A thin layer of frost lay across the ground on the morning of Monday February 13th 1542. The day ahead promised to be overcast and dull. The sun had barely risen when, at seven o'clock, every single member of the Privy Council, bar two, entered the confines of the Tower of London. The two absentees were also the only two dukes left in the realm - the King's former brother-in-law, the Duke of Suffolk, had been excused on grounds of ill-health and not even Henry VIII had insisted upon sending the Duke of Norfolk to witness the execution of his two nieces - one by birth, the other by marriage. It was a wasted piece of polite sentiment given how Norfolk had treated Catherine in the past few months. In the months since her disgrace, the duke had publicly likened his brother's daughter to a prostitute. However, his son and heir, the 25 year-old earl of Surrey, who had enjoyed fairly amicable relations with his cousin-queen, was in attendance that morning. In the years after 1542, Surrey's contempt for Henry VIII's government would grow more and more indiscreet. His hatred for the Tudors soon came to match the icy disdain he had shown to the Seymour clan, ever since their unexpected political ascendancy had begun with their late sister's marriage to the King in 1536. Surrey, too, was later executed for alleged treason.
A relatively large crowd had gathered around the black-clad scaffold, which stood on exactly the same spot as that used for Anne Boleyn and the countess of Salisbury. The number of spectators was probably seven or eight thousand, which means substantially more than those who had been allowed to witness Anne Boleyn's murder five and a half years earlier. Then, the government had been worried about what Anne might say in her own defence; they had no such worries with Catherine. Sir John Gage led the two condemned women towards the scaffold. The disgraced queen looked so pale with fright that some in the crowd feared she might faint, but she held her nerve.
Dressed in a discreet and conservative gown of dark velvet, Catherine made her way up onto the scaffold where she gave a short speech "for her offences against God heinously from her youth in breaking all of His commandments and also against the King's royal Majesty." Her final speech was apparently entirely conventional and no-one bothered to record it in its entirety, but it contained the token praise of the King and call for universal obedience to the monarchy. She had never been particularly devout, but Catherine died a Catholic (although not a Roman one) in confirming her belief in the Divinity and Mercy of Jesus Christ and by leaving a request that the crowd pray for her soul in Purgatory. Then, she was blindfolded by Gage and knelt at the block. The executioner did his job well and a single blow from the axe was all it took to end Catherine Howard's life. There is no truth in the old fable that she proclaimed that although she was dying the wife of a king, she would much rather be dying the wife of a Culpepper.
Next, her thirty-six year-old lady-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, widow of George Boleyn and one-time sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn, was brought up to the block which was now soaked in her teenage mistress's blood. Jane Boleyn's historical reputation has not been kind. It is she who is traditionally blamed for having provided the evidence needed to condemn her husband to death on a charge of incest with his royal sister. The black legend of Lady Rochford says that she was driven mad with jealousy at being married to the bed-hopping George Boleyn, who in his prime was universally acknowledged to be the best-looking man at the Tudor court, and that she turned this jealousy with particular venom on her more glamorous and confident sister-in-law, Anne, concocting vile lies to send them both to the scaffold. More recently, Jane's only modern biographer, Julia Fox, has queried whether this legend has any substance to it and she has argued persuasively that destroying George and Anne's life would have led to Jane's own financial ruination. There was, so Fox claims, no good reason therefore to believe that Jane ever perjured herself in condemning her husband to death. I am unsure what I think of this argument in its entirety, but on the surface it does seem convincing and it seems therefore unlikely that Jane Boleyn was anything like the monster of irrational venom presented in modern fictional portrayals of her.
Whether or not she was involved in the downfall of her husband's family in 1536, and it does seem unlikely, Jane had always been a woman compulsively drawn to scandal and it is that one fatal flaw in her character which I don't think the recent biography of her convincingly dismisses. At every major point where she turns up in the documents of the Tudor court, this wealthy socialite seems to have been involved in some form of intrigue. She was an habitual gossip. And it is this addiction of hers which, I think, led her to embark upon the indescribably stupid scheme of facilitating the meetings between Queen Catherine and her paramour, Sir Thomas Culpepper in 1541. In the months since her role in the Queen's indiscretions had been discovered, Jane Boleyn had suffered a full nervous breakdown, to the extent that in order to secure her death, the King had been forced to push a bill through Parliament allowing the execution of the medically insane for the first time in English history.
