannox and Catherine both confessed during her adultery inquisitions that they had engaged in sexual contact, but not actual coitus. When questioned Catherine was quoted as saying, "At the flattering and fair persuasions of Mannox, 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."[7]

Her affair with Mannox came to an end in 1538, when Catherine, now aged 15, moved to the Dowager Duchess's household in Lambeth. There she was pursued by Francis Dereham, a secretary of the Dowager Duchess. They became lovers, addressing each other as "husband" and "wife". Dereham also entrusted Catherine with various wifely duties, such as keeping his money when he was away on business. Many of Catherine's roommates among the Dowager Duchess's maids of honour and attendants knew of the relationship, which apparently ended in 1539 when the Dowager Duchess found out. Despite this, Catherine and Dereham may have parted with intentions to marry upon his return from Ireland, agreeing to a precontract of marriage. If indeed they exchanged vows before having sexual intercourse, they would have been considered married in the eyes of the Church.[7]

Arrival at court

Catherine's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, found her a place at Court in the household of the King's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.[8] As a young and attractive lady-in-waiting, Catherine quickly caught Henry's eye. The King had displayed little interest in Anne from the beginning, but on Cromwell's failure to find a new match for Henry, Norfolk saw an opportunity. The Howards may have sought to recreate the influence gained during Queen Anne's reign. According to Nicholas Sander, the religiously conservative Howard family may have seen Catherine as a figurehead for their fight by expressed determination to restore Roman Catholicism to England. Catholic Bishop Stephen Gardiner entertained the couple at Winchester Palace with "feastings".

As the King's interest in Catherine grew, so did the house of Norfolk's influence. Her youth, prettiness and vivacity were captivating for the middle-aged sovereign, who claimed he had never known "the like to any woman". Within months of her arrival at court, Henry bestowed gifts of land and expensive cloth upon Catherine. Henry called her his 'rose without a thorn' and the 'very jewel of womanhood'.[9] The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, thought her "delightful". Holbein's portrait showed a young auburn-haired girl with a characteristically hooked Howard nose; Catherine was said to have a "gentle, earnest face."


The Six Wives of
Henry VIII
Catherine of Aragon
Anne Boleyn
Jane Seymour
Anne of Cleves
Catherine Howard
Catherine Parr
Catherine Howard's arms as queen[10]

King Henry and Catherine were married by Bishop Bonner of London at Oatlands Palace on 28 July 1540, the same day Cromwell was executed. The marriage was made public on 8 August, and prayers were said in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace.[11] Henry "indulged her every whim" thanks to her "caprice".[12]

Catherine was young, joyous and carefree; Mannox had taught her to play the virginals. She was too young to take part in administrative matters of State. Nevertheless, every night Sir Thomas Heneage, Groom of the Stool, came to her chamber to report on the King's well-being. No plans were made for a coronation, yet she still travelled downriver in the royal barge into the City of London to a gun salute and some acclamation. She was settled by jointure at Baynard Castle: little changed at court, other than the arrival of many Howards. Every day she dressed with new clothes in the French fashion bedecked with precious jewels. With ominous foresight the motto adopted read Non autre volonte que la sienne (No other wish but his), decorated in gold around her sleeves.[13]

The Queen escaped plague-ridden London in August 1540 when on progress. The royal couple's entourage travelled on honeymoon through Reading and Buckingham. On 29 August the Duke of Grafton arrived for a Council meeting. After the Queen's Chamberlain got drunk and misbehaved, the King was in a bad mood when they moved on to Woking, when his health improved. The King embarked on a lavish spending spree to celebrate his marriage, with extensive refurbishments and developments at the Palace of Whitehall. This was followed by more expensive gifts for Christmas at Hampton Court Palace.[14]

That winter the King's bad moods deepened and grew more furious. Undoubtedly the pain from his ulcerous legs was agony, but did not make relations any easier at court. He accused councillors of being "lying time-servers", and began to regret losing Cromwell. After a dark depressed March, his mood lifted at Easter.

Preparations were in place for any signs of a royal pregnancy, reported by Marillac on 15 April as "if it be found true, to have her crowned at Whitsuntide."[15] At the same time Henry wanted the last of the Yorkists found out.


