Thomas Culpeper, the second of the three sons of Alexander Culpeper and his second wife, Constance Harper, was born in Bedgebury, near Goudhurst, in about 1514. His biographer, Retha M. Warnicke, has suggested that: "Perhaps the younger Thomas served as a page to the king, as George Cavendish was later to recall... but the first definite evidence for Culpeper as a courtier comes in 1535, when he began acting on behalf of Arthur, Viscount Lisle, the lord deputy of Calais, and his wife, Honor.... He was a gentleman of the privy chamber no later than November 1537, and the following January a boy of his who had been condemned to death for theft at Westminster Palace was reprieved from the gallows when a royal pardon arrived just as the hangman was removing the ladder. In June 1538 he co-operated with Richard Cromwell in obtaining a hawk for the king. In the same month he was made keeper of the armoury for the king's body, and in September 1539 he was appointed to several positions at Penshurst Place, Kent, including that of keeper of the manor." After 1537 Henry VIII granted Culpeper, mostly ex-monastic, property in Kent, Essex, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire. (1)
According to Alison Weir, Culpeper was related to Catherine Howard. Culpeper was Catherine's cousin on her mother's side and she had been fond of him since childhood. In late 1539 Catherine, in anticipation of Henry's forthcoming marriage, was appointed to the household of Anne of Cleves. It was not long before Catherine had fallen in love with Thomas Culpeper. (2) "He was a handsome, delinquent boy and a favourite of men and women alike. As Henry's former Page, he had sometimes slept in his master's bed, and, when he got older, he had a queue of female admirers. But with Catherine, it seems, it was different. She was his female equivalent and there was an instant, powerful attraction between them. Soon it was rumoured, they would marry." (3)
Francis Dereham, a former boyfriend, discovered about Catherine's relationship with Thomas Culpeper. He wrote to her that he had heard the rumour that they intended to marry. She replied: What should you trouble me thereabouts, for you know I will not have you; and if you heard such a report, you know more than I." (4) It is believed that the relationship came to an end because of "quarrels and they drifted apart."
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." (5)
In June 1541 Henry VIII took Queen Catherine on a tour of the Northern counties. Although he had been power for 32 years he had not visited this part of England that made up a third of his kingdom. He took with him an army of 5,000 men. Progress was slow as it was a very wet summer. Charles de Marillac reported that "the roads leading to the North... have been flooded and the carts and baggage could not proceed without great difficulty." (6) The Court lingered in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire for most of July.
They did not reach Lincoln until 9th August. The royal couple stayed at the Bishop of Lincoln's little manor house at Lyddington. On 11th August, Catherine committed the first of her indiscretions. She knew Thomas Culpeper, was in the area and she wrote him a letter: "Master Culpeper, I heartily recommend me unto you... I never longed so much for thing as I do to see you and to speak with you... It makes my heart to die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company... Come when my Lady Rochford is here, for that I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment... Yours as long as life endures." (7)
Catherine's biographer, Retha M. Warnicke, has argued: "It is possible, however, to put a different interpretation upon Catherine's letter, that its emotional tone was fuelled less by sexual ardour than by the desperation of a young woman who was seeking to placate an aggressive, dangerous suitor, one who, moreover, as a member of the privy chamber had close contact with the king. The promise she mentioned could have concerned the Dereham affair. Culpeper, it may be suggested, had established some form of threatening control over the queen's life, and although he - as he admitted - was seeking sexual satisfaction with her, Catherine was trying to ensure his silence through a misguided attempt at appeasement." (8) Jasper Ridley claims that Catherine met Culpeper in Lady Rochford's room in the middle of the night, while Henry was sleeping off the effects of his usual large supper. (9)
Henry VIII and his party visited York before retuning to London. He arrived back at Hampton Court on 29th October. While the King had been away Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had been 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 Thomas Culpeper, Henry Manox and Francis Dereham. (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)
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. During the interview she mentioned the name of Thomas Culpeper. 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. (12)
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer thought this confession would please Henry VIII as he could now see his marriage to Catherine was invalid and he would be free to marry again. However, Henry wanted more time to think about the situation. He therefore ordered Catherine to be sent to the former Abbey of Syon at Brentford. He also told Cranmer to arrange for all those who were involved in the affair to be sent to the Tower of London to await questioning.
