It had been two months to the day since her two lovers had been publicly executed for their intimacy with her - one before her marriage, one allegedly after it. It had been three days since she and one of her ladies-in-waiting had been condemned to death without trial or possibility of reprieve by Bills of Attainder passed in Parliament. And it had been just over three months since guards had burst into her luxurious apartments in Hampton Court Palace informing her that she was to be detained under suspicion of what was later deemed "lewd and naughty behaviour."
In those months, Catherine Howard, teenage Queen of England and Lady of Ireland, had been widely traduced in public for her "vicious and abominable" deeds in cuckolding her husband, King Henry VIII. Mercifully, Catherine had been isolated from most of this smear campaign, since she had been moved to the convent at Syon within days of the scandal breaking in London. Syon convent had once been the centre of a thriving community of Bridgettine nuns, whose way of life had fallen victim to Henry VIII's Reformation and state-sanctioned the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The nunnery itself had been founded one hundred and forty years earlier and it had been built to celebrate the piety of King Henry IV, who ruled from 1399 to 1413. Henry had become king by deposing and murdering his cousin, Richard II, but his actions had been lauded rather than condemned by the Church, who Henry IV had shamelessly courted in his bid to hold on to his illegally-seized power. The crowning moment of this rather unpalatable demonstration of "throne and altar" politics had been achieved in 1401 when Henry IV gave the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, something he had long hungered after - for the very first time in English history, the new king had made heresy punishable with death by burning. Syon had been built to celebrate this move. Now, over a century later, it was being used again by another king who had forged an unholy alliance with religion and who also thought nothing to applying flames to his subjects' flesh. Only now, of course, he was being condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for doing so, not applauded.
Catherine Howard had been a resident at Syon throughout the winter, passing Advent and Christmas there, in marked difference to the merriment and splendour she had enjoyed the year before. For company, the disgraced queen had only eight servants - her chamberlain, four ladies-in-waiting, two chambermaids and a confessor. She had instantly disliked her new home, particularly the mouldering tapestries on the wall and she did not like the fact that she now only had three rooms to live in and six dresses. Much to her distress, her magnificent and beloved collection of jewels was taken from her and inventoried by the king's former brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Seymour. Nine days after her arriving, the Privy Council had issued a proclamation stripping Catherine of her royal title. Since she had never been formally crowned and only held her title by virtue of her marriage to the king, this was easy enough for them to do. Legally, she was now referred to simply as "the Lady Catherine Howard," although considering her father had only been a lord and not an earl, a marquess or a duke, she was not technically entitled to that, either. Prior to her marriage, she had been "Mistress Catherine Howard," but the dismantling of a queen's position was still a confusing business - despite how much practice the English government had had in the matter over the past few years.
Young Catherine, who was probably not much more than eighteen or nineteen at the time of her ruin, had taken the news that Parliament had condemned her to death remarkably well. Or, at least, calmly. It's my hunch that maybe even at this late stage, Catherine hoped that by co-operating fully, she might be allowed to live. This calm and this delusion, however, vanished entirely when the Lords of the Privy Council arrived at Syon to escort her to the Tower of London on the afternoon of Friday February 10th. The moment they entered her audience chamber, the poor girl became instantly hysterical and burst into tears. The men begged her to be calm and come quietly, but Catherine would not move. Eventually, they lost patience with her; two of the lords dragged her up and manhandled her out of the frost-covered convent, out into the frigid afternoon air and into the waiting barge. She screamed and wept the whole time.
As the barge reached London, sailing down the Thames towards the grim fortress where Catherine's predecessor and cousin had lost her life six years earlier, Catherine Howard cut a tragic and pathetic figure. She wore a dress of plain black velvet and she wept intermittently throughout the journey. When the barge sailed under Tower Bridge, it would have passed the rotting heads of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham, which were still being displayed there. By that point in the day, however, the light was fading and so it's just about possible that this horrific sight, at least, was spared her.
