Friday, 10 December 2010

December 10th, 1541: The Execution of the Queen's lovers

Above: Torrance Coombs and Tamazin Merchant as the doomed lovers, Sir Thomas Culpepper and Queen Catherine Howard in Season 4 of the Showtime series The Tudors (2010.)

It had only been five weeks since the 50 year-old King of England, Henry VIII, had been informed at the All Souls' Mass that his teenage queen, Catherine Howard, had been accused of pre-marital promiscuity by a former servant of her aristocratic grandmother, in whose care Catherine had spent most of her childhood. The young queen had been detained in her apartments whilst Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, headed an investigation into the serving maid's accusations. That Catherine had not been a virgin at the time Henry had married her was a serious problem, one likely to bring shame upon the monarchy and result in the annulment of the royal marriage. The maid in question had confided in her brother, a Protestant fundamentalist called John Lascelles, that Catherine had enjoyed a fling with her music teacher, Henry Mannox, and after they had fallen out when he began boasting of their sexual encounters, she had moved onto her grandmother's secretary, the overbearing but dashing Francis Dereham, whom she had slept with for the best part of a year and even (allegedly) promised to marry. Catherine and Francis's engagement had been broken-off when Catherine was summoned to Court to act as a lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Anne of Cleves, in the winter of 1539, but within six months Catherine had, of course, attracted the attention of the ailing monarch and become his fifth wife. 

All of this was potentially deeply humiliating for the Royal Family, but it became ten times more serious when it turned out that Queen Catherine's dealings with these two men had not simply been confined to her youthful folly. Henry Mannox now served on her household staff as a musician, a relatively minor post to be sure, but Dereham, her one-time fiancĂ© had been given the premier and intimate position of being the Queen's private secretary, one which meant he came into contact with Catherine on a daily basis. When the archbishop discovered this, he went straight to the King to say that given her past liaisons with both men, Catherine's appointments of them to her household staff at the very least suggested emotional infidelity to her husband and at worse that she was planning to resume sexual relations with them. If she hadn't done already, that is. "She has betrayed you in thought," he told the King, "and if she had an opportunity would have betrayed you in deed." Henry, for the first time in his life the victim of adultery rather than the perpetrator, burst into floods of tears in front of the eyes of his embarrassed councillors, who had absolutely no idea what they were supposed to say or do in such a situation. Archbishop Cranmer was ordered to extend his investigation into every detail of the Queen's private life in the sixteen months that she had been married to the King and to discover if she had indeed gone to bed with Mannox or, more probably, with Dereham, at any point since July of 1540.

Cranmer did not relish his duties in interrogating the queen who, in all likelihood, had not yet reached her seventeenth birthday. She was now utterly and completely hysterical, sobbing and behaving "like a madwoman." The Archbishop wrote later that "it would have pitied any man's heart in the world" to have seen the former party girl in such a state. But, still, he had a job to do, by royal command. He needed to discover just how serious Catherine and Dereham's plans had been to marry in the days before she first came to Court (after all, depending on the seriousness of the intent and the vows exchanged, she may technically have been legally invalid to enter into any subsequent marriage and therefore the worst she might then face was divorce and exile.) Yet unhelpfully, throughout the interrogation, Queen Catherine's story swung erratically from truth, half-truth and outright deceit. At one point, she claimed that her relationship with Dereham had been non-consensual and that she had been the victim of repeated rape. However, late, she went into great detail of how he had brought her strawberries and she could recall in embarrassing detail the many ways they had made love and what he had worn when he came to her bed. By the end, it is not difficult to see why Cranmer had trouble believing any word which came out of the poor girl's mouth. Then, entirely of her own volition, Catherine mentioned how Dereham had once been jealous of her friendship with Sir Thomas Culpepper, a young and extraordinarily handsome man on the King's staff, with a dubious reputation when it came to his dealings with women. The Archbishop could not understand why the Queen would even mention Thomas Culpepper unless he was important and a search of his rooms was subsequently ordered.

The search uncovered a love letter to Culpepper in the Queen's own hand, telling him how much she loved him and promising to meet with him in secret again, with the help of her lady-in-waiting, the thirty-something Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, George Boleyn's widow and a woman with a history of loving intrigue, although it is unlikely that she was quite the monster subsequent popular history painted her to be. When news that Catherine had been carrying on not just before the marriage but also, apparently, after it and with one of his favourite gentleman-in-waiting, Henry was moved to a pitch of fury the likes of which few of his terrified and bewildered courtiers had ever seen before.

Brigittine convent at Syon; her jewel collection and wardrobe was confiscated and she was forbidden any further contact with her usual servants. Culpepper was hauled in before the Council, where he cockily confessed that, yes, the Queen was in love with him and that it had been Lady Rochford who arranged their meetings, just as the queen's illicit letter had stated. Sometimes they would meet in the Queen's bedchamber, sometimes in Lady Rochford's, other times in the Queen's lavatory or in the back stairs leading up to her apartments. He denied, however, that they had ever actually slept together, although he admitted that had things continued on in the way they had done, they probably would have. Lord Hertford, present in the interrogation, gazed on in incredulity at such stupidity and pointed out that such intent was, in itself, high treason. 

