Did Katherine Howard Say That She Would Rather Die the Wife of Thomas Culpeper?

According to many books and websites, Katherine Howard, standing on the scaffold on February 13, 1542, pronounced, “I die a queen, but I would rather die the wife of Thomas Culpeper.” Myth or fact?

The story that Katherine Howard said the words above comes from the anonymous Chronicle of King Henry VIII, better known to us as the Spanish Chronicle, which was translated from the Spanish and edited by Martin Hume.

When she mounted the scaffold she turned to the people, who were numerous, and said, “Brothers, by the journey upon which I am bound I have not wronged the King, but it is true that long before the King took me I loved Culpepper, and I wish to God I had done as he wished me, for at the time the King wanted to take me he urged me to say that I was pledged to him. If I had done as he advised me I should not die this death, nor would he. I would rather have him for a husband than be mistress of the world, but sin blinded me and greed of grandeur, and since mine is the fault mine also is the suffering, and my great sorrow is that Culpepper should have to die through me.” Then she turned to the headsman and said, ” Pray hasten with thy office.” And he knelt before her and asked her pardon, and she said, “I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper. God have mercy on my soul. Good people, I beg you pray for me.” And then, falling on her knees, she said certain prayers, and the headsman performed his office, striking off her head when she was not expecting it. She was carried to the Tower Church, and buried near Queen Anne.

As John Schofield notes in The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, however, the Spanish Chronicle “is far too cavalier with facts, dates and details to be a credible witness.” Among other obvious inaccuracies, it turns Katherine Howard into Henry VIII’s fourth wife and makes Anne of Cleves his fifth, describes George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, as a duke, and has Cromwell, executed in 1540, investigating the adultery charges against Katherine Howard in 1541. It also depicts Culpeper, who was executed in December 1541, two months before Katherine’s death, as dying the day after Katherine’s execution. The words the chronicler attributes to the queen, then, have to be viewed with great skepticism.

A far more historically likely account of Katherine’s last words was written on February 15, 1542, by the merchant Ottwell Johnson in a letter to his brother John. After discussing some herrings and wine he had bought for his mother and some business matters, Ottwell wrote:

And for news from hence, know ye, that, even according to my writing on Sunday last, I see the Queen and the lady Retcheford suffer within the Tower, the day following; whose souls (I doubt not) be with God, for they made the most godly and Christians’ end that ever was heard tell of (I think) since the world’s creation, uttering their lively faith in the blood of Christ only, with wonderful patience and constancy to the death, and, with goodly words and steadfast countenance, they desired all Christian people to take regard unto their worthy and just punishment with death, for their offences against God heinously from their youth upward, in breaking of all his commandments, and also against the King’s royal majesty very dangerously; wherefor they, being justly condemned (as they said), by the laws of the realm and Parliament, to die, required the people (I say) to take example at them for amendment of their ungodly lives, and gladly obey the King in all things, for whose preservation they did heartily pray, and willed all people so to do, commending their souls to God and earnestly calling for mercy upon Him, whom I beseech to give us grace with such faith, hope, and charity, at our departing out of this miserable world, to come to the fruition of his Godhead in joy everlasting. Amen.

Other contemporary reports echo Johnson’s. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, wrote on February 25, 1542, simply, “After [Katherine's] body had been covered with a black cloak, the ladies of her suite took it up and put it on one side. Then came Mme. de Rochefort, who had shewn symptoms of madness until the very moment when they announced to her that she must die. Neither the Queen nor Mme. de Rochefort spoke much on the scaffold; all they did was to confess their guilt and pray for the King’s welfare and prosperity.” The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, wrote to Francis I on the day of the execution, “The Queen was so weak that she could hardly speak, but confessed in few words that she had merited a hundred deaths for so offending the King who had so graciously treated her.” It’s hard to imagine that either of the ambassadors would have resisted mentioning the fact if Katherine had indeed declared that she wished to have died as Culpeper’s wife.

Even a stopped clock tells the time right twice a day, and the Spanish Chronicle’s account of Katherine’s comments about Culpeper can’t be ruled out entirely. Given the chronicle’s other glaring mistakes, however, its account of Katherine’s last words deserves to be taken with a very large shaker of salt.

Sources:

Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Vol. 6, pt. I

Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England, ed. Martin Andrew Sharp Hume

Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Vol. 17

 

 

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13 Responses to Did Katherine Howard Say That She Would Rather Die the Wife of Thomas Culpeper?

  1. Anne Barnhill says:

    Great article. Of course, the writer in me WANTS her to have uttered such stuff but, given the execution custom of the times, it is highly unlikely. We know she wanted to make a good end because she called for a block to practice on before the actual execution. I think she wanted to do everything ‘by the book.’

