Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard, the second and fifth wives of Henry VIII, were first cousins. Anne’s mother Elizabeth was the sister of Katheryn’s father, Lord Edmund Howard, the third son of the Duke of Norfolk. It is unlikely that Anne and Katheryn ever met, but Katheryn would have been aware of Anne’s rise to queenship, her coronation in 1533 and her bloody end on the scaffold in 1536. On the evidence of the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, Katheryn was then fifteen, old enough to be well aware of this sensational event.
Marillac wrote of Katheryn’s ‘beauty and sweetness’. The Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, thought her ‘imperious and wilful’. She was flighty, pleasure-loving and sensual, and could also be high-handed, quick-tempered and arrogant. Yet she had a kind heart, using her influence to assist those in trouble, and there is no evidence that she displayed the volatility of her cousin Anne. She was fickle and weak-willed. Her stupidity could be astonishing, and it seems that this naïve, poorly educated girl had little comprehension of the dangers and intrigues surrounding her in her brief burst of fame.
It was Anne Boleyn who, in 1531, helped to secure for Lord Edmund Howard the post of comptroller of Calais, which necessitated his moving overseas and leaving his children to be brought up by relatives. This was not as callous as it sounds, for it was usual for the sons and daughters of the nobility to be placed in great households, the boys to be trained for knighthood and the girls to learn the skills and social graces that would help them to make good marriages or even obtain a place at court. The Duke of Norfolk obtained a place for his niece Katheryn in the large household of her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Katheryn stayed with her for the rest of her formative years, living mainly at the Duchess’s town house at Lambeth or at Chesworth, her country mansion near Horsham, Sussex. The Duchess kept a grand household and supported many Howard dependents of gentle birth. Most people would have considered Katheryn fortunate to have been so well placed.
In April 1533, Anne Boleyn was proclaimed queen. The Howards exulted, and Katheryn would have been aware of their elevated standing in the kingdom. With one of their house occupying the queen consort’s throne, good times were ahead: they could bask in royal favour and look for honours and preferments. At Anne’s coronation, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk was granted the high privilege of bearing her train. There must have been great excitement at Lambeth, and we might wonder if Katheryn was watching among the crowds who lined the banks of the Thames as Anne passed in her barge at the centre of a great river pageant. At the coronation, Katheryn’s brother-in-law, Thomas Arundell, was one of those who were knighted.
It is possible that the Howards groomed Katheryn to serve as a maid-of-honour to the Queen; at twelve, she would have been eligible for the post. But she was not appointed, and that may have been because of the King’s exasperation with her father, who was mismanaging his affairs in Calais.
At Lambeth, Katheryn was close to events. In 1533, Anne bore her first child. It was not the male heir the King so desperately desired, but a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. The Dowager Duchess was chosen as godmother and carried the child to her baptism at Greenwich.
The Queen bore a stillborn child in 1534 and miscarried a male foetus in January 1536. By then her relations with Henry had become volatile. At the end of April, the King`s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, laid before his master compelling evidence that she had been unfaithful to him with five men, one her own brother, and had plotted to assassinate him so that she could marry one of her lovers and rule England in Elizabeth’s name.
Anne was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Her alleged lovers were condemned to death, then she herself was found guilty of treason. The sensational news of her arrest and her execution flew around London and far beyond like wildfire. Katheryn must have heard it and been aware of its impact. It is not hard to imagine the demoralising effect Anne’s fall had on the Duchess’s household and the Howards. Suddenly, they were in deep disfavour. The Boleyns had been crushed, their faction toppled and discredited in less than three weeks. The Howards had to keep their heads down in order to save themselves from being swept up in the fallout. Having presided over Anne’s trial, the Duke of Norfolk deemed it politic, in the wake of the fall of his `false, traitorous niece’, to retire from court for a time, and was not recalled until later in 1536, when he was needed to help put down the northern rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Norfolk was sufficiently restored to favour by 1539, when he secured for Katheryn a post as maid-of-honour to Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. She finally went to court late in 1539 and served alongside several ladies who had been in Anne Boleyn’s household, notably Jane Parker, Lady Rochford, the widow of Anne’s brother George. When Katheryn became queen, one of her maids was Mrs Stonor, who had waited upon Anne in the Tower. Katheryn could not have failed to learn more of the circumstances of Anne’s fall.
Henry VIII married her in July 1540. He could not stop proclaiming to the world what a jewel of womanhood he had found in her. He caressed her openly in public and extolled her beauty and her virtue. But Katheryn had a past of which Henry knew nothing, and it came back increasingly to haunt her. Neglected by the Dowager Duchess, ill-educated and left to run wild and share a dormitory with other female dependents, Katheryn had not been an unwilling partner when her music master, Henry Manox, had tried to seduce her when she was fifteen or sixteen. The Duchess had come upon them together and boxed their ears for their naughtiness, but had then lost interest in Katheryn again.
