Friday 11 February 2011

February 10th, 1542: Catherine Howard goes to the Tower

It had been two months to the day since her two lovers had been publicly executed for their intimacy with her - one before her marriage, one allegedly after it. It had been three days since she and one of her ladies-in-waiting had been condemned to death without trial or possibility of reprieve by Bills of Attainder passed in Parliament. And it had been just over three months since guards had burst into her luxurious apartments in Hampton Court Palace informing her that she was to be detained under suspicion of what was later deemed "lewd and naughty behaviour."

In those months, Catherine Howard, teenage Queen of England and Lady of Ireland, had been widely traduced in public for her "vicious and abominable" deeds in cuckolding her husband, King Henry VIII. Mercifully, Catherine had been isolated from most of this smear campaign, since she had been moved to the convent at Syon within days of the scandal breaking in London. Syon convent had once been the centre of a thriving community of Bridgettine nuns, whose way of life had fallen victim to Henry VIII's Reformation and state-sanctioned the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The nunnery itself had been founded one hundred and forty years earlier and it had been built to celebrate the piety of King Henry IV, who ruled from 1399 to 1413. Henry had become king by deposing and murdering his cousin, Richard II, but his actions had been lauded rather than condemned by the Church, who Henry IV had shamelessly courted in his bid to hold on to his illegally-seized power. The crowning moment of this rather unpalatable demonstration of "throne and altar" politics had been achieved in 1401 when Henry IV gave the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, something he had long hungered after - for the very first time in English history, the new king had made heresy punishable with death by burning. Syon had been built to celebrate this move. Now, over a century later, it was being used again by another king who had forged an unholy alliance with religion and who also thought nothing to applying flames to his subjects' flesh. Only now, of course, he was being condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for doing so, not applauded.

Catherine Howard had been a resident at Syon throughout the winter, passing Advent and Christmas there, in marked difference to the merriment and splendour she had enjoyed the year before. For company, the disgraced queen had only eight servants - her chamberlain, four ladies-in-waiting, two chambermaids and a confessor. She had instantly disliked her new home, particularly the mouldering tapestries on the wall and she did not like the fact that she now only had three rooms to live in and six dresses. Much to her distress, her magnificent and beloved collection of jewels was taken from her and inventoried by the king's former brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Seymour. Nine days after her arriving, the Privy Council had issued a proclamation stripping Catherine of her royal title. Since she had never been formally crowned and only held her title by virtue of her marriage to the king, this was easy enough for them to do. Legally, she was now referred to simply as "the Lady Catherine Howard," although considering her father had only been a lord and not an earl, a marquess or a duke, she was not technically entitled to that, either. Prior to her marriage, she had been "Mistress Catherine Howard," but the dismantling of a queen's position was still a confusing business - despite how much practice the English government had had in the matter over the past few years. 

Young Catherine, who was probably not much more than eighteen or nineteen at the time of her ruin, had taken the news that Parliament had condemned her to death remarkably well. Or, at least, calmly. It's my hunch that maybe even at this late stage, Catherine hoped that by co-operating fully, she might be allowed to live. This calm and this delusion, however, vanished entirely when the Lords of the Privy Council arrived at Syon to escort her to the Tower of London on the afternoon of Friday February 10th. The moment they entered her audience chamber, the poor girl became instantly hysterical and burst into tears. The men begged her to be calm and come quietly, but Catherine would not move. Eventually, they lost patience with her; two of the lords dragged her up and manhandled her out of the frost-covered convent, out into the frigid afternoon air and into the waiting barge. She screamed and wept the whole time.

As the barge reached London, sailing down the Thames towards the grim fortress where Catherine's predecessor and cousin had lost her life six years earlier, Catherine Howard cut a tragic and pathetic figure. She wore a dress of plain black velvet and she wept intermittently throughout the journey. When the barge sailed under Tower Bridge, it would have passed the rotting heads of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham, which were still being displayed there. By that point in the day, however, the light was fading and so it's just about possible that this horrific sight, at least, was spared her.

When they docked, the party was greeted by Sir John Gage, her husband's Constable of the Tower of London. Sir John had overseen the imprisonment of many of Henry VIII's courtiers and opponents, but this was the first time he had been confronted by the incarceration of a queen. The previous incumbent, the redoubtable Sir William Kingston, who had been in the post when Anne Boleyn was arrested, had since died and Gage was his replacement. Gage had overseen the execution of Catherine's lovers back in December, but the sight of the sobbing teenager in front of him moved him greatly and throughout the time of her stay in the Tower, he treated Catherine with every courtesy and kindness possible. Her stay, of course, was to be short. There were still some legal matters to take care of, which meant that the execution would not be tomorrow, nor could any take place on the next day, which was the Sabbath. So it looked like the former queen and Lady Rochford were to die on Monday morning.

