Who was Catherine Howard?
Catherine Howard was the Queen of England from 1540 to 1541. Although she was born to poor parents, Howard was part of the aristocracy as she was the granddaughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. She was also the first cousin of Anne Boleyn, who served as the Queen of England from 1533 to 1536. Catherine Howard became a queen by marrying Henry VIII of England. Her marriage to the king occurred immediately after the annulment of his previous marriage with Anne of Cleves. Nonetheless, the marriage was short-lived as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, charged Catherine of undisclosed premarital relationship. The allegations were made in relation with Henry Mannox, a musician, Francis Dereham, a secretary, and her cousin Thomas Culpeper. The three men were executed and their heads were placed on spikes for public display. The Parliament attainted Catherine and she was beheaded. There was very little sympathy for the young queen at the time. However, her life is now cited as an example of how women have historically been judged solely on their sexuality.
Childhood & Early Life
The exact date of Catherine Howard’s birth is uncertain. However, it is said to be around 1520 to 1521 (or even as late as 1524). (Reports suggest that Catherine was around 16 or 17 when she attracted the attention of Henry VIII in 1540).
Catherine Howard was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and the granddaughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. She was also the niece of another person named Thomas Howard who was the 3rd Duke of Norfolk.
Despite belonging to an aristocratic family through her grandfather, Catherine’s family, led by her father Lord Edmund Howard, was impoverished.
Her father, Lord Edmund Howard, was not a first-born son, which meant he had no immediate claim to inheritance, according to the rule of primogeniture.
Catherine’s father was said to be a man of misadventure and poverty. In 1527, when Catherine was about seven, her father sent his wife to plead for financial support from the Cardinal.
In 1528, Catherine’s mother, Joyce Culpeper, died. Subsequently, her father sent her to live with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.
At the time, children were raised strictly. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the children’ was the maxim. However, Catherine often escaped corporeal punishment as the Dowager Duchess was often away on Court business.
At around 1535 or 1536, the Dowager Duchess arranged music lessons for Catherine (the lute and virginal) from a Henry Manox (also spelt Mannox) who would later testify to molesting her. She would have been 12 or 13 and him 35 or 36 at the time of molesting her.
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Around 1539, Catherine’s well-known uncle secured a place for her in the staff of the king’s soon to be fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.
As the king’s young wife – Henry was 49 and Catherine was about 17 to 19 at the time of their marriage – Howard’s appearance generated interest. She was reported as “very small” but sprightly and graceful in manner.
When Catherine was introduced to the king, she was described as being chaste, obedient and silent – qualities that were expected of women around the 1530s.
In around 1540, the French Ambassador speaking to the King of France, Francis I, stated that Catherine was “a lady of great beauty.” He later modified this statement saying that Howard was ‘of moderate beauty’ but with “superlative grace.”
Catherine Howard was known for wearing French garments which were fashionable at the time.
While Catherine was not known for her state work, reports show that as a queen she did seek promotions for some relatives and chaplains whom she was familiar with.
In 1540, she interceded on a few matters to have prisoners released and pardoned. As the queen, she pardoned Thomas Wyatt and his staff, who were associates of Thomas Cromwell who had fallen out of favour with the King and was executed.
It is reported that Catherine had a dislike to the rampant capital punishments that occurred at the time. She intervened to save a thief’s hand on one occasion, according to Smith’s account.
Family & Personal Life
From 1538, it was relatively well known that Catherine Howard had a relationship with a well-off gentleman of the Duke named Francis Dereham.
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Catherine later claimed that she had sexual relationship with Dereham only for three months in 1538. However, there were rumours (most likely untrue) that the couple had been intimate since Catherine was 12.
Catherine Howard attracted the king’s attention when she was 16 or 17. It was around this time (1540) that Henry VIII became dissatisfied with his fourth marriage with Anne of Cleves.
Henry VIII and Catherine Howard were married on July 28, 1540. She was introduced to the public as the queen on the 8th of August at ‘Hampton Court Palace.’
The king appeared to be in love with his new queen for at least twelve months. However, soon after, rumours started to spread about her alleged pre-marital affairs.
On December 1, 1541, Henry Mannox, Francis Dereham, and Thomas Culpeper were said to have pleaded guilty to charges of treason (for the said sexual events).
On December 3, 1541, Henry Mannox and Francis Dereham were executed and their heads were placed on spikes for public display.
Two months later in February 1542, the council convicted Catherine Howard of treason. She wasn’t given a chance to defend herself. She was beheaded at the Tower of London two days later.
At the time of Catherine’s marriage, she may have been as young as 16 or 17. However, marriage at a young age was common at the time. In 1540, the legal age for marriage was 14 for boys and 12 for girls. But most people ignored this law and arranged marriages for boys and girls who were as young as 3 years old.
At the time of Catherine Howard’s death, many agreed with Howard’s capital punishment sentence. There were very few reports that people were sympathetic with the young queen. According to historian Baldwin Smith, many people came to ‘see’ her death and not to ‘mourn’ her death.
Some critics believe that Catherine Howard could have evaded execution by arguing that she and Francis Dereham had exchanged vows prior to any sexual relations. According to this theory, Howard and Dereham were married under the terms of the Catholic Church.
The sexual relationships, that Catherine Howard was accused of having, most likely occurred when the queen was in her early teens, such as 12 to 14 years of age. It would be impossible for a minor to be charged with such offences in today’s society.
The life of Catherine Howard is often championed by feminists. Her life is often seen as an important example of humanity’s failure to accept female sexuality.