Catherine Howard in 1542 - What Was The Final Turning Point?

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Catherine Howard has to be one of Henry VIII's queens that just isn't discussed that widely, in general. 

We have Katherine of Aragon and her impressive Spanish lineage and fight to remain queen during Henry's Great Matter. There's Anne Boleyn and the reformation, the love letters and the court plots that brought her down. Jane Seymour - obedient, kind and gave Henry the boy he craved. 'Ugly' Anne of Cleves who put up with the whole 'Flanders Mare' episode and actually came off one of the wealthiest women in the country from it. Even Katherine Parr - the widow who cared for Henry, nurtured his children and was the first queen to write a book. Oh yes, and she was the one who survived. 

But what about Catherine Howard? The 'queen who had boyfriends' is about the most many people know about her. 

Image of Holbein painting, thought to be Catherine Howard, Public Domain

I've just finished reading the amazingly brilliant and well researched book Young and Damned and Fair by Gareth Russell. In it, he talks about Catherine, Henry VIII's tragic fifth wife, charting her life from birth (before birth, actually, when he adds context about her family) up until her execution in the February chill at the Tower of London in 1542. 

A bit of backstory: Slim and petite, no more than 19 years old and sparkling in a silver dress, Catherine Howard married Henry VIII in 1540 at Oatlands, shortly after he had been granted his divorce from Anne of Cleves. For Catherine, standing at the wedding altar, life must have felt surreal. 

Unfortunately though, an old 'secret' was about to catch up with her. While she was younger and in the care of her step-grandmother the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, she'd had a short, intimate relationship with her married music teacher, Henry Maddox, but it had gone no further. Shortly afterwards she embarked on a fully sexual relationship with Francis Dereham, a young man also staying at the Dowager Duchess' house. They exchanged gifts, slept together in the shared dormitories (witnesses later talked of much 'huffing and puffing') and referring to one another affectionately as husband and wife. In Tudor times, a verbal agreement was enough to put a legally binding pre-contract of marriage in place, meaning that Catherine, whether she realised it or not, was now legally promised to Dereham. Catherine grabbed the opportunity to work in the royal court in the household of Anne of Cleves, spurning Dereham's new advances but did not formally break off the pre-contract that existed between them.  

Now at court, Dereham was out of Catherine's mind, and she began a short, probably playful relationship with Thomas Culpepper, a member of the king's Privy Chamber. But after her marriage to the king, she continued to meet him in secret at the court and while on progress, often late at night. 

Culpepper admitted when later questioned that, on these visits, he 'meant to do ill' with the queen (1) - the intention of sexual intercourse. Francis Dereham then came to court, looking for a job and, to keep him quiet, Catherine employed him in her household as an usher and regularly pressed money into his hand, telling him to 'take heed what words you speak'. (2)

Within weeks, everything would catch up with Catherine. Her marriage to the king was never legal - she had been pre-contracted to Francis Dereham, and the marriage was annulled. Culpepper admitted to meeting her with the desire to have sex, although both insisted they never went through with it, despite him having letters from her declaring her love for him. The king didn't believe their protestations and suspected too, that Dereham had really joined the queen's household to rekindle their relationship. Catherine was tried for treason and executed. Dereham and Culpepper were also executed, their heads placed on spikes in London. 

And all this got me thinking - could Catherine, having been escorted from her apartments and placed alone, at Syon Abbey, have saved herself? I wondered, in 1542 as she prepared to meet the executioner, if she wished she could turn back time to one event, and it would all be different? Or was everything tragically predestined the moment she had arrived at court?

Turning point 1. Catherine's employment of Dereham
My first thought was of Catherine's decision to employ Francis Dereham into her household, and perhaps this was the point where it all went wrong. Russell argues that, with full knowledge of their prior relationship, he put Catherine in a difficult position. (3) Sending him away, he could have gossiped about her in revenge. By keeping him close, she must have hoped to retain some control, hoping that he would keep quiet about the prior relationship for their mutual benefit. But the royal court was rife with gossip and it's unlikely that this would have been kept secret as long as he was there. Dereham is thought to have been a boastful and arrogant character and regularly upset courtiers with his attitude, which only added to the attention around him.  With only a few extra mugfuls of beer, Catherine's 'secret' could have easily spilled out into the court and also to the ears of the king. 

This employment of Dereham is often regarded as a terrible mistake on Catherine's part. However if he had lived happily some place far away and never come to court after her, I believe that the result would have been the same. The first person to alert the authorities about the relationship wasn't actually Dereham, but a woman who had witnessed Catherine and Dereham's trysts first hand, and had slept in the same room with them back in the Dowager Duchess' house: Mary Hall. (4) It seems that whatever Catherine was going to achieve in life, she'd left enough witnesses behind to emerge later, when she had more to lose.

