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.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The death of Catherine Howard

Today is the 470th anniversary of the execution in 1541/2 on Tower Green of Catherine Howard, whose marriage to King Henry VIII had been annulled a few days before the execution at Tyburn of Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham on the preceding December 10th for committing adultery. I posted about that in A gentleman of the bedchamber, where I pointed out the part the castle in my home town played in this rather squalid and sordid drama. Executed with her was Lady Rochford for her complicity in the affair.

Retha M. Warnicke's Oxford DNB life of the Queen includes biographies of both of these men and can be read here.
There is also an online life of Culpeper here, and one of Queen Catherine here.
Lacey Baldwin Smith's book on the story A Tudor Tragedy is eminently readable, as are all his books on Tudor history, and there is also Joanna Denny's more recent
Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy which reflects on the social context of her upbringing and the court intrigues over marriages in the royal circle.

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

It is tempting to dismiss Catherine Howard as a dim-witted, sly teenage nymphomaniac who had not learned from the fate of her cousin Anne Boleyn only five years earlier in 1536. It is quite reasonable to see that, whatever her other faults, Anne Boleyn was 'set up' in May 1536 because she had become a hinderance to policy as far as Thomas Cromwell was concerned - such is Eric Ives' interpretation in his biography. Catherine Howard set herself up with her backstairs affair with Thomas Culpeper and employing her former lover Francis Dereham as her secretary.

This was however not just a disastrous tale of adultery and retribution. As the failure of the marriage of the monarch it had a very considerable impact on contemporary politics. Had Catherine remained Queen, with or without any additional heirs, the position of her family the Howards headed by the Duke of Norfolk would have been that much stronger. They managed to extricate themselves from her downfall and survived, only to be marked down for destruction in 1546 as everyone jockeyed for position in the approach of the King's death.

The effect on the King was noted by the French ambassador who thought Henry never quiter recoverd from the shock of his wife's infidelity. Once more free to wed his marriage to Catherine Parr brought into the heart of the court an intelligent woman who was sympathetic to reformist, evangelical religion and shrewd enough to avoid attempts to ensnare her. Thus whatever the conservative inclined government did was counterbalanced by a court circle around the Queen and, more importantly, Prince Edward, which was favourable to the type of change that came into play afer the old King's death in January 1547. To what extent King Henry VIII was aware of this remains a matter of some debate.

One legacy of these events is the means whereby the Royal Assent to Acts of Parliament is given. Hitherto it had been given by the monarch in person, but to spare the King distress at giving the assent to his ex-wife's Act of Attainder the process was devised whereby commisioners annouinced the Royal Assent to the assembled Lords and Commons. From this beginning that has developed as the normal practice - possibly influenced by King Henry's increasing infirmity and his son's youth - and the Royal Assent was last given in this country in person by Queen Anne. The present Queen delivered her Assent in Australia in an exceptional gesture when the Royal title in Australia was alterd in the 1970s. Incidentally, Catherine's Act of Attainder remained on the statute book until the 1960s when the Law Commissiopn got round to tidying otiose legislation out of the way.

File:Coat of Arms of Catherine Howard.svg

The coat of arms of Queen Catherine Howard

Image: Wikipedia

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