Lady Rochford, who should have known better than anyone the risk of dangerous liaisons in the Tudor court, whether real or imagined, had suffered a full nervous breakdown whilst in captivity. By New Year's, she was probably legitimately insane. However, she remained lucid at the beginning and in the first round of questioning, she revealed that the affair between Culpepper and the queen had started in the spring of that year, during the time when the King had been locked away in his apartments recovering from a brush with illness. However, unlike Culpepper, Lady Rochford insisted that it had not been the queen who made the initiating moves, but rather Culpepper himself and that when the giddy Catherine responded to the handsome womaniser, Lady Rochford had only been following orders in arranging meetings between the two. She was, after all, only Her Majesty's humble servant. Again contradicting Culpepper, Jane was insistent that, as far as she knew, the couple had slept together and that full adultery had been committed - at least once. The Council later guessed that this had taken place during the Royal Family's tour of the north in August, which was the date cited at the subsequent trial.

The Queen's servants were then questioned and unlike their terrified silence in the days when Anne Boleyn had been taken to the Tower, this time they sang like the proverbial canary. Henry Mannox revealed the full details of his sexual encounters with Catherine when she was still an unmarried girl, further decimating the politicians' opinions of the queen's character; another of the Howard family's former servants, Alice Restwold, was tracked down and confirmed that she had heard Catherine and Dereham making love night after night, which blew apart Catherine's story about suffering repeated rape at Dereham's hands. Another maid  said she had been astonished to hear of Dereham's appointment to the queen's household staff considering his pre-marital relationship with her. One of the Queen's relatives, Catherine Tylney, revealed that on several occasions during the royal summer tour of the north, the Queen had left her apartments at odd hours of the night to visit Lady Rochford, which raised the ladies-in-waitings' suspicions, since etiquette would traditionally have indicated that Lady Rochford should come to the Queen, not the other way round. One of the palace chambermaids remembered a strange incident at Lincoln when, after one of these mysterious night-time visits to Lady Rochford, Queen Catherine had not returned to her own bed until well after 2 o'clock in the morning and several of the ladies-in-waiting could remember cryptic comments between the Queen and Lady Rochford, in which Catherine asked her if she was going to bring her the treat she had promised her. The two women were constantly exchanging secret notes with one another and given the age gap between them, no-one could understand why the fun-loving queen seemed so keen to spend so much time with a woman who was technically old enough to be her mother. Other servants claimed to have noticed the sizzling sexual tension between the Queen and Culpepper, culminating in a visit to see the Queen's stepdaughter, the future Elizabeth I at Hatfield, in which Catherine had shot Culpepper a look so full of love or lust that several of her servants had immediately suspected something was going on between the pair. They could remember the Queen banning some of her usual chambermaids from coming into her bedroom on random nights during the royal progress and one, the middle-aged Mrs. Luffkyn, could recall such an edict from her pretty employer when the court was in residence at Pontefract Castle, the night on which the Council later claimed Catherine had first slept with Thomas Culpepper. There were, of course, later embellishments and improbabilities which can definitely be put down to servants' gossip - chief amongst them being the maid girl who claimed to have heard the queen orgasming in her private rooms, after six hours in which she had refused to allow any servant so enter. Such extravagant stories are obviously slightly difficult to believe, but it's my guess that the more restrained details the servants divulged under questioning raises makes it more than likely that this queen was indeed guilty of adultery.

When the evidence was set before Catherine in her lonely house arrest at Syon, she admitted that she had written to Culpepper and that she enjoyed his company, but she denied that they had ever slept together or planned to. With good reason, the councillors did not believe her. On November 22nd, they issued a formal proclamation from Hampton Court Palace stripping her of her title of Queen of England and stating the government's intent to prosecute the ex-queen and her accomplices to the full extent of the law. No evidence had been uncovered to suggest that she had in any way been appropriate with Henry Mannox, her first beau and former music teacher, and he was simply dismissed from his post and ordered to leave Court. Francis Dereham, the queen's  girlhood fiancĂ©, was less lucky. It is almost certain - on the evidence surviving to us - that Dereham and Catherine had ceased sexual relations long before she married the King. Furthermore, although he was lethally foolish in trying to exploit their earlier affair to get a well-paid and prestigious job from her once she so unexpectedly became queen, there is not much to suggest that either queen or secretary had any real intention of resuming their affair now that Catherine was a married woman. Dereham had been stupid and overly-familiar, but he had not been treasonous. Still, with his obsession with female virginity, the King seemed to have regarded Dereham as almost equal in evil to Catherine's partner in adultery, Culpepper, and he insisted that Dereham be prosecuted for misprision of treason - the catch-all term for someone knowing of a person's potential to commit treason and not doing enough to bring it to the government's attention.