It was alleged that, in spring 1541, Catherine had already embarked upon a romance with Henry's favourite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper, a young man who "had succeeded [him] in the Queen's affections", according to Dereham's later testimony. Catherine, who called Culpeper "my little, sweet fool" in a love letter,[16] had considered marrying him during her time as a maid-of-honour to Anne of Cleves. The couple's meetings were arranged by one of Catherine's older ladies-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford (Lady Rochford), the widow of Catherine's cousin, George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's brother.[17]

During the autumn Northern Progress, a crisis began to loom over Catherine's conduct. People who had witnessed her earlier indiscretions while still a ward at Lambeth contacted her for favours in return for their silence, and many of them were appointed to her royal household. When jealous Lambert chamber servant Mary Lascelles was excluded from her mistress's royal household, she told her Protestant reformist brother John Lascelles that she had private information on Catherine's previous illicit sexual relations. Mary had seen a love letter to Culpeper in Catherine's distinctive handwriting, which is the only letter of hers that still survives (other than her later confession).[18][19][20]

The reformist Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, immediately took up the case to be made to topple his rivalsthe Roman Catholic Norfolk family. Lady Rochford was under interrogation but not tortured and agreed to tell all. She had watched for Catherine backstairs as Culpeper had made his escapes from the Queen's room.[21]

On All Saints' Day, 1 November 1541, the King was to be found in the Chapel Royal, praying as usual for this "jewel of womanhood".[22] He received there a warrant of the queen's arrest that described her crimes. On 7 November 1541, Archbishop Cranmer led a delegation of councillors to Winchester Palace, Southwark, to question her. Even the staunch Cranmer found Catherine's frantic, incoherent state pitiable, saying, "I found her in such lamentation and heaviness as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man's heart to have looked upon her."[23] He ordered the guards to remove any objects that she might use to commit suicide.

Imprisonment and death

Establishing the existence of a precontract between Catherine and Dereham would have had the effect of terminating Catherine's royal union, but it also would have allowed Henry to annul their marriage and banish her from Court, in poverty and disgrace, without having to execute her. Yet still she steadfastly denied any precontract, maintaining that Dereham had raped her.

Catherine was stripped of her title as queen on 23 November 1541, and imprisoned in the new Syon Abbey, Middlesex, formerly a convent, where she remained throughout the winter of 1541.[24] She was forced by a Privy Councillor to return Anne of Cleves' ring that the King had given her; it was a symbol of her regal and lawful rights. The King would be at Hampton Court, but she would not see him again. Despite these actions taken against her, her marriage to Henry was never formally annulled.[25]

Culpeper and Dereham were arraigned at Guildhall on 1 December 1541 for High Treason. They were executed at Tyburn on 10 December 1541, Culpeper being beheaded and Dereham being hanged, drawn and quartered. According to custom, their heads were placed on spikes atop of London Bridge. Many of Catherine's relatives were also detained in the Tower with the exception of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who had sufficiently distanced himself from the scandal by retreating to Kenninghall to write a grovelling letter of apology.[26]

His son Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, the poet, remained a favourite of the King. The duke knew his family had fallen from grace, wrote an apology on 14 December to the King, excusing himself and laying all the blame on his niece and stepmother.[26] All of the Howard prisoners were tried, found guilty of concealing treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of goods. In time, they were released with their goods restored. The King sank into morbidity and indulged his appetite for food.[27]

Catherine herself remained in limbo until Parliament introduced a bill of attainder on 29 January 1542, which was passed on 7 February 1542.[28] The Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 made it treason, and punishable by death, for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within twenty days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her.[29] This solved the matter of Catherine's supposed precontract and made her unequivocally guilty.[30]

When the Lords of the Council came for her, she panicked and screamed aloud, as they manhandled her into the waiting barge that would escort her to the Tower on Friday 10 February 1542, her flotilla passing under London Bridge where the heads of Culpeper and Dereham were impaled (and remained until 1546). Entering through the Traitors' Gate she was led to her prison cell. The next day, the bill of attainder received Royal Assent, and Catherine's execution was scheduled for 7.00 am on Monday, 13 February 1542.[30] Arrangements for the execution were supervised by Sir John Gage in his role as Constable of the Tower.[31]

