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Catherine Howard

Young, reckless and badly brought up?

Young, reckless and badly brought up?

Doomed from the start?

Catherine Howard was pretty and flirtatious. The besotted King Henry VIII was fat, middle-aged and thought she could do no wrong. It was probably a recipe for disaster.

A line engraving of Catherine Howard by Jacobus Houbraken, after Hans Holbein the Younger

Why did Henry VIII marry Catherine Howard?

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

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.

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

An unsuitable upbringing

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.

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

Catherine betrays the King

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

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

Revenge of the broken-hearted King

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

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

Execution at the Tower of 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. 

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...

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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.

Open daily

Things to see

The parish church of the Tower of London holds regular religious services throughout the year.

Selected dates

The Great Hall, looking east.
The hall was constructed by King Henry VIII to replace a smaller and older hall on the same site. It had two functions. First to provide a great communal dining room where 600 members of the court could eat in two sittings, twice a day. And secondly, to provide a magnificent entrance to the state apartments that lay beyond.
Highlights Things to see

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

Open daily

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Prisoners of the Tower uncovers the unpublished the history of the Tower of London as a place of torture and state prison.

Prisoners of the Tower

Prisoners of the Tower uncovers the unpublished the history of the Tower of London as a place of torture and state prison.