Catherine Howard

Catherine Howard (born between 1520 and 1525; died February 13, 1542) was the fifth queen consort of Henry VIII of England (1540-1542), and sometimes known by his reference to her as "the rose without a thorn." Her birthdate and place of birth is unknown, (occasionally cited as 1521, probably in London). She was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard, a poor younger son of 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Catherine married Henry VIII on July 28, 1540, at Oatlands Palace in Surrey, almost immediately after his divorce from Anne of Cleves was arranged. However, Catherine's marital conduct and past sexual history were known to be unchaste, and she was beheaded after less than two years of marriage on the grounds of treason.

Rise and fall

Early life

It is hard to say precisely when Catherine was born, although the year has been estimated as 1521 or some other point between 1520 and 1525. She was the niece of the Duke of Norfolk, and a first cousin to Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary Boleyn, both former lovers to Henry VIII.

Catherine's family therefore had an aristocratic pedigree, but her father, a younger son, was constantly in debt and begging for handouts from his more powerful relatives. His niece, Anne Boleyn, got him a government job working for the king in Calais in 1531. At this point, young Catherine was sent to live with her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.

The Dowager Duchess ran a large household at Lambeth Palace, and she had numerous female and male attendants, along with her many wards; usually the children of relatives who could not afford to support their families. Supervision was lax, as the Dowager Duchess was often at Court and took little interest in the upbringing and education of her wards.

Consequently, Catherine was the least educated of Henry's wives, although she could read and write, unlike many English women of her time. Her character is often described as merry and vivacious, but never scholarly or devout, and a casual upbringing in the licentious atmosphere of the Duchess's household led to a romance with her music teacher, Henry Mannox around 1536, when Catherine was between the ages of twelve and sixteen.

Mannox and Catherine both denied later that they had consummated their relationship, but their involvement was well-known throughout Lambeth Palace. She admitted during her adultery trial that they engaged in physical contact similar to sexual foreplay: "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."

This affair came to an end in 1538, when Catherine fell for a young secretary, Francis Dereham. They did become lovers, addressing each other as "husband" and "wife." Dereham also entrusted Catherine with wifely duties such as keeping his money when he was away on business. Many of Catherine's roommates knew of the affair, and it was apparently ended in 1539 when the Dowager Duchess caught wind of the matter. Despite this, Catherine and Dereham may have parted with intentions to marry upon his return from Ireland, a "precontract," as it was then known.

The Six Wives of
King Henry VIII
Catherine of Aragon
Anne Boleyn
Jane Seymour
Anne of Cleves
Catherine Howard
Catherine Parr

Arrival at Court

Catherine's uncle found her a place at the court of Henry VIII. As a young and very attractive lady-in-waiting to Henry's new German wife, Queen Anne of Cleves, Catherine quickly caught the attention of the King, who displayed little interest in Anne from the start. Her relatives privately doubted that the young woman was mature enough to handle the responsibilities of being the King's mistress, as she had just arrived at Court a few months earlier, but other factors were at play. The memory of Anne Boleyn's death for supposed adultery marred the standing of the Norfolks (a family proud of their grand lineage) in Henry VIII's court, and the Catholic family saw Catherine as a figurehead for their mission to restore the Catholic faith to England. As the King's interest in their relative grew, so did their influence.

Within months of her arrival at Court, Henry bestowed gifts of land and expensive cloth upon Catherine. When Henry had his marriage to Anne annulled in June 1540, rumours swirled that Catherine was pregnant with his son. Their quick marriage a month later reflected Henry's lifelong urgency to secure the Tudor succession by bearing healthy sons.


Henry, rapidly nearing fifty and expanding in girth, showered his young bride with wealth, jewels and fantastically expensive gifts. War with France and the Reformation had cost Henry the goodwill of his people, and he was then suffering from a number of ailments. The presence of a young and seemingly virtuous Catherine in his life brought him great happiness. Her motto, "Non autre volonte que la sienne" or "No other wish (will) but his," reflects her queenly desire to keep Henry, a man thirty years older than she was, content.

However, despite her wealth and power, Catherine found her marital relations unappealing. She was not pregnant upon marriage, and became repulsed by her husband's grotesque body. In early 1541, she embarked upon a lighthearted romance with Henry's favourite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper, who she initially desired when she came to court two years earlier. Their meetings were arranged by one of Catherine's older ladies-in-waiting, Lady Jane Rochford. It is unclear whether Catherine and Culpeper ever committed adultery, but the length and intensity of their affair points to a significant relationship.

