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The Executions of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham: The Lovers of Katherine Howard

Updated on December 10, 2013
Katherine Howard was executed for her crimes involving Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham.
Katherine Howard was executed for her crimes involving Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham.

On December 10, 1541, two men were executed under the orders of Henry VIII. They were Thomas Culpepper, a member of Henry’s Privy Chamber, and Francis Dereham, Queen Katherine Howard’s personal secretary. Their crimes were for having carnal knowledge of the Queen, traitorous acts according to Henry VIII’s court. However, it is very likely that they were both innocent of the accused crimes.

Thomas Culpepper: Raper or Upstanding Gentleman?

There were two Thomas Culpeppers at court during 1540 and 1541, and to make it even more confusing they were both brothers. This has led to doubts that the Culpepper executed was the one who committed many of the atrocious crimes that Showtime’s The Tudors show that he did. According to the TV show, and some historians, this Culpepper raped a game keeper’s wife and murdered a man who caught him in the act.

However, some historians believe that it was the actions of the older Thomas Culpepper. While Henry VIII did pardon whichever one it was, it would be unlikely that he would have continued to trust the younger Culpepper, and allowed him to be one of the closest members of the Privy Chamber.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t have an affair with the Queen; Henry VIII’s fifth wife. There is a letter to Thomas Culpepper from Katherine Howard, although there is still no confirmation that it is all in her hand. Culpepper did confess to intending to “do ill” with Katherine, and she had the same thoughts. These words would instantly mean treason, as it meant that he was plotting against the King, his Queen, or heirs. It is possible that he simply meant that he wanted to be in a position to marry Katherine after the death of the King—that would have been treason too, since it was treasonous to imagine or speak of the death of the King of England.

Tower Hill Scaffold Site where many men were executed
Tower Hill Scaffold Site where many men were executed | Source

Francis Dereham: Husband of Katherine or Innocent Traitor?

Francis Dereham is another story completely. He was the first to be pulled in for questioning after Henry VIII learned of Katherine Howard’s past, and he made it clear that Thomas Culpepper had succeeded in the Queen’s affections.

According to Dereham, there was a pre-contract in place. He and Katherine would call each other husband and wife, and he admitted to having carnal knowledge of her. There was a promise of marriage after he returned from business in Ireland. By the time he returned, Katherine was the wife of Henry VIII, and she made him her personal secretary.

Did Francis Dereham force his way into the Queen’s life? Showtime’s The Tudors definitely shows that, but it is possible that Katherine wanted to care for her friends. She had been raised by her step-grandmother, and likely cared for some of those close to her. One of her friends from her childhood years became one of her ladies-in-waiting, so it would make sense for her to want to elevate Dereham.

Unfortunately, giving him such a position made it look like she wanted to rekindle the romance. It was suspicious behaviour for the Queen. Many of her enemies used it against her when they wanted to see her fall from power and favour with Henry VIII.

The Trials of Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpepper

Both men were tried by a jury of their peers—although it was not a fair trial. As they were convicted of treason, they were allowed no defence in the court. They didn’t really know all the of evidence against them, even if that evidence was true. It was very similar to the trials of the five men accused of treason five years ago, when second wife, Anne Boleyn, found herself falling from the King’s favour.

Their trials were on December 1, and they were both found guilty of treason. Both would die the traitor’s death, of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Of course, both asked for mercy and petitioned to the king for the nobleman’s death of beheading. Only Thomas Culpepper was granted that right. The reasons for this are unknown, but it is possible that Henry VIII was merciful towards someone he had grown to trust. The Tudors show Henry VIII state that it was out of jealousy; Francis Dereham and had Katherine Howard before him.

The Tudors' Executions of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham

The love letter from Katherine Howard to Thomas Culpepper
The love letter from Katherine Howard to Thomas Culpepper

Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham Executed

The men were drawn to Tyburn from the Tower of London, where they met their executioner. Thomas Culpepper was executed first, with a swift blow from the axe man. The public then watched as Francis Dereham was hanged until almost dead, and then went through the torturous ordeal of being dismembered before being beheaded. Both men’s heads at on top of Tower Bridge where Katherine Howard would later pass and see them. The heads were mainly there to deter others from acting in similar ways.

Katherine Howard would not face her execution for another two months. Henry VIII had to ensure a bill was passed by parliament so the Queen Consort of England could be executed, as she had not officially—there was no evidence—committed treason.


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    • aingham86 profile image

      Alexandria Ingham 4 years ago from UK

      You're welcome, amiebutchko.

      Lybrah, I guess you are referring to the TV show when talking about Francis Dereham. So far, I haven't found anything to support him blackmailing Katherine. It is possible but why blackmail when it was something that could lead to his own death? Now had he known about something going on with Katherine and Cup experience then yes I could definitely see it. But you are right. The death wasn't something he deserved.

    • amiebutchko profile image

      Amie Butchko 4 years ago from Warwick, NY

      Aingham86, love my historical morning drama once again. I never have time to read much and I miss The Tudors all the time, with regret, so having my frequent hub indulgences at your hand is a luxury for me. How informed I am becoming, and I revel in the incredulous events that occurred. Thank you for the clip. It is truly haunting.

    • profile image

      Lybrah 4 years ago

      You know, I really do feel sorry for Francis Dereham. The guy didn't do anything wrong! He slept with Katherine BEFORE she was queen--who could have foresaw that? Yeah, he made her give him a position within the court, but if you think about, he really didn't deserve to be gutted and beheaded. I would think King Henry would be more angry at Culpepper, for Culpepper was the one dressing his wounds and dressing him and then going to sleep with his wife, but King Henry commuted his sentence to just beheading. King Henry was not a fair person

      PS I wrote a hub about King Henry's fifth wife...check it out if you get a chance.