Katherine Howard was the fifth wife of King Henry VIII of England and the cousin of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife. She is believed to have been born in 1521 and lived to be only 17, when she was executed for adultery and treason against the king. Scholars have generally not been kind to Katherine, calling her vain, foolish and empty-headed. But her short life shows displays evidence of a sunny and loving child who could not handle the political life of the English court or the attentions of the jealous King.
As the tenth child of a poor but prominent family, 10 year-old Katherine Howard was sent to live with a distant relation, the Duchess of Norfolk. While there, Katherine entered into a series of romances, one with the duchess’s secretary Francis Dereham. The relationship with Dereham caused Katherine’s later downfall, as the two may have established a betrothal or “precontract,” considered by the church to be the same as marriage. According to some, Katherine Howard was already married when she entered the court of King Henry VIII.
Although Katherine Howard was considered a beautiful and charming girl, it was her family’s ambition to power that put her in a position to attract the king. The Howard family were strict Catholics, and eager to push Henry VIII away from his Protestant conversion and back into the Catholic fold. She was placed as a lady in waiting to Queen Anne of Cleves, whom the King was trying to divorce. Upon meeting the pretty 15 year-old Katherine, 49 year-old Henry is said to have fallen instantly in love.
Almost immediately after Henry’s current marriage was annulled, Henry and Katherine Howard were married. Katherine spent much of her time holding elaborate balls, masques and entertainments for the court. Yet the Protestant faction of the court, terrified that they would lose influence due to the Catholic Queen, began a desperate search for any way to bring her down. Evidence of Katherine’s romantic adventures as a young girl came quickly to light, but the Archbishop of Cranmer, the head of the Protestant faction, found a letter from the queen that suggested that Katherine was carrying on a current illicit affair.
Although it is believed that the letter Cranmer gave to the King was not forged, it is questioned whether or not it actually indicated a physical affair. Henry, quick to jealousy and rage, accepted the letter and tales of her past romances as proof. During cross-examination about her past by Cranmer, the frantic Katherine made a foolish mistake by trying to gain sympathy, insisting that Dereham had forced himself on her. If she had simply admitted her pre-contract, her marriage to the King would have been declared invalid and been annulled, saving her life.
Katherine Howard was tried and convicted of adultery, which in a marriage to the King constituted high treason. There is some evidence to suggest she was wrongly accused, as her supposed lovers’ confessions were only given under torture. She was beheaded on 13 February 1542.
The fifth queen of Henry VIII did not leave much of a legacy, as Katherine Howard ruled only 18 months. As the cousin of Anne Boleyn, her fate brought suspicion of witchcraft and “bad blood” on the Boleyn and Howard families, a legacy that would affect Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth throughout her childhood and reign as Queen. Yet evidence suggests that Katherine Howard was a good-hearted and kind person, whose death was brought about by political betrayal and her own youthful mistakes.