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