Execution of Catherine Howard
Almost as soon as Henry VIII had managed to annul his marriage to his ‘mare of Flanders’, Anne of Cleaves, he married Catherine Howard, still driven by the need for legitimate male heirs – Edward was after all a sickly child in an age when illness far too often meant inevitable death.
Catherine Howard was a telling choice of bride in two ways: the king in spite of his excessive girth and the sores covering his failing 50-year-old body – one leg ulcer was particularly noxious – still at times had a self-image of youthful vigour; and by marrying again into the powerful Howard family of the Duke of Norfolk et al he showed the need to shore up his position in England rather than extend his influence overseas: he had made enemies at home, the papacy was obviously no friend of his, and he had wasted his father’s legacy of prosperity and crown wealth.
The birth-date of Catherine is not known, but she was about 20 when she married the king, who had lavished hugely expensive gifts of jewellery and clothes upon her. There were rumours about her (lack of) chastity from her earliest days at court, and her activities with a succession of lovers taken to wipe away the unpleasant reality of a totally unattractive husband became common knowledge very soon in the marriage, though Henry was unaware of them – Catherine managed to protect her reputation partly by employing those capable of betraying her within her household.
Soon, however, Cranmer revealed the truth to the king with a letter from Catherine to one of her lovers. Henry gave Cranmer leave to investigate and prove the allegations, something swiftly done with the aid of the torture chambers in the Tower of London .
Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham, two of her lovers, were forced to confess, though there was plenty of other evidence from those who had witnessed the comings and goings from the royal bedchamber. The two men were executed before Catherine, who may have avoided death had she agreed to accept that she had contracted a union with Dereham before her marriage to Henry, thus making the royal marriage null and void, and excusing her of treason as she would not have been married to the king thus incapable of betraying him. She refused.
On February 13 Catherine was executed at the Tower with one clean stroke, having pleaded for mercy for her family (many of her relatives were in prison at this time because of their closeness to Catherine); though legend has it her last words spoke of her desire for Culpeper. Her royal marriage had lasted just over 18 months.
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