The date of Katheryn’s birth is uncertain, anywhere between 1521 and 1527 has been suggested by biographers. In general, it would be fair to say that those biographers who see Katheryn as a victim of child-abuse tend towards the later end of the spectrum, whilst those who see her as a shameless harlot prefer earlier dates. Her two most recent biographers, Byrne and Russell tend to a date around 1522-3. As perhaps the fifth child of a relatively impoverished younger son of the Duke of Norfolk, she was not important enough for her birth to be noted.
Katheryn’s father, Lord Edmund Howard, was the younger son of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. He had been present with his father and brother at the victory at Flodden, but unlike other members of his family, did not have the gift of appealing to the King and, although he had various posts, he was permanently short of money. Eventually he became Comptroller of Calais, but Henry VIII blocked his further advancement. Henry was excellent at choosing outstanding servants and ministers so his estimate of Lord Edmund’s talents was probably justified.
Katheryn’s mother, Joyce Culpepper, had several children by her first marriage, including a daughter, Isabella, who was later one of Katheryn’s ladies-in-waiting. One of at least six herself, Katheryn’s early childhood must have been filled with family.
Joyce died in around 1528, and Lord Edmund had two further wives, but no more children. The location of Katheryn’s early youth is unknown – possibly Oxenhoath in Surrey, her mother's childhood home.
It was customary for children to be put into the household of friends or relatives of higher rank. Whilst Lord Edmund had no money, he did have prestigious relatives, and Katheryn joined the household of her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney, Dowager-duchess of Norfolk in about 1531, aged anything between six and ten.
The duchess was a firm supporter of her other step-granddaughter, Anne Boleyn, and was often in attendance on the queen. In theory, in her absence, Katheryn should have been properly supervised and brought up to be a virtuous young woman, chaste, obedient, and ready to promote her family through a good marriage.
The purpose of Katheryn’s education was to give her the skills she needed to claim a place in the queen’s household, prior to marriage and to protect her virtue to make her a suitable wife for a man the Howards wanted to favour. But Agnes did not take her duties toward the young women in her care with the seriousness that most of her contemporaries displayed. Whilst Katheryn learnt to read and write (skills that made her much better educated than most women) she and the other young women of the household had far more freedom than most gentlewomen.
Nevertheless, Russell, unlike some historians who believe she was entirely neglected, argues that Katheryn was always treated differently from the other girls, as a Howard daughter, and that much of her education centred on the importance of etiquette, and proper deportment. Katheryn excelled in these and was always praised in her public demeanour.
Music was a highly valued skill, so the Dowager Duchess arranged for her to have music lessons. One of her two teachers was Henry Manox, not a professional musician, but the son of a local gentleman connected with the Howards.
As far as can be told from the sources, the lessons began in 1536, when Katheryn was anywhere between eleven and fifteen years old. Before long, Manox was making sexual advances to his pupil. Katheryn rejected his attempts at seduction but she did meet with him privately on several occasions. At this distance of time it is impossible to know whether she was physically coerced, too frightened to ask for help, or, little more than a child, taken in by Manox.
One of the ladies of the household, Mary Lascelles, reprimanded Manox for his attempts to seduce his pupil, but did not take the step of informing the dowager-duchess. Katheryn resisted anything beyond kissing and some intimate touching, pointing out to Manox that he was far below her in rank and could never hope to marry her – at least in part because he was either pre-contracted or already actually married.
Manox may just have been a slimy seducer of young girls, or an ambitious charlatan who thought that if he could seduce a member of the Howard family, and perhaps impregnate her, the family would be forced to allow a marriage (if he were not already definitely committed), instantly moving him up the social ladder.
Other women in the dowager-duchess’ position show in their letters that they strictly monitored the welfare of their gentlewomen, whilst the records of the investigation into Katheryn’s life indicate that the young women were largely unsupervised and in the habit of letting their lovers into their dormitory at night. Even by sixteenth century standards, when twelve was the age of consent and fifteen or sixteen a fairly usual age for marriage of girls in Katheryn’s strata of society, Agnes was negligent. It was her role to protect the young women in her care and fit them for life as wives and mothers in respectable wedlock, not to let them be pawed by servants.
Around 1537, the duchess moved her household to Lambeth, and it was here that Katheryn met Francis Dereham. Dereham is usually referred to as a relative of the Howard family, but we have been unable to establish where he fitted into the family tree. He was in the employ of Katheryn’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk and had previously had a relationship with Joan Bulmer, one of the gentlewomen of the household.
