Today’s HistoryJar advent is Agnes Tilney better known as Agnes Howard, dowager duchess of Norfolk and Katherine Howard’s step-granny. Katherine was aged somewhere between fourteen and nineteen when she became queen on 28 July 1540. By November 1541 Thomas Cranmer had been presented with evidence he dared not ignore by religious reformer John Lascelles who may well have seen it as an opportunity to strike a blow at the conservative catholic faction headed by the duke of Norfolk. There followed a flurry of investigations and arrests. The 7th December 1541 saw the Privy Council investigating Katherine’s adultery and questioning “the lady of Norfolk” as this letter details:
“…all yesterday, they examined the lady of Norfolk, who denied all knowledge of the abomination between the Queen and Deram and pretended that she opened the coffers in order to send anything material to the King. Her denial makes for nothing, as they have sufficient testimony otherwise. Have today collected the material points touching her and lord William Howard ….that misprision of treason is proved against the lady of Norfolk and lord William, and that lady Howard, lady Bridgewater, Alice Wylkes, Kath. Tylney, Damport, Walgrave, Malin Tylney, Mary Lasselles, Bulmer, Ashby, Anne Howard and Margaret Benet are in the same case. Ask what the King will have done, and whether to commit lord William and his wife. All their goods are confiscated, with the profit of their lands for life, and “their bodies to perpetual prison.” Tomorrow at the lord Privy Seal’s house, will examine lady Bridgewater, and also Bulmer and Wylkes. Have sent for Mynster Chambre and one Philip, two principal witnesses against lord William and Lady Bridgewater. Christchurch, Wednesday night.
P.S.—Think they have all they shall get of Deram, who cannot be brought to any piece of Damport’s last confession; and would know the King’s pleasure touching the execution of him and Culpeper. Signed by Cranmer, Audeley, Suffolk, Southampton, Sussex, Hertford, Gardiner, Sir John Gage, Wriothesley, and Riche.
Misprison of treason was the charge arising from the 1534 Act of Treason which stated that it was treasonous to hide or not inform on someone else’s treason.
Agnes Tilney was the second wife of the second duke of Norfolk, or earl of Surrey as he was at the time of their marriage in 1497. His first wife had been Agnes’ cousin, Elizabeth. The pair married, with dispensation, four months after Elizabeth’s death. Agnes came from a Lincolnshire family which whilst gentry was not really of a high enough social standing for an earl – even one tarred with the white rose brush so it is possible that Thomas and Agnes married for love.
Thomas Howard worked hard during the reign of Henry VII to prove that he was a loyal subject of the Tudors having been notable for his support of Richard III and as time passed he was accepted into the Tudor fold. Agnes played her part at court and by the reign of Henry VIII they were sufficiently ensconced for Agnes not only to be one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies in waiting but to be one of Princess Mary’s godmothers and just for good measure she was also godmother to Princess Elizabeth having carried Anne Boleyn’s train at her coronation. She may have had mixed feelings about the crowning of her step-granddaughter – remember Anne Boleyn was a Howard as well- as she expressed loyalty to Katherine of Aragon. She overcame her devotion and did testify that she had been part of the group which had put Katherine and Prince Arthur to bed. As well as being named the second lady at court she also had a busy life as the duchess bearing her husband eleven children six of whom survived infancy.
Quite clearly she was a court lady , friends with both Wolsey and Cranmer, but she was also responsible for a number of young Howards and Tilneys, many of whom came from poorer branches of the family as well as other young people of good families who sent their children to work in the home of the duchess of Norfolk believing it would improve their chances in the Tudor world. Her homes at both Horsham and Norfolk House, Lambeth could be described as a finishing school for young Howard ladies and gentlemen (remember Francis Dereham who claimed he was as a husband to Katherine was of Tilney descent)– though clearly with decided overtones of St Trinians. Agnes may have committed herself to the care of these young Howard and Tilney wards but her direct involvement was scarce and her management lacking even though the young women of the household were under the supervision of an older woman called Mother Emet.
Young Katherine Howard joined Agnes’ household when she was about six years old. We also know that it was in about 1536 that Henry Manox was employed to teach Agnes’ young wards music. Manox clearly took advantage of the situation and it was at this time that Katherine began to join in with the household activity of allowing young men into the female sleeping quarters at night.
When news of Katherine’s teenage indiscretions were revealed by Mary Hall and her brother John Lascelles the dowager initially tried to bluff it out saying that Katherine could not be punished for what had happened before her marriage then hurried home to burn any incriminating evidence in the form of letters from Dereham which were contained in a trunk or coffer that belonged to him. To get at the evidence she had to break the lock – an action which saw her being escorted to the Tower though not charged with treason on the grounds that she was old and unwell. Her denials were useless as Katherine’s relationship with Dereham only came to an end in 1539 when Agnes found out about it and beat Katherine. History does not know, however, how much the duchess knew about the relationship of her ward but the Tudors had their suspicions that Agnes knew more than she was letting on – as head of the household it was her job to know everything. Even worse it was a group of Howard women who had written to Katherine asking for her to find a place in her household for Thomas Culpepper – if Katherine’s pre-marital affairs could be swept under the carpet then her affair with Culpepper connived at by Jane Boleyn nee Parker Lady Rochester (a member of the Howard extended family being the widow of Agnes’ step-grandson) really couldn’t be ignored.
Dereham went to Ireland to make his fortune thinking that when he returned he and Katherine would be married. If this was the case and the pair had promised to marry one another then they were precontracted to marriage (which in Tudor terms was as good as marriage in which case Katherine was never truly married to Henry VIII so couldn’t have been guilty of adultery in a treasonous context with Culpepper.) But before Dereham could return to claim his intended bride Henry took a dislike to wife number four and Norfolk seeing a way of bringing Cromwell down looked about his extended family for single young women who might attract the king’s attention – Katherine Howard filled the bill – and as Dereham left for Ireland Katherine found herself appointed to be one of Anne of Cleves’ ladies in waiting. Agnes took over Katherine’s tuition on the duke of Norfolk’s order – possibly with classes on “how to become wife number five.”
Agnes clearly thought that with her arrest it was only a short walk to Tower Hill so took the precaution of making her will. The duke of Norfolk, who had used Katherine Howard as a device to gain political ascendency wrote to the king at about the same time distancing himself from his step-mother denouncing her for having known that Katherine was an unfit bride. Agnes was joined in the Tower by her son and daughter-inlaw and also her daughter Katherine. More than ten member of the Howard family were incarcerated. Lady Rochford would accompany Katherine to the block. The duke of Norfolk escaped arrest but Henry never trusted him fully again.
Agnes was released in May 1542 unlike her son and daughter-in-law who were sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of their lands and goods. Unsurprisingly Agnes was required to pay a financial forfeit. She died in 1545 and is buried in Lambeth.
The question arises did Agnes and the duke of Norfolk know that Katherine had already embarked upon two affairs and was possibly married to Dereham when they dangled her in front of the king. By this time Henry had treated two of his wives appallingly and his reign had been punctuated with judicial murder…consequentially if they did know they were either mind bogglingly optimistic to believe that they would get away with it or believed that they could control Katherine once she became queen. Increasingly I find myself thinking – poor Katherine.
Right I’m off to watch Lucy Worsely’s new series on BBC 1 at 9 o clock on the six wives of Henry VIII.
Wilkinson, Josephine.(2016) Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen. London: John Murray
‘Henry VIII: December 1541, 6-10’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 16, 1540-1541, ed. James Gairdner and R H Brodie (London, 1898), pp. 660-671. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol16/pp660-671 [accessed 25 August 2016].