Katharine Howard’s life (b before 1508/9, died 1554) is the most extraordinary tale. An exceptional character – who raised her tenants in rebellion against Henry’s agents in South Wales with her husband, who forced her second husband to divorce her in an age where divorce was vanishingly rare, who may well have taken her tenants to join the Pilgrimage of Grace, and who was closely involved in the rise and fall of her namesake, Queen Catherine. A woman not in favour of the quiet life. Discover her story below along with her letter to Thomas Cromwell and her will at the end as appendices.
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Early Life and Marriage to Rhys ap Gruffydd
Katharine Howard was one of the many children born to the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and one of 7 born to the fecund Duke’s second wife Agnes Tilney, Duchess of Norfolk. She was therefore the sister of Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, the duke so close to Henry VIII through most of his reign.
Katherine Howard was born into this vast family somewhere before 1509, maybe as early as 1499. She probably spent her childhood among them at Norfolk’s great house and caput at Framlingham in Suffolk. But really she doesn’t hit the public record until her first marriage in 1522 to one Rhys ap Gruffydd. Rhys was the scion of Wales’s greatest dynasty of the time. When Henry Tudor (VII) landed at Milford Haven in 1485, his chances of winning the throne were transformed with the support of the Welsh landowner Rhys ap Thomas; he helped Henry to survive the march to Bosworth. He was duly rewarded, and became Henry’s great satrap in Wales, Governor of Wales, Justiciar of South Wales and more. His son Gruffyd was surely destined to take up where Rhys ap Thomas left off but Gruffydd died in 1521.
Rhys ap Thomas tried to make sure his grandson, Rhys ap Gruffydd (1508-1531) would succeed to all his honours as well as his lands, and the first step was to give the lad the best possible connections. And so in 1522 a great dynastic marriage was made when Rhys was married our Katharine Howard.
Insult and humiliation
In terms of personal attraction and compatibility it seems to have been a pretty successful marriage. Both of them would prove to be proud, wild, ambitious, aggressive, relentless and rebellious. They were a team. And if things had gone as their Grandfather had planned, no doubt they would have ruled Wales in an impressive manner and been noted pillars of the Tudor kingdom; but their fate was to direct their energies otherwise. And their path was defined by Henry VIII’s response to the death of Rhys ap Thomas in 1525. While Rhys and Katharine waited for the call from number 10 as it were, it was instead a 36 year old man called William Ferrers on whom Henry conferred the main titles of office. Rhys had been comprehensively passed over, snubbed. He was even excluded from the Council of Wales. It was seen as a very public humiliation. You might ask why Henry passed him over; maybe it was simply his age, just 17 at the time; Ferrers would have seemed a more experienced choice. It could have been that Rhys was already known as a bit of a wild one; or it could have been that, just like Kildare in lreland in later years Henry wanted to avoid creating this over powerful family in Wales.
Whatever the reason, a position as the loyal subordinate was not the favoured position for either Rhys or Katharine; neither were prepared to go quietly. They and the Rhys family had a deep well of local popularity, whereas Ferrers was an outsider, an object of suspicion. At one point when Katharine and Rhys returned to Wales it was recorded that
‘the whole country turned out to welcome him, and this made Lord Ferrers envious and jealous’.
Fighting for justice? A local power struggle
Katharine suspected that Ferrers had decided that Wales was not big enough for the both of them when they were set on by a band of robbers as they passed Oxford; but this was quite clearly a quarrel with two sides. Rhys aggressively pursued his rights as well as rights that were not strictly his, in a way that was at times exploitative as well and defying Ferrer’s authority. This in fact led him into his own local problems; a run-in with the town of Tenby might well have created a feeling that neither of these noble families were acting in the best interests of good governance. Among mid level defiance and resistance, the feud came to a head in 1528 when preparing for the assize at Carmarthen. Both affinities, Ferrers and Rhys, poured into town, and bunch of rowdies. The Rhys men came to secure the best lodgings for their master and mistress, only to find tat the Ferrers had already down the towel on the sun lounger thing, and the best places were gone. Needless to say, the words reasonable acceptance were not in their dictionaries. It was a matter of public pride and before long Carmarthen was embroiled in a brawl. When peace was restored, it transpired that only Rhys’s men had been arrested. Rhys charged into the council Chamber, before you could say nail clippings Rhys and Ferrers were at daggers drawn, before Rhys and his men were overpowered and imprisoned.
Fortunately for Rhys, Katharine was still at liberty. She essentially rallied the Rhys affinity – tenants, but also gentry and even the Bishop of Saint David’s. She marched on Carmarthen Castle, demanded that her husband be freed, and promised Ferrers that that she would burn down the castle door and come and get them if not. Thereafter the disturbance spread, localised, bred; Ferrer’s justiciar was murdered, and Ferrers wrote in a panic to London, probably with some exaggeration, claiming
there was not such an insurrection in Wales at any time that a man can remember.