On the first day of December, the former queen's two alleged lovers were brought to trial at Westminster Hall, presided over by Catherine's now-estranged uncle and former backer, the Duke of Norfolk, who was doing everything in his power to distance himself from a scandal that was rapidly acquiring the potential to destroy the entire Howard clan. Indeed, it was permanently to weaken their once unassailable position in the Tudor hierarchy. 

Dereham and Culpepper stood accused of high treason in assisting the Queen to lead her "abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous and licentious life." Dereham was accused of having joined Catherine's household solely with the intention of seducing her once again and Culpepper was accused of having had full sex with the Queen at Pontefract on August 29th 1541, the night on which Mrs. Luffkyn remembered being banned from the Queen's bedchamber. Both men entered a plea of not guilty to all charges, but half-way through  the trial Culpepper changed his mind and confessed that the charges against him were true.

Were they? Or was he simply hoping for mercy if he confessed and threw himself on the King's famously vaunted and equally erratic sense of distorted chivalric clemency? Maybe both explanations for Culpepper's change of plea are true - we don't know. My own hunch from having studied the tragedy of Catherine Howard in some depth is that Catherine and Culpepper had indeed committed adultery and even if full sex was never achieved - and I believe it probably was - it's more than likely that something of a sexual nature transpired between them. Both were two young people who enjoyed sex very much and both had a pathological inability to shy away from flirtation. I could be wrong, of course, and we shall never really know what did happen in 1541, but clearly something happened and if they hadn't yet become sexual by the time their secret meetings were discovered, it's almost certain that they would have slept together in time, as Culpepper had boasted to Lord Hertford. 

Years earlier, Henry had allegedly pardoned Culpepper for raping a park-keeper's wife. That rape may be a later legend or we may have him confused with a cousin of the same name, but if it is true, it's an interesting reflection on Henry Tudor's psychology - he was prepared to forgive Culpepper for that, but not for the attempted or actual seduction of Henry's own wife. At the end of the trial the Duke of Norfolk, with a vindictive glee that drew comment from the observers, sentenced both Culpepper and Dereham to be dragged through the streets of London to Tyburn, where they were to be "hanged, cut down alive, disembowelled, and, they still living, their bowels burnt; the bodies then to be beheaded and quartered."

For some reason, and it's most likely to have been his social standing as a member of the gentry, Culpepper's sentence was commuted to beheading. Dereham's was not. Even a plea from Dereham's mother that her poor, stupid son should only face the axe and not the full horrors of the hangman was ignored. Considering that whatever did actually happen in 1541 Dereham was certainly more innocent than Culpepper, it is perhaps one of the cruelest twists in the whole sorry tale of Catherine Howard's downfall.

On December 10th, Sir John Gage, the Lord Lieutenant of His Majesty's Tower of London, brought the two men - both still in their early twenties - to Tyburn. They were escorted, not dragged, through a large crowd, many of whom were in a raucous mood. Culpepper, at last in some way repentant now that he faced death and eternity, made a request that the crowd should pray for his soul and then he knelt in the dirt next to the gallows and one swift blow from the axe ended his short, misspent life. A few moments later, Francis Dereham's agonising death began in front of the jeering crowd and when, at last, it was all over, their heads were boiled and taken to Tower Bridge to be displayed upon a pike for months to come.

Now, the only thing left to do was to deal with the fallen queen and her terrified lady-in-waiting.

A rather moving dramatisation of the deaths of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham can be seen here. It is taken from the Showtime series The Tudors and it shows English actress Tamazin Merchant as the imprisoned Catherine, Canadian Terrance Coombs as Thomas Culpepper and Irish actor Allan Leech as Francis Dereham. The first half of the voice-over is a dramatised reading of Queen Catherine's love letter to Culpepper, the one discovered by the royal investigators; the second from her interrogation about her one-time love affair with Dereham. The music is beautiful, but it is perhaps not for the squeamish! 


  1. What a superb account, Gareth! Thank you! You are right that on one level we will never really know exactly what transpired. I for one do not fully trust the testimony of people who know they had the threat of torture hanging over them.

  2. Thank you Elena Maria! I'm glad you enjoyed it. You're absolutely right in that trying to discern which accounts were legitimate and which were told with a mind to pleasing their interrogators. My own hunch is that those milder accounts, like those who wouldn't commit themselves beyond detailing the queen's slightly odd and erratic behaviour in the summer of 1541, are probably genuine but that the more lurid testimonies are equally probable to be false. But, as we say, who can ever really know in Catherine's case? It's so fundamentally different to what happened to Anne Boleyn in 1536 that I think a lot of people assume that since Anne's innocence is so obvious, Catherine's guilt must be equally clear. I tend to err on the side that she was guilty of adultery with Culpepper, either already or in intent, but I would never commit myself fully to ruling on Catherine's case as I would with Anne's. The two cases are very, very different and I think Catherine's is a lot more complicated in terms of reaching a fair and realistic verdict.


Related Posts with Thumbnails