Francis Dereham, the son of John Derham and Isabell Paynell Dereham, was born in Crimplesham about 1513. He was gentleman-pensioner at the household of the Duchess Agnes Howard who lived at Chesworth House near Horsham. (1)
Dereham began a relationship with Catherine Howard when she was about fourteen. She had previously been involved with Henry Manox. As a result the Duchess locked her in her bedroom of a night. Catherine persuaded one of the maids, Mary Lascelles, "to steal the key and bring it to her". The door was unlocked and Dereham was admitted. Manox was not allowed in and he later reported: "They (Howard and Dereham) would commonly banquet and be merry there till two or three of the clock in the morning. Wine, strawberries, apples, and other things to make good cheer... were served." (2)
Catherine Howard later admitted that she was seduced by Dereham: "Francis Dereham by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose and obtained first to lie upon my bed with his doublet and hose and after within the bed and finally he lay with me naked and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife many and sundry times but how often I know not." Evidence seems to suggest that the relationship lasted for three months in 1538. (3)
The Tudor historian, Edward Hall claimed that Dereham visited Catherine Howard in her bedroom at night. (4) They also exchanged love tokens. Dereham gave her satin and velvet gifts while Catherine gave him an armband and an embroidered friar's knot. Catherine later confessed that Dereham "knew of a little woman in London with a crooked back, who was skilled in making flowers of silk". (5)
The relationship came to an end when Henry Manox sent an anonymous letter to the Duchess. He suggested that she should visit Catherine's bedroom "half an hour after" going to bed. He added that "you shall see that which shall displease you." Dereham was sent away and Catherine was told off for her "banqueting by night" because she feared "it would hurt her beauty". David Starkey has argued that the Duchess was more concerned about her looks than her morals. (6) Dereham was forced to go and live in Ireland where it is believed he resorted to piracy. (7) Before he left he asked her to look after £100. This money was the bulk of his savings and Catherine later admitted that he told her that if he did not return "I was to consider it as my own." (8)
Henry VIII married Catherine Howard on 8th August 1540 at Hampton Court. The historian David Starkey, has attempted to explain the reasons for the marriage: "Physically repelled by Anne of Cleves, and humiliated by his sexual failure with her, he sought and found consolation from Catherine. We can also guess that sex, which had been impossible with Anne, was easy with her. And it was easy because she made it easy. Henry, lost in pleasure, never seems to have asked himself how she obtained such skill. Instead, he attributed it all to love and his own recovered youth." (9)
In October, 1541, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was contacted by John Lascelles. He told him a story that came from his sister, Mary Hall, who had worked as a maid at Chesworth House. She claimed that while in her early teens Catherine had "fornicated" with Francis Dereham, Henry Manox and Thomas Culpeper. (10)
Cranmer had never approved Henry's marriage to Catherine. He did not personally dislike her but he was a strong opponent of her grandfather, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. If Lascelles's story was true, it gave him the opportunity to discredit her supporters, the powerful Catholic faction. With her out of the way Cranmer would be able to put forward the name of a bride who like Anne Boleyn favoured religious reform. (11)
Cranmer had a meeting with Mary Hall. She told him that when she heard about Catherine's relationship with Manox in 1536 she went to see him and warned him of his behaviour. Manox replied: "Hold thy peace, woman! I know her well enough. My designs are of a dishonest kind, and from the liberties the young lady has allowed me, I doubt not of being able to effect my purpose. She hath said to me that I shall have her maidenhead, though it be painful to her, not doubting but I will be good to her hereafter." Hall then told of Catherine's relationship with Dereham. She claimed that for "a hundred nights or more" he had "crept into the ladies dormitory and climbed, dressed in doublet and hose" into Catherine's bed. (12)
On 2nd November, 1541, Archbishop Cranmer, presented a written statement of the allegations to Henry VIII. Cranmer wrote that Queen Catherine had been accused by Hall of "dissolute living before her marriage with Francis Dereham, and that was not secret, but many knew it." (13) Henry reacted with disbelief and told Cranmer that he did not think there was any foundation in these malicious accusations; nevertheless, Cranmer was to investigate the matter more thoroughly. "You are not to desist until you have got to the bottom of the pot." (14) Henry told Thomas Wriothesley that "he could not believe it to be true, and yet, the accusation having once been made, he could be satisfied till the certainty hereof was known; but he could not, in any wise, that in the inquisition any spark of scandal should arise against the Queen." (15)
Henry also gave orders that Catherine Howard was to be confined to her apartments with just Jane Boleyn (Lady Rochford) in attendance. Eustace Chapuys told Charles de Marillac that she was refusing to eat or drink anything, and that she did not cease from weeping and crying "like a madwoman, so that they must take away things by which she might hasten her death". (16) It was also reported that Lady Rochford was guilty of aiding and abetting Catherine to commit high treason.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer visited the Queen in her apartments on 6th November. His main objective was to obtain a confession that she had committed adultery. Without it, no one could proceed against her, for pre-marital fornication was neither a crime nor acceptable grounds for annulling a marriage. He found the Queen "in such lamentation and heaviness as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man's heart in the world to have looked upon".
