Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

A gentleman of the bedchamber

December 10th is the 470th anniversary of the execution in 1541 at Tyburn of Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham for adultery with Catherine Howard, whose marriage to King Henry VIII had been annulled a few days previously.

Retha M. Warnicke's Oxford DNB life of the Queen includes biographies of both these two men and can be read here.
There is also an online life of Culpeper here, and one of Queen Catherine here. *

Queen Catherine Howard
Minaiture by Hans Holbein the Younger
The portrait has been persuasively identified through the jewels on her dress, which match those in her inventory.

Image Wikipedia, from the Royal collection

Quite apart from its interest as one of the more sensational episodes in an era of court sensations this story has always had the added interest of a connection with my home town of Pontefract. It had been during the King and Queen's progress to the north in the late summer of 1541 that the affair between Catherine and Culpeper flourished.

The one surviving letter from Catherine to Culpeper probably belongs to the earlier stages of the tour, being thought to have been written at Liddington or Lincoln. It can be seen and read both in the original and in transcript on this link to the National Archives website or by clicking on the red arrow under the photograph.

"Yours as long as life endures, Katherine"

The royal party arrived at Pontefract Castle on August 23 1541, and it was at Pontefract that four days later the Queen appointed Dereham, to whom was technically married, as her secretary. Whilst the King went on alone to visit Hull before he entered York in state with his Queen, and whilst the Privy Council were, amongst other things, confirming in meetings at Pontefract the new statutes of the King's new cathedral foundations at Gloucester and Peterborough, as well as those for the new secular chapter for that at Ely, elsewhere in the castle less salubrious activities were apparently taking place...

File:Pontefract Castle.jpg

Pontefract Castle
A painting of circa 1630 now in Pontefract Museum.
In 1541 the castle would have appeared much the same, although possibly better maintained.

Image: Wakefield MDC Museums

On the internet I found an account of Thomas' father Sir Alexander Culpeper of Hardreshull and Bedgebury in Kent who had died the previous summer - probate on his will being granted on June 21st 1541. Thomas, the lover of Queen Catherine, was the son of his father's third marriage, and appears to have been about ten to fifteen years younger than his elder siblings. His mother died in 1542.

Details of his father's life, and those of his family, including the text of his will, which is interesting in itself with its extensive religious provisions, offering an insight into the spirituality of the gentry in the period, can be read here.

Sir Alexander and Lady Culpeper's tomb is in Goudhurst church:


Tomb of Sir Alexander Culpeper and his wife Constance in Goudhurst church, Kent


Stone relief of 'Old Sir Alexander' Culpeper and his family.
In the jamb of the bay window above the effigies of Sir Alexander and his wife is asmall stone relief dated 1537. It depicts God in Majesty, the Virgin and child, St George slaying the dragon, and kneeling figures of the Culpeper family.

Image: gen.culpepper.com

* The only episode of the recent televison series The Tudors I have seen was about the affair of Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper.The episode lived up to all I had been led to expect - serious or bizarre historical inaccuracies, anachronistic costuming and sets, indifferent acting, and some fairly pornographic scenes - but also, as others had indicated, there were the occasional flahes of insight. A curious production.

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