Catherine Howard

The Fifth Wife

There are no known records of exactly when Catherine Howard was born but it was on this day in 1542 that she died, with a single blow from the executioners axe, on Tower Green.

The young queen had made the mistake of having an affair with a favourite of her husband King Henry VIII, one Thomas Culpeper. What made this decision fatal for the pair was that they were indiscreet and their enemies made the King aware.

It is believed that Catherine may have been as young as 15 when the monarch (aged 49) decided to make her his wife. She would have had little say in the matter being merely a pawn of her powerful uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.

In the past, historians have suggested that Catherine was a frivolous, and not very bright, girl but modern views on this are evolving. She was most probably still a teenager when she was sentenced to death and showed tremendous composure in her last moments, despite being obviously terrified.

Popular folklore tells us that she asked for the block to be brought to her the night before her execution, so that she might practice ‘a good death’. There is also a story that her last words were that ‘I die a queen but would rather have died the wife of Culpeper’. She would have been about 18-19 years old.

Henry was so incensed by her betrayal that he ordered that her body be buried in quicklime. A noxious substance that dissolves most organic materials. It was as if he wanted to erase her completely, from the world.

Catherine Howard at the Tower of London

What was left of this once vivacious young woman lies somewhere under the floor in St Peter Ad Vincula, the church in the Tower of London. We visited last year and have included a photo of the interior with this post. The remains of her cousin Anne Boleyn lie near by.

Catherine Howard's name on a brass plaque

There are few paintings of Catherine but this miniature has traditionally been named as her likeness. Recent research has suggested that this image may be of her predecessor Anne of Cleves, in fashionable court dress, but this cannot be proved.

Catherine Howard