Catherine Howard was born at an unknown date, probably in 1524, as the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard, son of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and Jocasta Culpeper. She was one of five children. Her mother probably died in 1527 as her father had remarried to Dorothy Troyes but the marriage was probably short, and he married for a third time to Margaret Jennings.
Catherine was sent to live in the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Agnes (née Tilney), after the deaths of her stepmothers. Catherine was closely related to Henry VIII’s second and third Queens. Her father’s sister, Elizabeth, was the mother of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her father’s first cousin, Margery Wentworth, was the mother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour.
By 1536, Catherine was receiving music lessons from Henry Manox at the Dowager Duchess’s household. Musical talents were highly appreciated at court, and perhaps she was hoping for a place in the household of Jane Seymour. Henry Manox would later be accused of molesting Catherine during these years. She also became acquainted with Francis Dereham, who served into the household of the Duke of Norfolk. Catherine shared a chamber with other young women which was often visited by young gentlemen. Francis was one of these gentlemen though there is little evidence to suggest she consented to his advances. As Queen, her tainted childhood would come back to haunt her.
After the death of Jane Seymour, Henry remarried to Anne of Cleves on 6 January 1540 and Catherine was chosen to serve in the new Queen’s household. She was probably around 15 years then. She probably travelled to Greenwich Palace in December 1539 in anticipation of Anne of Cleves’s arrival. Henry was disappointed with his new wife from the start and admitted after their wedding night, “I have left her as a good a maid as I found her.” Their marital issues were compounded by the fact that Henry had fallen in love with her maid, Catherine. It is very possible that they had met before Anne’s arrival, but we do not know this for sure.
By April, Catherine was granted forfeited goods of two murderers, and it became clear that the King intended to annul his marriage to Anne and marry Catherine. His infatuation with Catherine was an open secret. “This was first whispered by the courtiers, who observed the king to be much taken with another young lady of very diminutive stature, whom he now has. It is a certain fact, that about the same time many citizens of London saw the king very frequently in the day-time, and sometimes at midnight, pass over to her on the river Thames in a little boat. The Bishop of Winchester also very often provided feastings and entertainments for them in his palace; but the citizens regarded all this not as a sign of divorcing the queen, but of adultery.” On 28 July 1540, Henry married Catherine shortly after his annulment.
Henry was rejuvenated by his new marriage to his “jewel” but it was not to last long. Although Catherine certainly enjoyed the perks of being Queen, she was not in love with him. She was already in love with someone else at the time of her wedding. She had met Thomas Culpeper, a member of Henry’s privy chamber, shortly after arriving at court. They became lovers after her marriage and Catherine’s only surviving letter is written to Thomas.
“Master Culpeper, I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for [a] thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. The which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart to die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon it still, praying that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometimes hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send me one by him and in so doing I am as I said afor, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you. Yours as long as life endures, Katheryn.”
Catherine relied on Lady Rochford, who was the widow of George Boleyn, the brother of Anne Boleyn, to help her meet with Thomas in secret. It all came crashing to a halt when another of the Dowager Duchess’s household came forward and told her of Catherine’s past dealing with Dereham and Manox. Thomas Cranmer put it all in writing and passed it along to Henry, who was devastated and refused to believe it. However, he did order an investigation to be carried out. Henry Manox soon cracked under the pressure, and Catherine was arrested on 4 November 1541.
She was interrogated and confessed to the relationships with Manox and Dereham. Soon her relationship with Thomas was also revealed, which was perhaps even more dangerous than her previous affairs. On 11 November, she was sent to Syon House. Both Dereham and Thomas were executed on 10 December 1541. The following month, both Catherine and Lady Rochford were condemned to death. On the evening of 12 February, she was told that she was going to be executed the following the day. She asked for the block to be brought to her so that she could practice. The following day, Catherine and Lady Rochford were led to a scaffold on Tower Green. Catherine felt weak and made no speech, only confessing that she deserved to die. She was beheaded with an axe, and minutes later, Lady Rochford followed. 1