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Looking for Queen Katherine Howard

The lack of any properly authenticated likeness of Henry VIII’s fifth queen, Katherine Howard, his “blushing rose without a thorn”, makes the existence of any memorial to her at all, especially poignant. The only letter of hers known up to now to exist is the ill-fated missive which she penned to Thomas Culpeper. A Holbein portrait previously thought to depict her has now been convincingly suggested to be that of the sister of Henry’s third queen, Jane Seymour, Elizabeth. The most likely image that we have of her is a miniature that exists in two versions, which depicts an individual wearing a pendant, the same one which Holbein painted Jane Seymour as wearing in his 1536 portrait of her, which must mean that they were later given to Katherine, if indeed it is a portrait of her. A drawing at Windsor also thought to show Katherine, was not, however ‘identified’ until 1867. Another candidate suggestion is that the stained glass window in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge could also possibly show Katherine, depicted as the Queen of Sheba, because King Solomon bears a great resemblance to Henry VIII in the window. Many people associate the so-called ‘Haunted Gallery’ at Hampton Court with the story that Katherine, hysterical and keen to plead for her life, was taken screaming down this gallery after a desperate effort to appeal to the King who was attending Mass in the Chapel Royal. It has subsequently been well proved that it is most unlikely Katherine would have tried to reach the King via this route and so the story itself, whilst keeping her memory alive at the palace, is almost certainly erroneous.

I am keen to focus on the memorials that do exist to her in the royal Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London and in front of the Chapel, in the form of a new memorial which was erected on the site traditionally believed to be that where the scaffold once stood, on Tower Green. Recent suggestions have however put forward the theory that the scaffold could more likely have stood in the area that corresponds roughly to that in front of the 19th century Waterloo Barracks, today housing the Crown Jewels on display at the Tower.


The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London with the site of Tower Green in front (Copyright, Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2016)

The memorial was placed there in recent years and bears a moving inscription alluding to an imagery of death and sleep. The memorial was designed by the artist Brian Catling and was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces, the charitable trust which maintains among other formal royal residences, also the Tower of London. There is a glass pillow at the centre of the memorial, which conjures up a sense of the head resting in sleep but also of the lowering of the neck onto the ominous execution block. It will be remembered that Katherine Howard during her time in the Tower of London whence she had been taken from Syon Abbey, requested that the block be brought to her so that she might practise beforehand – an exercise both morbid and courageous in the extreme. Katherine Howard behaved on the morning of her execution with a pale dignity and composure, although she was almost too weak to stand. Not unlike that other Queen of England also beheaded at this site, Lady Jane Grey, she was still a teenager, not yet twenty. Although the exact year of Katherine’s birth cannot be stated with certainty, she was in all likelihood born in the early 1520’s, possibly 1523, making her at least nineteen when she died. Unlike her cousin Anne Boleyn however, there was no swordsman from France who arrived to do the deed and she was executed on the grounds of High Treason in the English manner, with an axe. Her body was taken and quietly buried under the pavement of the altar in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, close to where Anne Boleyn had been interred. And there was no memorial. At least, not yet.


The modern memorial to those executed on Tower Green at the Tower of London, bearing the name of Katherine Howard among the others (Copyright, Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2016)

It was the great Victorian historian Thomas Babington Macaulay who visited the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the 19th century and recorded its sad state of disrepair – something which must have very much added to the sense of it being, as he famously described it in his History of England from the Accession of James the Second, “the saddest spot on earth”. Queen Victoria granted permission for the Chapel, a royal peculiar – meaning that it was a place of worship under the monarch’s direct jurisdiction – to be restored in 1876. For the chapel to be restored, the area around the high altar, which contained many of the graves of those who had been granted the mixed privilege of being executed privately on Tower Green, had to be disturbed in order for a new pavement to be laid. This, in turn, meant disturbing the graves. The Secretary of the Privy Purse, Doyne. C Bell, recorded his findings as they proceeded to excavate the altar area. This was carried out with the greatest respect and dignity, appropriate to the excavation of such a site. Although a memorial with Katherine’s name and armorial crest was later placed afterwards in the pavement, marking the site where Katherine’s remains were believed to have been found, it is notable that she was not among those actually ‘identified’ by the Victorian excavation team.

In the placing of a memorial, however, in the area where she had been interred, Katherine was quite literally, given back her status as Queen, in the wording of the memorial.  The sense of disgrace that surrounded her downfall and death has somehow been lifted through the placing of this memorial slab and the shame of an unmarked grave is no longer one that her name has to endure. The memorial records simply and correctly, her royal status in life – which was stripped from her by the Council, but has now given back to her in perpetuum. Although the two queens died in very different ways, there is an oblique parallel here with the last resting place of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose status of “Katherine, Queen of England” – which she defiantly maintained as her royal title to the last – having been restored to her in death, the banners of a Spanish infanta having been placed above her tomb at Peterborough, by order of George V’s consort, Queen Mary.

Similarly, Anne Boleyn’s queenly status is boldly proclaimed once more on her memorial slab in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, close to that of her cousin Katherine. There is a sense of posthumous justice and sympathy here, which seeks to atone for the attitude shown towards Katherine and towards Anne at the time of their deaths. The historian Alison Weir theorises in her book, The Lady in the Tower (Vintage, 2010), that the remains that the Victorian excavators found could have been a case of false identification, and that the remains of Anne Boleyn could be under those previously thought to have been of Lady Rochford, and that Katherine Howard’s remains could be one of the other females interred beneath the altar.

 It is possible to access the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula as part of one of the regular daily tours of the Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London and the Chapel is also open during the last hour of the normal opening times. No flowers would appear to be laid regularly for Katherine on 13 February, the date of her execution in 1542; at least not in the way that the flowers have arrived annually in tribute to Anne Boleyn in an established fashion for many decades, on 19 May.


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