Thursday, 15 December 2016

How Old was Katherine Howard?

The question of when Katherine Howard was born has long exercised scholars. The answer is vital as it helps us to understand how old she was at the time of her marriage to Henry VIII in 1540 and her execution in 1542 and, in turn, to help us better understand Katherine and what happened to her. Knowing how old - or how young - she really was is essential in appreciating more fully the treatment she received at the hands of those who related with her and how she, in turn, responded.

As so often happens in historical research, the most vital pieces of information turn out to be the most difficult to come by. Since no birth dates have yet been discovered for any of the Howard children, historians must resort to contemporary chronicles, correspondence, portraits and circumstantial evidence to find out what they want to know. Some of these sources are disordered or wilfully ambiguous. They were often written by people who barely knew the person of whom they spoke, to whom they left a legacy, or whose life they signed away with an elaborately embroidered signature. Even so, it is possible to establish the year Katherine was born with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

The first thing to note is that much emphasis is placed on Katherine’s youth. She is described by Richard Hilles[1] as a ‘young lady’. Although he gives no further details, he later refers to her as ‘that young girl.’ The anonymous author of the Chronicle of Henry VIII describes Katherine as a ‘mere child’, who was ‘so young’.[2] He also asserts that she was ‘the most giddy’ of Henry VIII’s wives, which further stresses her youth.[3] The Victorian editor of the Chronicle, Martin Hume, describes Katherine as a ‘child-Queen’.[4] 

George Cavendish’s poem, Quene Katheren called Katheren Howard, uses the word ‘youth’ or its variants no less than ten times:[5] 

flourishing in youth with beauty fresh and pure

tender youth, frail to resist

youth is blind and hath no sight

a ‘vessel of vice! O frail youth!

‘Where grace wantithe, and hath of youth no cure,

There virtue in youth hath seldom been in ure

As can be seen from such evidence as this, Katherine’s most obvious feature was her youth; indeed she would refer to herself as being ‘but a young girl’ in 1536.

Textual evidence allows us to state immediately that Katherine was born between 1515/20 and 1527. The earlier date is suggested by an inscription on a portrait said to be of Katherine. The later date comes from the will of Katherine’s maternal grandmother, Dame Isabel Legh. By taking all the available evidence and arranging it in chronological order, it is possible to narrow this margin even further.

The first piece of evidence, then, places Katherine’s date of birth at 1515/20, meaning that she was between 22 and 27 at the time of her execution. This is suggested by the inscription on a portrait said to be of Katherine, which belongs to the Toledo Museum in Ohio. The inscription reads: ‘ETATIS SVÆ 21’, meaning twenty-first year of her age. The portrait was painted c.1535-1540, giving the sitter a birth date of 1515-20. However, there are problems relating to the subject of the portrait; the identification of the sitter as Katherine Howard is relatively late, dating only to the nineteenth century. More recently, it has been suggested that the subject is a lady related to the Cromwell family[6] due to the fact that the portrait had been owned by them for several centuries. The curators at the Toledo Museum state that it is now thought that the sitter is Elizabeth Seymour, the sister of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. Elizabeth was born c.1513 and was married to Anthony Ughtred, who died in 1534. That the sitter is wearing black could suggest that she is still in mourning when the portrait was made, although the sumptuous dress and jewellery might indicate otherwise. Assuming that the subject is Elizabeth Seymour, it is more probable that the portrait was painted when she was once more available on the marriage market. Certainly, she married her second husband, Gregory, the son of Thomas Cromwell, not long after the portrait was completed. As interesting as the history of this portrait is, it cannot help us determine the date of birth of Katherine Howard.

For the next piece of evidence we turn to a letter from the ambassador Charles de Marillac to King François I, dated 7 December 1541.[7] Speaking about Katherine’s relationship with Francis Dereham, Marillac notes that it lasted from the time she was thirteen until she was eighteen. Katherine, in her confession, states that the affair had ended almost a year before the king married Anne of Cleves and that it had lasted ‘one quarter of a year or little above.[8] Since Henry married Anne of Cleves on 6 January 1540, Katherine’s relationship with Dereham had to have taken place during the winter of 1538-39.[9] If we accept Marillac’s assertion that Katherine was eighteen when the affair ended, this would give her a birth date of 1520-21, and that she was executed at the age of 21 or 22.[10] 

Marillac’s contention that Katherine’s relations with Dereham continued until she was eighteen is problematic. It is possible that he has been misread or misunderstood and that he meant she was eighteen at the time Dereham visited her in her chamber after she became queen; that is, that the affair lasted until 1541. This would mean that Katherine was born in 1523 and was 19 at the time of her death. However, the wording of Marillac’s letter does not support this suggestion. He clearly states that Dereham had been condemned ‘not only for violating Katherine when she was between the ages of thirteen and eighteen but also for having gone to her chamber since that time, where he continued to violate her as he had done previously.’[11] Marillac, therefore, speaks of a continuity of violation after Katherine had reached the age of eighteen. As such, Marillac remains the most widely accepted source for the view that Katherine was born in 1521.

