Catherine Howard was born around 1520 as the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper, and through her father’s side of the family she was a first cousin of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn. Though she was of aristocratic birth, her father was relatively impoverished, being the younger son of a Duke. Her mother died in 1528 and Catherine was sent to live in the household of her father’s stepmother, Agnes Howard, now the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Agnes Howard took care of numerous children, who like Catherine Howard were children of aristocratic birth but had low incomes, something quite common among the nobility.
Agnes Howard had very little direct contact with the children in her household. Catherine Howard was being influenced by the older girls in the home, who allowed men to come into the girls’ sleeping area for entertainment. Education was lacking in the Duchess’ household though Catherine knew how to read and write. Around 1536, Catherine began a sexual affair with her music teacher Henry Mannox. The affair ended in 1538 when Catherine met Francis Dereham, a secretary of the household. They soon became lovers and addressed each other as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Their relationship reportedly ended when the Duchess found out in 1539. They may have parted intending to marry once Francis returned from Ireland.
After this Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk found her a place in the household of Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves. She quickly caught Henry’s eye, as he was already sick of Anne of Cleves. Henry called Catherine ‘his rose without a thorn’. The marriage between Anne of Cleves and Henry was annulled on 9 July 1540 and she was henceforth known as ‘The King’s sister’. A mere three weeks later Henry and Catherine married.
By early 1541 Catherine began an affair with Thomas Culpeper though we cannot be sure if it was an actual sexual relationship. The meetings were arranged by one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, Lady Rochford, who was Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law. Henry had no idea and preparations for coronation were made if Catherine showed any sign of pregnancy.
By the summer, Catherine’s past began to catch up with her. She was contacted by several people who were a part of the Dowager Duchess’ household who knew of her past and requested favours in return for their silence. Francis Dereham was appointed her personal secretary. Catherine past came out in late 1541 when a letter surfaced from Catherine to Thomas Culpeper.
She was questioned on 7 November 1541 and continually denied a pre-contract between her and Francis Dereham, which would have allowed her to be spared execution as it would nullify her marriage to Henry. She maintained that Francis had raped her and she confessed to her affair with Thomas Culpeper. She was stripped of her titles on 23 November and imprisoned.
Just before being moved to Syon Abbey Catherine supposedly escaped from her guards at Hampton Court Palace and ran down the gallery looking for the King to plead for her life. She was dragged back to her rooms kicking and screaming. It said that grace-and-favour residents in the neighbouring apartment have heard screaming from the gallery and visitors are often strangely affected in the gallery. It has been known as the Haunted Gallery even before it was opened to the public.
By 10 December Thomas was beheaded and Francis was hanged, drawn and quartered and their heads placed on London Bridge. Catherine herself and her lady-in-waiting Lady Rochford were executed on 13 February 1542, by beheading. Catherine reportedly had spent all night practising how to lay her head on the block. Lady Rochford had a full nervous breakdown and had been declared insane.
Supposedly Catherine’s final words were, ‘I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper’.