Meanwhile, Henry and Catherine toured England together in the summer of 1541, and preparations for any signs of pregnancy (which would lead to a coronation) were in place, indicating that the married couple were sexually active with each other. As Catherine's extramarital liaison progressed, people who had witnessed her indiscretions at Lambeth Palace began to contact her for favours. In order to buy their silence, she appointed many of them to her household. Most disastrously, she appointed Henry Mannox as one of her musicians and Francis Dereham as her private secretary.


By late 1541, the "northern progress" of England had ended, and Catherine's indiscretions rapidly became known thanks to John Lascelles, a Protestant reformer whose wife, Mary Hall, was a chambermaid to the Dowager Duchess and therefore witnessed Catherine's youthful liaisons. Motivated by the growing threat to his faith of conservative Catholicism, Lascelles presented the information to Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury and a close advisor of Henry's.

Cranmer, aware that any precontract with Dereham would invalidate Catherine's marriage to Henry, gave Henry a letter with the accusations against Catherine on November 2, 1541, as they attended an All Souls' Day mass. Henry at first refused to believe the allegations, thinking the letter was a forgery, and requested Cranmer further investigate the matter. Within a few days, corroborative proof was found, most notably the confessions issued from Dereham and Culpeper after they were tortured in the Tower of London.

Catherine was arrested on November 12, and screamed for the King as she was taken to her rooms in Hampton Court, where she was confined, accompanied only by Lady Rochford. Her pleas to see Henry were ignored, and Cranmer interrogated her regarding the charges.

While a precontract between Catherine and Dereham would have the unfortunate effect of terminating Catherine's royal marriage, it also would have allowed Henry to quickly annul their marriage and banish her from court. Catherine would be disgraced, impoverished, and exiled, but ultimately spared the grisly fate of Anne Boleyn. However, she steadfastly denied any precontract, stating that Dereham forced himself upon her.

Imprisonment and death

Catherine was imprisoned in Syon House, Middlesex, through the winter of 1541 and stripped of her title as queen on November 22. Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were executed at Tyburn on December 8, 1541 -- the former beheaded, the latter hanged, drawn and quartered -- for treasonous conduct. As customary, their heads were placed atop London Bridge. Her relatives were also detained in the Tower, except her grandfather Thomas, the Duke of Norfolk, who had sufficiently detached himself from the scandal.

She remained in suspension until Parliament passed a bill of attainder on January 21, 1542, that made the intent to commit treason punishable by death. This solved the matter of Catherine's supposed precontract and made her unequivocally guilty, as adultery by a queen was treason. She was taken to the Tower of London on February 10, 1542. On February 11, Henry signed the bill of attainder into law, and Catherine's execution was scheduled for 7 AM on February 13.

The night before her execution, Catherine spent many hours practising how to lay her head upon the block. She died with relative composure, but looked pale and terrified, and required assistance to climb the scaffold. Her speech about the "worthy and just punishment' asked for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. She was quickly beheaded with one stroke, and buried in the nearby chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where her cousin, Anne Boleyn, also lay. Henry was not present.

Francis I of France wrote a letter to Henry upon news of Catherine's death, regretting the "lewd and naughty behaviour of the Queen" and advising him that "The lightness of women cannot bend the honour of men". When Sir William Paget had informed him of Catherine's misconduct, he exclaimed "She hath done wondrous naughty!".[1]

Catherine Howard in artwork

Painters continued to include Jane Seymour in pictures of King Henry VIII years after she was dead, because Henry continued to look back on her with favour as the one wife who gave him a son; most of them copied the portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger because it was the only full-sized picture available. In the opposite situation, after Catherine Howard was executed, even the Howard family removed her picture from their family portrait gallery, because Henry never forgave her for her perfidy. Nobody dared make another portrait of her after she was dead.

For centuries, a picture by Hans Holbein was believed to be the only existing portrait of Catherine. (The image, NPG 1119, is owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, titled as "Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard.") Some historians now doubt that the woman in the picture is Catherine. Recently historian Antonia Fraser has persuasively argued that the above portrait is one of Jane Seymour's sister, Elizabeth Seymour-Cromwell. The woman bears a remarkable resemblance to Jane (especially around the chin) and she is wearing the clothes of a widow, which Catherine never had occasion to wear but Elizabeth Seymour-Cromwell did. Furthermore, the age of the sitter is given as twenty-one; however, Catherine never reached her twenty-first birthday. Even if we accept the earliest possible date for her birth 1520/1521, Catherine would not have turned twenty-one until late 1541 or 1542, by which time she was either imprisoned or dead.

