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The Wives of King Henry VIII: Catharine Howard

Updated on September 2, 2008

Catharine Howard: A Saucy Wench or Another Victim?

The story of Catharine Howard mimics that of Henry VIII's other wives in some ways. She made him happy for a time, offended him, and paid the ultimate price for being young and naive. She was one of the most sensual and promiscuous of Henry's wives, the thing that probably caused her rise to power, but also lead to her ultimate downfall. The story of Catharine Howard, though not as well known as Anne Boleyn's, is equally as tragic and just as fascinating.

Birth and Early Life

The exact date of Catharine Howard's birth is unknown, but some have speculated it to be around 1521. Catharine was the tenth child of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper. Though her father had a title he was not well off due to the fact that he was a second son, and due to the laws of primogeniture all lands and goods went to the first son. Still he had the card of connections to play, as he was related to the Boleyns (Catharine was actually first cousin to Anne and Mary Boleyn). This connection got him a job working for the government in Calais in 1531.

This move lead to Catharine being shipped off to live with her aunt, Agnis Tilney, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. At Lambeth Palace, the home of the Duchess, there were many young attendants and the Duchess was often at court, caring little for the proper upbringing of her wards.

This air of licentiouness lead to Catharine beginning a sexual affair with her music teacher, Henry Manox, in 1536. In later years, at her trial, Manox would give evidence against her, helping lead to her execution. The relationship lasted two years, until the secretary of the household, Francis Dereham, began to pursue Catharine.

Dereham and Catharine called each other "husband" and "wife" and he often left her with the duties of a wife, such as handling the money while he was gone. The Duchess found out about this affair however, and she put the kibosh on it in 1539. Still, it is thought that the two may have agreed to marry when he returned from Ireland under the laws of pre-contract. Whatever their intentions, the couple never did marry offically.

In addition to the loose behavior in the household of Lambeth, Catharine was also left to her own devices when it came to education. She could read and write, which was more than most common women could say, but she had nowhere near the learning of Henry's first two queens.

Marriage to Henry

Soon after the dissolution of her relationship with Dereham, Catharine was given a place in Henry's court and Anne of Cleve's lady-in-waiting. She was bright and beautiful, and Henry was instantly attracted to her, fueled by the fact that he had never liked Anne of Cleves. Catharine however desired Henry's favorite courtier, Thomas Culpeper. As always though, the desires of a king were paramount, and upon the annulment of Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves rumors swirled around Catharine Howard.

On the 28th of July in 1540, less than a month after his anullment, Henry VIII wed Catharine Howard. He was an older man, facing a depleted treasury from war and the displeadure of his people. His main source of happiness came from his young and beautiful bride, whom he showered with gifts. But Catharine found Henry old and disgusting. By this time Henry had reached 300 pounds and had an ulcer in his thigh that had to be drained every day.

It appears that Catharine was submitting to sexual demands by her husband, but her liasons with Thomas Culpeper rapidly became apparent to most of the court. These meetings were arranged by Lady Rochford, the late wife of Anne Boleyn's brother (whom she testified against, to his death). Soon those who knew of the affiar and her promiscuous behavior at Lambeth came around asking for favors, or outright blackmailing Catharine. In desperation she gave in, and disasterously appoiunted both Henry Manox and Francis Dereham to her household.

Dowfall and Death

Soon the walls began to fall in around Catharine. A Protestant reformer, John Lascelles, brought information to Thomas Cranmer that could condemn the queen. Cranmer, one of Henry's most loyal advisors, took the information to the king immediately. The king ordered further investigation, and a love letter was soon produced from Catharine to Thomas Culpeper. Upon torture both Culpeper and Dereham admitted to liasons with Catharine Howard, further sealing her fate.

On the 22 of November, 1541, Catharine was srtipped of her title as queen and imprisoned. Under interrogation she never admitted to a pre-contract with Dereham, which at worst would have left her a destitute exile. Her mental state was extremely fragile, and the guards were ordered to remove any objects she might use to commit suicide.

Because she never confessed to a pre-contract, Henry had a law created that made the crime of intending to commit treason punishable by death. Once this law was signed he ordered Catharine's execution.

On the 13th of February, 1542, Catharine Howard was beheaded like her cousin Anne before her. Legend states she said "I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper". She was buried next to her cousin Anne in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Henry did not attend.


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    • mrsmillich profile image

      mrsmillich 7 years ago from New York

      She was a victim, I think, because she was so naive about people. She could read and write, but she was so poorly educated compared to Anne Boleyn. Catherine didn't have any cunning; I think she was very socially ignorant and didn't have a clue how to handle the gravity of the situation.

      Anne Boleyn especially was excellent at manipulating a situation to her liking; the only weapon Catherine possessed was her body.

      Good hub! I always like to read about the lesser known people and events of the time.

    • humagaia profile image

      Charles Fox 7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Loved the series - well written and informative. You have gone to the top of my list in my Hub on Tudor exploration as it fits with your topic. I hope you receive some extra readers, through the RSS feed I have incorporated, wending their way to your door, opening it and finding the treasures of your writing within.

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      I think she was both - a saucy wench, and a victim.