Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Relationship of Thomas Culpeper and Queen Katherine Howard

Above: Katherine Howard (left).
The letter Katherine supposedly wrote to the courtier Thomas Culpeper, perhaps in July 1541 (right).

Aside from being the youngest wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Howard is probably best known for her supposed adulterous affair with the handsome courtier Sir Thomas Culpeper conducted in 1541. What many historians argue began as a mutual attraction quickly developed into a powerful and dangerous adulterous liaison which eventually ended in the deaths of both queen and subject. However, the nature of the meetings between Katherine and Culpeper are shrouded in mystery, uncertainty and controversy. Only Katherine and Culpeper - and perhaps Lady Jane Rochford, the queen's attendant who arranged the meetings - know what really happened in those fatal spring and summer months in 1541.

For most historians, it seems obvious that Katherine, an oversexed, even 'promiscuous' young girl, had sexual intercourse with Culpeper, who was noted for his gallantry and, later rumours alleged, even indulged in rape (although, as I argue in my book, it seems more likely that it was actually his elder brother, confusingly also named Thomas Culpeper, whom the rumours referred to). This is supported by evidence documented by contemporaries residing near to the court. The unknown Spanish chronicler of The Chronicle of Henry VIII, compiled perhaps ten years after the events it described, suggested that 'the devil put it into this queen's heart' to fall in love with the dashing Culpeper, who slipped the queen a note one day during dancing confessing his love for her. Both proclaimed their love for one another on the scaffold, with the queen supposedly stating: 'I die a queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper'. The Catholic polemicist Nicholas Harpsfield depicted an adulterous Katherine, who was 'an harlot before he [Henry VIII] married her, and an adulteress after he married her'. 

Modern historians largely agree. The bestselling popular writer Alison Weir wrote of Katherine's affair with Culpeper: 'Katherine had not only been playing with fire, but she had also been indiscreet about it, and incredibly foolish'. Antonia Fraser, in her 1992 biography of the six wives of Henry VIII, agrees: 'the repeated confessions and reports of clandestine meetings between a man notorious for his gallantry and a woman who was already sexually awakened really do not admit of any other explanation than adultery'. In his 2009 study of the Tudor queens, historian David Loades characterised Katherine as 'queen as whore'. This prevailing view has been consolidated in popular culture. In the popular TV series The Tudors (2007-10), Tamzin Merchant and Torrance Coombs depicted a headstrong young couple who engaged in sexual intercourse on a frequent basis early on in Katherine's marriage to the king. While Merchant portrayed a queen who appeared deeply in love with Culpeper, Coombs presented an unflattering portrayal of a manipulative, violent and scheming man who engaged in an affair with the queen as a means of attaining power and personal gain.

Above: Tamzin Merchant (left) as Queen Katherine and Torrance Coombs (right) as Thomas Culpeper in the television series The Tudors.

However, drawing on the seminal research of noted scholar Retha M. Warnicke, it is this article's contention that the relationship between Queen Katherine and Thomas Culpeper between April and September 1541 was, in reality, very different. It was not a carefree sexual liaison motivated either by love or recklessness, as most writers continue to believe. Thomas Culpeper was an experienced and savvy courtier who had served the king since the mid-1530s, when he had entered court as a page to Henry VIII before becoming a gentleman of the king's privy chamber, where the king ate, slept, and entertained indoors. Culpeper was, therefore, as close in proximity to Henry VIII as it was possible to get. Since Katherine had only arrived at court in the autumn of 1539, barely nine months or so before she became queen of England, Culpeper was vastly more experienced than her in court protocol and politics. He seems to have used that power and experience to his advantage, in manipulating the young queen, who found herself in a somewhat vulnerable position in the spring of 1541.

Katherine had had a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham in 1538, when she was aged around fifteen, and the aggressive Dereham seems to have been determined to marry Katherine, even making the treasonous suggestion that, once Henry VIII died, he would be sure to marry his young widow. In the spring of 1541, Dereham arrived at court and began openly boasting of his previous affair with Katherine. At this time, the king fell seriously ill and his life was despaired of. He shut his doors to everyone bar his doctors, including his young wife, whom he had previously spent the majority of his time with. As Warnicke suggests, it is therefore surely significant, in this highly charged atmosphere at court, that Culpeper began meeting with the queen at about the very time that both her former paramour was bragging of his sexual hold over her, and her ageing husband fell seriously ill. Since it was believed that the king might die, it has been credibly suggested that Culpeper began manipulating Katherine, perhaps having discovered details of her scandalous past, in the hope of acquiring greater power and position should Henry VIII suddenly die.

