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Duration 00:14:12

A tormented Tudor queen’s treasonous ‘love letter’

In this episode, Neil Johnston and Christopher Day discuss a letter written by Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, to Thomas Culpeper, a groom of the King’s Privy chamber. The document was part of a body of evidence collected against Catherine and Culpeper that ultimately led to their execution. It is now preserved at The National Archives.

Here Neil Johnston explains how it is crucial to examine this letter in the context of Catherine’s sexual past in order to understand how the queen accused of living “an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, vicious life” was effectively blackmailed into a path of action that led to her untimely death.




Hello and welcome to The National Archives podcast series. In this episode, Neil Johnston and Christopher Day discuss a letter we hold here at The National Archives that was written by Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, to Thomas Culpeper. Here Chris and Neil discuss some of the interpretations.

…It could be seen as a love letter if it’s taken out of context, but when it’s put into context, I think it’s not a love letter at all actually.

My name is Neil Johnston and I’m an early modern records specialist at The National Archives.

Catherine herself was a niece of the Duke of Norfolk, and he was one of the most senior nobles in the kingdom. Norfolk likely procured a position for young Catherine in Anne of Cleves’ royal household.

Anne of Cleves being the queen at the time.

That’s right. Unfortunately for Anne of Cleves, her marriage to Henry was ill-fated. Purportedly he had no real romantic interest in her and he couldn’t divorce her quickly enough. While this was happening, he appears to have put his eye on young Catherine while she was still at court.

And she was significantly younger than him?

Yes, she was still a teenager at this point. And Henry was in his 40s. So that’s quite the gap.

So, she becomes queen in 1540. She was probably born 1523/1524 so she was about 14/15, we’re not really sure. But she already has a complicated sexual past by this time. Particularly for a royal consort. She’d been sexually abused by one of her tutors, Henry Mannox – he was her music tutor – and then a few years later, Francis Dereham – who is a kinsman of the Duke of Norfolk – it’s likely they had sex, she’s certainly allowing him into her bed chamber and they appear to have exchanged vows. He’s certainly referred to her as his wife. As far as he’s concerned they are married. But there was no…

…So this is unusual for somebody who goes on to marry the King. I suppose Henry is not aware of this.

Well, Henry’s not on the scene yet. Catherine’s original tormentor, Henry Mannox, when he learns of this relationship jealousy kicks in and he informs Catherine’s grandmother, who under the conditions of the time blames young Catherine, but Francis Dereham is shipped off to a post in Ireland and it’s all hushed up. It’s in the years subsequent that young Catherine becomes queen after she comes to the king’s notice, but the mistake she made is, when – or the mistake the family made, you could probably say – is when Henry’s intentions became clear, her sexual past wasn’t disclosed and she ultimately paid for this.

“Master Coulpeper, I hertely recomend me unto youe praying you to sende me worde how that you doo. Yt was showed me that you was sike, the wyche thynge trobled me very muche tell suche tyme that I here from you praying you to send me worde how that you do. For I never longed so muche for [a] thynge as I do to se you and to speke wyth you, the wyche I trust shal be shortely now, the wyche dothe comforthe me verie much whan I thynk of ett and wan I thynke agan that you shall departe from me agayne ytt makes my harte to dye to thynke what fortune I have that I cannot be always yn your company.”

…It’s written while she’s queen

…That’s right.

…But although she was married at the time, this letter wasn’t addressed to Henry. Could you tell us who the letter was addressed to, and a little bit more about them?

So, the letter is written to a man called Thomas Culpeper, who was a member of Henry’s royal household, and he’s a groom in the privy chamber. So he has close and personal access to the King, in a way other nobles and gentry won’t have had. So he has a position of privilege. The letter is written in 1540, likely in July or August, it’s extrapolated about this time, and Henry’s court is on royal progress, he was to go and meet the King of Scotland. The meeting never happened, but while they were travelling back, I think, from the north they were in Lincoln. Queen Catherine is arranging meetings in her private chambers with Thomas Culpeper. And this letter is written, she learns he’s been ill. It can be seen as a love letter if it’s taken out of context, but when it’s put into context, I think it’s not a love letter at all actually.

What do you think she’s saying, in this case, if it’s not a love letter?

I think she’s trying to appease him. Culpeper is likely very ambitious, he’s learnt of Catherine’s sexual past, and he is trying to exploit this and it’s likely he’s trying to blackmail her. And she is responding in the way she could by using the position she has to her own advantage by trying to possibly keep him quiet. It’s hard to know what she’s doing. It’s hard to know if they had a full sexual relationship or not. It’s certainly recounted that they did, but she’s certainly responding to pressure.