The night before her execution, Catherine is believed to have spent many hours practising how to lay her head upon the block, which had been brought to her at her request.[32] She died with relative composure, but looked pale and terrified, she required assistance to climb the scaffold. She made a speech describing her punishment as "worthy and just" and asked for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. According to popular folklore, her final words were, "I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper", however no eye witness accounts back this up. Instead, reporting that she stuck to traditional final words, asking for forgiveness for her sins and acknowledging that she deserved to die 'a thousand deaths' for betraying the king; who had always treated her so graciously. Catherine was beheaded with a single stroke of the executioner's axe.[33]

Lady Rochford was executed immediately thereafter on Tower Green. Both their bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in the nearby chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, where the bodies of Catherine's cousins Anne and George Boleyn also lay.[34] Other cousins were also in the crowd, including the Earl of Surrey. King Henry did not attend. Catherine's body was not one of those identified during restorations of the chapel during Queen Victoria's reign. She is commemorated on a plaque on the west wall dedicated to all those who died in the Tower.[35][36] Upon hearing news of Catherine's execution, Francis I of France wrote a letter to Henry, regretting the "lewd and naughty [evil] behaviour of the Queen" and advising him that "the lightness of women cannot bend the honour of men".[37]


Catherine has been the subject of three modern biographies, A Tudor Tragedy by Lacey Baldwin Smith (1967), Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy by Joanna Denny (2006) and Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne (2014). Each is more or less sympathetic, though they disagree on various important points involving Catherine's motivations, date of birth, and overall character.

Her life has also been described in the five collective studies of Henry's queens that have appeared since the publication of Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991) — such as David Starkey's The Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003). Several of these writers have been highly critical of Catherine's conduct, if sympathetic to her eventual fate. Baldwin Smith described Catherine's life as one of hedonism, and characterised her as a "juvenile delinquent". Weir had much the same judgment, describing her as an "empty-headed wanton". The general trend, however, has been more generous, particularly in the works of Dame Antonia Fraser, Karen Lindsey, David Loades and Joanna Denny.

Portraits of Catherine Howard

The Windsor version of the Holbein miniature
The Buccleuch version of the Holbein miniature
A portrait that had once been considered to be Catherine, but has since been disputed. Some historians believe that the painting is of Elizabeth Seymour.

Painters continued to include Jane Seymour in pictures of King Henry VIII long after she died, mainly because Henry continued to look back on her with favour as the only wife who gave him a son. Most of the artists copied the portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger because it was the only full-sized picture available. After Catherine Howard was executed, even the Howard family removed her picture from their family portrait gallery.

Most historians believe that a portrait miniature (shown here)—which exists in two versions by Holbein (Royal Collection and Duke of Buccleuch)—is the only surviving image of Catherine painted from life (in the case of the Windsor version). The historian David Starkey dated it (from details of her dress and the technique of the miniature) to the short period when Catherine was queen. In it, she wears the same large jewel as Jane Seymour in Holbein's panel portrait in Vienna. Records show that these jewels belonged to the Crown, not to any queen personally, and there is no record that they were removed from the treasury and given to anyone else.[38]

The pearls may tie in with a gift to Catherine from Henry in 1540, and she is the only queen to fit the dating whose appearance is not already known. For female sitters, duplicate versions of miniatures only exist for queens at this period. There are no other plausible likenesses of her to compare to. Both versions have long been documented as of Catherine Howard, since 1736 for the Buccleuch version and 1739 (or at least the 1840s) for the Windsor version.[38]

For centuries, a picture by Holbein was believed to be a portrait of Catherine, which is now in the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. The portrait was identified on the basis of the very close likeness to Holbein's miniature. The image is also known in a number of other versions, including one NPG 1119 owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, titled as "Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard".[39]

Some historians now dispute that the woman in the picture is Catherine. Antonia Fraser has argued that the Toledo portrait is of Jane Seymour's sister, Elizabeth Seymour, on the basis that the woman bears a remarkable resemblance to Jane, especially around the chin, and is wearing the clothes of a widow, which Catherine never had occasion to wear. However, black clothes do not necessarily signify mourning, and, because black was a more expensive dye, were often worn to signify wealth and status.

One other possibility is that the portrait shows Henry's Scottish niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, the mother-in-law of Mary, Queen of Scots. So, whilst debate continues about the identity of the Toledo portrait, the miniature shown above is very likely to be Henry's fifth queen.

Portrayal in media

On stage

In film

In novels

In music



  1. There are several different spellings of "Catherine" that were in use during the 16th century and by historians today. Her one surviving signature spells her name "Kathryn" but this archaic spelling is rarely used anymore. Her chief biographer, Lacey Baldwin Smith, uses the common modern spelling "Catherine"; other historians, Antonia Fraser, for example, use the traditional English form "Katherine".



