Recently, I finished writing a short story, titled “Rose Without A Thorn,” about one of King Henry VIII’s lesser known wives, Catherine Howard. Henry admiringly called his wife his “rose without a thorn,” but this wasn’t the case. Catherine possessed many thorns, sprouting from the stem of her past. It only took Henry fourteen months of wedded bliss to discover the pricks.
But how did Catherine Howard grow such thorns? It can discovered in what is known of her past. Catherine Howard was born to Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper in 1523. She was the first cousin of Anne Boleyn, whom Henry VIII was romancing by the time she was a waddling toddler.
Her father didn’t have much money to his name, having been the younger son of twenty-one children born to Thomas Howard, the second Duke of Norfolk. This made Catherine the granddaughter of a duke, but she grew up without much of the luxury. Her father often begged for charity from his more affluent relatives. Her mother died in 1528, with her father marrying twice more. However, he died more than a decade later in 1539.
After her mother’s death in 1528, Catherine, being no more than five years-old, was sent to live with her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The Dowager Duchess maintained homes for her wards, children of aristocratic lineage but from poor families. These wards were kept at Chesworth House in Sussex and Norfolk House in Lambeth. Children being educated in aristocratic households was a common European practice, but the rules in the Dowager Duchess’ households were lax, as she preferred to spend her time at court rather than amongst children.
Catherine was sent to stay at one of these households. She became influenced by the other girls in the house who allowed men into their beds for—ahem—certain favors. In return, these girls were given wine, food, and gifts. Catherine took up these very habits, particularly with one known man, her music teacher, Henry Mannox. Henry Mannox was 36 years-old at the time, while Catherine was only thirteen. He often touched and fondled her, but never engaged in sexual intercourse with the teen.
Catherine, at 15, was sent to Norfolk House in Lambeth. She held an affair with Frances Durham, secretary to the Dowager Duchess. This affair lasted for the next two years, with the two calling each other “husband” and “wife.” Many of Catherine’s friends and peers in Norfolk House knew of the relationship, but it ended when it was ousted by the Dowager Duchess. It’s possible the two intended to marry, having agreed to a precontract. If this was the case, the two would’ve been considered married by law.
However, history shows Catherine taking a different path. Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, found her a position at court as one of the ladies-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry had shown little interest in his fourth wife, having not consummated the marriage and divorcing her six months after taking their wedding vows. Henry disliked Anne so much, his physicians wrote this of his claims, “he found her body in such sort disordered and indisposed to excite and provoke any lust in him.” Henry also said she had “evil smells about her” and held no attraction towards his new queen.
Meanwhile, Catherine Howard caught Henry’s eye with her vivacious, bubbly personality and youth. The Duke of Norfolk saw an opportunity to exploit his niece and regain the favor the Howards had experienced when their relatives, the Boleyns, held influence during Anne Boleyn’s queenly reign. He continued to press her towards Henry, and as the king’s attraction grew, so did the Howard family’s influence.
Eventually, King Henry secured a divorce from Anne of Cleves. He did so without having to lop off her head, like his other Anne. He married Catherine shortly after on July 28, 1540. Henry was enamored with his pretty, new wife, calling her his “rose without a thorn” and the “very jewel of womanhood.” She received lands, dresses, and jewels for her newly elevated status. However, no coronation was planned for her. Henry intended to crown her as his queen if she fell pregnant, possibly providing him with an heir. Typical Henry.
But a child was not to bless the royal marriage. Instead, in the Spring of 1541, Catherine had embarked on a passionate affair with one of Henry’s courtiers, Sir Thomas Culpeper. It turns out his “rose without a thorn” possessed a prick. One not to be discovered for many months as the King remained infatuated with his wife, and Catherine with her lover. Talk about a love triangle!
Catherine’s meetings with Culpeper were orchestrated by one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford. Lady Rochford was the widow of George Boleyn, Catherine’s executed cousin and brother to Anne Boleyn. The two lovers often met alone at night, with Lady Rochford standing watch. These visitations lasted many months, until Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, caught wind of the affair.
Now, before Cranmer even learned of the Queen’s late-night indiscretions, ghosts from her past had started surfacing. People who knew about Catherine’s conduct when she was a ward of the Dowager Duchess began to approach her with blackmail. Many were given appointments within her royal household. Joan Lambeth, a friend of Catherine’s from her days at Lambeth, requested to be a part of her royal household in return for her silence. Her former lover, Frances Dereham, was made her secretary. Also as a result of possible blackmail.