Dereham began a sustained attack on Katheryn’s virtue. Her later testimony is mixed. Her first confession to Archbishop Cranmer describes a relationship with Dereham that was consensual, and affectionate – although it hints that he was always keener than her. Her subsequent answers to Cranmer’s questions suggest that she was very unwilling to enter a sexual relationship with Dereham, and that, initially she might have been raped. Nevertheless, over time, they slept together on numerous occasions. Gifts were exchanged between them – he gave her fashionable ornaments and she gave him shirtsleeves. They called each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. As the law stood, consent, consummation, and the public appearance of being spouses created a valid marriage. But Katheryn maintained firmly that she meant nothing by calling Dereham husband, and that she had never intended marriage. There can be no reason to doubt that assertion – she was eager to join the court, and probably hoped for a more illustrious marriage than to a mere family retainer.
The relationship took place during the autumn and early winter of 1538 – 1539, after which time Dereham left England for Ireland, leaving £100 in Katheryn’s care – an indication that he, at least, thought they were pre-contracted to marry, if not actually married.
Manox, ousted by Dereham, sent a letter to the dowager-duchess, alerting her of untoward goings-on in the household. She investigated, and finding Katheryn and Dereham embracing, in the presence of Joan Bulmer, gave them all a few hearty blows.
In the autumn of 1539, a marriage was agreed between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves. The Duke of Norfolk requested places in the new queen’s household for three of his nieces – Mary Norris, Katherine Carey and Katheryn Howard. Since it was unusual for a maid of honour to serve before she reached the age of sixteen, we can perhaps push Katheryn’s birth date to 1523 or before.
There has been speculation about the level of knowledge the duke had about his niece’s sexual relationships. Whilst the dowager-duchess knew about Manox, and perhaps that Dereham and Katheryn had been close, there is no evidence that she shared her knowledge with her stepson. Since in 1539 neither she nor Norfolk could have had any idea that Katheryn would be noticed by Henry, Agnes probably kept her knowledge to herself lest Katheryn’s marriage prospects be damaged.
The new queen arrived in January, and Katheryn took up her duties. It seems that during this period she met and became interested in Thomas Culpepper, a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber, and a distant cousin. The attraction was mutual, and there may have been talk of marriage.
There were several Thomas Culpeppers, in and about the court, one of whom was guilty of rape and murder. Whilst there is no certainty which was Katheryn’s potential husband, it does not seem likely that Henry, who took a high moral tone in general, would have kept a rapist and murderer amongst his closest companions.
As soon as Henry set eyes on Katheryn he was attracted to her, but the marriage to Anne went ahead, so it is possible that, aware of the attraction, Norfolk and Agnes thought that Katheryn might become a royal mistress. In such a case, Agnes would probably not have seen any benefit in alerting Henry to the fact that her step-granddaughter was not a virgin. It was hardly a pre-requisite for being a king’s mistress.
Soon, however, it was obvious that the royal marriage had no future, and an annulment was sought. Henry and Katheryn probably slept together first sometime after Easter 1540. Henry had a penchant for being married, rather than having mistresses, and he married Katheryn, perhaps hoping she was pregnant, on 28th July 1540 at Oatlands in Surrey. The king was dotingly in love, fondling his wife in public, singing her praises as his ‘rose without a thorn’ and showering her with gifts.
Katheryn, still no more than nineteen, and perhaps as young as sixteen, had little experience to guide her in the situation she now found herself. Unlike her predecessors, she had very limited knowledge of court life, and the only queen she had seen was Anne of Cleves, whose short tenure and unhappy relationship with Henry had not allowed her to carve out a role as queen.
As queen, Katheryn was in a position to dispense patronage to family and friends, as other queens had before, and as was expected in a society where networking and place-hunting were part of the social structure. It was not surprising that Katheryn, as well as appointing her sisters and half-sisters to her court, also found places for some of her former friends from Agnes’ household. It has been assumed that Joan Bulmer, who wrote a letter to Katheryn early on in her metamorphosis from maid-of-honour to queen, that can be read as blackmail, was one of the appointees, but Russell’s research suggests she was never actually appointed. Nor, at this time, was Francis Dereham, still in Ireland.
Katheryn’s public persona as queen was admired. Her grace and charm and her manners were commented on favourably, and she also received credit for interceding successfully with the king to spare Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir John Wallop, both in prison accused of treason. Whether Katheryn intervened of her own volition, or whether it was orchestrated as was often the case when queens interceded with their husbands so that the king could change his mind without losing face, is unknown.
Katheryn the Queen
Whatever Katheryn might have felt toward Dereham in 1538, by 1540, she had no interest in him whatsoever. But she had become attached to Thomas Culpepper. She sent him a letter, the only known extant letter by her. In it, her affection is obvious, ‘it makes my heart die to think I cannot be always in your company.’ Tudor letters were much more lavish with compliments and protestations of love than modern communications, but, from a queen to a subject, this was strong stuff.