  1. Lionel Cust, 'A Portrait of Queen Catherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger (Burlington Magazine, 17, 1910)
  2. Mannock 1982.
  3. Byrne, Conor (1 August 2014). "Katherine Howard's Birthday". On the Tudor Trail. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  4. Roberts, Howard; Godfrey, Walter H., eds. (1951). Norfolk House and Old Paradise Street. Survey of London. 23. pp. 137–140. British History Online. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  5. "Catherine Howard". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  6. Weir, Henry VIII, p.424
  7. 1 2 Ridgway, Claire (28 July 2010). "The Marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine Howard". Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  8. Weir 1991, p. 413.
  9. Letters and Papers; Correspandance Politique; Weir, Henry VIII, p.432-3
  10. Boutell 1863, p. 243.
  11. Letters and Papers; Weir, Henry VIII, p.437
  12. Correspandance; Weir, Henry VIII, p.437
  13. Letters and Papers; Correspondance; Weir, Henry VIII, p.440-1
  14. BL Royal MSS, State Papers; BL Add MSS; Weir, Henry VIII, p.446-7
  15. Letters and Papers; Correspondance; Spanish Papers; Weir, Henry VIII, p.449
  16. Letters and Papers; Hall, Triumphant; Weir, Henry VIII, p.454
  17. Weir, Henry VIII, p.449
  18. "Letter of Queen Catherine Howard to Master Thomas Culpeper, Spring 1541". Catherine Howard. Retrieved 31 December 2013.
  19. Farquhar 2001, p. 77.
  20. Smith 1961, pp. 170–171.
  21. Smith 1961, p. 173.
  22. Letters and Papers; Acts of the Privy Council; Weir, Henry VIII, p.453
  23. Herman 2006, pp. 81–82.
  24. Weir, Henry VIII, p.453
  25. Weir 1991, p. 483
  26. 1 2 Weir 1991, p. 474.
  27. Correspondance Politique; Calendar of State Papers, Spanish; Weir, Henry VIII, p.456-7
  28. Weir 1991, p. 478.
  29. Ives, Fall Reconsidered; Weir, The Lady, p.82
  30. 1 2 Weir 1991, p. 481.
  31. Potter, David (2002). "Sir John Gage, Tudor Courtier and Soldier (1479–1556)". The English Historical Review. 117 (474): 1129. doi:10.1093/ehr/117.474.1109.
  32. Weir 1991, p. 480.
  33. Russell, Gareth (13 February 2011). "February 13th, 1542: The Execution of Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn". Confessions of a Ci-Devant. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  34. Weir 1991, p. 482.
  35. Wheeler 2008.
  36. Weir, Henry VIII, p.457-8
  37. Weir 1991, p. 475.
  38. 1 2 Strong 1983, p. 50.
  39. "Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 1 January 2014.
  40. "Elena Valentine, Filmography".
  41. 1 2 Richardson II 2011, p. 411.
  42. Richardson II 2011, p. 409.
  43. Richardson II 2011, p. 412.
  44. Lord Edmund Howard, Catherine Howard's father, was the brother of Lady Elizabeth Howard, mother of Anne Boleyn (second wife of Henry VIII of England), making Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn first cousins.
  45. Richardson II 2011, pp. 415-416.
  46. Richardson II 2011, p. 415.
  47. Richardson II 2011, pp. 414–416.
  48. Richardson IV 2011, pp. 129–130.
  49. Richardson IV 2011, pp. 107–108.
  50. Richardson IV 2011, p. 108.
  51. Richardson IV 2011, p. 108.
  52. Richardson IV 2011, p. 107.


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  • Lawrence-Young, D. (2014). Catherine Howard - Henry's Fifth Failure. Fayetteville, North Carolina: GMTA Publishing/Celestial Press. ISBN 978-06159-69527. 
  • Lindsey, Karen (1995). Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-201-40823-6. 
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Secondary sources
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Catherine Howard.
English royalty
Title last held by
Anne of Cleves
Queen consort of England
28 July 1540 – 23 November 1541
Title next held by
Catherine Parr
Lady of Ireland
28 July 1540 – 23 November 1541
Crown of Ireland Act 1542
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