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Young, reckless and badly brought up?
Catherine was a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s former wife, Anne of Cleves, when the King first spotted her. She was probably still a teenager.
Fresh from his humiliating 'arranged' marriage to Anne, this time Henry wanted to marry for love. But he was unaware that his bride-to-be had an illicit sexual past.
This was an important issue for a King obsessed with ensuring that all of his marriages were, in his view, morally pure.
Henry was by now middle-aged, ill, over-weight and increasingly concerned to secure his dynasty by having more children. Catherine’s family were eager to push her forward as a nubile candidate.
Image: Catherine Howard by Jacobus Houbraken, after Hans Holbein the Younger, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Henry and Catherine were married on 28 July 1540, just three weeks after his marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled.
Catherine's mother died when she was young. She was sent to live with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.
Catherine and her friends were often unsupervised and allowed to entertain male admirers. This was highly unwise, in an age where an upper-class girl’s virginity was her most vital asset.
At 14 Catherine had a romantic liaison with her music teacher, Henry Manox. She had a longer, sexual relationship with a young noble, Francis Dereham between 1537 and 1539. The relationship ended a year before Henry and Catherine married. But the past would return to haunt Catherine.
Catherine, at least two years younger than Henry’s elder daughter Mary, found the role of stepmother difficult.
Henry was unaware of Catherine's past relationships. But Catherine's biggest mistake may have been to continue her affairs after her marriage. She began a relationship with Thomas Culpepper, a Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber, although we don’t know the details. Her maid, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, helped Catherine meet with Thomas in secret while Henry was away from court. It may have been that Culpepper had simply discovered secrets about Catherine’s past and that the Queen was attempting, clumsily and naively, to ensure his silence.
Nonetheless, 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
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.
Still, it seems, in love, the King was willing to forgive Catherine her pre-marital behaviour. However, when Culpepper too admitted to his clandestine meetings with the Queen, Henry’s rage and sorrow swept away all thoughts of mercy.
The King had left Hampton Court on 6 November, never to see his young wife again.
Catherine was taken to the Tower of London on 10 February 1542, and on the way passed under the rotting heads of her former lovers, Culpepper and Dereham, which were displayed on London Bridge.
Image: King Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Three days later, the young Queen was beheaded. Her accomplice, Lady Rochford, followed her to the block.
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.
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...
Want to take a peek into the wardrobes of the kings and queens of the past?
With exclusive access to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, this free online course from Historic Royal Palaces & the University of Glasgow explores clothing from the Tudors to the Windsors.
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