The girls in the dormitory had been in the habit of admitting young men late at night and indulging in midnight feasts and less innocent pleasures. Katheryn had joined in and come under the dangerous influence of a distant cousin, Francis Dereham, a man at least twelve years her senior. Soon they began sleeping together behind the drawn curtains of her bed and calling each other husband and wife. This went on until Dereham went away and Katheryn was called to a higher destiny.
At court, before Henry VIII began pressing his suit to her, Katheryn had been dreaming of marriage with a ‘beautiful youth’ called Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber. In 1536, when the Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Henry Norris, was executed for adultery with Anne Boleyn, Culpeper succeeded him and ‘was in like favour with his master’. Like Katheryn, Culpeper too can have been in no doubt as to what happened to those who betrayed the King. Yet, in the spring of 1541, he began to pursue Katheryn. Soon, they were arranging secret trysts, with the help of Lady Rochford. Once, they even met in Katheryn’s privy.
Lady Rochford eagerly encouraged the affair. Why she urged Katheryn and Culpeper to involve themselves in an adulterous relationship that she, of all people, must have known constituted high treason, seems unfathomable. Did she get a vicarious pleasure from it? Did she have feelings for Culpeper herself, which she knew could never be satisfied? Did she just have a deep-seated love of intrigue or risk? Or was she looking for lucrative advancement through a grateful queen’s patronage? Whatever her motivation, she cannot but have been aware that she was placing herself and the lovers in grave danger.
It has been argued that she had no choice but to obey Katheryn’s commands to convey messages and arrange meetings, because she was sworn to obey her and could have been dismissed for failing to do so; but Katheryn could hardly have dismissed her without giving the King a credible reason why, and to have done so would have been to risk an angry Lady Rochford betraying her. Lady Rochford could easily have warned one of the Privy Councillors of what was going on, just as the lowlier John Lascelles would later approach Cranmer with what he knew about Katheryn’s past.
It has also been suggested that, in encouraging Katheryn to commit adultery, Lady Rochford was exacting revenge on the King for executing her husband, but that does not chime well with evidence that she testified against George Boleyn, and she had been well looked after since by the government.
There may have been more to it than that. Significantly, Culpeper’s pursuit of Katheryn began in February 1541, when Henry VIII was so ill that it was feared he was dying. Deeply depressed, the King went ‘ten or twelve days without seeing his Queen, during which time there was much talk of a divorce; but, owing to some surmise that she was with child, or else because the means for a divorce were not arranged, the affair dropped’. Henry’s loving behaviour to Katheryn before and after this time precludes his having contemplated divorce, so it is more likely that he did not want her to see him in such a pitiable state.
Culpeper may not have expected the King to recover. He may have believed that Katheryn would soon be a rich widow, and free to marry him. Marriage with a queen dowager would have conferred great status and influence on him. Lady Rochford may have envisaged this too and hoped that the grateful couple would keep her in comfort for life.
Katheryn sent Culpeper ‘word through Lady Rochford, that she was 'languishing and dying of love for him'. According to their later testimony, they did a lot of talking and never had sex. Lady Rochford later stated that Katheryn was in no doubt of the risks she was taking. 'This will be spied one day, and then we will all be undone,' the young Queen warned. Her behaviour surpasses belief; with the example of her cousin, Anne Boleyn, before her, how could she have acted so rashly? It has been said that both she and Lady Rochford acted with 'unbelievable imbecility’.
Katheryn may well have anticipated that Henry VIII would die before her affair with Culpeper was discovered. It would have cheered her to know that she had a good life ahead of her in widowhood. A dubious source, the ‘Spanish Chronicle’, had her declaring on the scaffold, 'I die a queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper.’ She never said it, but the words may have reflected her sentiments. She may have reasoned that, if she was discovered, the King loved her so much that he would forgive her any transgressions, especially as she and Culpeper had never consummated their love. It was the act itself that mattered, wasn’t it?
But Henry VIII did not forgive her. On 13 February 1542, she was beheaded on Tower Green, in ‘the same place where Anne Boleyn suffered’.
The truth may well be that she was so infatuated with her ‘little sweet fool’ that she was prepared to risk all. In his Metrical Visions, composed around 1554, the former courtier George Cavendish imputed Katheryn’s fate to lust, want of reason and unfettered, blind youth. He believed that she and Culpeper were ‘both too feeble our lusts for to resist’, and
‘That beauty and lust, enemies to chastity,
Have been the twain that hath decayed me
And hath brought me to this end untoward,
Sometime a queen, and now [a] headless Howard.’
He may have been right.