In Defense of Katherine Howard Part 2: Victim, guilty, scapegoat or a little bit of everything?

Katherine Howard played by Lynne Frederick in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972)
Katherine Howard played by Lynne Frederick in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972)

After everything that has been said about Katherine Howard, there are many doubts that remain regarding her innocence. Say what you will but when you look at the dubious evidence, you realize that not only was she innocent of the crimes she was accused of, but also that unlike her first cousin Anne Boleyn and her alleged lovers, she was never given a trial. Granted, the trial of Anne Boleyn wasn’t fair and neither was the one for her alleged lovers (among them her brother with whom she was accused of incest) but at least she got one. Katherine Howard never met her accusers, she never got the chance to defend herself and I have posted enough of Conor Byrne’s articles (whose recent biography of Katherine Howard is the best I have ever read) among many others of other authors that lay out the facts and explain the many factors that contributed to her downfall.

Most of her accusers, among them one of the Duchess Dowager’s servants, did not come forward until very late in Katherine Howard’s marriage with the king and her evidence says nothing about her liaison with Culpeper but rather about her first two relationships with Manox and Dereham which seemed to have been nothing more than abuse on their part.

The first ‘affair’ would have started when Katherine was very, very young and by that I mean, if we are to believe she was born around 1523-1524, twelve or thirteen. Around that time her cousin had fallen out of favor, the Howard family was on thin ice. It wasn’t just Anne and her brother who were beheaded, but one of her relatives would be locked up in the Tower for his relationship with none other than the king’s niece, aka Meg Douglas. Manox an opportunist at best, must have believed he could take advantage of a girl from a family that was no longer the second highest family in the land, and not only that, she wasn’t a wealthy heiress or the one likeliest to make a grand marriage. She had been sent to her step-grandmother’s, Agned Howard, house to be polished and turned into a respectable lady who could one day make a profitable marriage because marriage back then was everything. A woman rose or fell based on the man she married or the family she belonged to.

The events of 1536 however changed all that. At the Dowager Duchess’ household she learned about the virtues expected of noblewomen and to emulate other values, and learned skills that would be seen attractive in a wife. Katherine Howard’s later reputation corrupted the Dowager Duchess’ reputation but before that she was a prominent figure at court, she had played a central role in the coronation of Katherine’s first cousin Anne Boleyn and before that, she had been godmother to Princess Mary.
Being that Vives was an important thinker during the Tudor era and whose greatest patron was none other than Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon; his advice on young women, warning them against the advances of lechers or men who wanted to date them only for their money, would have been one of the many manuals she would have been given or told to memorize.

“During Anne Boleyn’s meteoric rise to the queenship that brought unprecedented favor to the Howard family undermined only by the queen’s spectacular downfall, her young cousin Katherine Howard embarked upon her first steps into the adult world through receiving music lessons in 1536, when she was aged around twelve years old, which would prepare her for a future as a skilled gentlewoman.” (Byrne).

As has been stated, her downfall did change everything and Katherine Howard found herself the target of the opportunistic Henry Manox who had been assigned to her by her step-grandmother as her music tutor.

“The relationship between Katherine and these two young men should be interpreted in context of sixteenth-century beliefs about female sexuality, honor codes, and the nature of the institution of marriage … It has been suggested, in light of this, that Katherine’s superior lineage and kinship to the Duke and Dowager Duchess meant that other individuals within the household who were aware of the nature of her relationship with Manox decided not to inform the Duchess against Katherine.” (Byrne)

But Byrne also adds that in the light of sixteenth century mentality, another reason why they didn’t report Manox’s intentions was because the nature of their relationship was nothing consensual, and a scandal of this sort would have ruined Katherine’s reputation. “For as Katherine’s inferior in status Manox had gravely overreached himself, which probably meant that Katherine’s acquaintance remained silent about the affair not only because they feared the consequences for Katherine due to her kinship relations and Howard lineage, but because the undertones of abuse, classed as deviant in early modern society, cast the honor of the Dowager Duchess into doubt for maintaining a household that allowed such acts to occur.”

