On February 13th 1542 Henry VIII’s fifth queen, his “rose without a thorn”, was executed. Historians and programme makers often focus on her naughty ways but in reality she was little more than a child- nineteen at the most- when she died having been groomed for abuse during her childhood and then made into a political pawn for the Howard family and the Duke of Norfolk.
Katherine’s final days were played out according to a script familiar to Henry VIII’s method for getting rid of people who’d let him down one way or another.
Parliament sat in the middle of January 1542. Its purpose was to bring Acts of Attainder against Katherine and her lady in waiting Jane Boleyn – Lady Rochford. At the same time the dowager Duchess of Norfolk was also accused as were Henry Manox, Frances Dereham and the decidedly unsavoury Thomas Culpepper who was also a distant cousin to Katherine, as was Dereham.
On February 10th Katherine was taken from Syon House where she’d been sent when news of her misdemeanours had first surfaced to the Tower. Once she was in the Tower she was questioned as to her guilt so that semblance of a fair hearing could be maintained as she wasn’t actually tried in the way that Anne Boleyn was brought to trial. Perhaps that had been Thomas Cromwell’s neat lawyers mind in action.
On February 11th Parliament passed an act saying that it was perfectly acceptable to execute the insane. This meant that Jane Boleyn who was definitely not a well woman having accused her own husband of incest with a former queen, her sister-in-law, and who now found herself guilty of allowing Thomas Culpepper to canoodle with her cousin Katherine Howard could be executed without breaking any laws.
On the evening of February 12th Katherine asked to have the block upon which she would lay her head the following day fetched to her chamber. She rehearsed the actions that would end her life, confessed her sins and on the 13th a crowd gathered to watch the second of Henry VIII’s queens meet her death at the hands of the royal executioner.
Katherine wearing black velvet stood in front of the crowd and made the traditional address seeking pardon from the king and dying as a good Christian. In one recorded version of her address she is supposed to have said:
…long before the King took me I loved Culpepper, and I wish to God I had done as he wished me, for at the time the King wanted to take me he urged me to say that I was pledged to him. If I had done as he advised me I should not die this death, nor would he. I would rather have him for a husband than be mistress of the world, but sin blinded me and greed of grandeur, and since mine is the fault mine also is the suffering, and my great sorrow is that Culpepper should have to die through me.
Sadly this piece of theatre is the work of later historians. As Wilkinson records, there is no evidence of this speech in any of the foreign ambassadors’ reports to their various masters. It needs hardly be added that a put down of that nature would have been to juicy to be ignored.
Katherine Howard was executed with a single stroke of the axe. Jane Boleyn, mad or not, was executed immediately afterwards having seen her mistress die before her. Dereham who had put cuckold’s horns on the kings head had been executed by hanging, drawing and quartering at Tyburn in December the previous year. Thomas Culpepper had been executed by axe on the same day. Manox who most modern readers must find repellant for the way in which he groomed and abused Katherine from his position of trust within the dowager’s household escaped execution.
Wilkinson, Josephine. (2016) Katherine Howard. The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen. London:Murray