Both Ferrers and Rhys were summoned to London and bound over. Rhys was confined to the Capital, but back in Wales Katharine took the fight to Ferrers. She wrote personally to Wolsey in defence of her husband. It’s been pointed out that her letter ignored the normal convention of women submitting petitions, with none of the conventional pleas of female weakness. Her understanding of the political situation was comprehensive and authoritative. The level of agency Katharine showed was extraordinary for a woman of the time – organising, inciting, leading; effectively leading a local rebellion, not simply in support of her husband.
The end came in 1531; in October, Rhys, by changing his name and arms to Rhys ap Gruffydd fitz Urien, from the ancient dynasty of Rheged, was accused of inciting rebellion against the king. December 1531 Rhys had been executed on Tower Hill. This left Katharine in something of jam of course. She had three small children, Anne, Thomas, and Gruffydd; her husband’s lands stood to be attainted. She may well have enlisted the help of Anne Boleyn; certainly the act of attainder make specific provision for Katharine for an annual stipend of £196, which was unusual.
Out of the fat into the fire: Marriage and divorce
It seems that the Howard family as a whole got involved at this point; and it may have been Katharine’s brother the Duke of Norfolk, eager to resolve something of a blemish on the Howard reputation, who rather forced a new husband on her as a solution to the problem. The lucky man was one Henry Daubeney, who would become the Earl of Bridgewater, and Katharine the Countess of Bridgewater. Given that beggars can’t be choosers the deed was done, and Katharine’s future seemed settled.
Sadly she and her new husband did not get on. Daubeney seems to have been a violent, volatile, stubborn and unreasonable man. Within a few years both were asking for divorce. Daubeney was clearly talking to anyone he could find
Everyone thinks that by my offer of 100l. a year, besides her own living, I buy my heart’s ease very dearly, having no manner of commodity by her.
Katharine was worried for her own safety in her letter to Thomas Cromwell
I beg this letter be not seen, as it is all in my own hand and I am not in safety. I beg you will speak to the King for me when you think proper, for my enemies will say the worst
It is very likely indeed that in seeking a divorce, the Countess was working on her own and with no support from her family, the Howards – after all they and Anne Boleyn had engineered this marriage, and wanted no part in the pain and controversy of its dissolution. But the Countess was a force of nature and would not be denied; and we learn in a letter that things were finally settled:
She will have 80l. a year and her whole jointure at his death, as was appointed at their marriage.
By the spring of 1536, then, the divorce had been completed, and Katharine was free of a man she had learned to loathe. On its own this is extraordinary – the number of divorces the 16th century is tiny, especially when Katharine appears to have had no support.
Rebel? The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536
There is some evidence that the Countess then took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. The evidence is from a spy’s report which goes:
my lady Rhys is come to them with 3 thousand men and she brought with her half a carte load of plate the which plate they do coin themself among them there
It is only one reference and there are many obstacles to this prospect of an almost unique example of noblewoman raising revolt of her own accord and agency against the crown in the 16th century.
Is it clear Lady Rhys refers to Katharine? There seems to be nobody else it could be; and the only men she could have raised would have been from her Welsh jointure lands, where she would have been known as Lady Rhys.
Why would she do such as thing? It does not seem to be anything to do with religion; the Countess shows no evidence throughout her life of any specific religious affiliation either way, evangelical or conservative; her will showed a lack of either the traditional catholic forms or the new evangelical ones. It looks like fury, and rebellion; revenge for what she would see as the judicial murder of her husband, a desire to see Henry brought down or humbled.
And if she did lead rebellion, then why was she not punished? It was most unusual for women to punished by attainder and execution; it could be that the Howard family managed to hide the evidence and protect the Countess.
It seems quite possible that the Countess payed an active part in rebellion against the crown.
The tragedy of Queen Catherine
The Countess (Katharine) seems to have had enough wealth to maintain herself and a household in a house in Lambeth, with her 3 children probably with her though her boys were in wardship to her mother. The house was very close to the Howards’ London residence, Norfolk House. And it brings us to the next great event in the Countess’s life – the story of the rise and fall of Queen Katharine Howard. Together with her mother, Agnes Howard the Dowager Duchess of the 2nd duke of Norfolk. the Countess did much to guide Catherine Howard’s career through and onto the shoals of her royal marriage.
The Countess would in all probability have known of the clandestine relationships that Catherine brought with her to marriage with Henry VIII. One biographer has suggested that surely this means that Norfolk could hardly have consciously used Katharine to attract Henry, because the Countess could have warned him of the dangers in Katharine’s past.
[UK customers, you can buy Young and Damned and Fair here. It’s a riveting account of Catherine Howard’s tragic marriage to one of history’s most powerful rulers.]
