On today’s date in 1541, Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of England’s King Henry VIII was executed for treason and adultery. And she is said to have died with her lover’s name on her lips.
The Rose Without Thorns
It had been like a rocket that Catherine Howard had risen. She had been a young lady in waiting to Henry’s fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleves. She caught the eye of his Majesty as the bright and personable niece of Thomas Howard the Duke of Norfolk, one of the King’s close advisers. Henry showed little interest in his fourth wife, instead showering young Catherine with gifts and attention. In spite of the significant age difference between them (He was 50, Catherine barely 18) Henry was thoroughly besotted with the kid, calling her “his rose without thorns.” He had his marriage to Anne annulled in July of 1540. He married Catherine on July 28 of that month.
Rumors, and Thomas Culpeper
But it seems that Catherine had more than a few thorns, having been less than chaste in her years before marrying the King, or so the rumors went. Apparently she had slept with a man named Thomas Dereham. So there was the business of keeping that hushed up. But shortly before her marriage to the King, she began a romance with one of the King’s courtiers, one Thomas Culpeper.
This was hardly surprising, as the King was more than thirty years her senior and Culpeper was 26 at the time (pictured above as portrayed in the TV series “The Tudors”). Very soon after her marriage to the King these rumors began to circulate more. The king and his new wife toured England in preparation for her coronation, and her hoped for pregnancy. Henry had two daughters from previous marriages, and a son, but the boy was sickly, and the King hoped for another son and a healthy one to be his heir, But the pregnancy didn’t happen.
So when her affair with Culpeper came to light, along with the rumors of past misconduct, poor Catherine was through. A letter from her to Culpeper came to light, which is about the only writing of hers that still exists:
“I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for a thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. That which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company.”
These sentiments, though delicate sounding enough to our modern ears were nevertheless used against her. She had virtually no hope of survival. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, sent to question Catherine was quite moved by her plight. “I found her in such lamentation and heaviness as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man’s heart to have looked upon her.” She was beheaded at 7:00 a.m. on Feb. 13, 1541. She went to her death with composure, but legend says that at her last moment she said: “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper”. This probably did not happen, but it does lend her tragic story some dimension, since apparently she was in love with Culpeper, and knew that he had been horribly executed (drawn and quartered) before her. She was a mere twenty years old at the time of her death.