When they docked, the party was greeted by Sir John Gage, her husband's Constable of the Tower of London. Sir John had overseen the imprisonment of many of Henry VIII's courtiers and opponents, but this was the first time he had been confronted by the incarceration of a queen. The previous incumbent, the redoubtable Sir William Kingston, who had been in the post when Anne Boleyn was arrested, had since died and Gage was his replacement. Gage had overseen the execution of Catherine's lovers back in December, but the sight of the sobbing teenager in front of him moved him greatly and throughout the time of her stay in the Tower, he treated Catherine with every courtesy and kindness possible. Her stay, of course, was to be short. There were still some legal matters to take care of, which meant that the execution would not be tomorrow, nor could any take place on the next day, which was the Sabbath. So it looked like the former queen and Lady Rochford were to die on Monday morning.
Like Anne Boleyn, Catherine was housed in the luxurious royal apartments of the Tower and, physically, she wanted for nothing. Of course, by this stage, none of that mattered to the one-time archetypal material girl of the Tudor court. In the evening, the Bishop of Lincoln was allowed to come and take her confession. A long-standing romantic legend states that Catherine protested her innocence, but that is nothing more than a generous fiction. The bishop never commented on what Catherine Howard told him in the hours before her death; even if he had wanted to, he couldn't, given the sanctity of secrecy implicit within the sacrament of confession. We do know, however, that as the bishop left Catherine, she asked that he should pray for her soul in Purgatory. It was a conventionally pious request, although undoubtedly now that she was at death's door, it meant much more than that to the prisoner.
As Catherine wept piteously in her new rooms, her husband was finding it difficult to sign her death warrant - an unexpected and unusual moment of sentiment or qualms on Henry VIII's part. For whatever reason, he could not bring himself to sign his name to his fifth wife's death warrant. Henry was reluctant to sign, but not reluctant enough to spare her. In the past, Henry had accused Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves of lying about their sexuality, but of all them it was Catherine who was the most likely to have actually done so and, yet, a mere thirty-six hours before her death, Henry - who had once threatened to torture his adulterous bride to death with his own sword - was uncharacteristically shrinking from putting pen to paper. The imminent widower was therefore pleased and relieved when the Privy Council helpfully alleviated their master's crisis of conscience by attaching the Great Seal and writing "Le Roy le veut" ("The King wills it") at the bottom of the warrant. None could have foreseen it then, but this usurpation of the royal prerogative was to have enormous constitutional implications at the end of Henry's reign four years later.
In any case, in February 1542 it took care of business satisfactorily from Henry Tudor's point of view and the warrant was dispatched to the Tower. Catherine was to die at seven o'clock on Monday morning, within the confines of the Tower, as had been the case for her cousin and for the late countess of Salisbury. Jane, Lady Rochford, the lady-in-waiting who had allegedly helped arrange Catherine's trysts with Thomas Culpepper was to die after her and both were to be executed by the Tower's own axe-man. There would be no special swordsman from Calais this time.
The schedule was brought to Catherine the following evening by Gage himself. In the course of their conversation, Catherine rather touchingly confided to him that she was afraid of embarrassing herself on the scaffold. There would be a large crowd, she guessed correctly, even if the execution was held within the Tower's walls and not on the more public setting of Tower Hill, as had been the case when her cousin, viscount Rochford, was executed in 1536. Catherine was a Howard by birth and she had been a queen by marriage; she did not want to make a fool of herself or her clan. At least, not again. And not at the last. She was also worried that she would make a mistake when it came to placing her head upon the block and this fear was perhaps brought about by remembering the hideously botched beheading of the countess of Salisbury, the previous summer. Catherine had sent the old woman gifts of dresses, furs, slippers and nightgowns during her imprisonment, facing down her husband's irritation at this gesture, and given this interest in her plight, Catherine must have been aware of the truly grotesque story of how the countess's execution had been mishandled - both by the countess and by the executioner. Reflecting on the need for everything to go smoothly on the scaffold, Catherine made a rather curious request to Sir John. Would it be possible for him to send the block to her rooms, now, so that she could practice with it in preparation for tomorrow?
Although he was unsettled by what she asked, Gage did not feel he could justifiably refuse her and so Catherine Howard spent the next few hours laying her head upon the block, over and over again. It was a bizarre and unsettling ritual for those who had to watch her, but for Catherine it helped calm at least one fear of what tomorrow would bring.