On this day ... The execution of Catherine Howard, 5th wife of Henry VIII, for adultery
Henry had only just rid himself of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleaves. Anne's marriage to Henry only lasted nine months to prove she wasn't pregnant with Henry's child, an impossibility because Henry stated he could not bare to even look at her. But he'd promised the Germans and there was no way he could insult them without consequences. He annulled the marriage and gave her a generous settlement, Richmond Palace as well as Hever Castle, home of the former in-laws, the Boleyns, and for some reason Anne did not seem upset at all.
Almost straight away, another woman caught Henry’s eye as his frenzy for more heirs continued. At nineteen years old, Catherine Howard, Anne Boleyn’s first cousin, was a young and attractive lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. Catherine's father, Lord Edmund Howard, was the brother of Anne Boleyn's mother, Lady Elizabeth Howard and both Edmund and Elizabeth were the children of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Catherine had auburn hair and hazel eyes and was the prettiest of Henry’s wives and immediately Henry’s spirits revived.
Despite their close familial ties, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had never met. Firstly, Anne was about fifteen years older than Catherine. Secondly, the Norfolk family was a tangled collection of cousins (far too many to list here) and, since Catherine was one of many children of a poor younger son, her status was relatively unimportant in the mid-1530s. Third, and perhaps most important, Anne Boleyn had disliked Catherine’s father, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk (and formerly earl of Surrey) declaring him conniving, opportunistic, and arrogant. This perhaps affected her relationships with all her Norfolk cousins including Catherine. It had certainly affected her uncle, Duke of Norfolk, who was one of the men who had sent Anne Boleyn to the gallows.
Henry and Catherine’s quick marriage was a mere three weeks after the annulment from Anne of Cleves and reflected Henry’s urgency to father more healthy, legitimate sons since he only had Edward. He showered his young bride with jewels, a gift of land and expensive clothes. As an added bonus, he had his advisor Thomas Cromwell beheaded for treason, heresy and corruption, believing the rumours that Cromwell had been plotting to marry his daughter Mary. He was also the man who had recommended Henry marry Anne of Cleaves. Cromwell’s dance of death lasted half an hour as his two executioners ‘chopped at the Lord Cromwell’s head’. His head was then placed on a spike on London Bridge for the carrion birds to feast on.
By then, Henry was nearly fifty and expanding in girth. He weighed around twenty-one stone or 140 kilograms and suffered from a number of ailments including a foul smelling, festering ulcer on his thigh that had to be drained of pus daily. Catherine soon became aware of his formidable temper as he flew into fits of rage and wouldn’t let her into his presence for the first ten days after their marriage.
Catherine was young, wild and tempestuous and she was not very content with her new husband who was three decades older than her. By this time in his reign, he had begun eating so much that his bed had to be enlarged to a width of seven feet. Henry had developed a binge-eating habit, consisting of a diet of fatty red meats and very few vegetables. His weight had ballooned even more and he was covered in pus-filled boils and suffered from gout. But still he yearned for female companionship.
Behind the scenes, gossip travelled fast. Rumour had it that Catherine was not a virgin at their marriage and that she had even been married previously. And then, rather stupidly, she added fuel to the fire by beginning a romance with Henry’s favourite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper. People had even witnessed her transgressions. Disastrously, Catherine then appointed another handsome man, Francis Dereham, as her personal secretary.
By late 1541, Catherine’s indiscretions had become known to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. At first, Henry disbelieved the allegations. How could his young wife possibly prefer someone else? Then he remembered that Anne Boleyn and Catherine had been cousins and he requested that Cranmer investigate. Within days, proof was found, along with the confessions of Dereham and Culpeper who had more than likely been tortured first in the Tower and on 10th December 1541, Culpeper was beheaded and Dereham was hanged, drawn and quartered. Both heads were placed on top of London Bridge as well. After two years of wedded bliss, Catherine was then charged with treason and adultery.
If Henry had simply annulled their marriage and banished her from court, she would have only been disgraced and impoverished. She may even have been spared execution. But sadly for her, that was not an option.
Catherine’s family hastily began distancing themselves from her at all costs. At her arrest, virtually every member of the Norfolk family was taken to the Tower, except the duke. He sent a frantic letter to Henry that included insults of all his imprisoned relatives, most importantly the 'abominable deeds' of both Anne and Catherine. He was certainly an unappealing character but, unlike so many others, he managed to survive in the treacherous Tudor court.
Catherine remained in limbo and in absolute panic until 7th February the next year. When the bill was eventually released, she was condemned to death for failing to disclose her sexual history to the king within twenty days of their marriage. This made her unequivocally guilty and on 13th February, looking pale and terrified, she climbed the scaffold and made a speech describing her punishment as ‘worthy and just’. Her final words were ‘I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper.’
Henry did not attend the execution. Instead, he held a huge banquet to celebrate with twenty-six ladies at his private table. One year later, he stood before Kateryn Parr, a serious widow of thirty-one and proposed marriage to her, fully expecting her to swoon with delight.