Above: Manipulative lover or abused victim?

Often, Katherine's meetings with Culpeper have been portrayed as playful, sexually intimate encounters, comprised of high passion and devotion. The reality was very different. The surviving records demonstrate that the queen refused to meet Culpeper unless Lady Rochford was present as chaperone, and when Lady Rochford began moving away on one occasion to allow the two to speak privately, Katherine reprimanded her for leaving her alone in the company of Culpeper, and told her to come back. It has been credibly suggested that 'Culpeper's rendezvous with the queen gave him the means to threaten and manipulative her'. In the summer of 1541, the queen wrote Culpeper a letter. Often, it has been portrayed as a love letter, but the nervous, even afraid tone does not suggest passion, but rather, fear and anxiety. A passage of the letter has been removed in the interests of this article (a passage dealing with Katherine's messenger):

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 still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment...
yours as long as life endures,

Traditionally, the queen's signature, 'yours as long as life endures', has been interpreted as a message of undying love, but as Warnicke recognises, Tudor letters typically closed with the statement 'by yours most bounden during my life', or something similar. Therefore, by changing the statement to 'yours as long as life endures', Katherine seems to have been hinting at her suffering, her anxiety, her worries that Culpeper would reveal her past to the king. 'Death and danger, not love and romance, were on her mind'. There was no evidence of love, passion or desire in this letter; no references to touching, kissing, caressing, etc. The queen was reported to be 'fearful and jittery' during their meetings, and admitted to Lady Rochford that she was terrified that these interviews would be discovered by others. Coupled with her insistence on Lady Rochford being present at all times, it seems clear that Katherine was meeting Culpeper only involuntarily, and not of her own free will.

Everyone knows how the story ends. Katherine and Culpeper were eventually discovered, while Francis Dereham and Lady Rochford were also imprisoned for their behaviour. A slew of Howard relatives and acquaintances of the queen were incarcerated in the Tower of London for concealing the truth about Katherine Howard's sexual past. Eventually, Dereham and Culpeper were convicted of adultery with the queen, although they both denied it, and they were executed in December 1541. Denying that she was guilty to the very end, the physically weak and frightened Katherine was beheaded on Tower Green on 13 February 1542 alongside her attendant Lady Rochford, who had reportedly gone insane. 

Above: a fictional portrayal of Katherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper from Henry VIII (2003).

Understanding of Tudor court politics and sixteenth-century beliefs surrounding gender and sexuality means that it is impossible to believe that Katherine Howard engaged in adultery with Thomas Culpeper. Katherine had endured something of a history of abuse. She had been seduced at a very young age by the grasping musician Henry Manox, before the aggressive Francis Dereham sexually manipulated her, perhaps even raping her. It is clear from surviving evidence that she had no real desire to meet with Thomas Culpeper and did so involuntarily and only in the presence of Lady Rochford, whom she perhaps trusted. This was not an affair of love, passion or desire. It was a relationship of power, manipulation and calculation that ended with both individuals' deaths.


  1. This article was very informing. I hate people call her a whore or idiot basing their views on Hollywood portrayals. If one really took the time to look at it, they'd see a story that is far from what "The Tudors" portrayed.

  2. Thanks Bree. I completely agree. "The Tudors" is an entertaining show but it's not historically accurate. But then I don't think people watch TV to learn the realities of queenship, in terms of household administration, patronage, learning, etc. Therefore with Katherine it's focused on her alleged affair with Culpeper. In reality, she seems to have devoted time to acting as a traditional consort rather than being the supposed party animal beloved by such shows.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Wonderful article! Though he did not say so clearly, I felt that David Starkey seemed to draw parallels that cleared Catherine’s name. I am glad you made a point to scotch the rumors concerning Jane Boleyn--she has been so irritatingly maligned—despite evidence from Julia Foxes’, Jane Boleyn proving her reputation to the contrary of unscrupulous historians and pop-culture. First Jane was accused of betraying Anne Boleyn and George (when the responsibility almost certainly lay with the Marquess of Exeter and various others in the Seymour/Eustace Chapuys faction) and then Jane Boleyn is falsely accused with Catherine Howard!

