Catherine Howard may have been married to Henry VIII, but history has not been kind to her. Maybe she needs to lawyer up.
Catherine Howard was about 17 when she became a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII. She was young, spirited, perhaps a little vacuous, and quickly caught the eye of the 49-year-old king, a man totally dissatisfied with his current marriage, one that was unconsummated because Henry famously found his bride unattractive. Henry wasn’t exactly Prince Charming himself. Long past his prime, he was moody, gouty, morbidly obese, and suffered from a painful weeping ulcerous leg. Captivated by Catherine, he insisted on an annulment with Anne, and only weeks afterwards on the 28th of July, 1540, she became the fifth wife of England’s king.
Catherine’s uncle was the powerful Duke of Norfolk. Her first cousin was the ill-fated Anne Boleyn and the Howards were keen to claw back some of the influence at court that they’d lost after Anne’s disgrace and execution.
By all accounts, Henry was delighted with Catherine, calling her his “rose without a thorn” and lavishing gifts and property on her and her family. For her part, she entertained her husband, kept him happy in the bedroom, and acted as an ornament for him at public occasions.
It was too good to last. For one thing, she was not even twenty years old, Henry was almost fifty. Worse, she did not fall pregnant. Historians suggest Henry may have been impotent by then. He certainly had difficulty impregnating all those wives and mistresses. For her part, Catherine preferred the company of people her own age and it wasn’t long after her marriage that she found herself embroiled in a relationship with Thomas Culpepper, a handsome young courtier and one of Henry’s favorites. Gossip was rife and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer felt obliged to tell the king about Catherine’s secret liaison. He’d managed to acquire a letter from Catherine in which she told Culpepper that she was “yours as long as life endures.”
Henry was reluctant to believe that his young bride could be unfaithful, but as more evidence came to light about her alleged immorality and the accusation that she hadn’t been a virgin when they married, Henry had to act.
Two men with whom she’d supposedly enjoyed sexual relationships before her marriage testified against her. Thomas Manox was her music teacher when Catherine was about 12. Francis Dereham was her grandmother’s secretary. On the strength of their evidence, coupled with the damning testimony of Jane Boleyn, the widowed sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn, Catherine was accused of treason, sentenced to death, and executed on the 13th of February 1542. She’d been married less than two years.
Now, let’s have another look at this young girl. Was her execution fair? Is the reputation she has as a woman of loose morals justified?
Catherine Howard is often dismissed as a foolish girl who enjoyed many a romp between the sheets. But a closer look at her life suggests that she may have been the victim of child sexual abuse. Conor Byrne writes that Catherine would have been brought up knowing she’d one day be married off to her family’s advantage so she would have been well aware of her duty to remain chaste. Alliances based on marriage were critical to the power base of noble families, and a girl’s reputation was paramount.
More tellingly, Byrne explains that in the fifteenth century, being coerced into having sex with someone was not considered rape. At her trial, Catherine testified that over a period of two to three years, she had, as an “ignorant” girl, “suffered (Manox) 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.” Manox himself stated that he “felt her more than was convenient” but that he drew the line at intercourse, thus claiming he was innocent of sexual misconduct. (Shades of Bill Clinton’s defense centuries later.)
Catherine further testified that when she was 14, Dereham seduced her: “by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose … he lay with me naked and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife many and sundry times but how often I know not.” Some have written that Dereham offered to marry Catherine, but none of her statements even remotely suggest she was enjoying herself. She said that Dereham raped her “with importunate force” and that she had never willingly had sex with him.
Catherine Howard spent much of her short life as a victim. She was used and abused by men older than herself and manipulated for sexual and political gain.
When Henry proposed marriage, Catherine had to protect herself and her family’s reputation, so kept quiet about those pre-marital sexual assaults, fully aware that any wrongdoing would be laid at her doorstep. Women were always thought to have accepted and even encouraged advances from men. Their consent was assumed. Victim blaming has always been an issue in these cases. As well, this was the king – a man known for his capricious ways, a man impatient to father many children, a man who could not tolerate any suggestion that his wife was already sexually “experienced.”
As for Culpepper, some have suggested that their relationship was political, that he knew of her so-called relationship with Dereham and threatened to expose it unless she slept with him. Historian Retha Warnicke argues that Catherine’s desperate emotional letters to Culpepper were less about passion and more about trying to buy his silence. She suggests that Catherine feared Culpepper and wrote emotive placatory words to him in order to protect herself.
This is quite believable. Culpepper was attractive, important, and had plenty of girls throwing themselves at his feet. He wanted to consolidate his own position at court and any leverage he could use he did. The fact that he was named as Catherine’s lover was definitely not part of his plan. Jane Boleyn claimed to have acted as a go-between for the lovers and testified that Catherine and Culpepper had shared private time in the queen’s chamber. This ensured his downfall.
Manox somehow escaped punishment but Culpepper and Dereham, both of whom professed their innocence, were found guilty of adultery and executed in December 1541. On the 13th of February 1542, Catherine was also executed. Only minutes later, Jane Boleyn, who had previously testified against her own husband George Boleyn and his sister Anne Boleyn, followed her queen to the executioner’s block.
Long painted as a ditzy frivolous girl, Catherine Howard spent much of her short life as a victim. She was used and abused by men older than herself and manipulated for sexual and political gain. In the end, it didn’t really matter whether Catherine had committed adultery or not. Her reputation was in tatters and Henry’s position was untenable – there could never be doubt as to the paternity of any of his children. He could’ve had the marriage annulled but Henry was all about sending strong messages. Catherine is said to have been calm on the morning of her death, offering prayers for her husband and accepting her fate with as much equanimity as she could muster. Not a silly girl, but a young woman who suffered needlessly and paid the ultimate price.