Like Anne Boleyn, Catherine was housed in the luxurious royal apartments of the Tower and, physically, she wanted for nothing. Of course, by this stage, none of that mattered to the one-time archetypal material girl of the Tudor court. In the evening, the Bishop of Lincoln was allowed to come and take her confession. A long-standing romantic legend states that Catherine protested her innocence, but that is nothing more than a generous fiction. The bishop never commented on what Catherine Howard told him in the hours before her death; even if he had wanted to, he couldn't, given the sanctity of secrecy implicit within the sacrament of confession. We do know, however, that as the bishop left Catherine, she asked that he should pray for her soul in Purgatory. It was a conventionally pious request, although undoubtedly now that she was at death's door, it meant much more than that to the prisoner. 

As Catherine wept piteously in her new rooms, her husband was finding it difficult to sign her death warrant - an unexpected and unusual moment of sentiment or qualms on Henry VIII's part. For whatever reason, he could not bring himself to sign his name to his fifth wife's death warrant. Henry was reluctant to sign, but not reluctant enough to spare her. In the past, Henry had accused Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves of lying about their sexuality, but of all them it was Catherine who was the most likely to have actually done so and, yet, a mere thirty-six hours before her death, Henry - who had once threatened to torture his adulterous bride to death with his own sword - was uncharacteristically shrinking from putting pen to paper. The imminent widower was therefore pleased and relieved when the Privy Council helpfully alleviated their master's crisis of conscience by attaching the Great Seal and writing "Le Roy le veut" ("The King wills it") at the bottom of the warrant. None could have foreseen it then, but this usurpation of the royal prerogative was to have enormous constitutional implications at the end of Henry's reign four years later. 

In any case, in February 1542 it took care of business satisfactorily from Henry Tudor's point of view and the warrant was dispatched to the Tower. Catherine was to die at seven o'clock on Monday morning, within the confines of the Tower, as had been the case for her cousin and for the late countess of Salisbury. Jane, Lady Rochford, the lady-in-waiting who had allegedly helped arrange Catherine's trysts with Thomas Culpepper was to die after her and both were to be executed by the Tower's own axe-man. There would be no special swordsman from Calais this time. 

The schedule was brought to Catherine the following evening by Gage himself. In the course of their conversation, Catherine rather touchingly confided to him that she was afraid of embarrassing herself on the scaffold. There would be a large crowd, she guessed correctly, even if the execution was held within the Tower's walls and not on the more public setting of Tower Hill, as had been the case when her cousin, viscount Rochford, was executed in 1536. Catherine was a Howard by birth and she had been a queen by marriage; she did not want to make a fool of herself or her clan. At least, not again. And not at the last. She was also worried that she would make a mistake when it came to placing her head upon the block and this fear was perhaps brought about by remembering the hideously botched beheading of the countess of Salisbury, the previous summer. Catherine had sent the old woman gifts of dresses, furs, slippers and nightgowns during her imprisonment, facing down her husband's irritation at this gesture, and given this interest in her plight, Catherine must have been aware of the truly grotesque story of how the countess's execution had been mishandled - both by the countess and by the executioner. Reflecting on the need for everything to go smoothly on the scaffold, Catherine made a rather curious request to Sir John. Would it be possible for him to send the block to her rooms, now, so that she could practice with it in preparation for tomorrow? 

Although he was unsettled by what she asked, Gage did not feel he could justifiably refuse her and so Catherine Howard spent the next few hours laying her head upon the block, over and over again. It was a bizarre and unsettling ritual for those who had to watch her, but for Catherine it helped calm at least one fear of what tomorrow would bring. 


  1. What a moving account. Just brilliant. I truly feel sorry for Catherine. She was so young.

    Now was the monastery of Syon REALLY founded to celebrate people getting burned at the stake? That sounds a bit like a black legend to me. I mean, Bridgettine monasteries were founded all over the place and their establishment had little or nothing to do with people getting roasted alive. 8(

  2. Speaking of black legends, how was "The wind that shakes the barley"? :)

    Haha, you are entirely right about the Bridgettines not usually being celebrations to a human furnace. The Syon nunnery is slightly different. It was founded by a donation made solely by Henry IV and in the period he was a widower, between Mary du Bohun's death in childbed and his marriage to Joanna, Dowager Duchess of Brittany, which means it wasn't the result of any female piety divorced from politics within the royal household. It was established by the King and during a period of aggressive political co-operation between crown and church. Although, in justice, I should probably have stressed more that it was the Arundelian wing of the church and that even during the Wycliffite and Lollardite controversies prior to Arundel's primacy at Canterbury, the English church had been comparatively tolerant and even mild in its anti-heresy punishments. It had also generally had some of the least traumatic experiences with heresy on a national level in the Middle Ages, which perhaps tells us something. In fairness, too, after heresy did become a capital crime in England for the first time in 1401 (also the year Arundel successfully banned the Bible in the English vernacular), burning was not and never was popular in England or Wales. Neither with the laity, nor with the majority of the clergy.

    But I digress! Apologies. Syon is GENERALLY held to have been founded to celebrate either the passing of the heresy statutes or of the apparent final defeat of Lollardy or Wycliffitism. It was not, as you said, built to commemorate the first of the burnings. Although for whatever reason it was built, death by burning was implicit in that. Others, I think, have suggested its foundation was non-political. But given the timeline and events surrounding it, that seems supremely unlikely.

