Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trials and Deaths of Anne Boleyn & Katherine Howard

No Mercy

Carolly Erickson wrote in Great Harry that the queen's misconduct sent shockwaves through the court and the king even left the country "to relieve his mind." Worse for Katherine, it became clear that "she was clearly the aggressor, not the victim [of seduction], and she failed to conceal her passion from her bedchamber women, who now testified against her.  There could be no further leniency for one who had cuckolded the king."

Henry VIII, older
Henry VIII, older

Like with her cousin Anne Boleyn, punishment came swift for Katherine, as well as her ex-lovers. On November 22, 1541, she was stripped of her title of queen and awaited the trial that would determine her fate. The following month, both Culpeper and Dereham were tried for treason, as well as adultery.

The trials that took place that fall were heavily one-sided and brief. Culpeper eventually admitted to having had intercourse with Katherine. Yet, Dereham consistently denied ever having done so. He was tortured after being returned to the Tower  of London, until he too finally made a confession. Regardless, the trial was a clear case of guilty until proven innocent. The men didn't stand a chance.

During the closing of the joint trial, Culpeper and Dereham were both found guilty and sentenced to death. They were ordered by the court to be strung up by the neck, cut down alive, disemboweled, burned, beheaded and quartered. It was a particularly gruesome penalty considering the magnitude of the crime. The severity of the sentence was meant to deter anyone and everyone who dared to sleep with the king's wife.

The men both petitioned the court to have their sentences reduced. According to Fraser, Culpeper succeeded in his appeals and his sentence was changed to just a beheading, likely because the king had a "vestigial affection for him". However, mercy was not a consideration when it came to Dereham's fate. Fraser stated that he was condemned to suffer the full penalty under the law, probably because of his lower rank and the fact that he was Katherine's first lover. The two men were condemned to death on December 10, 1541, at Tyburn.

While Katherine awaited her fate, the king and his council arrested and imprisoned in the Tower  of London several others of the Howard family in connection with the ex-queen's crimes. Those incarcerated included Lord William Howard, the Duchess of Norfolk and the Countess of Bridgewater. Eventually, they were all arraigned on charges of withholding information about Katherine's indiscretions. As a result, they all lost their property and reputation.

In February 1542, Katherine and her accomplice Lady Rochford were found guilty under the Act of Attainder. The act made her adultery and the concealment thereof a treasonable offense. Moreover, Starkey stated that the bill also made it a treasonable offence to marry the king without proper declaration of previous immoral behavior.

Although Katherine was offered the right to defend herself against the charge, she refused to. She believed that she was guilty as proven and that she deserved death for her crimes. According to Weir, she cared only to "make a good death" and allow the public to form their own opinions. It is unclear whether Lady Rochford was allowed any defense to counter the charges against her. Yet, it is likely it would have not made much of an impact if she had. The evidence against the women was too strong, as was the eagerness to be rid of them.

On February 10 Katherine learned of her sentence. She would die by beheading on the Tower Green. Lady Rochford was condemned to die the same way.

Two days following her sentencing, Katherine requested to have the decapitation block brought to her room so that she could practice her death. Time after time she kneeled and placed her neck on the wooden slab. It was important to her that she get it just right because she wanted to die with controlled grace.

At 7 a.m.  the next morning, on February 13, 1542, Katherine was led from her chamber to the Tower Green, where her cousin Anne died years earlier. Lady Rochford, who was in a frantic state, followed behind her. When Katherine reached the scaffold she calmly made a short and dignified speech. According to Starkey, Katherine said that she, "desired all Christian people to take regard unto [her] worthy and just punishment…" further requesting that the people "take example at [her], for amendment of their ungodly lives and gladly to obey the King in all things."

Sketch of Henry VIII in old age
Sketch of Henry VIII in old age

Following her brief statement, Katherine knelt down and placed her head on the block, and in one swift blow her head was severed from her body. It was said that she died with more poise and courage than she displayed throughout her short life. Shortly after her execution, Lady Rochford was also beheaded.    

Henry was devastated by his hapless marriage with Katherine and the means by which it came to an end. It is believed that he genuinely loved her unto death, although his anger and jealousy overshadowed his initial feelings. There was increasing pressure for Henry to remarry in order to produce another male heir to the throne. However, he lacked interest in beginning another relationship, especially after having his heart broken by Katherine Howard.

Eventually, Henry did remarry one last time. His sixth wife was Katherine Parr, a gentle God-fearing widow, who was thought less likely to cause him anguish in his later years. However, their marriage was also wrought with problems. It appeared as if Henry was unable to find satisfaction for any length of time throughout his turbulent life. When he did it often came at the expense of his wives, especially of the two most unfortunate, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'