There is no date in the letter. It has been suggested as belonging to April 1541, although Russell has it as later, during the Northern progress of that summer. It tells Culpepper to come to her when Lady Rochford is in attendance. Oddly, it asks him to procure a horse for her servant, saying she has trouble getting one. This does not seem consistent with Katheryn being queen – surely she could have ordered any number of horses? Could the letter actually date to a time before she was queen, and have been used as evidence against her?
In late spring, 1541, Henry decided to undertake a progress to the north of England. In 1536, the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace had been partially bought off with a promise of a Parliament to be held at York, along with a coronation for Queen Jane. Neither had occurred, but Henry now decided to visit his rebellious northerners, and also hoped to meet his nephew, James V of Scotland.
The royal couple set out on 30 July, finally reaching York in the late summer, where they waited in vain for James. During this period, Katheryn was faced with the reappearance of Francis Dereham. He came to her at Pontefract Castle, armed with a letter from Agnes, asking Katheryn to give him a place in her household.
This seems a surprising request from the dowager-duchess. Perhaps she thought it would be better for Katheryn to have earn her erstwhile lover’s gratitude – or perhaps she did not think the relationship had been more than a few kisses, and that having Dereham around would not compromise the queen. Dereham was not appointed as secretary as is sometimes stated, but as gentleman usher.
The court was back at Hampton Court by the end of October, and on 1 November, Henry ordered a thanksgiving service, to show his appreciation for his wife.
Doom was approaching Katheryn. The servant of the Dowager Duchess, Mary Lascelles, who had warned Manox about his treatment of Katheryn, had told her brother, John, about Katheryn’s past. John Lascelles, a committed Protestant, informed Archbishop Cranmer.
The explanation given for Lascelles’ revelations, is that he wanted to strengthen the reforming party at Court, rather than the traditionalists, led by Norfolk. But that perhaps puts a political perspective, born of hindsight, onto his actions. He was a devout man (he was burnt in 1546 for heresy) and may have been appalled at the thought of a queen who had not been chaste before marriage.
Cranmer lost no time in sharing the news with Henry, slipping a paper into the king’s place at the Chapel Royal. Henry was, initially, disbelieving, thinking that the accusations were evil slanders, with no basis in truth. He ordered an immediate investigation, with the aim of clearing his wife’s name.
Dereham and Manox were sent to the Tower for questioning. Before long, aided in his recollections by torture, Dereham attempted to exculpate himself by asserting that, whilst he had had sex with Katheryn before her marriage, she had had no interest in him afterward, and was, in fact, in love with Culpepper.
Henry was beside himself with grief and rage. He wanted to take a sword and run Katheryn through for the grief she had caused him. He swore that the pains she would suffer would be greater than any pleasure she might have had, and then collapsed into tears.
Cranmer was sent to extract a confession from a nearly hysterical Katheryn. He told her that Henry would be merciful towards her, which calmed her down, and then pushed her to admitting her relationship with Dereham. It seems that he hoped to demonstrate a pre-contract, which would have allowed an annulment of her marriage to Henry, but Katheryn either did not understand the implications of the legal situation, or was too honest to lie. She maintained that she had never intended to marry Dereham.
Before long, even the hope of a reprieve on this score was removed, as orders came to Cranmer not to mention it again. This was probably once suspicion had fallen on Culpepper.
On 14th November, Katheryn was taken from Hampton Court to Syon House, a dissolved Bridgettine convent.
Both Katheryn and Culpepper vigorously denied having committed adultery, but they could not deny that they had spent time together in secret, aided and abetted by Katheryn’s chief lady. This was Jane, Lady Rochford whose husband, George Boleyn, had been executed for alleged incest with his sister, Queen Anne Boleyn.
By Act of Attainder, Dereham and Culpepper were convicted of treason and executed on 10 December 1541. Dereham by the full horror of hanging, drawing and quartering, and Culpepper by the axe. Whatever the relationship with Culpepper had been, there was no evidence at all that Dereham had laid a finger on Katheryn once she was queen.
On 22 December, the king’s Council demoted Katheryn from the rank of queen. Two days later she was indicted for treason. An Act of Attainder was passed by Parliament on 27 January 1542, despite some misgivings amongst the legislators, as there was no proof that Katheryn had committed adultery. Henry signed the act into law on 11th February, the day after Katheryn had been sent to the Tower.
The following day, Sunday, 12th February, Katheryn was informed that she would die that Monday. She called for the block to brought to her so that she could practice her last moments – perhaps not wanting to be overcome by fear in public.
The next morning Katheryn was beheaded. Her body was interred near that of her cousin, Anne Boleyn, in St Peter ad Vincula.