But it was Mary Lascalles was the one to put Catherine’s downfall into motion. Mary and Catherine had been wards at the Norfolk House in Lambeth. Mary’s brother, John Lascalles, suggested she try to find a place in court to attend to the Queen. However, Mary refused to seek such a position, telling her brother about Catherine’s inappropriate conduct at the Norfolk House. John Lascalles took this news to Thomas Cranmer, who began to look into the Queen’s sordid past.
Cramner started by interrogating Mary Lascalles. Mary informed her interrogators of Catherine’s previous sexual rendezvouses. Cranmer, a Protestant, dug deeper in his search to bring about the downfall of his enemies, the very Catholic Norfolk family. Lady Rochford came under interrogation next. She feared being tortured, so she sang like a canary. She informed Cranmer of Catherine’s affair with Sir Thomas Culpeper and their orchestrated meetings.
During his investigation into the Queen, Cranmer discovered a love letter, written in her hand, within Culpeper’s chambers. The amorous words in that letter sealed Catherine’s fate. She was to be charged with treason and adultery.
On November 1, 1541, while praying in the Royal Chapel, King Henry VIII was handed the warrant for Catherine’s arrest, which described her crimes. Henry was in denial. His grief was so great at the discovery that his “rose without a thorn” did, indeed, possess a thorn. At first, he did not believe in the accusations. He fervently denied that his Catherine, his rose, wasn’t the jewel or image of innocence he had believed. However, Henry eventually came around.
On November 23, 1541, Catherine was stripped of her title as Queen and imprisoned in Syon Abbey, which was once a convent. She would stay there throughout the winter, denying all the accusations laid at her feet. One of these accusations could’ve been her saving grace.
It was alleged she’d had a precontract, a promise of marriage, with Frances Durham. However, Catherine denied this, claiming she was raped. A precontract would’ve annulled the royal union, allowing Catherine to keep her head. Henry would’ve banished her from court in disgrace, destitute and poor. But at least she would’ve lived!
But it was not to be. Dereham and Culpeper were executed on December 10, 1541 for high treason. Culpeper got an ax to the neck, and Durham was hung, drawn and quartered. Catherine’s fate seemed uncertain, until a few months later. Parliament passed the Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 on February 7, 1542. This law made it treason for a queen to not disclose her sexual history within twenty days of a royal marriage or to encourage another to commit adultery with her.
Catherine was apprehended by the Lords Council shortly after the law passed. She struggled and screamed as she was escorted onto a barge to the Tower of London. Her barge passed under the London Bridge, where the heads of her two lovers, Culpeper and Dereham, were on spikes. She was led to her prison cell, with her execution scheduled for February 13, 1542.
Catherine is believed to have practiced laying her head on a block the night before her execution. This might’ve lent her calm for the next day, as she did not struggle, flail, or scream, as the day she was apprehended. She required assistance climbing the scaffold, but was able to give a speech to the witnessing crowd. Allegedly, her last words were, “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper.” However, there is no evidence or eyewitness accounts to support this claim. This is merely part of the legend that surrounds the “rose without a thorn.”
She died asking for mercy for her family, calling her own execution just. She begged for the King’s forgiveness before laying her head on the block, as she’d practiced the night before. Her death came after this. Lady Rochford, the orchestrator of the private meetings between Catherine and Culpeper, was executed soon after.
King Henry lived on after Catherine Howard, obese, tyrannic, and possibly impotent. he lived to marry one last time, to Lady Catherine Parr. He did not behead her, although his track record with women isn’t the greatest — two of his wives lost their heads!
Catherine Howard, not the most memorable of his wives, deserves attention, though. Not for the fact that she was another casualty to Henry’s bloody reign. Rather, the history surrounding this “rose without a thorn” shows an innocent woman taken advantage of by men. Men who bedded her, a king who wedded her, and then beheaded her. Perhaps this rose’s thorn was imagined by men who made her a victim of their lust, ridiculous ideas of chastity and innocence, and desire for power.
“Catherine Howard.” Historic Royal Palaces, www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/history-and-stories/catherine-howard/.
RUSSELL, GARETH. YOUNG AND DAMNED AND FAIR: the Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry Viii. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2018.
Theanneboleynfiles. “The Fall of Catherine Howard.” The Anne Boleyn Files, 13 Feb. 2010, www.theanneboleynfiles.com/the-fall-of-catherine-howard/.
Theanneboleynfiles. “The Marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine Howard.” The Anne Boleyn Files, 28 July 2010, www.theanneboleynfiles.com/the-marriage-of-henry-viii-and-catherine-howard/.
Wilkinson, Josephine. Katherine Howard: the Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen. John Murray, 2017.
Worsley, Lucy. “Was Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s ‘Wanton’ Fifth Wife, Actually a Victim of Child Sex Abuse?” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 20 Dec. 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/katherine-howard-henry-viiis-wanton-fifth-wife-actually-victim/.