After a long and rambling speech, the Dowager Viscountess Rochford put her head upon the block and a moment later the third Boleyn head to fall in a generation thumped onto the blood-soaked straw. The bodies of Catherine Howard and the woman who had served her so incompetently were soon taken to the nearby chapel of Saint Peter-ad-Vincula, where they were buried next to George and Anne. And the crowd dispersed and went home.
Henry VIII's fifth wife has lain in Saint Peter's, undisturbed, for almost five hundred years. Her body was not one of those exhumed during the renovation of the chapel in 1876. Catherine Howard did not die a martyr, a heroine or a saint. In the years since, some have attempted to write Catherine's story as a great romance, portraying Culpepper and his queen as doomed young lovers in the ilk of Tristan and Isolde. Unsentimental moralists have concluded that Catherine was a fitting example of a po-faced trollop, whose ruin brutally illuminated the consequences of promiscuity. And, in recent years, she has been hailed as a passionate young woman who followed the sexual yearnings of her own body in a thoroughly modern way.
All of these assessments are largely inaccurate. We may pity Catherine Howard, but we cannot make a romantic victim or a martyr out of her unless we are willing to distort the facts of her life to fit our own agendas. We cannot make her a heroine unless we impose our values onto her society's and, even then, it is difficult to conclude that Catherine was in any way a heroic individual. A martyr and a heroine all have an element of choice and of deliberate agency in their fates; Catherine had neither. This is not a case of a well-educated and determined woman like Katherine of Aragon, mobilising everything in her power to mount a wholly improbable and magnificent defiance of her husband's government; nor is it anything like the case of Anne Boleyn, a brilliant and charismatic woman, who was more than aware of the snake-pit she resided in and the dangers facing a queen in Henry's court. The tragedy of Catherine Howard, I think, lies in the youth of the queen and the mediocrity of her personality. Catherine was vivacious, generous, pretty and fun-loving, but she was not remarkable. In a sense, the real horror of what happened to Catherine is that we all know a girl very much like her.
Catherine has been studied in many popular accounts, but there has only ever been one academic biography of her, written by the former Princeton professor, Lacey Baldwin Smith. To those of us who grew to intellectual maturity in the years after the liberation movements made their impact felt on the writing of history, some of Professor Smith's vocabulary employed to describe Catherine may make us quail. Yet, despite its total and utter refusal to sympathise too much with its subject's plight, I think that within reason A Tudor Tragedy: The Life and Times of Catherine Howard (1961) does eloquently express the tragedy and the fascination of that poor girl, who, although foolish, was certainly undeserving of what happened to her on that February morning in 1542: -
"There is a disproportion about Catherine's career that both repels and fascinates. She was a victim of inconsequentialities which somehow combined to produce a conclusion monstrously disproportionate to the myriad of petty causes... [It is] a study of how chance and personality, morality and adultery, deliberate malice and good intentions, when operating within the limits set by environment, can create a single act in time - the swift descent of the executioner's axe. Catherine's death is not simply a lesson in Tudor morality. It is an exercise in historical causation and encompasses the entire 'sink and puddle' of palace politics and backstairs bickering which throve so abundantly within the garden of Henry VIII's government. It stands as a grim reminder not only of the consequences of inadvertent folly, but also of the fact that all men are in some fashion victims of their age... Catherine Howard's light-hearted idiocy was fatal only when fostered and distorted by family greed, royal absolutism, social callousness and violence... The brilliant spectacle of her career soon faded, leaving nothing but a King grown suddenly grey and aged and a law declaring it to be treason for a lady to marry the King unless she were a virgin... When Henry stood before his council listening to the story of his wife's infidelities, the tears trickled down his cheeks as the illusions and obsessions of his life shattered around him. The King could never forgive Catherine for what she had taken from him - the image of youth. But even in doing her royal husband wrong, Catherine is strangely inconsequential; Henry would surely have grown old and senile, even without the knowledge that he had been cuckolded and cheated. There is a certain inevitability in the tragedy that occurred, but somehow one feels that the shallow motives, the juvenile desires and petty and vain considerations of the Queen had little to do with the final calamity ... She enacted a light-hearted drama in which juvenile delinquency, wanton selfishness and ephemeral hedonism were the abiding themes. Who is to say whose fault it was - Catherine's or that of her age?"