November 2, 1541…Henry Learns of Catherine’s “Dissolute Living”

Catherine Howard - Portrait Miniature by Hans Holbein

Catherine Howard – Portrait Miniature by Hans Holbein (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This was the beginning of the end for Catherine Howard. All Souls’ Day, the day that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer left a letter on Henry’s seat in Hampton Court’s Chapel Royal detailing information he “had not the heart” to tell him directly.

Let’s back up. About two weeks ago, a man named John Lascelles came to Cranmer with explosive information. John had a sister, Mary Lascelles Hall, who was in the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk at the same time as Catherine. John had decided that Mary should use her old connection to secure a post at court as so many others seemed to be doing. Mary refused. John pushed the matter – after all, this was quite an opportunity, not one to pass up. Mary explained that Catherine was “light, both in living and conditions” and gave some of the details. Lascelles, coincidentally, was a noted reformer – one who had formerly worked in Thomas Cromwell’s household. Lascelles understood that this could crush the more conservative faction at court, and went right to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer, aided by Edward Seymour, interviewed Mary Hall and confirmed that Catherine had sexual relations with two men before her marriage: her music teacher Henry Mannox and the Dowager Duchess’ secretary Francis Dereham. The affair with Dereham was the more serious –it was a clear precontract that invalidated her marriage to the King (indeed, it was more of a precontract than existed to support any of the King’s three previous annulments).

Had the matter stopped there, it would have ended Catherine Howard’s reign – but would not have killed her (as the Dowager Duchess put it when she heard what had happened while Catherine had been in her charge, “If there be no offence since the marriage, she cannot die for what was done before”). Unfortunately for Catherine, she had appointed Dereham as her personal secretary, which led to the suspicion that she was planning to resume the affair. This prompted Cranmer to look for signs of adultery – which he found all too quickly. Rumors of an affair between Catherine and one of the King’s favorite gentlemen, Thomas Culpeper, were supported by a letter in Catherine’s own hand. Two quotes sealed her fate: “Come to me when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment” and “Yours as long as life endures.”

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December 10, 1541 – Culpeper and Dereham Executed at Tyburn

Axe and Scaffold at Medieval Festival (photo by sorokopud via DepositPhotos)

Today must have been a sobering day for Catherine Howard. On this day in 1541, her two paramours, Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham, were executed. Culpeper was beheaded but Dereham was hanged, drawn, and quartered. According to custom, both their heads were placed on spikes atop London Bridge.

Thomas Culpeper definitely got the better deal in this case. First, he knew that he was cuckolding the King of England, the penalty for which was death. Second, his sentence was commuted to beheading, which was a much gentler end than the other options.

I feel much more sorry for Dereham – all he did was sleep with a young woman he intended to marry. For that, he suffered the ultimate penalty. There are few fates worse than hanging, drawing and quartering.  The grisly punishment starts with the condemned man being dragged behind a horse to the place of his execution. He would then be hanged without a drop, so that his neck would not break and release him from his pain. While was still conscious, he would be cut down and emasculated. He would then have to watch his stomach being slit open and his intestines burned before his eyes. Finally his head would be cut off and his body cut into four quarters.

(Even worse, Dereham might have avoided such a fate if he had avoided his former mistress. After Catherine was Queen, Dereham got her to appoint him as her personal secretary. Whether this was out of ongoing obsession or rank greed doesn’t matter – it was a stupid move either way.)

Tragedy all around.

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