When the indictments began, Manox, Dereham and many others were questioned. Manox reported that he had asked Katherine to let him show his love of her and Katherine who probably wanted to get away from him as soon as possible but who was afraid that if she said something, or if it was discovered what he did, her reputation would be ruined and also her step-grandmother’s, said that she could not give him any token of appreciation or let him show her his love because of their status, he was her inferior and she was his superior. It was a good way to remind him that he was aiming too high but her response did not seem to deter Manox and he continued to press Katherine until the Dowager Duchess discovered them or found out about his intentions and she dismissed him without making any fuzz, thus ensuring that no scandal would break out.
Mary Lascelles who was the star witness who brought the evidence regarding Katherine’s early sexual encounters to Cranmer, said she heard a rumor that the two were engaged but this is likely to be a lie. Katherine and the Dowager Duchess’ actions tell a different story. Mary nonetheless said that after she found out what Manox had done, she reprimanded him and told him “Man what mean though to play the fool of this fashion?”

After that incident, the Dowager Duchess moved her household to Lambeth where she and Katherine could have a new start but the odds were not meant to be in Katherine’s favor. In Lambeth she met Francis Dereham (who was a distant relative of the Howards) and who had previously been involved with Joan Bulmer, one of her companions. Before long, his attentions shifted to Katherine. Whether he heard from the maids’ lips whom he was often with, what happened between her and Manox or some exaggerated version of it, he decided to try his luck with Katherine. It was reported that the two were very much in love and that Katherine did consent to the affair, but given Katherine’s previous experience and her insecurities, she was likely to have done so out of fear or after he forced himself on her as was later reported.

Whatever the truth of the matter is, one thing is clear and that is that Katherine was the victim of sexual abuse, and we must remember that often times victims of sexual abuse will not come forward, not because they lack the courage, but because they are afraid of what might happen. This goes on today in many culture where the concept of ‘honor’ still prevails, also when it is family member or someone with a great reputation who has served your family faithfully, you are less likely to make an accusation and it is my belief based on my readings and her actions, that this is what happened here.
When Katherine married Henry VIII, she could have spilled her guts about her past. Why didn’t she? She probably felt the past was the past, and she would have been a fool to reject Henry VIII’s suit. No woman did and their marriage can’t be purely seen as an egotistical move by a vain teenager to surround herself with jewels and fabulous new gowns like it is often portrayed on pseudo-historical dramas like the Tudors. It was done for her family. Family meant everything back then. You married for your family’s benefit, you raised your children to be good wives or good husbands and politicians to benefit your family, that was how things worked back then and we can argue in some cultures it still works that way.

“There is little doubt that the marriage was a dazzling and unexpected career move for Katherine, but this is not to suggest she was anymore calculated or cynical than any other woman of her generation. She may not have been in love with Henry but she would have certainly have been in awe of him; of his status, his physical person and the whole theatre of royalty, of which he was the heart. The kind of love a subject might feel for a king, of respect, admiration and devotion, was prized more highly in the marital stakes than romantic attachment; in serving and pleasing Henry, a doting older husband, Katherine had fallen on her feet.” (Licence).

