Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Execution of the Queen's Lovers

On this day in history, 10 December 1541, the alleged lovers of Queen Katherine Howard were put to death at Tyburn: Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper. Culpeper was first beheaded, before Dereham suffered the excruciatingly painful death of hanging, drawing and quartering. Charles Wriothesley wrote in his chronicle:

Culpeper and Dereham were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there Culpeper, after an exhortation made to the people to pray for him, he standing on the ground by the gallows, kneeled down and had his head stricken off; and then Dereham was hanged, membered, bowelled, headed, and quartered [and both] their heads set on London Bridge.

Contrary to popular myth, Culpeper did not profess his love for Katherine on the scaffold; as Wriothesley makes clear, he merely asked the people present to pray for him, thus giving a very traditional last speech. Although Culpeper had arguably committed the worst offence of the two, in allegedly committing adultery with the queen while she was married to the King, he suffered a 'kinder' death. In my book, I speculate that Dereham suffered the more brutal death not necessarily because Culpeper was the king's favourite and thus the king was more inclined to mercy, but because Dereham had spoken openly about Henry VIII's death (a treasonable offence) and because he had sexually assaulted Katherine as a youth, a criminal offence.

Katherine Howard had become involved with Dereham in 1538, when she was aged around fourteen, and the two had commenced a sexual relationship which lasted around three months, ending in early 1539. That Katherine entered this unwillingly is clear from her confession. She appears to have sought comfort from Dereham after being abused by another young man, Henry Manox, but before long Dereham was pressuring her into marriage and sexual intercourse. When she received an appointment at court, she happily left him behind. When she became queen, however, Dereham blackmailed Katherine into giving him an appointment at court; perhaps in return for his silence regarding their past relationship.

If Katherine hoped that this would keep him silent, she was to be disappointed. Before long, Dereham was openly bragging about his relations with the queen, and intimated that, were Henry VIII to die, he would marry Katherine. Around the same time, Thomas Culpeper began meeting with the queen in secret. There is no convincing evidence that the two ever were in love or had an adulterous relationship. This of course contradicts the portrayal of the affair in The Tudors and other popular works. It is extremely plausible that Culpeper began blackmailing the young queen in return for favours, assisted by Lady Rochford.

Dereham's aggressive behaviour and Culpeper's meetings with the queen occurred at the worst possible time. In the autumn of 1541, the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was informed by Mary Lascelles, a childhood acquaintance of Katherine, that the queen had not been a virgin when she had married the king, and had had sexual relations with both Manox and Dereham. Under interrogation, Dereham admitted to a pre-marital relationship with Katherine, but, perhaps reacting out of jealousy, claimed that Culpeper had replaced him in the queen's affections.

Above: the relationship between Thomas Culpeper and Katherine Howard was, in reality, very different to that portrayed in The Tudors.

Like Dereham, Culpeper blamed the queen entirely for what had happened. He admitted, however, that he had intended to  'do ill' with her, but claimed that he had only met with her because she had been 'dying of love' for him. A letter written by the queen to Culpeper was found and used as evidence against the pair. Far from being a love letter, the tone is fearful, anxious, afraid. It has been credibly suggested that Culpeper was blackmailing Katherine into meeting him as a means of him increasing his power, in exchange for keeping silent about her past.

Both Dereham and Culpeper were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. In February 1542, the queen and Lady Rochford followed them to the scaffold. So ended a tragedy which had culminated in the deaths of four people and the heartbreak of an ageing king. Although there was no convincing evidence that Katherine had committed adultery with either Dereham or Culpeper, prevailing attitudes to female sexuality and honour meant that it was all too easy for the interrogators to believe that she had.

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