Mary Lascelles

Mary Lascelles was born in Gateford, Nottinghamshire, in around 1515. She was the sister of John Lascelles. (1) She found employment in the household of Duchess Agnes Howard at Chesworth House near Horsham. She was very disapproving of the behaviour of Catherine Howard, one of the young women who lived in the house. One historian has commented that "Duchess Agnes had kept something closely approaching a high-class brothel, but the true comparison was to a high-class finishing school in which some quietly prospered and others more daringly looked round to exploit its opportunities." (2)

Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002) takes a more sympathetic view of what the Howard family was trying to do: "Catherine... came under her grandmother's care, to learn obedience, good manners, some social graces and the rudiments of household management; enough, in short, to fit her for marriage to the husband who would in due course to be chosen by the family - perhaps some rising man in Court whom it would be useful to attach to the Howard interest.... A pretty child, but bird-brained and barely literate, she grew naturally into an empty-headed adolescent, one of a bevy of giggling, chattering girls who thought of precious little but clothes, young men and how to squeeze as much fun as possible out of life before they were inexorably claimed by marriage and the painful drudgery of child-bearing." (3)

Mary Lascelles & Catherine Howard

After her marriage she was known as Mary Hall. (4) In 1541 she told her brother, John Lascelles, about the teenage activities of Catherine Howard, the new wife of Henry VIII. Mary claimed that while working in the household of Duchess Agnes Howard at Chesworth House near Horsham, she observed Catherine have sexual relations with Henry Manox, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper. (5)

John Lascelles took this information to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He had never approved of Henry's marriage to Catherine. Cranmer 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. (6)

Thomas Cranmer Investigation

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. (7)

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." (8) 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." (9) 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." (10)

Jane Boleyn (Lady Rochford) was interviewed in some depth. She had previously given evidence against her husband, George Boleyn, and sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn. She claimed that at first Catherine rejected the advances of Culpeper. She quoted her as saying: "Will this never end?" and asking Lady Rochford to "bid him desire no more to trouble me, or send to me." But Culpeper had been persistent, and eventually the Queen had admitted him into her chamber in private. Lady Rochford was asked to stand guard in case the King came. Rochford added that she was convinced that Culpeper had been sexually intimate "considering all things that she hath heard and seen between them". (11)

Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992), is highly critical of the evidence provided by Lady Rochford: "Lady Rochford attempted to paint herself as an innocent bystander who had somehow been at the other end of the room where the Queen was meeting Culpeper, without knowing what was going on. Catherine on the other hand reversed the image and described a woman, like Eve, who had persistently tempted her with seductive notions of dalliance; while Culpeper too took the line that Lady Rochford had 'provoked' him into a clandestine relationship with the Queen... Once again, as with the technicalities of the Queen's adultery, absolute truth - and thus relative blame - is impossible to establish." (12)

Mary Hall testified that she saw Catherine and Culpeper "kiss and hang by their bills (lips) together and as if they were two sparrows". Alice Restwood said that there was "such puffing and blowing between (Catherine and Dereham) that she was weary of the same". Margaret Benet admitted that "she looked out at a hole of a door and there saw Dereham pluck up (Catherine's) clothes above her navel so that he might well discern her body". Benet went on to say she heard the couple talk about the dangers of her becoming pregnant. She heard "Dereham say that although he used the company of a woman... yet he would get no child". Catherine replied that she also knew how to prevent having children. She told Dereham that she knew "how women might meddle with a man and yet conceive no child unless she would herself". (13) David Starkey has asked the question: "Was this confident contraceptive knowledge? Or merely old-wives' tales? In either case, it explains why Catherine was prepared to have frequent sex with no apparent heed to the risks of pregnancy." (14)

Execution of Catherine Howard

Thomas Culpeper appeared before the Privy Council to give evidence in his defence. He claimed that although Lady Rochford had "provoked him much to love the Queen, and he intended to do ill with her and likewise the Queen so minded to do with him, he had not passed beyond words". Edward Seymour told Culpeper that his intensions towards Queen Catherine were "so loathsome and dishonest" that in themselves they would be said to constitute high treason and so therefore he deserved to die. (15)

The trial of Culpeper and Dereham 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. (16)

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". (17)

Thomas Culpeper was beheaded at Tyburn on 10th December 1541. "The place was unusual for such a sentence - beheadings were normally carried out in relative privacy at Tower Hill - but the council had required that he be drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn in order to make his execution notable". (18) Francis Dereham then suffered the full horror of being hanged, castrated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. Both heads were set up on pikes above London Bridge. (19)

Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, were executed on 13th February, 1542. Before her execution she said she merited a hundred deaths and prayed for her husband. According to one witness Catherine said she "desired all Christian people to take regard unto her worthy and just punishment". The executioner severed her head in a single blow. (20) Lady Rochford followed her to the block. Eustace Chapuys reported that she was "in a frenzy" brought on by the sight of Catherine's "blood-soaked remains being wrapped in a black blanket by her sobbing ladies". It was reported that she made an speech where she called for the preservation of the King before she placed her head "on a block still wet and slippery with her mistress's blood." (21)

John Lascelles's biographer, Alec Ryrie, has pointed out that after hearing his sister's story "John Lascelles... immediately took the matter to Archbishop Cranmer, and so set in motion the process which ended with the queen's destruction. He maintained that he revealed the information to avert a charge of misprision of treason, which may well be true, but he can hardly have regretted the destruction of so prominent a Howard. (22)

Primary Sources

(1) Catherine Howard, confession (7th November, 1541)

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.

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(1) Alec Ryrie, John Lascelles : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 319

(3) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 93

(4) Karen Lindsey, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII (1996) page 174

(5) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 360

(6) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 444

(7) Mary Hall, testimony to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (October, 1541)

(8) Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, letter to Henry VIII (2nd November, 1541)

(9) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 447

(10) Henry VIII to Thomas Wriothesley (2nd November, 1541)

(11) Jane Boleyn, confession (November, 1541)

(12) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 349

(13) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 460

(14) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 670

(15) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 465

(16) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 102

(17) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 470

(18) Retha M. Warnicke, Thomas Culpeper : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 680

(20) Ottwell Johnson, letter to his brother, John Johnson (15th February, 1542)

(21) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 353

(22) Alec Ryrie, John Lascelles : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)