Was Katheryn Howard’s execution avoidable? It may be that in death, as in much of her life, she was a pawn manipulated by some of the most powerful men in England. As historian and novelist Alison Weir tells Historia, evidence suggests that it was Henry VIII’s advisors, rather than the grief-stricken King himself, who wanted her disposed of.
Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, was beheaded on 13 February, 1542, for adultery and high treason.
The discovery of her crimes and her misconduct before marriage broke the King, who had adored her, and cast him into such a deep depression that he left the handling of her case to his councillors. Unfortunately, most of them were eager to see her brought down.
At that time, Henry’s court was riven by factions, with Catholic conservatives on one side and religious reformers (some of them secret Protestants) on the other.
Katheryn was a member of England’s premier Catholic family, and their party had schemed to place her on the consort’s throne in 1540. Now, the reformers who dominated the Privy Council seized their opportunity to get rid of her.
In January 1542, an Italian diplomat, Giovanni Stanchini, reported from Fontainebleau in France “that that King meant to condemn the Queen, and an aunt of hers who helped her, to perpetual prison”. We do not know how Stanchini came by this information, or what happened (if anything) to change the King’s mind about the Queen’s fate. Nor can it be said for certain that Henry VIII intended to keep Katheryn in prison for life.
It is, however, possible that he did not want her to die. He had loved her so much, and his grief went so deep, that he may have baulked or wavered about having her executed.
He was lenient in his treatment of her: he did not send her to the Tower while her offences were investigated, but kept her under house arrest in her sumptuous apartments at Hampton Court and then sent her to the relative comfort of the dissolved abbey of Syon at Isleworth, Middlesex.
He did not immediately deprive her of the status of queen, only doing so after her adulterous affair with Thomas Culpeper came to light. It was said that “he would bear the blow more patiently and compassionately and would show more patience and mercy than many might think – a good deal more tenderly even than her own relations wished”; of course, they were the loudest in decrying her.
Henry was unusually merciful in commuting Culpeper’s sentence from hanging, drawing and quartering to beheading – a privilege customarily extended only to peers of the realm. He kept six of the jewels Katheryn had worn; they had perhaps been her favourites.
But the reformist radicals who dominated the Council and had brought down the Howards at a stroke, were not about to collude in their restoration. Under the pretext of sparing the King pain, they took charge of the investigation with zealous, unremitting thoroughness and a studied determination to find evidence of adultery.
The Council carried out the investigation on its own authority, with the King sanctioning further action as necessary. In his grief, he refused to deal with business, which allowed them a free hand. He did not order that Katheryn be tried in court, but referred the matter to Parliament.
In a speech to Parliament, the Lord Chancellor Audley “aggravated the Queen’s misdeeds to the utmost”, as did everyone else involved in the investigation of her offences.
The councillors’ insistence on not publicly mentioning the precontract she had made with Francis Dereham before her marriage to the King, “which might serve for her defence” because it would prove that she was already married, shows how determined the reformist faction were to bring down the Queen.
An annulment was not enough, for there remained the risk that Henry’s anger and grief would abate to the point where he was ready to forgive his erstwhile darling.
In Parliament, the Lord Chancellor expressed Henry’s concern that Katheryn “had not liberty to clear herself”. After she was condemned, “the King, wishing to proceed more humanely, and more according to forms of law, sent to her certain councillors and others of the said Parliament, to propose to her to come to the Parliament chamber to defend herself”, which was unusual in the attainder process. “It would be most acceptable to her most loving consort if the Queen could clear herself in this way.” Clearly, the lords were aware that the King was hoping she would do so.
The Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, wondered: “Perhaps, if the King does not mean to marry again, he may show mercy to her or, if he find that he can divorce her on the plea of adultery, he may take another thus.”
The unreliable Spanish Chronicle (perhaps not so unreliable in this case) stated: “The King would have liked to save the Queen and behead Culpepper, but all his Council said, ‘Your Majesty should know that she deserves to die, as she betrayed you in thought and, if she had had an opportunity, would have betrayed you in deed.’ So the King ordered that they should both die.”
Petitioning Henry not to “vex himself with the Queen’s offence” and to give the royal assent to the Bill of Attainder by letters patent under his great seal, so that the Lord Chancellor could expedite matters in the King’s name, reflects a determination on the part of the councillors that their master should have little opportunity to relent, and that the Queen had to die, “specially because the King could not marry again while she lives”.
The lords were begging and urging him to marry again, doubtless hoping he would take a reformist bride. But Henry would not hear of taking another wife, probably because he could not come to terms with losing Katheryn.
He was unlikely, at the age of 51 and in his state of health, to find again the kind of love he had enjoyed with her; all he could look forward to were encroaching illness, old age and death. Understandably, his councillors might well have feared that he would relent and take her back.
But the lords had their way. Katheryn died, and the King lifted no finger to save her.
Alison Weir is a best-selling historian who also writes historical fiction. The latest novel in her Six Tudor Queens series, Katheryn Howard: the Tainted Queen, was published on 6 August, 2020. Her composite biography The Six Wives of Henry VIII was first published in 1991.
She is currently working on two series of books: the Six Tudor Queens novels and England’s Medieval Queens, a quartet of historical works of non-fiction.
Find out more about Alison’s books and her writing life in her interview with Historia.
Katheryn (Catherine) Howard is also discussed in Alexandra Walsh’s interview for Historia, where she talks about the women featured in her Marquess House Trilogy of novels.
Portrait of a lady, said to be Catherine Howard, by Hans Holbein the Younger: via Wikimedia
Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk by Hans Holbein the Younger: via Wikimedia
Thomas, 1st Baron Audley of Walden: via Wikimedia
Henry VIII, workshop of Hans Holbein the younger: via Wikimedia