Henry VIII thought his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, was perfect. Katherine Howard was a woman with a past when she came to court in 1539, as a maid-of-honour.

Katherine Howard
Katherine Howard

Katherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, used his influence to find a place for her in anticipation of the King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves.

Henry was repelled by his fourth wife. He sought a divorce when he became smitten with Katherine, a pretty vivacious but frivolous girl in her late teens. Katherine’s relatives, the powerful Howard family, vouched “for her pure and honest condition” and actively encouraged the relationship.

Queen of England

Henry married Katherine at Oatlands on 28 July 1540 amidst rumours she was already pregnant. He showered his young bride with lavish gifts. (He wasn’t this extravagant with his previous wives!) Katherine was not crowned as Henry was short of funds.

Portrait of Henry VIII
Portrait of Henry VIII

Katherine revelled in her new-found importance and what seemed like unlimited wealth. Life at Court became a lengthy honeymoon as Henry felt young again. Kingship was put on hold and foreign policy was stalled.

Henry was becoming more melancholy irascible with age, especially when he suffered bouts of fever and painful swelling in his lower legs. He was also grossly overweight and he was unable to take exercise. Katherine often played nursemaid.

Henry took Katherine on his Northern Progress on 30 July 1541, after Henry’s leg improved. Henry aimed to inspire loyalty and prevent further revolts, especially after the Countess of Salisbury’s shocking death. Katherine was in high spirits from the people’s approval.

Courtiers noticed mysterious comings and goings from the Queen’s apartments.

Archbishop Thomas Cramner was given the unpleasant task of informing the King after revelations from John Lascelles, and his sister Mary Hall, a former serving woman in the Duchess’ household, about Katherine’s past indiscretions.

Henry believed the allegations were false and insisted upon an investigation in secrecy to clear Katherine’s name.

Early Life

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

Katherine was raised in genteel poverty despite her illustrious heritage. She, like her cousin Anne Boleyn, traced her royal descent from Edward I. (Her father and Anne’s mother were brother and sister.)

She was taken into her step-grandmother Agnes Duchess of Norfolk’s household at Horsham to learn obedience, good manners, social graces, reading, writing, music, singing and household management. However, the Duchess failed in her duty of care for Katherine’s moral welfare.

Pre-marital sex was a sin, but not a criminal offence.

Katherine’s affairs with her music master Henry Manox and Francis Dereham, a retainer in the Duchess’ household, were an open secret. Manox left an anonymous note warning the Duchess of Katherine’s behaviour with Derehem. Apart from beatings and harsh reprimands, the Duchess and other senior household members failed to take her behaviour very seriously.

Her past was conveniently forgotten, especially when her girlhood friends and ex-boyfriend were given important posts. Derehem was appointed Private Secretary but he was an unsuitable choice with his fiery temper, over-familiarity with the Queen and brawling with others.


Further questioning revealed Katherine’s affair with Thomas Culpepper, with her lady-in-waiting Lady Rochford acting as a go-between.

Henry acted quickly after his initial shock at the findings. Members of the Duchess’s household were arrested for concealing their knowledge of Katherine’s behaviour. They were eventually released, but Dereham and Culpepper were executed.

An Act of Attainder was passed in 1542 declared it was treason for an “unchaste woman” to marry the King without revealing her past beforehand.

Katherine never confessed to adultery but she lied about her past relationship with Derehem. She was executed with Lady Rochford on 13 February 1542 at the Tower of London. Katherine is buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula.

Credit: Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk
Credit: Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk


Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1992 (Seventh Impression 1993)

Lacey, Robert, The Life and Times of Henry VIII, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1972 (Reprinted and reissued 1992)

Plowden, Alison, Tudor Women: Queens & Commoners, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2002 (Reprinted 2007)

Somerset, Anne, Ladies In Waiting, Castle Books, Edison NJ, 2004

Starkey, David, Six Wives The Queens of Henry VIII, Vintage [Random House], London, 2004

Weir, Alison, Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy, Vintage Books, London, 2008

Weir, Alison, Henry VIII King and Court, Jonathan Cape, London, 2001

Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Pimlico, London, 1991 (Reprinted 1992)

© 2009 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 16 May 2009.

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