Kathryn Howard: Could She Have Saved Her Life?

by AlexandriaIngham

Kathryn Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, was a young girl, flirtatious and full of life. She may have been able to save her life had she admitted just one thing.

Kathryn Howard was executed for adultery and treason on February 13, 1542. She was the fifth wife of Henry VIII and the second to be executed. Incidentally, she was also Anne Boleyn’s cousin through Anne’s mother’s and Kathryn’s father’s side. While Kathryn possibly was guilty of having a relationship with Thomas Culpepper, she shouldn’t have been executed. According to the rules and customs in the 16th century, the marriage between Kathryn and Henry was invalid.

Kathryn was too naive to realise that she could have saved herself. All she had to do was admit one thing: there was a pre-contract between her and Francis Dereham. However, there was a delay between her execution and that of Dereham’s and Culpepper’s because Henry needed a reason to execute her. So could she have really saved her life?

Kathryn Howard Meets Francis Dereham

The young Katherine HowardKathryn met Dereham while she was under the care of her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Kathryn’s father was the youngest son of the Dowager Duchess and that meant he had very little money; certainly not enough to raise his own daughter. Kathryn’s mother had died when she was young and her father was sent to France. It meant that she needed to be raised by others.

Had Kathryn been raised by her own parents, it is probable that she would never have met Francis. She certainly would have been raised as a lady and not the free-spirit that she came to be. She may have even never attracted the King’s attention and that may have saved her life.

She wasn’t raised with the strict supervision with her grandmother; nor was she as well educated as many others. She was the least educated of Henry VIII’s six wives, possibly only able to read and write her name; although that was good for women in the 16th century. There were constantly men around, one of those being the future cause of her problems: Francis Dereham.

Francis was employed by the Dowager Duchess, where he had the chance to meet Kathryn. Around this time, Kathryn was in a secret relationship with her music teacher, Henry Mannox. This shows how quickly she went between men and was a possible sign of the things to come in the future. Kathryn quickly left Henry and became involved with Francis.

The Pre-Contract Between Kathryn Howard and Francis Dereham

Agnes HowardWhile there was nothing official written between them, there was an understanding of marriage. Kathryn and Francis would often refer to each other as husband and wife. When the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk caught the couple together, she sent Francis away to Ireland. He promised her that they would marry when he returned.

This was as good as marriage in the 16th century. This should have saved Kathryn and Francis from death. They had done nothing wrong and it meant that the marriage between Henry VIII and Kathryn Howard was invalid as she was already ‘married’ to somebody else. Many of the women who were under the care of the Dowager Duchess at the time were witnesses to their relationship.

When Kathryn was originally arrested, she was scared. She may have been too innocent to understand that admitting to the pre-contract could have saved her life. Instead, she feared that admitting to this would have condemned her to death. When Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, asked her about it, she informed him that Francis had forced himself upon her. Cranmer had no prejudice against Kathryn. He simply wanted to get to the truth and felt sorry for her by the end of the questioning. He likely knew that Kathryn was scared for her life.

The issue for Kathryn is her life would have technically been over had she admitted to the pre-contract. While she may have kept her life, she would have had to go into exile without a penny to her name and she would have been disgraced. The same would have happened to Dereham and Culpepper too. Henry VIII had already proven to be vindictive when it came to not getting his way with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Kathryn Howard and Thomas Culpepper’s Relationship

There is no proof that Kathryn Howard and Thomas Culpepper actually had a relationship but there was enough suspicious acts. In fact, there are possibilities that Kathryn and Thomas had a relationship before the King met her. She was one of Anne of Cleves’ maids while Culpepper was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, making it easy for them to meet. However, arguments brought an end to their relationship.

When they were questioned about their affair, they both implicated Lady Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, as the lookout, which meant that they had to be planning something. It is possible that Kathryn simply wanted to provide Henry an heir and this was the option for her.

However, the affair would have been treasonous had the marriage between Henry and Kathryn been valid. As it stood, it wasn’t. There was no need to execute anybody! Henry VIII did annul the marriage on November 23, 1541, stripping Kathryn of the title Queen. This was before all their executions and technically meant that they couldn’t be guilty of the crimes they were convicted of! Henry VIII was a jealous and vindictive man and he likely went through with the executions for the embarrassment the four people brought onto him.

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Henry VIII Couldn’t Execute Kathryn Howard

Anne BoleynWith the marriage annulled, there was technically no legal ground to execute Kathryn. Henry VIII knew this and it took until February 7, 1542, for parliament to create a reason. Similar to Thomas Cromwell, a Bill of Attainder was created, which meant that his fifth wife could be executed. The bill stated that a Queen Consort would be found guilty of treason if she didn’t disclose her sexual history within 20 days of the marriage.

It seemed that Henry VIII had believed Kathryn’s story but by failing to tell him that there had been a sexual relationship with Francis, she had condemned herself to death. There was no way around this bill. On February 8, the bill gained royal assent and Kathryn was executed five days later on Tower Hill.

It does beg the question whether Kathryn could have saved her own life. Henry VIII had been embarrassed and he was used to getting what he wanted. This time he didn’t have Cromwell to make it happen, like he did with Anne Boleyn, so needed to find another option. Had she admitted to the pre-contract, it is possible that he would have still found another way around to execute her for the shame and embarrassment she had caused.

In no way am I for or against Henry VIII in this. It was a difficult time to live and Henry was under a lot of pressure to provide an heir. At the same time, he needed a Queen Consort who would not bring shame and embarrassment; a Queen Consort who would be loved by the English people and this would have caused them to turn against her. Henry may have felt he had no choice in the matter.

Kathryn Howard was simply a young girl—only in her late teens/early 20s when she was executed—who had grown up without the supervision of her parents. She was a free-spirit and not fit to be a Queen Consort. The main reason Henry VIII married her was because she was so full of life and excitement. Henry just failed to question her past, knowing where she had grown up.  

Lynne Frederick's Portrayal of Kathryn Howard's Questioning by Thomas Cranmer

Updated: 07/28/2013, AlexandriaIngham
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