Katherine was born some time in the 1520s, though the exact year seems hard to pin down for sure. She was a member of a very powerful noble family in England - the Howards - which made her Anne Boleyn's cousin. However, despite being noble and powerful, Katherine's immediately family was not rich, and her family frequently depended on handouts and help from the wealthier members of the family. During her childhood, Katherine lived in the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk at Lambeth. This seems to be where Katherine learned the art - or game - of love, as there were many girls and boys in the household and supervision was relatively lax. It is popularly thought (though not proven) that her music teacher Henry Mannox engaged in a sexual relationship with her during that time, when she was between the age of eleven and sixteen. This may or may not have been Katherine's first intimate encounter with a man, and it would have a great impact on the rest of her life.
Katherine was never described as pious or scholarly, as some of Henry's other wives were. She was, according to most reports, the least educated of his wives, but her charms were in other departments - her beauty, her vivaciousness, and her lively personality. These are the things that attracted the aging Henry VIII to the young woman after his failed marriage to Anne of Cleves - but these attractive features would prove troublesome later on.
Katherine had been one of Anne of Cleve's ladies-in-waiting after her upbringing at the Dowager Duchess's home. Within months of Katherine's arrival at court, however, the king was paying her a great deal of attention - spending lavish amounts of money on gifts for her, writing love letters, and showing her off to other men at court. The Howards were quickly rising, and this was very reminiscent of the early days of Anne Boleyn, when Henry was so enamored with her that he scarcely saw anything else.
By August 1540, Henry had married his fifth wife, and the teenaged Katherine Howard was now Queen of England, and the wife of a forty-nine-year-old man. Henry affectionately referred to his new, beautiful bride as his "rose without a thorn." In his mind, Katherine could do no wrong. She was innocent, pure, and beautiful - and in his mind, she was head over heels in love with him. In reality, it is more likely that Katherine was enjoying the attention and gifts that her husband showered on her, but there is no evidence to suggest that Katherine truly loved him. In fact, there is evidence
In the summer of 1541, Henry and Katherine toured England together, and everyone was anxiously awaiting the announcement that Katherine was pregnant with England's heir. This never happened, however, which caused slight tension in the royal marriage. Henry desperately wanted another son (a spare), and his love for Katherine only made his desire for a son stronger.
Unfortunately, the summer of 1541 proved to be a terribly difficult time for Katherine. Suddenly, people and "friends" who had witnessed Katherine's bad behavior years ago at Lambeth were contacting her and asking for royal favors. In return, they would be silent about what they knew of her. If she refused, however, they had the power to destroy her, and she knew it. For this reason, Katherine accepted many old acquaintances into her life and her household once more. Arguably the worst decision Katherine made at this time was appointing a former lover, Francis Dereham, as her personal secretary. Having all of these people around her meant that Katherine needed to exercise a great amount of trust - and it was a recipe for disaster.
By late 1541, details of Katherine's previous indiscretions were seeping out, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer became aware of a possible pre contract for marriage between Katherine and Dereham, that had been made years earlier. Knowing that such a thing would invalidate her marriage to the king, Cranmer took action quietly and left a letter for Henry on his seat in the chapel at Hampton Court Palace - detailing the accusations against the queen.
Although Henry initially did not believe the accusations against his beloved wife, he insisted that Cranmer should investigate the matter thoroughly. Within no time at all, confessions from Katherine's "friends" and former lovers were given, as well as Thomas Culpeper's own confession that he was currently sleeping with Katherine - (this may have been given under torture at the Tower of London). Among these pieces of evidence, Cranmer also found a love letter from Katherine to Culpeper, which still exists today. (A picture of that letter is shown above!)
Katherine was immediately charged with treason. Although she denied infidelity, she admitted that she was "most unworthy to be called [Henry's] wife or subject." While under house arrest in her private rooms, Katherine managed to escape passed the guards while Henry was at mass one afternoon. According to onlookers, she ran through the corridor screaming for Henry - but as he was in the chapel, he either ignored her or didn't hear her. She was then recaptured and placed in her rooms once more. (It should be noted that the validity of this episode is questionable, and some consider it strictly rumor!) In any case, one of the most popular ghost stories at Hampton Court is the story of Katherine's ghost still running through that corridor - now known as the "Haunted Gallery."
On 23 November, Katherine was stripped of her title and imprisoned in Middlesex throughout the winter.On 10 December, Culpeper and Dereham were executed on Tower Hill - (Culpeper was beheaded, and Dereham was hanged, drawn, and quartered). Many members of Katherine's family were also imprisoned in the Tower of London and sentenced to life-imprisonment, save for Katherine's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who had written a pleading letter to the king, explaining his innocence in the matter. Katherine's family members would later be released.
But Katherine wasn't so lucky. On 7 February 1542, a bill was passed by Parliament decreeing that it was treason (and punishable by death) for a queen consort not to release her full sexual history to the king. Adultery, of course, was also punishable by death, so Katherine was absolutely stuck at this point. There was no hope for escape. She knew she was doomed. On 10 February she was taken to the Tower of London and her execution was scheduled for three days later.
According to Katherine's ladies who were with her in the Tower, she spent the evening before her execution practicing how to lay her head on the block. She requested that the block be brought to her room so that she could practice - clearly very afraid of a botched execution. (Wouldn't you be?)
On the morning of 13 February, Katherine climbed the scaffold steps with relative composure, but onlookers could see her fear. She made a short speech to onlookers, declaring that her punishment was "worthy and just" and beseeching everyone to pray for her soul. One rumor states that Katherine's final words were, "I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper." Katherine died by one single stroke of the axe, and her body was carted away to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Directly following her execution, Lady Jane Rochford - Katherine's accomplice - laid her head on the bloody block and suffered the same way. Both women were buried under the altar in the chapel near Anne and George Boleyn's bodies.
Upon hearing of the queen's execution, King Francis I of France wrote a letter to Henry saying that he regretted the "lewd and naughty [evil] behavior of the Queen" and advising him that "the lightness of women cannot bend the honor of men" Harsh!
Let's remember that, although Katherine's choices and behavior seems careless and stupid to us, we cannot possibly know what it would have been like for a young, beautiful girl to be married to a fifty year old (increasingly angry and tyrannical) king. There is no evidence to suggest that Katherine desired the life of Queen of England, so it wouldn't be right for us to judge her and call her a silly, careless woman. In fact, I think there must be much more to it than that. In any case, we can pity the poor woman and queen who met her end too soon.
Rest in Peace, Katherine Howard.