Even so, there is evidence to suggest that Marillac was not privy to all the facts. For example, he was incorrect in his assessment of Anne of Cleves’s age, thinking she was about thirty at the time of her marriage to Henry when, in fact, she was only twenty-four.[12] Unless Anne looked much older than she really was, the French ambassador showed himself to be a poor judge of women’s ages. This means that, had Marillac been correct about Katherine’s age, there would have been no more than six years between her and Anne of Cleves. However, the emphasis on Katherine’s youth would seem to suggest a larger age-gap between the two women. As it is, other evidence indicates that Katherine was born later than 1521, however, Marillac's belief that Katherine had been violated by Dereham from the age of thirteen is an important point, which will be returned to below.

In their work, The House of Howard, a history of the Howard family, Brenan and Statham[13] suggest that Katherine probably went to live at the dowager duchess of Norfolk’s house near Horsham early in 1531, and that she was nine years old at the time.[14] If they are correct, it means that Katherine was born in 1522 and died at the age of 20. However, there is evidence to indicate that even this year is too early.

Roughly contemporaneous with Brenan and Statham, Martin Andrew Sharp Hume, in The Wives of Henry the Eighth and the Parts they Played in History[15] writes that Katherine was ‘yet quite a child, certainly not more that thirteen, probably younger’ when Henry Mannock taught her to play the virginals. Since, by his own testimony, Mannock was engaged by Duchess Agnes as Katherine’s music teacher in 1536,[16] Hume implies that Katherine was born no later 1523, making her 18 at her execution. Moreover, Hume is supported by a very strong piece of evidence.

That Katherine was born after the second half of 1523, and so eighteen at the most at death, is suggested by the will of Sir John Legh KB of Stockwell, dated 16 June 1523.[17] Sir John, Katherine’s step-grandfather on her mother’s side, mentions Katherine’s brothers, Henry, Charles and George, but neither she nor her sisters are mentioned. It could be that they were excluded by virtue of their sex; nevertheless, Katherine’s Legh step-sisters, Isabel, Joyce and Margaret, are listed, which would appear to preclude any such discrimination on this ground. In addition, it is clear that Sir John favoured his Legh relatives over the Howards; indeed, he had taken steps to exclude the Howards from their inheritance if they made trouble. Another possibility, of course, is that Katherine and her sisters were not yet born at the time that Sir John’s will was drawn up.

There is, however, a source that implies a still later date for Katherine’s birth. The anonymous author of the Chronicle of Henry VIII,[18] sometimes informally referred to as The Spanish Chronicle, asserts that Katherine ‘was not more than fifteen, and had hardly been at Court a year’ when Henry noticed her. Unfortunately, the chronology suggested by the Chronicle is problematic, with the writer placing Katherine’s coming to court during the time of Queen Jane. In fact, Katherine came to court in late 1539 to serve Anne of Cleves[19] as maiden of honour, a post that was open to someone of at least twelve years of age. By April of the following year it had become obvious to careful observers that Henry had fallen in love with her. If the Chronicle were correct, it would give Katherine a birth date of 1525, making her only seventeen years old at the time of her execution. Alas, the author’s mistake regarding the timing of Katherine’s arrival at court is not an isolated occurrence. He muddles the order of Henry’s marriages, placing Katherine after Jane Seymour but before Anne of Cleves, making her the fourth wife rather than the fifth. He also shows Katherine being interrogated by Cromwell, even though he had been beheaded in 1540. However, unless we choose to throw out the baby with the bath water, these glaring errors have no real relevance to the anonymous author’s assessment of Katherine’s age, and the birth date implied in the Chronicle is supported by other evidence.

A birth date of 1525 is consistent with Katherine’s engagement as maiden of honour to Anne of Cleves in late 1539; Katherine would have been fourteen years old at that time. The age requirement for this post, at least twelve years, also explains why Katherine did not serve Anne Boleyn when Anne became queen in 1533; had she done so, it would mean that Katherine had to have been born in 1520-21 which, as we have seen, cannot now be supported; on the contrary, the evidence shows that Katherine was too young to serve her cousin. It is probable, however, that the music lessons Katherine received in 1536 from Henry Mannock and Mr Barnes were intended to ‘polish’ her in readiness to join Queen Anne’s household at a later date. Sadly, by the time Katherine had reached the age when she would be eligible to serve at court, Anne had been removed. Still too young to be considered to serve Jane Seymour, and affected by the decline of the Howards, Katherine had to wait until Anne of Cleves became the fourth wife and queen of Henry VIII before she could finally come to court.