As Queen, Katherine fulfilled almost all of the roles expected of her as Henry’s consort. She pleaded for other’s lives, she went with Henry on progresses, behaved with grace and dignity expected in a royal consort, and despite her initial animosity towards the lady Mary, after the two had gone on the wrong foot, this soon evaporated after they were convinced by Henry and Chapuys respectively to make peace with each other. Katherine saw more of Mary as time passed and the two were on good terms by the end of 1540, having given each other gifts and other tokens of friendships. Also, Katherine was one of the very few royals who voiced opposition to the way Margaret Pole was being treated. Margaret Pole had been Mary Tudor’s governess and she had fallen from grace after her son Reginald made hostile remarks against Henry VIII following his marriage to Anne Boleyn (though the real catalyst in all of this had been the ‘Exeter plot’ that allegedly involved her family in a conspiracy to kill Henry and place her sons as the new rulers of England. Margaret was convicted along with most of her family based on scarcely any evidence; but the fact that she had strong Yorkist blood running through her veins and that she had been a supporter of the old religion and the late queen, Katherine of Aragon, was reason enough to execute them). Katherine Howard spared no expense for the poor Countess of Salisbury, she sent her own tailor and ordered new clothes for her, and in addition she also sent new shoes as Dan Jones points out in the prologue of his most recent book on the wars of the roses. But for all of Katherine Howard’s charity and advocacy for the old Countess, nothing could soften Henry’s heart and she died in May 1541 hacked to pieces by an inexperienced executioner.
Among those she pleaded for, who were more fortunate, was Sir Thomas Wyatt, the poet who had written beautiful poems in memory of his lost love, her first cousin and her alleged lovers. In the early 1540s he had been imprisoned for conspiring with one of the Poles. Henry granted her request “releasing the poet on the condition that he should return to his estranged wife of fifteen years.” Also, Licence adds that when Katherine went on her first progress with Henry, she received a splendid reception, Chapuys’ letters chronicle this, how the people were happy to see their new queen and the Tower guns saluted her. That same year in May 1541, Chapuys added how Katherine convinced Henry to visit his only son who was only two and a half at the time and resided at Waltham Holy Cross. The queen did her best to reconcile the royal family, but before long her past came back to haunt her.

Her past affairs were one thing but her current one was treason, and it has been romanticized endlessly but it was not the love affair that novelists write about or that we saw in the Tudors. Katherine was no lust-driven, mindless teenager (even if she did sleep with Culpeper, for a girl her age being married to a man who was more than twice her age, it must have been frustrated and she was under heavy pressure to provide a heir, but the evidence for their affair is not concise), she was very aware of her bloodline and the role she was to play, and most of all that she was there to aggrandize her family’s fortunes and give the king a son.

In the latter she failed, Marillac (the French Ambassador) reported at the beginning of her reign that she was pregnant but this turned out to be false, likely a phantom pregnancy or wishful thinking on both of them.

Thomas Culpeper was the attractive man that the Tudors showed, in that they got it right, and what they also got right was that he was not the romantic hero of fiction, but a shady character with a shady past. There were allegations of rape; her recent biographer believes that this could have been misinterpreted and it actually meant his older brother (who was also named Thomas –don’t you just love how everyone had the same name?) who did the deed. Regardless if it was him or his older brother, Thomas did pursue Katherine. Whether he heard of the rumors from one of her former maids or because of the blood-relation they had; Thomas thought he could get away with it, and why not when he had a successful career at court and it was currently on the rise.
Culpeper no doubt approached Lady Rochford (the widow of George Boleyn) first, “and probably blackmailed her into allowing him to meet with the queen and impose his demands on her” (Byrne). According to Culpeper, when they first met on April 1541, she gave him “by her own hands a fair cap of velvet garnished with a brooch and three dozen pairs of aglets and a chain”; but she warned him to hide these items and prevent anyone from seeing them. Culpeper who was annoyed that his attentions had gotten him nowhere pressed her, and told her he needed more than just that but Katherine continued to deny him any more affection, instead of buying him with gifts to stay away.

What Culpeper likely saw as the two previous men had, was an insecure but yet proud woman who did not want any trouble and who thought she would get in trouble for just talking to him.

