Catherine Howard

A young woman whose marriage to Henry VIII would end in tragedy

A young woman whose marriage to Henry VIII would end in tragedy

Was her marriage to Henry VIII doomed from the start?

Catherine Howard was reportedly young, pretty and full of life. By the time she met King Henry VIII  he was middle aged, plagued by old sporting injuries and had developed a terrible habit for turning on his wives when they did not meet his lofty expectations. The match was perhaps doomed from the start.

A sketch of unknown woman, engraved as Catherine Howard after Hans Holbein the Younger

Why did Henry VIII marry Catherine Howard?

After the speedy collapse of his unsuccessful match to Anne of Cleves, Henry was determined to choose his next bride for himself.

His attention was soon drawn to Catherine Howard, a cousin of Anne Boleyn, who was a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s former wife, Anne of Cleves. She was reportedly beautiful and full of life, and much younger than her mistress.

After the speedy collapse of his unsuccessful match to Anne of Cleves, Henry was determined to choose his next bride for himself. The young Catherine was pushed by her family into the king’s attention, who decided she was exactly the sort of wife he had been looking for. However, many have suggested that they were poorly matched – not least because of the thirty or so year age gap.

Henry and Catherine were married on 28 July 1540, just three weeks after his marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled.

Image: Catherine Howard by Jacobus Houbraken, after Hans Holbein the Younger, © National Portrait Gallery, London



Detail of the stained-glass in the west window showing a likeness of King Henry VIII in the Great Hall. The glass was installed in 1845 to the designs of Thomas Willement.

Stepmother to princesses Mary and Elizabeth

Catherine faced many challenges as a young bride, including the fact that she was at least two years younger than Henry’s elder daughter Mary. Unsurprisingly, she found the role of stepmother difficult.

However a more serious issue was also to emerge. Henry expected high moral standards in his wives (quite unlike his own) and it was rumoured that Catherine had an ambiguous sexual past. This would not come to the king's attention until it was tragically late.

Image: Detail of the stained-glass in the west window of the Great Hall showing a likeness of King Henry VIII. HRP Image Library

An unsuitable upbringing

Catherine’s past has been the subject of much research and speculation. In likelihood, several details were hidden from the king which would later prove fatal for Catherine.

 Catherine's mother died when she was young. She was sent to live with her step-grandmother, Agnes Howard, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Evidence suggests that she was not as protective of her charge as she should have been, which turned out to be a terrible mistake.

Did you know?

Catherine was sent to live with her step-grandmother when she was around 10 or 12 years old

A portrait of Agnes Howard (née Tilney), Duchess of Norfolk

Catherine Howard’s hidden past

In the years before coming to court Catherine was reportedly subject to the advances of her music teacher, Henry Manox, who was more than twice her age.

What’s more Catherine and her friends entertained male admirers unsupervised. Catherine was later said to have had a sexual relationship with a young nobleman called Francis Dereham, between 1537 and 1539.

This was an age where gossip was rife and an upper-class girl’s virginity was considered an important asset to be protected until marriage. A reputation could be ruined by rumourand allegations, and destroy a young girl’s prospects.

Image: Agnes Howard (née Tilney), Duchess of Norfolk, published by John Thane, 20 November 1793. National Portrait Gallery NPG D24097. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury by Gerlach Flicke

Rumours of betrayal reach Henry VIII

Henry was seemingly unaware of Catherine's past, which by his standards, would cast her as immoral and unworthy of his hand in marriage. Tragically, her chances of keeping it secret were dashed when (in likelihood) she made the mistake of having an affair with Thomas Culpepper, a Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber. We know very few details about this alleged affair, but reportedly her maid, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, helped Catherine meet with Thomas in secret while Henry was away from court.

Rumours of Catherine's affair reached the Archbishop of Canterbury. Further investigations into Catherine’s past quickly followed, and the King was informed of Catherine's pre-marital behaviour and alleged infidelities at Hampton Court Palace on 2 November 1541. It’s thought that the Archbishop left a letter in the King’s Pew in the Chapel Royal.

Image: Portrait of Thomas Cranmer, (1489-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury, © National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of a Lady, thought to be Catherine Howard (oil on panel), Holbein the Younger, Hans (1497/8-1543) (follower of) / Hever Castle Ltd, Kent, UK / Bridgeman Images

Catherine was charged with leading an 'abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, and vicious life, like a common harlot, with diverse persons'.

Image: Portrait of a Lady, thought to be Catherine Howard, Holbein the Younger, © Hever Castle Ltd, Kent, UK/Bridgeman Images

King Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger
oil on panel, probably 17th century, Purchased, 1871, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 324

Catherine Howard is condemned to death

Henry was reluctant at first to believe anything and passed the allegations off as rumour and gossip. Catherine's former lovers were arrested and tortured, with Dereham confessing to a sexual relationship.

It seems that Henry may have been willing to forgive Catherine for her past before their marriage, but the case of an affair proved too much. When Culpepper too admitted to his clandestine meetings with the Queen, Henry’s rage swept away all thoughts of mercy.

The King had left Hampton Court on 6 November, never to see his young wife again. Later that month she was stripped of her title as queen. 

Several agonising months would pass however before she would meet her violent end, during which time both Dereham and Culpepper were executed.

Catherine was taken to the Tower of London on 10 February 1542, and on the way may have seen the rotting heads of Culpepper and Dereham, which were displayed on London Bridge.

Image: King Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. Memorial to Catherine Howard

Execution at the Tower of London

On the morning of 13 February 1542, Catherine Howard was beheaded. Her maid, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, followed her to the block. It’s believed Catherine may have been as young as 17 when she died.

Catherine Howard is buried in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula at the Tower of London.

Image: Memorial to Catherine Howard, featuring her name and coat of arms in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. 

The Haunted Gallery, looking north. The Haunted Gallery owes its name to the story of the ghost of Catherine Howard, King Henry VIII's fifth wife. Charged with adultery, the young Queen was placed under house arrest at Hampton Court. The story goes that she managed to escape from her rooms and run along the gallery to the Chapel where the King was at Mass. Before she was able to reach him, she was seized by the guards and dragged screaming back to her rooms. It is said that her ghost still shrieks along the gallery. The photograph shows a blurred image representing the ghost of Catherine Howard.

Catherine’s ghost

It’s said that when Catherine was arrested at Hampton Court Palace, she broke free from the guards and ran to the doors of the Chapel Royal, where she believed Henry was at prayer. She screamed to the King for mercy, to no avail.

Today the story goes that her famous ghost can still be seen running along what is now known as the 'Haunted Gallery' at the palace. Some visitors have reported feeling a chill, or 'strange sensations' when passing along the corridor...

The Haunted Gallery at Hampton Court, looking west.
Things to see

Walk Henry VIII’s route from his private apartments to the Chapel and see the infamous Haunted Gallery in the State Apartments.


Hampton Court Palace

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The blue and gold vaulted ceiling of the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace
Things to see

Walk in the footsteps of kings and queens at the Chapel Royal, which has been in continuous use for almost 500 years.

Open Wednesday - Saturday

Hampton Court Palace

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The Tudor Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace, showing the Abraham Tapestries and the room set out for day visitors.
Things to see

Experience the splendour of the Tudor court in Henry VIII's Great Hall, complete with his magnificent tapestries.


Hampton Court Palace

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