One final piece of evidence is found in the confession of Robert Damport, who knew Katherine and Dereham at Lambeth. In it, Damport reports that Dereham had told him that Katherine was ‘sick of the green sickness’,[20] a condition that was believed to affect young women at the onset on the menarche. For a high-status woman such as Katherine, this would occur between the ages of twelve and fourteen.[21] This makes her just the right age to be violated by Dereham in 1538-9, and at the age of thirteen, as Marillac states.

To assert, as far as it is possible to do so, that Katherine was born before April 1527, we need only turn to the aforementioned will of Dame Isabel Legh. The will, which is dated 6 April 1527,[22] mentions Katherine as well as her brothers and sisters: Charles, Henry, George, Margaret and Mary, each of whom received twenty shillings.

There is sufficient evidence, therefore, to indicate that Katherine was born significantly later than 1521, which is the date that has traditionally been accepted as her year of birth and which is based largely on Marillac’s testimony. Since the date 1525 is supported by documentary and circumstantial evidence, for the purposes of my biography of Katherine Howard, 1525 is used as her year of birth, although it is acknowledged that she could have been born slightly earlier, in late 1524.

This means that:

Katherine was born in late 1524-1525.
She was about fifteen when she married Henry in 1540.
She was probably still only seventeen at the time of her execution on 13 February 1542.


1, Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, 1.201-2, 205
2, Hume (ed), Chronicle, p.76
3, Chronicle of Henry VIII, p.76
4, Chronicle of Henry VIII, p.84 note 1
5, Cavendish, 2, pp.64-68
6, This Holbein portrait, object number 1926.57, is exhibited under the title ‘Portrait of a lady, probably a Member of the Cromwell Family’. See and
7, LP XVI.1426
8, HMC Bath, 2.9
9, Elsewhere, Marillac (Kaulek, p.364) notes that Katherine’s relationship with Dereham lasted l’espace de quatre ans. Chapuys, writing to Charles V, suggests the relationship had lasted at least three years (CSPSp. VI, 207; LP XVI, 1359). The chronology suggested by Katherine’s own testimony is supported by Andrew Maunsay (LP XVI, 1348).
10, Marillac (p.364) speaks of Katherine’s involvement with Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper during this time. Since the ambassador did not have access to the Council’s records on the evidence against her, it is entirely possible that he did not know about Henry Mannock and assumed that Katherine had only ever been involved with Dereham and Culpeper; in other words, he knew that Katherine had been sexually active from an early age, thirteen as he thought, but did not know that there was a third man involved, who had violated Katherine before Dereham. As it is, Marillac’s mistake regarding the identities of Katherine’s violators is largely immaterial, since it has no direct bearing upon his estimate of her age.
11, Dereham was condemned ‘pour avoir non suellement entretenue icelle dame depuis le temps qu’il la viollas à l’aige de treize ans jusques à dix-huict, mais aussi pour avoir tousjours depuis esté de sa chamber et y avoir mené la femme qui avoit tenu la main et estoit consente de tout le mal qu’ilz avoient auprevant faict’(Kaulek, p.371)
12, Kaulek, p.151. Anne of Cleves was born on 22 September 1515, making her twenty-four years old when she married Henry on 6 January 1540.
13, Brenan and Statham, 1.269
14, Brenan and Statham, 1.270
15, Hume, Wives, p.372
16, SP 1/167/135: examination of Henry Mannock; this is summarised in LP XVI.1321. Speaking in 1541, Mannock referred to events that occurred ‘five years past’.
17, P.C.C. 15 Bodfield; Surrey Archaeological Collections, LI, pp.87-88
18, Chronicle of Henry VIII, p.75
19, See LP XIV, ii, 572, where Katherine is listed as a maiden. This list also includes Thomas Culpeper as a member of the King’s Privy Chamber.
20, TNA SP1/167/161.
21, A woman was eligible to marry at this age and to live with their husbands; see, for example, Margaret Beaufort, who was married at the age of twelve and gave birth to her son, Henry Tudor, at the age of thirteen.
22, P.C.C. 18 Porch; Surrey Archaeological Collections, LI, pp.88-89

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How Old was Katherine Howard?

The question of when Katherine Howard was born has long exercised scholars. The answer is vital as it helps us to understand how old she w...