    In regards to the above comment, below is a quote that I employ in my own up-coming historical novel (not so much my last one written at too early an age to comprehend the value of a historical note). I wish the below quote were the motto of various TV dramas and historical fiction novels. "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."
    --C.S. Lewis

    I certainly find the factual events surrounding Katherine Howard and other Tudor Queens to offer the more compelling story line.

    I wish you the best of luck! I really believe that you will be a great historian one day! Excited to say “I read your blog when.”

    -fellow historian in training, preparing for grad school at Emory University

    Quick question: Do you rely exclusively on secondary sources, or do you delve into primary? Also, how much do you trust Retha Warnicke? I thought some of her allegations on Anne Boleyn seemed pretty outlandish, but her information in your Catherine article seem rational.

  6. she says her heart dies because she cannot always be in his company. that certainly suggests love to me.

  7. The letter to Culpeper is described as "supposedly written" by Katherine. Has anyone ever tried to authenticate this letter? Katherine may have been naive enough to have written it but it's hard to believe Culpeper would have kept anything so incriminating. .

  8. Carly, thanks for your comment. I rely on primary sources, specifically chronicles, ambassadors' dispatches, financial documents, letters, religious/polemical works, etc. But I have read extensively in the secondary material for this era.

    I believe Warnicke offered a very convincing interpretation of Katherine's life, and in particular her relationships with men. I think the tendency with Katherine amongst historians has been to blame the victim, and in some respects this draws on a cultural custom that has existed for millennia in which women are identified as the lustier sex and are often seen as initiating sexual encounters. Even today, women who are raped when they are drunk can be blamed for 'leading men on' etc.

    I think most historians to date have blamed Katherine for her affairs. But I agree with Warnicke that her youth and subordinate status to these men (one was her music master, for example) put her in a vulnerable position, and probably meant she was coerced into encounters. As she states, when Katherine was about 13, did she really love Manox, as he later insisted?

    Louise, I recommend reading Warnicke's book "Wicked Women of Tudor England", in which she provides an extensive dissection of this letter. Tudor letters customarily used extensive and fulsome praise and flowery statements. They cannot be taken literally as the truth. One might question why Katherine met with him when her cousin had died for sexual crimes. I don't think she would have been reckless enough - there is no evidence to suggest she was stupid or air headed. More likely Culpeper had acquired sensitive and potentially life-threatening information about the queen's past, which he then used to blackmail and frighten her.

    Christy, I have puzzled about that very question. No mention of it exists at the trial of the men or in chronicles, ambassadors' reports etc., which makes me think it could be. The handwriting also changes throughout. We have no other letters written by Katherine with which to compare. This could indicate that she was illiterate.

  9. Keep up the good work , I read few posts on this web site and I conceive that your blog is very interesting and has sets of fantastic information.
    tao of badass free download

  10. I definitely savored every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff your article Clash of Clans Hack android

  11. What a great tips and article do you have. I have some good article you can read, some of it very good, like this one Daftar Harga HP Samsung Terbaru or this handphone article Daftar Harga Smartfren Andromax Terbaru . You can get handphone tips and harga terbaru from our website.

  12. An interesting opinion. However, as with all attempts to untangle the Katherine/Thomas debate that is all it is... my view is that the truth was likely to be halfway between both scenarios. Most teen girls have crushes at some stage they believe to be love. It is the way of things... The debate will continue. It's sad that we will never really know for sure... Or, possibly that makes it delicious!

  13. An interesting opinion. However, as with all attempts to untangle the Katherine/Thomas debate that is all it is... my view is that the truth was likely to be halfway between both scenarios. Most teen girls have crushes at some stage they believe to be love. It is the way of things... The debate will continue. It's sad that we will never really know for sure... Or, possibly that makes it delicious!