There is another portrait allegedly of Catherine, a watercolour miniature (see above); it has been dated (from details about how she is dressed and how the miniature is made) to the short period when Catherine was queen. In it she is wearing the jewels remarkably similar to those Jane Seymour was wearing in her official portrait; these were jewels the records show belonged to the crown, not to any queen personally, and there is no record of their having been removed from the treasury and given to anyone else. The only 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 it is almost certain that the portrait is not Catherine Howard, but rather Henry's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Seymour-Cromwell, the miniature shown above right is (possibly) Henry's unlucky fifth queen.

In film

Catherine first appeared on the silver screen in 1926, in the silent film Hampton Court Palace, in which she was played by Gabrielle Morton. In 1933, in The Private Life of Henry VIII, she was played by sultry British dancer Binnie Barnes. In this comedy of manners, Catherine chooses to abandon love and ambitiously sets out to seduce the king. Her tragedy comes upon falling in love with the debonair and devoted Thomas Culpeper. This inaccurate telling of Catherine's story dominates the film - which began with the execution of Anne Boleyn (played by Merle Oberon) and ended with Henry's marriage to Catherine Parr (played by Evelyn Gregg.)

American actress Dawn Addams made a 10-second appearance as the doomed queen in the 1952 romantic film Young Bess, with Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, Stewart Granger as Thomas Seymour and Jean Simmons as Elizabeth I.

In 1970, Angela Pleasance gave a melodramatic performance in a 90-minute BBC television drama The Six Wives of Henry VIII opposite Keith Michell as Henry VIII, Patrick Troughton as the duke of Norfolk and Sheila Burrell as Lady Rochford. In this version of events a shrill, indulgent, cruel, hedonistic Catherine uses the naïve Culpeper to try and get herself pregnant in order to secure her position. The characterisations and plot-lines were very inaccurate - unusually, since the other 5 dramas in this series were widely praised in historical circles.

Catherine Howard made a cameo appearance, played by Monika Dietrich, in the 1971 slapstick British comedy Carry On Henry, with Sid James as Henry VIII. Two years later, Lynne Frederick portrayed Queen Catherine in The Six Wives of Henry VIII opposite Keith Michell as Henry VIII.

In 2001, Michelle Abrahams played Catherine in Dr. David Starkey's television documentary on Henry's queens.

In 2003, Emily Blunt gave a more sympathetic portrayal of Catherine in the ITV television drama Henry VIII which chose to focus almost entirely on Catherine's sexual escapades. Once again, her adultery was explained by her relatives' desire for her to get pregnant. One inaccuracy in the drama was that Catherine is shown crying and screaming with fear at her execution, when accounts suggest she died in a more dignified manner. Ray Winstone starred as Henry VIII in the drama.


Victorian writer Agnes Strickland argued that Catherine had been innocent of all charges laid against her. Others, namely American historian Lacey Baldwin Smith, described her life as one of "hedonism" and Catherine as a "juvenile delinquent." Alison Weir, in her 1991 book The Six Wives of Henry VIII, described her as "an empty-headed wanton."

Other biographers are more sympathetic -- particularly David Starkey, who offered revolutionary theories on Catherine's adultery, and feminist activist Karen Lindsey, who was sympathetic but realistic in her assessment of Catherine Howard's personality.


  1. ^ B Alison Weir, Six Wives of Henry VIII, Grove Presws, 2000. ISBN 0802136834. See page 475.


  • The Rose Without a Thorn: The Wives of Henry VIII: a historical novel by Jean Plaidy(1993)
  • Katherine Howard by Jessica Smith (1972)
  • Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey (1999) (ISBN 0201408236)
  • Six Wives : The Queens of Henry VIII (reprinted 2004) by David Starkey (ISBN 0060005505)
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir (1993) (ISBN 0802136834)
  • A Tudor tragedy: The life and times of Catherine Howard by Lacey Baldwin Smith (1961)
Preceded by:
Anne of Cleves
Wives of Henry VIII Followed by:
Catherine Parr


Preceded by:
Anne of Cleves
Queen Consort of England
28 July 1540 – 13 February 1542
Succeeded by:
Catherine Parr

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