Born: About 1521
Catherine Howard was King Henry VIII’s fifth wife. Young, attractive, and full of life, Henry fell head over heels in love with her. Even though he was almost fifty, obese and in ill health, Catherine, still a teenager, led him to believe that she felt the same. Henry lavished her with gifts, including lands and houses, and asked her to marry him. To his joy, and to the joy of her family, who had been disgraced by the death of Anne Boleyn, their cousin, she said yes. The two were married in the July of 1540 and Henry was blissfully happy. Catherine, he said, was his “jewel of womanhood”, his “rose without a thorn”.
Catherine was happy too, but not because she loved Henry. She was happy because she loved being Queen. She loved the attention, the power, and the riches. As a relation of Anne Boleyn, she did not get on very well with the King’s eldest daughter, Mary, whose mother, Catherine Of Aragon, had been cast aside so the King could marry Anne, but she adored his daughter by Anne, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, just seven years old at the time of the marriage, was invited to court and even made a guest of honour at one of the Queen’s banquets. Prince Edward was also fond of his new step-mother.
But while Catherine’s youth and energy was a breath of fresh air in the English court, the new Queen was impulsive and reckless. She believed she could do what she liked without consequence. Even though Anne Boleyn had been executed for adultery, Catherine had an affair with a young man called Thomas Culpeper. Behind the King’s back, the two would secretly meet, and their illicit romance went on for some time. When Henry found out, however, he was furious. Catherine had deceived him and he felt betrayed and humiliated. He was also disappointed to find out that Culpeper was not Catherine’s first lover. Before she had married Henry, she had slept with a man called Francis Dereham. This shattered Henry’s illusion of Catherine’s purity and he was livid. He had Dereham put to death, savagely by disembowelling, and also executed Culpeper.
Catherine learnt too late how foolish she had been. The King that had adored her now abhorred her, and was determined she would pay for her betrayal with her life. At Hampton Court Palace, Catherine is said to have tried to reach her husband, who was in the royal chapel, to plead for her life, but was dragged away screaming by guards. Her screaming ghost is said to haunt the corridor to the chapel to this day.
Catherine was imprisoned in the Tower Of London, just like Anne Boleyn before her, and was executed on the 13 February 1542. Unlike her cousin, she did not request a swordsman, so was beheaded the conventional way with an axe. Her only request was that the block could be brought to her beforehand so she could practise her last moments. She did not want to make a mistake in public. When the deed was done, and Catherine was dead, perhaps not yet even twenty one years of age, she was buried alongside Anne Boleyn in the Tower’s Chapel of Peter Ad Vincula.