The Tudor Society

9 December – A scary time for Queen Catherine Howard’s stepgrandmother

On this day in Tudor history, 9th December 1541, sixty-four-year-old Agnes Tilney, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk and step-grandmother of Queen Catherine Howard, who was being detained at the Lord Chancellor's home, was questioned regarding the location of her money and jewels.

Why? What was all this about?

Find out about this, why the dowager duchess ended up in the Tower, and what happened when she was indicted for misprision of treason, in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 9th December 1538, 1538, courtier and gentleman of the privy chamber, Sir Edward Neville, was beheaded on Tower Hill.

He had been condemned to death for treason, accused of conspiring against the king in the Exeter Conspiracy of 1538, along with members of the Pole family. He was also accused of saying "The King is a beast and worse than a beast", which is not a wise thing to be overheard saying in Tudor England. Find out more about Neville's life and downfall in last year’s video:

Katherine Howard, the Duchess and Norfolk House -
470 Years Ago – Terror for the Howards at Christmas -

Also on this day in history:

  • 1522 – Death of Hugh Ashton, Archdeacon of York and former Comptroller of Lady Margaret Beaufort's household. He died at York and was buried at York Minster. Ashton helped Lady Margaret with the arrangements involved in founding Christ's College and St John's at Cambridge and, as an executor of her will, supervised the building of St John's.
  • 1591 – Death of Robert Balthrop, Sergeant-Surgeon to Elizabeth I. Balthrop was buried at St Bartholomew-the-Less Church, in the grounds of St Bartholomew's Hospital.


On this day in Tudor history, 9th December 1541, sixty-four-year-old Agnes Tilney, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk and step-grandmother of Queen Catherine Howard, who was being detained at the Lord Chancellor's home, was questioned regarding the location of her money and jewels.

What was all this about? Why was the queen’s stepgrandmother being confined and questioned?
Well, let me tell you…

Just over two months earlier, on 2nd November 1541, All Souls’ Day, Henry VIII had been informed that allegations had been made about his fifth wife’s past. His Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who “had not the heart to tell it by word of mouth”, had shared this shocking news in a letter to the king, explaining that Mary Hall, who had been a member of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s household at Lambeth and Horsham with Catherine Howard in the 1530s, had told her brother, John Lassells, that Catherine had been intimate with two men. Firstly, with her music teacher,. Henry Mannox, who “knew a privy mark on her body” and secondly with Francis Dereham who “had lain in bed with her, in his doublet and hose, between the sheets a hundred nights”.
The king believed “the matter forged”, but ordered an investigation into the allegations. Unfortunately, subsequent interrogations of Mannox, Dereham, and other members of the Dowager Duchess’s household, confirmed Mary Hall’s story. Witnesses numbering “eight or nine men and women” all “agreed in one tale”. Catherine had not been a virgin when she married King Henry VIII in July 1540 and, her appointment of Francis Dereham to serve in her household at court suggested to those investigating the case that she wanted to return to that “dissolute living” and cheat on the king. Then, during interrogations, Dereham implicated Thomas Culpeper, a groom of the king’s privy chamber, saying that Culpeper “had succeeded him in the Queen’s affections”. It was found that Catherine had been having secret meetings with Culpeper, helped by her lady, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford.

Culpeper and Dereham were tried for treason at Guildhall on 1st December 1541, found guilty and sentenced to death, being executed at Tyburn on 10th December 1541, and Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn were attainted for treason and beheaded at the Tower of London on 13th February 1542.

But where does Agnes Tilney, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, come into all this? Why was she confined and why was she being questioned about her money and jewellery?

Well, it was because it was her household that Catherine was a part of in the 1530s when she had these two intimate relationships. The Crown wanted to get to the bottom of what went on and how much the dowager duchess had known about it. Had she hidden this information from the king? Was she guilty of misprision of treason?

On 4th December 1541, Thomas Wriothesley and William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton, wrote to Sir Ralph Sadler, Henry VIII’s principal secretary, regarding a visit they had made to the Dowager Duchess. They reported that “she was not so sick as she made out, but able enough to go to my lord Chancellor’s” so they advised her to go to Sir Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, because he “had some questions for her”. After her arrival at the Lord Chancellor’s house, she was then subjected to an interrogation with a long list of questions regarding Dereham’s employment, Dereham’s relationship with Catherine and whether she “saw any evil behaviour or light fashion in Dereham towards Mrs. Katharine”, whetehr Catherine and Dereham had been precontracted, whether Dereham asked for her help to get the queen to appoint him and whether she then asked the queen, whether she had opened Dereham’s coffers and removed anything, and all kinds of other questions.

