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Portrait of Catherine Howard

Guilty or innocent? The 'crimes' of Catherine Howard

Image: Public Domain

Despite being overshadowed by his earlier wives, Catherine Howard’s short marriage to Henry VIII was perhaps the most tragic and scandalous. Just a child at the time of their marriage, Catherine has since been demonised, sexualised and made the villain of a story that played out around her.

Executed for treason on 13th February 1542, it’s believed that Catherine was only seventeen at the time of her death. How, then, could such a young girl have committed atrocities against the crown that led to her execution? Here’s the story of Catherine Howard that your history lessons might have overlooked.

Who was Catherine Howard?

The tenth child born to her mother, Joyce Culpepper, Catherine was believed to have been born between 1518 and 1524 in Lambeth. Little is known about her childhood except that it was one of hardship and struggle.

Despite being the first cousin of Anne Boleyn, Catherine had few prospects for her future as a child. Her father, Lord Edmund Howard, was a second son and, as such, not set to inherit a great fortune. His peers viewed him as a weak man who was easily bullied by his wife and was often seen begging for money from his more influential family members.

With such a large family to support, when Joyce Culpepper died in 1528, Catherine and several of her siblings were sent to live in the care of Edmund’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.

The Duchess was responsible for multiple wards, mostly girls from aristocratic families who had little money and no prospects, and took little to no interest in their care. The girls were often left unsupervised and given a very limited education. Some of the older girls would steal food and wine from the kitchens and let men into the girls sleeping areas.

Despite her family's seeming indifference to her, Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, found her a place in the Tudor court as one of the ladies in waiting for Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleeves. Often described as vivacious, giggly, and brisk, Catherine hadn’t been prepared for life in court. It was likely that Norfolk had sought the place in court for Catherine in the hopes that she could return the family to favour following the death of Anne Boleyn.

Within months of her arrival at court, Henry was showering Catherine with gifts, and the favour of the Norfolks began to rise once again.

How old was Catherine Howard when she became queen?

While we are uncertain of the exact date of her birth, most historians agree that she was probably around nineteen at the time of her marriage to the 49-year-old monarch. The four-year window of her birth, however, does mean Catherine may have been as young as fifteen when she first came to the Tudor court.

Did Catherine Howard commit treason?

Catherine pleaded guilty to her crimes against the crown, but it’s difficult to argue whether her actions were treasonous.

It didn’t take long for rumours to start making their way through the court around Catherine and her suitability as queen. Her child-like behaviour and lack of social graces put more than a few noses out of joint, but perhaps the most alarming rumours were those that called into question Catherine’s dedication to her husband.

Stories of Catherine’s past sexual encounters during her time with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk were recounted to the King’s advisors, and eyewitness accounts of improper behaviour from Catherine’s childhood began to surface from various members of the court.

It didn’t take long for stories of sexual encounters between the Queen and one of the King’s friends, Thomas Culpepper, to make their way back to the King. Rumours of infidelity led to a search of Culpepper’s chambers, where a letter written in Catherine’s hand was found expressing her love and affection for Culpepper.

A trial into Catherine was launched, and old relationships were scrutinised. Her previous lovers were questioned and recounted their versions of past events with the young queen.

Was Catherine Howard groomed?

The first relationship attributed to Catherine was that between her and Henry Manox, her middle-aged music teacher. Caught in an embrace by the Dowager Duchess, Catherine and Manox both confessed to having engaged in a relationship that was sexual but stressed that they did not sleep together. Catherine was no more than thirteen at the time.

The following relationship queried was that between Catherine and Francis Dereham, the Dowager Duchess’ secretary. When interviewed, Dereham claimed that they had been pre-contracted to marry, but when the pair were caught in a compromising position, the Duchess had sent him away to work in Ireland.

Pre-contracts were common in Tudor times and, when consummated, were considered married in the eyes of the church. If Catherine and Dereham had, as he claimed, been pre-contracted, then Catherine’s marriage to Henry would have been considered illegitimate. If this were the case, then Henry could have annulled their marriage and banished Catherine instead of having her executed, saving both her and Dereham from the executioner.

Catherine, who had been fourteen at the time of her relationship with Dereham, denied any pre-existing contract between the pair and staunchly claimed throughout her trial that he had raped her.

Catherine Howard: Victim or Villain?

Catherine was stripped of her title on 23rd November 1541 and imprisoned. Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham were hung, drawn and quartered for high treason on 10th December.

Catherine, however, remained imprisoned until February as Parliament changed the laws and introduced The Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541, making it treason for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to her husband or to incite someone to commit adultery with her. Once the act was passed on 7th February 1542, Catherine was charged with treason and sentenced to death.

The so-called crimes committed by Catherine had, until that point, not been legally considered treason. Worse still is the knowledge that Catherine would have been no older than 21 at the time of her execution.

While villainised by the Tudor court as a scheming and sexually promiscuous woman, in today’s legal understanding, Catherine would be considered a victim. Sexually exploited as a child, manipulated by powerful men, and demonised for her sexuality: the only relationship in Catherine’s life that was one of love with someone her own age was the affair that cost her her life.