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Anne! I agree–it would be wonderful for a novelist if half the Spanish Chronicle was true! And I also agree that Katherine was probably very concerned to make a proper last impression.

  2. Christine says:

    That’s the point, neither woman said much on the scaffold, so I suppose the Spaniard couldn’t resist to “embellish” (like a good journalist …). I think he invented a lovely speech for poor Katherine.
    All the best for this blog — the above invitation sounds interesting …

  3. Karen says:

    From the little I know, Katherine Howard’s sexual history reads like a classic case of the sexually exploited teenager who never quite made the leap to adult who could say ‘no’, who mistook sexual interest for love. I’ve always felt for her, poor kid!

  4. Judith Field says:

    “Other contemporary reports echo Johnson’s”–yet Chapuys’ report states that neither woman spoke much upon the scaffold and Marillac says that the Queen was so weak that she could hardly speak and “confessed in few words…” How do you square this with Johnson’s long-winded preachment? Johnson’s account sounds completely bogus to me–talk about the Spanish Chronicle’s not being a credible witness! And you think that Johnson’s is a far more historically accurate account of Katherine’s last words?!! The man sounds like nothing so much as a Puritan divine ranting from his pulpit.

    • boswellbaxter says:

      I never said Johnson’s was an exact transcription (especially as he’s summarizing what both women said, not just Katherine), but I don’t see how his account is so far-fetched. He reports that “uttering their lively faith in the blood of Christ only, with wonderful patience and constancy to the death, and, with goodly words and steadfast countenance, they desired all Christian people to take regard unto their worthy and just punishment with death, for their offences against God heinously from their youth upward, in breaking of all his commandments, and also against the King’s royal majesty very dangerously; wherefor they, being justly condemned (as they said), by the laws of the realm and Parliament, to die, required the people (I say) to take example at them for amendment of their ungodly lives, and gladly obey the King in all things, for whose preservation they did heartily pray, and willed all people so to do, commending their souls to God and earnestly calling for mercy upon Him.” That could actually be said quite quickly, depending on how verbose one was.

  5. Miriam Leiva says:

    I am so grateful, as are all members of this community of historical fiction, that you keep the HISTORY true even when telling it in a novel format. Thank YOU and please keep on doing this.

  6. Anerje says:

    ah, but it’s so romantic, isn’t it?:> Of course she didn’t say it! But I’m sure various ambassadors etc wished she had! It’s still being told at the Tower of London.

  7. anna says:

    your site is good it answered most of my school questions

  8. jc says:

    I very much suspect that for anyone to publish an account where she would have made the statements attributed to Culpeper, would have left them in very poor favor with Henry. I can imagine that most people wouldn’t have thought it so prudent to have embarrassed the king in such a way. I can see it being taken as treasonous talk if no one else would have corroborated it. So in my opinion…she may very well have said what she was purported to have said. We’ll never know.

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Thanks for stopping by! All the sources mentioned in the blog post were private communications, though, and Chapuys at least had been very free in passing along embarrassing tidbits about Henry, so I’m still not convinced she said that–it’s hard for me to imagine him letting such a juicy statement slide by.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve always been obsessed with Tudor history. This is a great site. Katheryn Howard did not proclaim her undying love for Thomas Culpepper on the scaffold. This is accepted by pretty much every historian, but I do agree with the author and other responders, it would have been very romantic. Maybe she said this to someone before being led to the scaffold. What I have always read was that she went through fits of hysteria and sanity up until the morning of execution and then made a very dignified speech much like Johnson’s. It was Lady Rocheford who could hardly stand or speak, but did manage to say something to the effect that she was being punished for having taken part in the death of innocent people. She no doubt is referring to Anne and George Bolyen. I feel that history has been hard on Katheryn. She is painted as either a floozy or a dumb kid. I think she honestly did care for Henry, but probably more as a beneficiary than a romantic love like she had for Thomas. Being a woman, she didn’t have much choice in the matter once Henry’s eye was cast. But she did make an honest effort to be a good wife, stepmother and queen consort. When Henry got sick and cranky, she couldn’t stay away from the man she had given up. I do think Thomas actually loved her back. After all only someone in love or a complete idiot would have kept the love letter she sent him. And Thomas Culpepper was no idiot. He had been raised at Court and surely knew how dangerous having a token like that would be.

  10. C M Gill says:

    It does sound very much like the Spanish account was an embelishment, most people (even innocent) executed for treasonable offencies went to their deaths praising the king, wishing him a long and prosperous life. and confessing their guilt in public

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