Thought to have been born in Lambeth in around 1523, although her exact date of birth remains unknown, Katherine was one of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper’s six children. Her mother already had another five children by her first husband, Ralph Leigh, making Catherine her mother’s tenth child, and though they were aristocracy they were fairly poor. Katherine’s father was one of 20 children; his parents, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk and Elizabeth Tilney had ten children together, but his mother had three children from her previous marriage to Sir Humphrey Bourchier and, after her death, his father went on to have another seven children with her cousin, Agnes Tilney.
In the 16th century it wasn’t unusual for parents to send their children away to live with and be educated by someone else, particularly children from large families such as the Howard’s. Katherine’s mother died when she was still very young, and by the time she was ten years old she, like several of her siblings, was sent to live with her grandfather’s second wife Agnes Howard (née Tilney), Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Though the fashion at the time leaned towards smaller households, the Dowager Duchess, who previously had a place in katherine of Aragon’s household and bore Anne Boleyn’s train at her wedding, ran a household closer to an earlier, more casual age, with upwards of 100 people crowded under her various roofs.
Katherine and her cousins shared the maids’ dormitory, with two or three of them to a bed. Despite their social standing this was not an unusual arrangement in the 16th century; a bed to one’s self was a luxury enjoyed by only the greatest personages, and communal living was the norm at this time. It was this time spent under her step-grandmother’s care that would form the basis for Katherine’s education.
Though she was taught to read and write, the Dowager Duchess had no patience for higher education for women and Katherine herself was never academically inclined; she learned obedience, good manners, social graces and the rudiments of household management. Ultimately she was getting a Christian upbringing in the company of her kinsfolk, everything that would make her the ideal wife for someone worthy of marrying into the Howard family when she came of marriageable age.
While Katherine was not of a scholarly mind, she was aware of her developing body and the effect it could have on the opposite sex – particularly Henry Manox, a music tutor who had been employed to teach the young ladies under the Dowager Duchess’s care. Whether the two of them ever became lovers we can’t know for certain – although Manox is believed to have known the ‘secret parts’ of Katherine’s body, they both claimed the relationship was never consummated – but there was certainly some kind of relationship there, particularly as the Dowager Duchess scolded them and ordered that they were never to be left alone after she caught them together. Even so, Katherine’s guardian wasn’t overly concerned with their relationship; it would not do for a Howard to marry a mere music teacher, but the Duchess turned a blind eye while the girls under her care experimented under her roof until they were married off to someone befitting their station.
Manox soon became old news when Katherine moved to Lambeth with the rest of the Dowager Duchess’s household. The Duchess seldom went to court herself but her palatial townhouse was open to an exciting stream of visitors, one of whom quickly set his eye on Katherine.
Francis Dereham was a distant connection of the Howard family and a member of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk’s household. The Duke was Katherine’s uncle and she would become the second of his nieces to be dangled before the king. Dereham was a handsome and dashing young man, a far more attractive prospective husband than a music teacher, and Manox was quickly discarded. Like many of the other girls in the Dowager Duchess’s care who had sweethearts of their own, Katherine granted Dereham access to the girls’ dormitory, where he brought wine, fruit and sweetmeats ‘to make good cheer’.
Older now and sexually fully mature, both Katherine and Dereham admitted during their lifetime that their relationship had been consummated and, outside of the bedchamber, they made no secret of their attachment to one another and often acted as though they were engaged – they even went as far as to call each other ‘wife’ and ‘husband’, and while Dereham was eager to make their marriage official Katherine was unwilling to settle for the first man who had bedded her. She knew ways to prevent herself from falling pregnant and, given that marriage was all she’d been raised for, was understandably hesitant to tie herself down when she’d discovered the joys of sex with none of the responsibility.
There was no way either she or Dereham could have predicted how their relationship would come back to haunt them.
Like two of her predecessors, her ill-fated cousin Anne Boleyn and Henry’s beloved third wife Jane Seymour, Katherine caught Henry VIII’s attention as lady-in-waiting to the queen who preceded her, Anne of Cleves. Katherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, found the position for her no doubt with the intention that his young and pretty niece would catch the king’s eye, and she certainly did. She left Dereham behind and headed to the English Court in 1539, no doubt imagining the dazzling social life she would have there, with no one having taught her that Court was far more dangerous than Lambeth.
Now 49 years old, Henry VIII was growing older and fatter by the day and, when he met Katherine, was stuck in a marriage that made him miserable. Young and full of life, Katherine enchanted him, nothing was too good for her, and her family were quick to encourage his affections and brush Katherine’s past relationship with Dereham under the carpet. She was still only around 17/18 years old when she was ‘showed openly as Queen’ at Hampton Court in August 1540, having married Henry the day he sent Thomas Cromwell, who’d arranged his marriage to Anne of Cleves, to the block on 28 July 1540.
The marriage brought with it the rise of the Howard family, a proud family who made enemies easily, making Katherine an easy and public target of dislike. Katherine herself wasn’t always the easiest to get along with, and made several mistakes of her own. She often quarrelled with Henry’s oldest daughter, the future Mary I, who was older than her new stepmother by around seven years, and employed girls she’d known at Lambeth, who knew her history, to serve her now that she was Queen of England.