Based on the pre-contract - this was embarrassing, but not grounds for execution. It's likely that if there had been no Culpepper - Catherine would have been divorced and escaped with her life, probably back to the Dowager Duchess' house. 

Turning point 2. Her meetings with Culpepper
So a pre-contract would have been an insult - and at the very least, a tedious legal exercise for Henry's team. But it was Catherine's secret 3am trysts with Thomas Culpepper that tipped this affair into full-blown treason. 

The king didn't believe their protests of innocence that nothing happened between them. The meetings were chaperoned only by Lady Rochford, who fell asleep in the corner of the room, which was no comfort to Henry. And in any case, Culpepper's admission of intention was enough. This was treason. 

But what if Catherine had never entertained Culpepper while she was queen, or if he hadn't been interested in her once she was married? The rumours of their short relationship when she first came to court could have still emerged and insulted the king, but this wouldn't in itself have been classed as treason. Treason is declared against an unfaithful queen because it endangers the line of succession. If there had been no meetings between them once she was queen, the rumours of their earlier relationship could have been waved off by Henry or, if he was in a bad enough mood, he might have divorced her. But she probably wouldn't have been executed. 

Catherine's meetings with (and letters to) Culpepper certainly increased the seriousness of her behaviour, but only because of her status and who she was married to at the time. It could be argued that Catherine still sought the excitement and flutter of romance at court, and if it wasn't Culpepper, it would have been another handsome courtier that caught her eye. 

Turning point 3. Marrying Henry
Let's consider if Henry had never married Catherine: if she had just been his mistress for a while, or if he'd never acted on his attraction to her at all. 

With her charm, attractiveness and flirtatiousness - and her willingness to act on them - Catherine would no doubt have created for herself a reputation at court. And while love affairs did take place, ladies were expected to be kept in order by their mistress and could be dismissed for misconduct. She may even have been sent away from court out of the king's way, which, in hindsight, would have been a blessing.

It's also unlikely, if Catherine had never been queen, that Francis Dereham would have used her to find employment at court, unless he thought that she could vouch for him in royal circles. In any case, there was no danger: any gossip that then leaked regarding his relationship with her, or with Culpepper, wouldn't have mattered to the king and certainly wouldn't have resulted in charges of treason for any of them. It could be argued that attraction can't be controlled, and if we keep Dereham and Culpepper in Catherine's life but remove her association with Henry, this would have meant any disgrace or downfall  that was possible would have been significantly less bloody on all accounts. 

There then begs the question: would it have made a difference if Catherine had confided about her past to the king as soon as she noticed he was interested in her? Even if Henry decided to continue with the marriage, presumably after legal wrangling to settle the case of the pre-contract - this doesn't remove the opportunities she had to meet Culpepper later on and set everything in motion once again. Could she have resisted? 

The verdict
If we are to look at the moment that Catherine could have turned the tide in her favour, it wasn't at Syon Abbey in 1541. While she was stripped of her rich dresses, jewels and royal privileges it would have been too late for her to talk her way out of any of these events. 

It wasn't even the moment she fell in love with Francis Dereham at the Dowager Duchess' house in Norfolk, and began their playful, flirtatious game of adolescent mock-marriage, or her recruitment of him into her service as queen.

And I don't believe it was when she gazed longingly at Thomas Culpepper through the window of her royal apartments as queen, and ached to meet him again in the dark night.

Unfortunately for Catherine, her days were numbered the moment Henry glanced over at the young, smiling lady who worked for his queen, and resolved to marry her himself. Encouraged no doubt by the promise of wealth and  power, Catherine of course didn't offer up any incriminating information that could risk putting off her royal lover. What nineteen-year old girl wouldn't be flattered to be queen? 

The moment Henry's ring slipped onto Catherine's finger on that sunny July day at Oatlands in 1540 set in motion a chain of events that could not have been undone and, sadly, led to her tragic end. At this moment, Dereham's pre-contract existed, and had been hidden by the new queen. Culpepper had enjoyed a flirtatious relationship with Catherine only a few months before, again unknown to the king. The second she married, Catherine's past, present and future was under public scrutiny and the target of intrigue and gossip. The wheels for her downfall were set in motion at the exact moment her glittering rise began. But if we're looking for the moment that triggered her death, that would be her pursuit of Culpepper, once she was queen. But again, she had to be queen to receive that death. 

What do you think? Do you think there was another turning point in Catherine's fall? Could she have somehow talked her way out of it? 
Let me know in the comments below!

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1. Gareth Russell, Young and Damned and Fair, William Collins, 2017. p329.
2. Ibid., p305
3. Ibid., p181
4. Ibid., p301