But the Countess was an intimate part of the ways in which the Howard household reacted when Henry’s interest in Katharine became apparent. Steps had to be taken to protect their and Catherine’s future; servants in the know needed to be bought and many were employed in Catherine’s household when she became queen, though some were specifically refused. There were risks in buying their silence or leaving undisturbed, out of the way – but possibly resentful. The situation was fraught with danger; and then Katharine’s former lover Francis Dereham wanted a job. Would he talk if they didn’t, would he talk if they did? Countess was one of those that advised that Francis Dereham be brought within the Queen’s household. It could be that the Countess’s attitude to life wasn’t really conducive with urging caution. There’s a rather delightful incident in 1538, when the Dowager Duchess found out about part of the late night indiscretions going in her household, in which Catherine was involved. She was furious and read the riot act. The Countess simply warned that these that the night parties would ‘hurte her beautye’. However, Dereham was a very difficult decision; he was volatile and knew enough to cause Catherine disaster; the Countess and her mother probably felt forced to advise that keeping Dereham close was probably best.
[US customers, you can buy Young and Damned and Fair here. It’s a riveting account of Catherine Howard’s tragic marriage to one of history’s most powerful rulers.]
The Countess and her mother’s actions have been heavily criticised as wildly optimistic and risky – though it seems that any course was fraught with risk. But once it was discovered that Queen Katharine had a past and may have been having an affair to boot – everything started to unravel. The Duchess Dowager and the Countess were hauled in front of an interrogation committee. 10 of the most powerful men in the realm, such as Archbishop Cranmer, Chancellor Audley, Richard Rich; and all poured questions on her head and expected her to break. If the Countesses had been guilty of poor judgement to the young Catherine, she was all steel and all composure now. She gave away nothing, admitted nothing, declined at any point to implicate Queen Catherine, or any member of the household, let alone herself. One observer noted that
‘she showeth herself her mother’s daughter, that is one that will by no means confess any thing that may touch her.’
This was rather in contrast to the Duke of Norfolk who threw anyone he could find under any available wheels. He wrote to Henry distancing himself from his ‘lewd sister of Bridgewater‘, and denouncing the ‘abominable deeds done by my two nieces’ – that would be Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard of course.
In the end though, her steely nerve did the Countess no good; and the fallout of Queen Catherine took the Countess of Bridgewater with her. She was shipped to the Tower, convicted of misprison of treason – basically guilty of knowing treason was going on. Her 3 children were moved; Anne was sent to the household of the Countess of Oxford, but eventually would return to her mother’s side, but Gruffydd was sent to the wardship of Archbishop Cranmer, and Thomas to the Bishop of Carlisle – he would jump ship to Scotland, and die young on the battlefield.
That seems to be pretty much the end of the Countesses involvement in high politics. She and her mother were pardoned in May 1542, and the Countess was granted an annuity of £120 by the Crown. This continued to be paid until 1550, when she was granted access to the revenue from her jointure estates in Wales from her first marriage to Rhys ap Griffith. In 1552 she was still living on the estate of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and made contributions to poor relief. When she died in May 1554, she was buried at the Howard Chapel in St Mary’s church, where her mother Agnes was also buried.
- British History Online Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII esp Volume 9, 576-577
- Clark, Nicola Dynastic Politics: Five Women of the Howard Family During the Reign of Henry VIII, 1509-1547 , PhD dissertation
- Jansen, Sharon Dangerous Talk and Strange Behavior: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Russell, Gareth. Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII, HarperCollins Publishers.
- Starkey, David. Six wives. Vintage Books
Appendix: Letter of Katharine Howard to Thomas Cromwell, 1535
I have heard of your great goodness to us by Mr. Courteney, who is much your friend. Also Sir Thomas More has showed me the same. My heart has always been in hope of your good word. I have much need of help. I have none to do me help except the Queen, to whom I am much bound, and with whom much effort is made to draw her favor from me. My lord my husband has paid well to make friends against me, but I trust that the truth of what I suffer will be known, and desire you to be my friend, as you have been. One thing I did hear by Sir Thomas More which did comfort me much and I did perceive was like to be true, viz., how you had promised before to be good to me, as you did when I was a suitor to you and came to your house by the Friars in London. I know what Sir Thomas More told me from you was true, because none could have said what he did but you and I. I was surprised to find he was so much my friend, as I never did him any favor. I beg this letter be not seen, as it is all in my own hand and I am not in safety. I beg you will speak to the King for me when you think proper, for my enemies will say the worst. The bearer has been with me nine years. 10 Oct.
I desire you to be good to this bearer “wyche is a gentleman of the abbot of Glastonbury,” and is to be married to a gentlewoman of a very good stock, who has been long in my service. If you could obtain his suit for my sake you will do me a very great pleasure. Intended to have sent a trusty servant of my own to you, but could not. I beg to have a letter from you by the bearer, who will deliver it safely. The abbot of Glastonbury is a good religious man.
