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Surviving King Henry VIII

Updated on November 21, 2015
A possible portrait of Queen Catherine Howard.
A possible portrait of Queen Catherine Howard. | Source

Introducing Catherine Howard

The queen was young, just a teenager when she married the aging and infirm King Henry VIII. She was a key political pawn in the game of the Tudor court, which was rife with ambition and betrayal.

And she, devastatingly, would pay the ultimate price.

Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, as played on the Tudors.
Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, as played on the Tudors. | Source

Early Life of Catherine Howard

Queen Catherine Howard was plucked out of relative obscurity as she lived among disinherited nobility in the custody of the Dowager Duchess. Rules were lax in her care, and the young ladies and gentlemen under her protection had several unchaperoned interactions.

Needless to say, it was not the sort of upbringing that would prepare her for the life of a Queen of England.

One such fellow, a Mister Dereham, would frequently call her "wife" and held her in quite high regard. This relationship would affect her down the road, when she was being interrogated by an unforgiving group of inquisitors.

Courtly Life

Queen Catherine Howard, at some point, served Queen Anne of Cleves. After the King's separation from his German bride, he quickly married Catherine. It was likely the best moment of Catherine's short and troubled life.

Catherine Howard developed a reputation of being vivacious, loving to dance, and adorning herself in rich jewels and garments. She was judged to be quite flighty and materialistic, which I think to be unfair judgments of a teenage queen. She had lived a life deprived of attention and opulence, and I think it natural that she would cherish her newfound station in life.

She possessed many strengths and contributions which have been largely unacknowledged. She was very jolly and good-natured. She worked for the advancement of her family and had a tender heart for those who were less fortunate. She even, quite generously, donated warm clothing to Lady Salisbury, an elderly woman who was locked up in the tower of London.

She met the handsome and captivating Thomas Culpeper while at court. She started meeting with him in secret, with the support of her lady-in-waiting, Lady Jane Rochford.

But all was not ideal for the young queen. At some point following her elevation, she enlisted Mister Dereham as her personal secretary. Whether this position was granted as a way to reunite with her past, or as a result of blackmail, we will never know.

Her relationships with Thomas Culpeper and Mister Dereham would later come to light and lead to her downfall.

The ring of Queen Catherine Howard.
The ring of Queen Catherine Howard. | Source

Queen Catherine's Downfall

The queen's past became the king's knowledge as a result of a John Lascelles, whose sister had been a member of the Dowager Duchess' household. Mister Dereham's name ultimately came up as well, with the rumor of a precontract agreement to marry. In the eyes of the Church at that time, simply stating a desire to marry was considered marriage in itself. It would have been enough to terminate the marriage between King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine Howard, but her life would have been spared.

However, she denied any precontract, and matters became complicated when the rumors of a possible affair with Culpeper began to swirl.

Queen Catherine Howard's Letter to Thomas Culpeper.
Queen Catherine Howard's Letter to Thomas Culpeper. | Source

Love Match or Blackmail?

I don't for a second believe there was any kind of love match between Culpeper and Queen Catherine Howard. They both confessed to meeting together in secret on several occasions, but they both denied any kind of romantic relationship. I don't think she was the foolish woman that history makes her out to be. I highly doubt she would have willingly placed herself in a position of having an illegitimate child in a time knowing legitimate children were the only ones who could inherit.

The only physical evidence of any kind of interaction between them came in the form of a letter which was not presented as evidence at her trial. That in itself poses a complication. Was it a forgery? It's very possible, as the letter changes handwriting three separate times. If it was a legitimate letter from the queen, all it does is inform the reader that she wishes to meet with them.

I think it much more likely that he was manipulating the queen. Thomas Culpeper, who had been pardoned for murdering a man, was the sort of person who acted out of his own volition. If he'd been willing to kill a person, to what lengths might he go to gain greater power? I believe he knew, ultimately, that the queen was his easiest way to obtain more status. And he took advantage of that fact.

So, what was really happening? Some have proposed blackmail, but he was taking quite a risk. The queen could just as easily tell the king that she was being harassed by Culpeper, who could have thrown him out of his service. If the letter does indeed hold weight, then it would indicate that the queen held some kind of affection for him to ask to see him again. I could be wrong, but I do not believe for a second that she would have written that letter had he been threatening her.

I think they had conversations in those secret meetings, and I think Culpeper swayed her into believing he cared for her. But did he, truly? I don't think so. I think he was a politician, from the beginning to the end.

Her Story's End?

In reality, the outcome was very tragic for all parties involved. Thomas Culpeper was beheaded, while Mister Dereham suffered a tortuous drawing and quartering before finally expiring. Catherine Howard was executed on Tower Green, and her last words were begging for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul.

But what if she had a different ending to her story?

Fate #1: Henry never finds out about her early life, and remains married. They never produce any children. Henry, frustrated, ends up divorcing her and taking another wife. Afraid of possible consequences, she accepts. She is settled with modest estates, similar to Anne of Cleves but not nearly as elaborate. Because of her reputation of being infertile, she never remarries.

Fate #2: Henry never finds out about her early life, and remains married. Catherine Howard, unable to produce male children for Henry, becomes frustrated when he cheats on her with his string of mistresses. They argue, which erupts into a series of marital conflicts. Henry VIII, in rage, annuls their marriage and she is banished to live out her days in a nunnery.

Fate #3: Henry never finds out about her early life, and remains married. Catherine Howard produces an heir, Edward VII of England. Following the king's death in 1547, Edward VI succeeds the crown. Following his accession, a painful rumor comes to light when Catherine Howard's pre-contract to Francis Dereham surfaces. With this knowledge, Edward VII is declared illegitimate and barred from the succession. After Edward VI dies, there is an uprising but ultimately Edward VII never claims the throne. Edward VI and his Lord Protector seize Catherine's lands and leave her with a single castle. She and her son are banished from court. Catherine and her son live the rest of their days in relative quiet and obscurity in Cambridge.

Fate #4: Henry never finds out about her early life, and remains married. Catherine Howard dies in childbirth after giving birth to her second child, a son. Rumors begin to swirl about Catherine Howard's early life and the precontract between herself and Dereham. The king, furious and in mourning, promises a swift death to anyone who doubts the legitimacy of his child or tarnishes the name of his beloved wife. His son, Edward VII, is placed in line to the succession. King Edward VII assumes the throne after his half-brother, King Edward VI, dies. He rules with an iron fist, similar to his father, and reigns until his death in Spanish captivity in 1564.

Fate #5: Henry finds out about her early life, and divorces her. Disgraced and banished, she travels north to Scotland where she tries to ingratiate herself with the Scottish court. Unsuccessful, she removes herself to work for charitable institutions for the rest of her life. She never remarries.

Which outcome do you like the best? Post below!

Queen Catherine Howard's Fate

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