History Files


Early Modern Britain

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

From Channel 4's The Six Wives of Henry VIII series by Doctor David Starkey, September 2001



Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7

Part 6: Catherine Howard

Catherine Howard was petite, pert and pretty. She liked men, and men liked her.

From the age of ten Catherine was brought up in the household of her step grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Her mother had died young and her father, though a nobleman, was constantly in debt.

Catherine frequently had clandestine liaisons with men, but was a member of the second most powerful family in Tudor England and thus a young woman with prospects.

Catherine's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, was head of this ambitious, largely Catholic clan. He had already seen one of his nieces, Anne Boleyn, rise to queen of England and in late 1539 he secured places at court for two more nieces, Mary Norris and Catherine Howard.

Catherine became lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves. Catherine loved the music, dancing, beautiful clothes, huge banquets and eligible young men. Henry fell for her at first sight.

Norfolk and his conservative allies spotted the opportunity to use her as an unthinking pawn in a big political game that would deliver Henry from his unwanted queen, Anne of Cleves, under whom their Catholic influence had been attacked.

Two weeks after Parliament ratified the annulment of Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves, the teenage Catherine married him in a secret ceremony at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. He thought she was his pure Tudor flower.

Although the ageing king was rejuvenated by his young wife, he was slowed down by an abscess on his leg. Young Catherine loved to dance and Henry would sometimes have to watch as she performed with the pick of his young gentlemen.

Catherine's behaviour was under close scrutiny. When she was not pregnant after six months of marriage, the king fell into a depression and shut her out of his life for a week.

After this, although it appeared that the marriage continued, gossip exploded. One rumour centred around a new appointment to her staff of a handsome young man from her youth, Francis Dereham.

When in late autumn 1541 Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a religious reformer opposed to the influence of the Howards, received explosive information of the queen's past relationship with Dereham, he wasted no time in using it. He passed to Henry letters from John Lascelles, a zealous Protestant whose sister Mary had shared the dormitory with Catherine, and detailed two liaisons.

Dereham claimed that Catherine and he had made love and that they had agreed to marry. Catherine was confined to her apartments and persuaded to make a full and explicit confession.

This was still not enough to justify a divorce and Cranmer came up with the name of another man, Catherine's cousin Thomas Culpepper, a trusted favourite of Henry's.

Culpepper confessed to being in love with Catherine, but denied their relationship had gone any further. Dereham and Culpepper were tried and found guilty of 'presumptive treason' and the latter also with having had criminal intercourse with the queen. They were sentenced to be hanged, cut down alive, disembowelled, quartered and beheaded.

Catherine was now exposed, but Norfolk deserted her without a qualm. When she was informed of her death sentence, Catherine, like her cousin Anne Boleyn before her, requested a private execution.



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