Appendix: Last will and testament of Katharine Howard, 1554
In dei nom[ine] Amen.
I Lady Katharine Countess of Brygewater being whole in mind & p[er]ficte in memorye sycke of bodye make this my last will & testament
The xxv of m[ar]che in thyere of or Lorde God thowsonde ffyve hundred fyvetye & ffoure
Ffirst I comyte my soule in to thandes of Almightye God my Savyour & Redemor & c. & my Bodye to be buryed in my Ladie my mother’s tombe in the chapell wt in the p’ryshe churche in Lambeth
Itm I will that all my debtes be payed & my s[er]untes to be payed oon hole yere wages besydes that to theyme ys nowe dewe accordynge to the rate that eu[er]ye of theyme hath hade of me heretofore as at appereth by a boke by me therof made
Itm I [inserted above: will &] bequeve to Bryane dacombe in money ffoure poundes of currante money of Englond my grete grey geldynge that I bought last oon no meane ffetherbed . peyer of Blanketes . oon peer of shetes of bokerame
Itm I will & geve to Alyce Rosyngton gentylwoman a gowne of blacke velvett ffrenged wt blacke sylke
Itm I will to Briget Burtone my gentilwomane gowne of blacke velvett laide wt p[ar]chement lace
Itm I will geve to Mers Goodemane gowne of blacke saten ffurred wt sableys
Itm I will geve to my sone Gryffyth Ryce my gowne of blacke velvett furred wt blacke Jenette
Itm I will & geve to Agnes Bayntone my doughter two kertelles whereof theone of blacke velvett & thother of blacke saten /oon sylver cuppe wt cover p[ar]cell gilt / oon litell ewer of sylver
Itm I will & geve to Arthur Assheby towe spoynes of sylver
Itm I geve to Briget Burtone and Jane Nele all my lynen belongynge to my bodye & towe ffrensche hoddes to be equalye devyded betewen theyme
Itm I will & geve to Emorye tylney my kinesmane my braselet of golde
Itm I will & geve to henrye pryot my s[er]unte Fyve poynddes thirtene shillinges ffoure pence of currantte money of Inglond
Itm to nycholas wylemott my s[er]unte ffoure pounde of money & oon geldynge
Itm to Iryserann (?) Wilmott my s[er]unte ffyvete ffyve three shillinges ffoure pense of laufull money of Englond
Itm to Edwarde Warenor ~ ~ childe of kechyn ffyvete three shillinges ffoure pense
Itm I geve to Richard phelippes in money ffoure m[ar]kes & white geldynge
Itm I geve to m’garet leyce & Elizabth . [gap here as though for more names] my maydens in Walis ffyve pounds equalye to be devyded betewen theyme
Itm I geve to Fr Thomas Bentley curett of Lambeth in money tewentye shillings
Itm I geve to marye my doughter Anne Bayntones doughter gilt spoyne of silu[er] . angell of noble of gold . a stone called Jacent & nother stone called Amediste set in golde . silu[er] salt gilt wt cou[er] & all other small thinges beinge in my coffers in Lambeth
Itm I geve to my brother Willm Lorde Admyrall & my [sister] his wiff towe rynges of golde wt towe dyamones in theyme thon’ creare & thother table dyamone
Itm geve to Robt pigott wiffe oon petycote of ffreyce & tenne shillinges in money [inserted from below: kertell of brase]
Itm I geve to John Whitwell nowe p[ar]sone of Lambeth in money tenne shillings
Itm I geve in money to the poure Inhitance [inhabitants] of Lambeth in money tewentye shillings
Itm I will & bequeve all the rest of my gooddes moveables or unmoveable unbequeved & geven my dettes ligaces & ffunerall payed & dyscharged unto Gryffythe Ryce my sonne & to Agnes Bayntone my doughter equalye to be devided betewene theyme by even porciones p’vided allweyes that the p[ar]te & porcione which shall come to my sayed sone Gryffyth Ryce to hyme for eu[er] and the p[ar]te & p[or]cione of my sayede soughter Agnes to come to thuse of marye her doughter & to be delyu[er]ed to her at thage of syxtene yere.
And of this laste will & testament I constytute order & make my sayed doughter Agnes Baynton sole executrice & my brother Willm nowe lorde admyrall & Arthur Assheby my sup[er]visors of the same
In witness wherof I haye sette my seale & cyngued wt my hande the daie & yere of lorde abouesayed and in the ffirst yere of the reigne of most drede sou[er]ayne Ladie Quene marye by the grace of God Quene of Englond ffrance & Irelond defender of the ffayeth & of the churche of Englond & Irelond …prencehede