“Y[e]t my trust ys allway in you that you wolbe as you have promysed me and in that hope I truste upon styll, prayng you than that you wyll com whan my lade Rochforthe ys here, for then I shalbe beste at leaysoure to be at your commarendmant.”

It certainly gives the perception of an affair. Or how their behaviour was later recounted – secretly meeting late at night, coming back upstairs while front access was being guarded by the King’s men, all sorts of underhanded behaviour of trying to conceal a relationship, but this doesn’t appear to have been an affair in the normal sense.

So I suppose what’s interesting is that you’re saying the idea of it being a romantic liaison has been put on it after it came to light. Obviously it’s now in the archives of the state of the British government. So how does a letter like this come to light and end up with us eventually – what’s the next part of the story?

It’s ended up as part of the body of evidence that was collected against Catherine and Culpeper and Francis Dereham and Henry Mannox and the extended Howard family too. What happens is, while the court is still in progress, in 1541, so a year or so into their marriage. Archishop Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is informed, likely in October 1541, of the affair. And this appears to certainly come as a surprise to him. And unfortunately Cranmer, he’s the one who had to inform the King. He did so by writing to the King – handing the King a letter and effectively scarpering by all accounts because he didn’t want to really hang around as Henry was informed of what was happening. Henry supposedly reacts with disbelief, he’s quite taken aback and he’s very, very upset. He doted on young Catherine. He appears to have been very content with her, and all of a sudden this has changed so quickly and secretly he orders an investigation to ascertain whether this is true or not and it quickly becomes obvious that it is true.

Catherine is then detained at Hampton Court and Cranmer is dispatched to Hampton Court to interview her. And the reality of Catherine’s situation becomes evident to her and she becomes hysterical. Understandably. Knowing what happened to Anne Boleyn, who was executed, you can imagine that she got very scared…


Cranmer is sent in to investigate. You can either describe his discussion with her as an interview or an interrogation – he seems to have taken it very softly. His own account of the matter, and there’s a superb letter here that he’s written to the King, describing her state of mind… He describes her as being in a frenzy, being hysterical, he has to calm her down. She keeps lapsing into incontrollable sobs, he can’t get any sense out of her initially, and while at the start she denies the allegations against her she eventually admits them and she pleads for mercy. And it’s Cranmer who is tasked with reporting this to the King. A difficult job for anyone to have to do. So, the letter is in The National Archives because as I say it was used as part of a body of evidence that was drawn together. There are depositions that were taken from amongst the Howards, people who were intimate with Catherine’s movements, they reported numerous things about her, going all the way back to her affair with Henry Mannox. Catherine herself, she’s… she’s effectively implicated and things that she had said, supposedly, reported to her ladies and her family when she was younger… she was supposed to have said that she was pleading with Culpeper to remember that Henry was the supreme head of the church and if any of this was reported in confession that it would inevitably make its way up the chain of command back to the King because he was the head of the church.

The process then splits in two. A special commission is established at the Guildhall in London to very quickly try Culpeper and Dereham. That happens in November, and they both meet grisly deaths that year.

They’re hung, drawn and quartered?

Yes, but not at the Tower, at Tyburn, and a real example is made of them. Henry is enraged by what’s happened, or more distressed perhaps than enraged. Accounts of his behaviour subsequent to learning this. The situation with Catherine was different, she was moved from Hampton Court to Syon where she’s again held for a while the King and his privy council work out how to proceed. She’s stripped of her queenship quite quickly, but has she committed treason? It’s complicated and they didn’t know how to proceed, so she’s not tried in a court, under special commission, she’s tried by Parliament using a legal procedure called a bill of attainder.

What is that exactly?

So it strips her civil rights and it authorises them to execute her.

The Royal Succession, the Act of Succession of 1534, also declared it treason to do anything of peril to the King’s person, or to give occasion where the King might be disturbed or interrupted of the Crown, and it’s under this legislation that the case against Catherine is raised. So when the Catherine investigation is launched, she and her conspirators are interrogated and she is ultimately executed.

In documents we have here at TNA you can see that she’s accused of living “an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, vicious life” and the bill is introduced in January 1542 and it’s passed. Henry signs it in ‘absentia’, which was new.

So he’s not there to sign the bill?

No, he doesn’t want to hear accounts of this in Parliament, he doesn’t attend the Lords. So he empowers a Royal Commission to sign it on his behalf.

So the Royal Assent of the Acts is like the final stage of it becoming law, and he is suddenly absent for it?

He doesn’t attend.

Because he’s so upset?


So I suppose it’s interesting as we’ve come to this love letter…

…Not at all

…But that wasn’t a love letter. And perhaps the real love letter is the sadness and heartbreak in the records of the Parliament.