Perhaps her biggest mistake was offering the position of private secretary and usher to her chamber to Francis Dereham. At this point it was too late for Katherine to admit to the king that she was not as chaste as he had believed her to be when they met, which meant that she and the rest of the Howards had to keep her past life at Lambeth secret. It’s likely that Katherine offered Dereham the position to keep him quiet rather than to do an old friend a favour; in fact some historians suggest he may have blackmailed her into doing so.
Katherine might have survived the king, or at the very least survived a little longer, if it weren’t for her relationship with Thomas Culpeper. Culpeper was a favourite of the king’s and it’s believed that Katherine and Henry were only married for six months before she began to send Culpeper gifts and meet him in private under the watchful eye of her lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn, more commonly known as Lady Rochford. When Katherine joined the king on his progress north in 1541, Culpeper was even smuggled up the back stairs to the queen’s chamber.
Much like with Henry Manox there’s no evidence to suggest that she and Culpeper ever consummated their relationship, but if they didn’t they were never to get the chance to either. When they returned south to Hampton Court, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was forced to break the news to the king, via a letter, that he believed the queen had been unfaithful.
Cranmer was a staunch reformer, unlike the Howards, and the reformist faction weren’t going to miss an opportunity to remove Katherine, and therefore the entire Howard family, from power. Another reformer was John Lassells whose sister, Mary, had once served the Dowager Duchess at Lambeth, and when speculation spread around Court that the queen was being unfaithful – hard to miss from the longing glances she was said to send Culpeper across the room – it was Mary who provided evidence for Katherine’s behaviour while under the Dowager Duchess’s care.
Henry’s initial reaction to the accusations was one of fury, and he demanded an investigation be carried out to dispel what he believed to be vile rumours.
Unfortunately for Henry, and even more so for Katherine, both Manox and Dereham admitted their past misdeeds with the queen and Katherine herself broke down and admitted her past intimacy with Dereham during a private interview with Cranmer. She threw herself on the king’s mercy and claimed, ‘I was so desirous to be taken unto your Grace’s favour and so blinded with the desire of worldly glory that I could not, nor had grace, to consider how great a fault it was to conceal my former faults from your Majesty, considering that I intended ever during my life to be faithful and true unto your Majesty after.’
Not only that, but no one from her extended Howard family had thought to step in, knowing Katherine’s history with Dereham, when the king showed an interest in making her his next queen. Unlike the four queens who came before her, Katherine never received any kind of education that could prepare her for the kind of bear pit Court was.
Still there was no sign of Katherine being charged with adultery; both she and Dereham denied any intimacy since Katherine’s marriage to the king, and Katherine continued to claim that, though she had called him ‘husband’, there had been no pre-contract or engagement between them. At worst Katherine could legally be charged with bigamy and sent away from Court in shame, until she was questioned about her relationship with Culpeper. Though she admitted to calling him her ‘sweet little fool’ and giving him gifts, she maintained that she had never gone to bed with Culpeper. In fact, perhaps out of a want to save her own skin or simply out of terror, she claimed that Culpeper had pestered her with his affections and Lady Rochford had encouraged his attentions. As is to be expected, Lady Rochford claimed she had helped Katherine and Culpeper meet in secret because Katherine had ordered her to and that she thought the two of them had known one another carnally, ‘considering all the things that she hath heard and seen between them.’
Their fates were sealed when, under torture, Culpeper admitted, ‘he intended and meant to do ill with the Queen and in likewise the Queen so minded to do with him’ and Dereham was set to join them on the scaffold when a ‘friend’ of his conveniently remembered that he once claimed he would marry Katherine if the king were to die.
Dereham and Culpeper were faced with a traitor’s death, sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 10 December 1541. Given the king’s previous affection for him, Culpeper’s sentence was reduced to beheading while Dereham suffered one of the worst deaths imaginable. Afterwards both their heads were displayed on London Bridge.
Katherine and Lady Rochford were beheaded on 13 February 1542. During her time in the Tower of London, though she was never tortured, Lady Rochford had suffered a mental breakdown that initially meant she could not be tried for her role in the queen’s supposed affair. The king quickly implemented a law that allowed for the execution of the insane should they be charged with high treason.
Though so physically weak she had to be assisted on to the scaffold, Katherine was executed first and died with dignity. In the 16th century dying well was important, however terrified Katherine must have been, and some reports suggest that she asked to see the block before she died and even spent the night before her execution practicing how to lay her head upon it. She asked the people watching to pray for her and the executioner took off her head with one blow. Afterwards she was buried in the Tower of London’s parish church, close to the body of Anne Boleyn.
It’s time to acknowledge that Katherine was a multitude of shades of grey as all people are; neither innocent maiden nor lusty whore. She was a woman who was aware of her own sexuality, and how to use it, years before a woman in charge of her own sexual pleasure was deemed acceptable by society. She was a woman who lacked a proper education and upbringing befitting her station who was then expected to act like the four queens who came before her. She was a young girl who made mistakes, and yet met her grisly end with grace and courage, paying the ultimate price for a crime that there is no definitive proof she ever committed.