Thomas Wriothesley interviewed the Queen's servants. Katherine Tylney and Margaret Morton both gave evidence that Thomas Culpeper met the Queen in Lady Rochford's chamber. Morton testified that while at Pontefract Castle in August 1541, Lady Rochford locked the room from inside after both Catherine and Culpeper went inside. Morton also said that she "never mistrusted the Queen until at Hatfield I saw her look out of her chamber window on Master Culpeper, after such sort that I thought there was love between them". On another occasion the Queen was in her closet with Culpeper for five or six hours, and Morton thought "for certain they had passed out" (a Tudor euphemism for orgasm). (13)
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". (14)
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." (15)
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". (16) 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." (17)
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. (18)
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. (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".
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". (22) 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. (23)
Perhaps the younger Thomas served as a page to the king, as George Cavendish was later to recall... but the first definite evidence for Culpeper as a courtier comes in 1535, when he began acting on behalf of Arthur, Viscount Lisle, the lord deputy of Calais, and his wife, Honor.... He was a gentleman of the privy chamber no later than November 1537, and the following January a boy of his who had been condemned to death for theft at Westminster Palace was reprieved from the gallows when a royal pardon arrived just as the hangman was removing the ladder. In June 1538 he co-operated with Richard Cromwell in obtaining a hawk for the king. In the same month he was made keeper of the armoury for the king's body, and in September 1539 he was appointed to several positions at Penshurst Place, Kent, including that of keeper of the manor. Between 1537 and 1541 the king granted him, mostly ex-monastic, property in Kent, Essex, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire.
He was a handsome, delinquent boy and a favourite of men and women alike. As Henry's former Page, he had sometimes slept in his master's bed, and, when he got older, he had a queue of female admirers. But with Catherine, it seems, it was different. She was his female equivalent and there was an instant, powerful attraction between them. Soon it was rumoured, they would marry.
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.
Thus the arraignment of Culpeper and Dereham on 1 December in Westminster Hall was arranged entirely by the Privy Council. Dereham was to be tried for "presumptive treason", according to the indictment, which accused both the Queen and her accomplices of having led "an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous and licentious life"; Katherine, who was not being tried, was described as "a common harlot". While "maintaining an appearance of chastity and honesty", she had led the King on to fall in love with her "by word and gesture", he believing her to be "pure", and had "arrogantly contracted and coupled herself in marriage" in spite of being a harlot before and an adultress after.
A separate indictment was brought against Culpeper, who was charged with having had criminal intercourse with the Queen on 29 August 1541 at Pontefract, and at other times, before and after that date. Katherine was accused in the indictment of having insinuated to Culpeper "that she loved him above the King and all the others", and Culpeper was accused of inciting her to adultery. Jane Rochford was named as their go-between, who contrived meetings in the Queen's lavatory and "other suspect places" and "falsely and traitorously aided and abetted them".
The two men were tried together. Dereham was accused of joining the Queen's service with "ill intent", traitorously imagining that he and she might continue their wicked behaviour. He was further accused of having concealed the precontract between them to facilitate Katherine's marriage to the King; her acquiescence to this was taken as proof of her intention to continue in her abominable life. Of course, Dereham pleaded not guilty to all these accusations, although there was little he could say in his defence. Likewise Culpeper, although realising that the evidence was heavily weighted against him, changed his plea to guilty during the course of the trial and thus sealed his fate. A verdict of guilty was given against both prisoners, and the Duke of Norfolk, grim faced, 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". Such was the terrible penalty meted out to those who had dared to be intimate with the Queen of England.