The poor dowager duchess, who had opened Dereham’s coffers and removed items on hearing of him being interrogated, must have been terrified at this point. It is little wonder that the Earl of Southampton recorded the next day “All things here proceed well…; my lady of Norfolk… hath so meshed and tangled herself that I think it will be hard for her to wind out again”. The dowager duchess did, however, deny “having any suspicion of evil between the Queen and Deram”, which unfortunately did not match information gathered from other members of the household, who stated that the dowager duchess was aware, although she chastised them. Dereham confessed that she had beaten Catherine on finding her in Dereham’s arms, and Katherine Tilney stated that the dowager duchess “gave also Deram a blow”.

With regards to opening Dereham’s coffer, witnesses stated that the dowager duchess confessed to taking certain writings and ballads and concealing them, which as Sir Anthony Browne and Sir Ralph Sadler, wrote in a report, suggested that “they contained treason, and the likelihood that the Duchess knew of the former naughty life between the Queen and Deram)”.
On 8th December 1541, the king gave orders for the dowager duchess, her son Lord William Howard and her daughter, the Countess of Bridgewater, to be committed to the Tower of London for misprision of treason, and for their houses and goods to be put in safe custody.

Then, on this day in history, 9th December 1541, members of the king’s council in London reported that they had “conceived interrogatories for the duchess of Norfolk”, but were “examining the Duchess as to where her money and treasure is, before proceeding further.” They also asked other members of the council and the king whether they should indict the dowager duchess seeing “As she is old and testy, and might take her committal to heart so as to endanger her life”. She obviously was not in the best of health and the council were concerned about getting their hands on her money and jewels while she was alive, rather than her dying in the Tower before her goods had been forfeit to the Crown. Lovely! These men were all heart, weren’t they, but then I suppose they were just doing their job.

On 11th December 1541, the dowager duchess was committed to the Tower while a search was carried out at her home, Norfolk House. A large amount of money was found, and plate and jewels were taken.

On 21st December, the Earl of Southampton and Thomas Wriothesley, reported that they’d been to see the dowager duchess at the Tower to urge her “to reveal more of the lewd demeanour of the Queen and Deram” but that they found her on her bed “apparently very sickly”. I think I’d be sickly if I was worrying about following Culpeper and Dereham to the scaffold! According to them, the dowager duchess sorrowfully protested “that she never suspected anything more than a light love between them, and thought that Deram gave her money only because he was her kinsman” and begged for the king’s pardon for not telling him before the marriage and for breaking into Dereham’s coffer. She also confessed to having more money hidden at her home and begged the king not to give away her home at Lambeth.

The two men went on to report that they now had 5,000 marks in money and 1,000 pounds worth of plate from their searches and that “Wriothesley would sleep better if the King would appoint it to other hands”.

On 22nd December 1541, members of the Howard and Tilney family, plus their staff, were tried for misprision of treason for covering up the “unlawful, carnal, voluptuous, and licentious life” of Queen Catherine Howard while she lived with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk at Lambeth. The sickly dowager duchess was named in the indictments, but not tried. She was accused of “knowing the loose conduct of the Queen”, “having vehement suspicion of an unlawful intercourse between her and Dereham”, and having “falsely” commended and praised “the said Katharine for her pure and honest condition” in the presence of the king and others. She was also accused of breaking open Dereham’s coffer and taking out “various chattels, writings and letters”, and concealing them.

The dowager duchess was convicted of misprision of treason for her part in concealing Catherine’s past, but, fortunately for her, was not executed. She remained in the Tower of London until May 1542, when she was pardoned. Some of her properties were restored to her and she kept her head, so a lucky escape. She died three years later, in 1545, at the age of 68.
Other members of the Howard and Tilney families were also pardoned, only Dereham, Culpeper, Catherine and Jane lost their lives. It must, however, have been a terrifying time for all those involved.

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9 December – A scary time for Queen Catherine Howard’s stepgrandmother