To celebrate the publication of my new biography of Queen Katherine Howard, I have written this short piece about her marriage to Henry. I hope you like it!
Divorced, beheaded, died Divorced, beheaded, survived So the rhyme goes. Henry VIII is famous for having had six wives, but were all his marriages legal? Was he really married to six women? While sixteenth-century marriage laws appear to be clear cut, there are many grey areas that, even today, leaving those who would negotiate them with severe headaches. This is no less so in the case of Henry’s fifth wife and queen, Katherine Howard.
The question of whether or not Katherine Howard was really Henry’s wife centres on her previous relationship with Francis Dereham and how it is interpreted. Dereham began exploiting his position of authority shortly after he took up his post in the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. He used Katherine for sex, and this incited the jealousy of another man who had previously tried to seduce her under similar circumstances, Henry Mannock.
Formerly a music teacher to Katherine, Mannock took it upon himself to make trouble for Dereham by writing a letter to the duchess warning her to visit the maidens’ chamber during the night, where she would see something that would ‘displease’ her. When Dereham found out about the letter, he knew he had an enemy. In order to diffuse the threat, he asked Katherine if they could call each other husband and wife, and she agreed.
The fact that Katherine and Dereham addressed each other in this way, that they did so in front of witnesses and at a time when their relationship was clearly sexual, meant that they had entered into a contract of marriage. They technically were married in the eyes of ecclesiastical law. This was a binding contract, one that could not be dissolved because it had been consummated. As a result of this, Katherine was not free to marry Henry. When she went through with the royal wedding and became Henry’s wife and queen, she actually committed bigamy.
Later, when the news of her former relationships came out and her precontract with Dereham was discovered, her marriage to Henry could have been annulled, in which case Katherine would have been sent away from court in disgrace. However, the matter became more complicated when Katherine stated that what Dereham had done to her had been coerced; that he had, in fact, raped her. This was why she did not mention the precontract before her marriage to Henry, and why she denied it afterwards. As far as she was concerned, Dereham’s coercion made their contract illegal - and this was a valid argument which could have been accepted had anyone had the will to do so.
At this point, it is easy to disbelieve Katherine and attribute her denial of her contract with Dereham and her assertions of rape either to ignorance or scheming. However, Katherine’s extreme youth as well as Dereham’s maturity must be taken into account. She was about thirteen at the time of her relationship with Dereham while, far from being the young man he is usually depicted, he was at least seventeen years older than Katherine. He was a fully grown man, technically old enough to be her father, and he knew exactly what he was doing. His position of authority over Katherine and his station in the duchess's household meant that she would have to be in his presence for much of the time. Add to this the fact that, as an older person and a male, society itself placed him in a superior position over her; it can easily be seen how difficult it would have been for Katherine to refuse him, or even to get away from him.
As Archbishop Cranmer questioned Katherine and listened to her side of the story, and he was the only person ever really to do so, he struggled to decide the best way to proceed with her case; but he was torn between navigating the convoluted ecclesiastical laws and telling Henry what he thought he wanted to hear.
The situation was further complicated when it emerged that Katherine had given Dereham a place in her royal household. This came to be interpreted as a sign that they had rekindled their former relationship. Dereham was arrested and subject to hard questioning - torture - to make him admit just that and, in a last desperate attempt to prove his innocence, he cried out that he could not have revived his relationship with Katherine because he had been replaced in her affections by Thomas Culpeper.
Culpeper, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and one of Henry’s favourites, was duly arrested and questioned. He admitted to having been in a relationship with Katherine before her marriage; and here he spoke the truth, they had courted, but they had not consummated their relationship. He insisted that, although they had resumed their friendship during the royal progress, with him visiting her late at night in clandestine places, he and Katherine had never gone beyond words. He did say, however, that he and Katherine would have gone on to have sex, that he ‘intended and meant to do ill with the queen and that in like wise, the queen so minded to do with him.’ These words, although Katherine was never given the chance to confirm or deny them, condemned her and Culpeper, as well as her chief lady of the bedchamber, Jane, Lady Rochford, who had helped to arrange their late-night meetings.
When news of his wife’s previous relationships broke, Henry did not believe it but, since the slander had been made, it had to be investigated, and he ordered selected council members to look into the matter. When it came out that Katherine had never really been his, he was distraught, raging and threatening to kill her with his own sword. He then sent Katherine away, never to see her again.
Henry made no attempt to discover the facts surrounding his marriage; had he done so, he would have found that Katherine could never have been accused of presumptive treason, still less that she deserved to be executed. That he ignored this and went ahead with prosecuting her woman he had once loved so much, shows a desire for vengeance, not only against those who had violated Katherine, thereby ‘spoiling’ her for him, but also against Katherine herself.