Unable to get much sense out of the Queen he returned the following day. Cranmer told her that if she made a full confession the King would probably show mercy. She eventually confessed that Francis Dereham called her "wife" and she used the term "husband" and that it was common gossip in the household that they would marry. He had "many times moved me unto the question of matrimony" but she refused all his proposals. Catherine made a serious mistake with this confession. Under the law of the time, if she had made a pre-contract of marriage with Dereham, her marriage to Henry was invalid and therefore she could not be convicted of adultery. (17)
Queen Catherine admitted that she had on many occasions gone to bed with Dereham. "He hath lain with me, sometimes in his doublet and hose, and two or three times naked, but not so naked that he had nothing upon him, for he had always at the least his doublet, and as I do think his hose also; but I mean naked, when his hose was put down." Catherine claimed that she had not willingly had sexual intercourse with Dereham and that he had raped her with "importunate force". Catherine admitted that the last time she saw Dereham was in 1539. He said he had heard a rumour that she was romantically involved with Thomas Culpeper and the couple were about to marry. She replied: "What should you trouble me thereabouts, for you know I will not have you; and if you heard such report, you know more than I." (18) This was the first time that Thomas Culpeper's name had been mentioned. Archbishop Cranmer knew that Culpeper was a highly favoured gentleman of the King's Privy Chamber. Cranmer was searching for someone who had committed adultery with the Queen. Cranmer now had another candidate and he ordered the arrest and questioning of Culpeper.
The trial of Dereham and Culpeper began on 1st December, 1541 in Westminster Hall. Dereham was charged with "presumptive treason" and of having led the Queen into "an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous and licentious life". He was accused of joining the Queen's service with "ill intent". It was claimed that Dereham once told William Damport that he was sure he might still marry the Queen if the King were dead. Under the 1534 Treason Act, it was illegal to predict the death of the King. (19)
Culpeper was accused of having criminal intercourse with the Queen on 29th August 1541 at Pontefract, and at other times, before and after that date. During the trial Culpeper changed his plea to guilty. Dereham continued to plead his innocence but both men were found guilty. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, sentenced them to be drawn on hurdles to Tyburn "and there hanged, cut down alive, disembowelled, and, they still living, their bowels burnt; the bodies then to be beheaded and quartered". (20)
Charles de Marillac reported that Culpeper especially deserved to die, even though he did not admit to having full intercourse with Catherine, "for he confessed his intention to do so, and his confessed conversations, being held by a subject to a queen, deserved death". Marillac explained that Henry had "changed his love for the Queen into hatred, and taken such grief at being deceived, that of late it was thought he had gone mad". Henry also suggested that she was such a "wicked woman" that she "should have torture in her death". (21)
Francis Dereham was tortured on 6th December. According to Thomas Wriothesley he admitted that he had said that he might "still marry the Queen if the King were dead". He also admitted having sexual intercourse with Catherine Howard in 1538 but he vehemently denied committing adultery with the Queen. Later that day, the King was asked if he would change the sentence to beheading. He agreed for Culpeper but stated that Dereham "deserved no mercy". The decision was one based on the background of the two men. Men of the higher class were rarely "hung, drawn and quartered".
Culpeper were executed on 10th December 1541. Culpeper asked the crowd to pray for him. No block had been provided. He knelt on the ground by the gallows, and was decapitated with one stroke of the axe. Dereham then suffered the full horror of being hanged, castrated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. Both heads were set up on pikes above London Bridge. (22)
My sorrow I can by no writing express, nevertheless I trust your most benign nature will have some respect unto my youth, my ignorance, my frailness, my humble confession of my faults and plain declaration of the same, referring me wholly unto your Grace's pity and mercy. First at the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox, being but a young girl I suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body, which neither became me with honesty to permit, nor him to require.
Also Francis Dereham by many persuasions procured me to to his vicious purpose, and obtained first to lie upon my bed with his doublet and hose, and after within the bed, and finally he lay with me naked, and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife, many and sundry times, and our company ended almost a year before the King's Majesty was married to my Lady Anne of Cleves, and continued not past one quarter of a year, or a little above... The subtle persuasions of young men and the ignorance and frailness of young women.
I was so desirous to be taken unto your Grace's favour, and so blinded with the desire of worldly glory, that I could not, nor had grace, to consider how great a fault it was to conceal my former faults from your Majesty, considering that I intended ever during my life to be faithful and true unto your Majesty after; nevertheless, the sorrow of mine offences was ever before mine eyes, considering the infinite goodness of your Majesty towards me from time to time ever increasing and not diminishing: Now I refer the judgement of all my offences with my life and death wholly unto your most benign and merciful Grace to be considered by no justice of your Majesty's laws but only by your infinite goodness, pity, compassion and mercy, without the which I acknowledge myself worthy of extreme punishment.