    One thing I will point out, although I'm sure it's obvious, is that the reasons for founding it had nothing to do with the Bridgettine sisters themselves. Or the order. The convent was considered an exemplary institution during its 140 year career, producing exceptionally learned and pious women. Whatever reason it was founded for, and I do think it was part of Henry's public relations campaign from 1399 - c 1403, the nunnery itself as an institution was not, to my mind, reflective of that.

    Interestingly, prior to poor Catherine's imprisonment there, Lord Darnley's mother Margaret had been held at Syon after her affair with Catherine's brother, Charles Howard, was discovered by her uncle, King Henry. Margaret was only released to make room for Catherine, I believe!

  3. Hello, you mention that Katherine was not older than eighteen or nineteen in 1541, in your opinion, do you believe that she was born in 1522-1523?
    It's very intriguing, for it seems the older generation argue passionately for Katherine to have been born in between 1519-1521, whereas modern writers tend to believe she was more likely born in 1525.

  4. Dellulah, there is still some debate even today. The 1525 date relies entirely on the fact that Catherine wasn't mentioned in her grandfather's will of 1524, but was in her grandmother's in 1527. However, girls often weren't mentioned in the wills of male family members. I tend to think about 1523 is probable for Catherine's birth because it fits with the comments made about her great youth in 1540. However, it's only guess work, I'm afraid.

  5. Gareth and Elena Maria - now I know why I love you both. It might be something called "civil discourse." Whatever it is, it is rare in the blogosphere.

  6. Actually, I do think that The Wind that Shakes the Barley contains a lot of Marxist propaganda, which of course is why it won at Cannes.

    Interesting history of the Syon nunnery! I never really cared for Henry IV, not after what he did to Richard II.

  7. Thanks, Tubbs.

    Elena Maria, I was something of a fan of Henry IV until I went back to look at his life in more depth and, agreed, his treatment of Richard II seems pretty inexcusable when looked at properly.

  8. Gareth, excellent post again. Out of interest, do you believe 1521 is a likely date of birth for Katherine? While writing an article on her birth - fully examining the dates between 1518 and 1525 - I was strongly persuaded that 1521 might be a very likely date for Katherine being born in. Either that or 1523-4 seems the likeliest.

  9. Thanks, Conor. Catherine's birth is confusing and there are far fewer signposts than there are for Anne Boleyn's or Jane Seymour's. I think 1523 is a good estimated date, as long as it's treated as such. Given Marillac's comments on her extreme youth, I don't think she was born earlier than 1522. MAYBE 1521 at a stretch, but my money is on 1523, for what it's worth.

  10. Hi Gareth, again on this point; you know I was a staunch advocate of the c.1524 birth date, but I must say that I now think c. 1520 is more likely. For one thing, Katherine's youth was remarked upon by all who knew her; however, Jane Seymour had been referred to in February 1536 as 'a young lady' - she was actually 27 or 28 - and Anne Boleyn was also called 'young' in 1529 - I believe she was about 28, but even if you take the 1507 birth date, she would have been 22. Therefore, I don't think Katherine would have needed to have been as young as 15 to warrant such attention to her youth, when earlier ladies in their mid to late twenties had also been referred to as 'young' ladies.

    I know you believe the infamous portrait supposedly of her is actually of Elizabeth Seymour; but I do have to agree with Alison Weir's point that this lady must have been exceptionally highborn to wear such lavish clothes and furthermore, Elizabeth was the daughter of a knight and only queens would have been featured in a portrait painted so many times. It is true, several versions of this portrait exist - one only has to look at the many different versions of Anne Boleyn's most recognisable portrait to understand.

    Therefore, I think a birth of around 1520 or 1521 is the most likely, because Katherine was young, yet did not need to have been a child, and let's face it, aged 19 or 20 when marrying a 49-year old bloated king would still attract much attention. Also, I think the portrait has a very strong chance of being Katherine.

  11. Hi Gareth

    Enjoyed reading your piece on Katherine Howard. For some time I have been researching Norfolk House in Lambeth, where she had her romance with Derham, with the view to presenting the disaster that followed from the point of view of the rest of the inmates, especially the Dowager Agnes Tilney.

    I have read before that Katherine sent gifts of warm clothes to the Countess of Salisbury when she was in the Tower, but cannot find a reliable source. Would be really grateful for any info.

    All the best with the book coming out in July

    Marilyn Roberts.

  12. Hi Marilyn,

    The story of the gifts to the Countess are true. They're attested to in her household expenses, I believe. In terms of where to find a reliable account of them, I'd look in the relevant chapters of Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser's two studies of Henry VIII's queens. Although if memory serves me correctly, Weir doesn't have any footnotes for that edition. You could also have a look at Joanna Denny's biography of Catherine or David Starkey's "Six Wives."

    Best of luck with the project. It sounds like a great idea.



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