As for Katherine’s letter which has been seen as clear evidence of her guilt Licence weighs in on this: “It begins conventionally enough –Master Culpeper, I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do- but develops into something more personal, as the queen has taken considerable ‘pain … in writing to you’ and had ‘heard that you were sick and never longed so much for anything as to see you and speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now’ …” It can also be seen in many ways too. Noblewomen often used very elegant, if not eloquent and chivalric language to express their gratitude towards someone. This fancy way of writing was very proper of nobles, especially noblewomen and royal women. “The game of courtly love flourished at the Tudor court and was viewed as a popular social convention in which young, well-born ladies participated with handsome knights in witty exchanged …The knight was expected to serve his lady, obey her commands and gratify her whims. Obedience and loyalty to the high-ranking lady were viewed as critical, while that lady was firmly unavailable by virtue of her status and was consequently inclined to be remote, haughty and imperious …”

There is no contemporary image that has accurately been identified as Katherine Howard. All that's known about her appearance was that she was no beauty but she had "superlative grace" meaning she was pleasant to be around with and had light red hair and was thin. That's about it. This has been attributed to being Katherine because of the jewels and it could be but it could also be Meg Douglas, Henry VIII's niece.
There is no contemporary image that has accurately been identified as Katherine Howard. All that’s known about her appearance was that she was no beauty but she had “superlative grace” meaning she was pleasant to be around with and had light red hair and was thin. That’s about it. This has been attributed to being Katherine because of the jewels and it could be but it could also be Meg Douglas, Henry VIII’s niece.

Katherine would not have been the only queen, nor the last, to engage in these courtly exchanges. Her niece and youngest stepdaughter would do so as well when she became queen, her letters to Leicester, Robert Dudley, are living proof of that. Anne Boleyn engaging in courtly love as well, and before her other queens such as her predecessor, were seen as acceptable. Nonetheless, at this point Henry’s court was not what it once was. The summer Prince was gone; and there was suspicion everywhere.

“Ladies within Katherine’s household, including Lady Margaret Douglas and her own cousin Mary Howard, had engaged in similar pastimes encouraged at the Tudor court … The giving of gifts to Culpeper might indicate Katherine’s desire to become better acquainted with him, for although he was kin to her, because he served within the household of her husband she probably knew very little of him. It is likelier, however, that this experienced courtier promised silence in return for the queen bestowing lavish gifts upon him … As other wealthy noblewomen participated in social and literary exchanges concerned with courtly love with other gentlemen, Katherine might have believed that, following Queen Anne’s example, her political position as queen and her social position as mistress of her household permitted her to engage in similar exchanges.” (Byrne)

But this didn’t work and Katherine’s mistake was not seeing through Thomas’ character enough. There was no hint of their so called amorous affair before her downfall; and most of the evidence was based on her previous liaisons with Manox and Dereham. Several factors went into her downfall and it was not her stupidity or her inexperience but rather the factions at court, or groups that detested the Howard and had their own religious agenda. Katherine never said anything on religion, her opinion was blank and it was likely to stay that way because she wanted to play the role of the passive wife. But Cranmer and others had other ideas, her downfall really centers on her association with the Howards, her family and that they were in direct opposition with many fronts at court.

According to one of her ladies she agreed that the queen was committing treason with Culpeper, it is possible given the intense psychological pressure that many of her ladies went through (as those of her first cousin Anne had gone through) they just wanted to agree with whatever her interrogators said; if they knew what was good to them, they would not want to be involved with their mistress any longer –it didn’t matter to them if she was innocent or not.
Jane Parker, Lady Rochford has been very maligned and seen as this vindictive, humorless and cold-hearted woman, but her confession was likely done under duress. She had known what had happened to her husband and sister in law, she had lived through that, she was a survivor and she knew how far these people would use the law or whatever other method they had in store, to get what they wanted. Unfortunately Jane as Katherine wasn’t saved.
The two of them were damned and sentenced to die in 13 February 1542. First Katherine, then Jane. They were executed in the same spot where Katherine’s cousin had been six years earlier and also buried in the Tower’s chapel in St. Peter ad Vincula.

Katherine's burial spot at St. Peter ad Vncula.
Katherine’s burial spot at St. Peter ad Vncula.


  • Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne
  • Wicked Women by Retha Warnicke
  • Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
  • The Anne Boleyn Collection by Claire Ridgway
  • Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Starkey

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